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RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook didn't exactly set the world on fire, but the company's latest and most stylish accessory aims to both protect and add greater functionality. Armed with a touch pad and full QWERTY keyboard, the BlackBerry Mini Keyboard shields the tablet from harm and attempts to transform it into a laptoplike device. Find out if we think that's enough to entice PlayBook buyers.
From solely a design perspective, the ultracompact BlackBerry Mini Keyboard with Convertible Case is thoughtfully constructed. Like other tablet-and-case combos from Belkin and Tagus, this product squeezes a full QWERTY keyboard and protective cover into a tiny footprint to match the PlayBook's small size. The keyboard itself is just a quarter of an inch thick, 7.6 inches tall, and 5.1 inches wide.
To protect the tablet, the case provides a tough rectangular shell on the right side where the PlayBook squeezes in. This stiff shell has apertures for the tablet's major ports and physical connections including the rear camera lens. Also, there are corresponding buttons for Power and the PlayBook's combined volume bar and Play and Pause key.
The case's flexible cover is cut from all-black polyurethane that mimics the luxurious feel of leather and also sports a soft microfiber interior. A small stand flips out in back to prop the tablet up at a comfortable angle for a comfortable view of the screen while typing. The Mini Keyboard sits on top of the case's left flap and is held in place by four elastic straps.
When fully assembled, the entire package (7.9 by 5.5 by 1.1 inches) is only slightly larger than the PlayBook itself. Of course the case adds to the PlayBook's weight, which at 0.96 pound means it's heavier than other 7-inch slates such as the 0.76-pound Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus. Combined, the case, tablet, and keyboard weigh an arm-straining 2 pounds, not much less than an 11.6-inch MacBook Air.
Along with a five-row keyboard layout and dedicated number row, the Mini Keyboard also has a small touch pad. It's a feature that sets this accessory apart from other case-and-keyboard combos. RIM likes to tout the accessory as providing a Windows-style mouse interface.
The Mini Keyboard connects to the PlayBook via an encrypted Bluetooth wireless link, and the setup process is dead simple. I used the Micro-USB port to charge the keyboard before flipping a small power switch (both located on the device's left side) and pairing the keyboard with the PlayBook from within the tablet's Bluetooth settings menu.
After this, a pointer appears that scrolls across the PlayBook's screen when you swipe two fingers along the touch-pad surface. Just like on a standard laptop, dragging two fingers up and down enables vertical scrolling within documents such as Web pages and PDF files. A tap with one finger serves as a mouse left-click while tapping with two fingers functions as a right-click.
The touch pad also helps you navigate the PlayBook's odd interface, at least I've always found it odd compared with Android and iOS. For example, swiping up from the bottom of the PlayBook's screen opens the application tray -- a sensible move since it scrolls up from the foot of the screen. The same gesture tells the tray to collapse back down, a move that's counterintuitive in my book. Moving the pointer to the bottom of the display with the touch pad and tapping once accomplishes the same task. That's an interaction I comprehend better, especially since the cursor changes its icon to alert you when this function is possible.
Similarly, positioning the cursor to the left or right edge of the PlayBook's screen and right-clicking the touch pad enables quick switching between any open applications. The same procedure at the top of the display opens the PlayBook's settings menu. Scrolling to the bottom left then tapping with two fingers fires up the virtual keyboard if you prefer it. Likewise, performing a right-click at the upper-left screen corner launches the Status bar for system notifications.
The PlayBook Mini Keyboard is helpful for document editing, as well. For instance, within a Word document you can copy text by positioning the cursor where you'd like, tapping the touch pad once, then pressing the Shift and arrow keys to highlight text. Just as with desktop software, hitting Ctrl+C copies text and pressing Crtl+V will paste what you've copied.
One big feature RIM has been keen on promoting is the Mini Keyboard and PlayBook's compatibility with Citrix Receiver enterprise software. Essentially this Citrix software is designed to duplicate the Windows desktop in real time (keyboard, mouse clicks, and all) for use on PlayBook devices. I've personally worn out many laptop bags simply trucking an over-7-pound notebook to and from the office. For me, and I imagine many others, the prospect of converting a lightweight tablet into a secure corporate workhorse is a very alluring one. Unfortunately Citrix Receiver is strictly an enterprise product and must be purchased and set up by IT managers rather than the average user.
Judged solely as an input device, the Mini Keyboard performed quite well. Setup and Bluetooth pairing with my test PlayBook tablet was a snap. If you don't count the 5 minutes I spent shoehorning the slate into its hard plastic protective shell, I was up and running in under 30 seconds. The keyboard's keys offer deep travel for such a thin piece of hardware and they engage with a satisfying click when pressed. The spacebar is nice and wide, too, so my thumbs had no trouble hitting it. Of course, the device's layout is cramped and those coming straight from a large laptop keyboard will definitely notice the size reduction.
My experience using the touch pad was more of a mixed bag. I moved the pointer around the PlayBook's menus and navigated through the tablet's various windows and apps quite easily. I also appreciated the greater control the touch pad lent to manipulating the PlayBook's software interface. My two-finger scrolls within Web pages and word documents was jumpy and not as smooth as I would have liked, however. A few times I also had to hit the touch pad more than once for a tap to register.
The Mini Keyboard's strong suit is longevity. RIM rates the device's battery as providing a full 30 days of operation between charges, and I didn't need to recharge once in my two-week test period. One annoyance was that the keyboard had a tendency to lose its Bluetooth connection if the PlayBook was inactive for long stretches.
After using the $119 BlackBerry Mini Keyboard with Convertible Case for a few weeks, I can understand its appeal, at least theoretically. The device and case make a handsome accompaniment to RIM's beleaguered tablet. The real question is what PlayBook owners will actually use the accessory for. I can understand the desire to lighten your load by toting this device combination instead of a back-straining laptop. And at hundreds less than a comparable Windows ultrabook or MacBook Air, the Mini Keyboard with Convertible Case could be an attractive option for highly mobile corporate workers -- if they can convince their IT departments. As for mobile e-mail, you can use an Android tablet, iPad, or, heck, a smartphone to do that.