Mobile devices—particularly tablets—are the pinnacle of technology right now. However, one of the biggest downsides to a tablet when compared to a netbook or laptop is the keyboard. Many touch-typists cringe at the thought of having to use a touchscreen keyboard for email, chat, or even simple URL entry.
The easiest way to solve the tablet/keyboard problem is to purchase an external keyboard that will connect to your tablet via Bluetooth. While some such keyboards target specific tablets, like the excellent Logitech Keyboard Case for iPad 2 and forthcoming for the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, we're going to look at four portable keyboards that offer Bluetooth connectivity for use with tablets of all kinds.
Freedom Pro Bluetooth Keyboard
We wanted this review to focus on keyboards that find the perfect balance between portability and usability, which epitomizes the Freedom Pro Bluetooth Keyboard. The Freedom Pro is not only an almost full-sized keyboard, it is also one of the most portable designs we tested. The Freedom Pro actually folds neatly in half and locks closed, enabling you to shove the keyboard easily in your gear bag with no concern about it snapping in half.
The actual keys are nearly full-sized, and offer enough travel to remain very usable to those who type by feel. There are some oddities with less used keys such as the Tab, Caps Lock, and right Shift keys all being woefully undersized, though Freedom preserved the size and positioning of all the letter keys. The Freedom Pro features hardware action buttons on the left such as email and calendar buttons, and also incorporates media playback controls into the keyboard using a function key. Two easily replaceable AAA batteries power the Freedom Pro.
As an added bonus, a phone stand slides out of the top of the keyboard to let you prop up your smart phone at a viewable angle. With a price of $119.99, the Freedom Pro is the most expensive of the keyboards we tested, but it also provides the best combination of portability and usability among the four.
IOGear Bluetooth Mini Keyboard
IOGear has been making keyboards, KVMs, and other PC peripherals for many years. With the popularity of Bluetooth devices, it only makes sense that IOGear would bring its technical and design prowess to mobile devices. The Bluetooth Mini Keyboard is the smallest keyboard we tested, and unfortunately that carries over to the usability side of things.
If you're after a keyboard to do some light typing with options for media playback, IOGear offers a great product. As a Windows Media Center controller, the IOGear Mini Keyboard simply excels, as there are function keys for several important Media Center uses. For the purposes of use with a mobile device, we have to recommend you look a different direction, since the IOGear is the least comfortable of the keyboards tested. The price is also on the high end for these keyboards.
Targus Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard for Tablets
One of the big names in technology accessories for business people, Targus has cranked out cases, computer bags, styli, travel mice, and much more for many years. With tablets becoming so popular with business travelers due to their portability, this market was an obvious choice for Targus.
The Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard for Tablets is the largest keyboard we tested and doesn't fold or use any other method to reduce its size for packing into a bag or briefcase. The size of the keyboard does make the individual key size less of a problem; in fact, after using the keyboard for a few minutes you forget it's undersized. The individual keys have some separation between them, making keyboard errors less frequent, and it's attractively priced.
Scosche FreeKey Flexible Water Resistant Keyboard
Scosche is known more for its car audio products than other consumer electronics, but that doesn't stop the FreeKey Flexible Water Resistant Keyboard from being the most intriguing design in our lineup. The FreeKey is a rubberized keyboard that is extremely portable. Simply roll or fold the FreeKey, dump it in a bag, and you're ready to go.
We expected the FreeKey to be a usability nightmare due to the non-traditional keys, but were more than a little surprised to find we could type comfortably even without feeling the normal key motion that we've come to anticipate from a hardware keyboard. The biggest downside to the FreeKey is the fact that the form factor makes it impossible to simply place the keyboard on your lap and type away. The flexible design really requires a flat surface in order to make it useable at all. Another distinctive feature of the FreeKey is the battery pack on the left side of the keyboard. The batteries are rechargeable using an included retractable miniUSB cable.
With the competitive price of $59.95, Scosche makes a big push to be the best Bluetooth keyboard in this competition. [Note than at press time, this keyboard only worked with Android 3.0.1 or higher.]
All four of the keyboards tested work perfectly with both an iPad 2 and an Android Honeycomb Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. The UI of both platforms isn't significantly different (regarding the installation procedure), and pairing the keyboards was an almost identical process in each combination. The pairing process is initiated by pressing a connect button on the keyboard. Within the Bluetooth settings on the tablet you find the device and select it from the available choices. Once the keyboard is selected, the tablet will generate a random four-digit pin, which you enter on the keyboard and press enter. At that point the pairing process is complete, and you can begin to use the keyboard.
If you're planning on using your tablet for content creation, then you are probably going to want some type of external typing device. Regardless of what input method device manufacturers and software vendors have come up with over the years, the hardware keyboard is still the most efficient method of text entry known to humankind. The physical feel of the keys being pressed coupled with the muscle memory earned with years of practice easily outdistance LCD-based keyboards that don't offer you any form of tactile feedback.
For our money, the best keyboard for mass text entry is the Targus Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard. The size and key feel are immediately comfortable, whereas the other choices take some getting used to because of key size or the motion of the keys. If you want an ultra-portable keyboard, then either the Freedom Pro or the Scosche freeKey earn our recommendation. The ability of those two keyboards to transform from a nearly full-size keyboard down to a size that fits easily into a bag make them perfect on-the-go. IOGear's Bluetooth Mini Keyboard is by no means a bad product, but it's just not the best choice for a mobile input device. Where IOGear really excels is with a Windows Media Center or other media-centric purpose.
What do you use for text entry on your mobile device: hardware/software, built-in or third-pary tool? Let us know in the comments.