Touch and type: 3 keyboard covers for the iPad Mini

There's an old adage about software projects that says you can optimize for only two out of three factors: quality, speed and cost. Portable keyboards seem to have a similar restriction, generally scoring well in, at most, two out of three features: mobility (a form factor and weight that's easy to tote around), function (keys that have a nice feel) and ergonomics (a design that's not cramped and doesn't force your hands into an uncomfortable position).

So if, like me, you're finicky enough to want something that's good in all three, it can be a bit of a hunt.

A couple of years ago, I tested out 5 keyboards for the iPad 2 and found one -- the Apple Wireless Keyboard -- that excelled in two areas: keyboard function and ergonomics. Another -- the Logitech Fold-Up Keyboard for iPad -- was quite good in mobility and ergonomics but didn't match the Apple in key function.

But what if you're looking for something to fit the iPad's smaller cousin, the iPad Mini? I test-drove three new keyboards -- the Belkin FastFit, the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for iPad Mini and the Zaggkeys Cover -- to see how they compare. Here's what I found.

Belkin FastFit

The Belkin FastFit is a slender, lightweight keyboard/cover with a magnetic hinge. The keyboard, which comes in either black or white with a silver back, has a groove above the keys to rest the tablet in, and a silver magnetic hinge that folds out and attaches to the tablet when you want to use the keyboard as a cover.

When the FastFit serves as a case, the magnetic hinge feels quite strong and secure. But because all of the cover isn't magnetically attached, it doesn't feel like the case will necessarily stay closed in, say, a backpack. I'd likely put my iPad Mini with this keyboard inside a separate zipper case for a business trip, something I didn't feel a need for with the Zaggkeys Cover.

In order to use the keyboard, you detach the iPad Mini (it's easy to snap your tablet in and out of the hinge) and pop it into a magnetic groove on the keyboard. The magnetic hold inside the groove isn't quite as strong as the hinge, or as that of the Logitech Ultrathin (which uses a similar setup); when I lifted the iPad Mini, it didn't always bring the keyboard along.

At a Glance

Belkin FastFit

Price: $79.99 direct

Dimensions/Weight:5.5 x 7.9 x 0.3 in./7.0 oz.

Mobility: Excellent

Protection: Fair

Easy removal: Excellent

Keyboard function: Fair to good

Keyboard ergonomics: Good

Best for: Someone seeking a thin, light keyboard -- who really cares about keeping overall weight pared down and doesn't need a soft keyboard action.

Placed in the groove, the iPad screen tilts farther back than the other cases reviewed here, which are closer to a 90-degree angle. In general, I preferred the more laptop-like 90-degree tilt. (The larger FastFit for the full-size iPad offers two viewing angles; this has just one.)

Keyboard impressions

The keyboard is quite close to a standard layout on the left side, with a normal-size "A" key and separate caps-lock key. On the right side, though, there's no colon/semicolon or apostrophe/quote keys at all. Instead, the enter key is where a touch-typist would expect the colon/semicolon. While I use an apostrophe considerably less often than many other letters, it was a bit disconcerting for me to have to use a key down by the space bar for every contraction and possessive.

One small design plus I liked on the FastFit: The on/off switch is on the keyboard just above the keys instead of being hidden on the side, making it more likely you'll remember to turn it off (and easier to find to turn it back on again).

The Belkin keys had a bit of a "harder" feel for me, with an action that seemed a little less smooth than the Ultrathin. That's largely a matter of personal taste; but for me, a difference that might be barely noticeable on a full-size keyboard stood out more in a more cramped space, and I preferred the Ultrathin's smoother key action.

Bottom line

The FastFit is slim and light with a mostly standard keyboard layout excepting colons and apostrophe/quotes. If weight matters to you and you don't mind a harder key action (a lot of people don't), this 7-oz keyboard cover could be worth a look.

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for iPad Mini

When Logitech calls its keyboard cover the Ultrathin, it's not kidding -- this keyboard comes in at just under 0.3 in. deep, just slightly less than the Belkin. At 7.3 oz., it's also reasonably light.

The case -- available in white, black, silver or purple -- is basically a keyboard and magnetized hinge. It's similar to a tablet smart cover in that you attach it by putting the keyboard face down on the tablet screen and snap the hinge onto the tablet side. To use the keyboard with tablet, you just remove the tablet from the hinge and prop it up into a magnetic groove above the keys.

While this may sound less than secure -- there's nothing supporting the tablet from behind -- the magnet is strong enough that if you pick up the tablet, the keyboard comes with it. The iPad Mini doesn't wobble if you touch the screen, although if someone hit it from behind it could be more easily dislodged.

Because the keyboard is so easily removable, the Ultrathin is also a good design if you want a keyboard only for occasional use -- in other words, sometimes you want a physical keyboard but other times you just want to pop your Mini into a briefcase, backpack or purse sans keyboard.

On the other hand, it's not the best option as a protective cover for travel. You can use the Ultrathin as a cover by attaching it to its magnetic hinge, but like the Belkin Fastfit, the cover doesn't feel like it's very securely closed and so you might want to use an additional case for a long trip.

Keyboard impressions

My first impression was that this was not the keyboard for a touch-typist. Besides the obvious problem of the 7-in.-tablet form factor, a couple of the keys are sized differently: The A key is larger than the others and also serves as the caps lock, while the semicolon key is half-size. This makes the layout a bit "off" for an expert typist -- at the outset I was hitting a lot of incorrect keys.

At a Glance

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for iPad Mini

Price: $79.99 direct; $58.99 - $99.99 retail

Dimensions/Weight: 5.5 x 7.9 x 0.3 in./7.3 oz

Mobility: Excellent

Protection: Fair

Easy removal: Excellent

Keyboard function: Very good

Keyboard ergonomics: Very good

Best for: Someone who wants as light and sleek a form factor as possible while still having a decent typing experience.

But after an hour or two, I got used to it and found I was able to touch-type at a reasonable speed. And while this isn't my favorite layout for a keyboard, the key action was more to my liking and more reliable than the Zaggkeys in producing only one letter per keystroke.

Small nit: The microUSB charging cable that comes with the keyboard is so short -- less than 14 inches -- that it was tough to get it to reach from my desk to my computer USB port. Fortunately, like most tech enthusiasts, I had others lying around that I could use in its place.

Bottom line

For occasional use, the Logitech Ultrathin is an excellent choice, hitting a sweet spot for its light weight, portability, ease of use and decent ergonomics. Just don't count on it for heavy-duty travel protection.

Zaggkeys Cover

The Zaggkeys Cover has a build similar to the Ultrathin Keyboard cover (but somewhat heavier and thicker). It's a Smart Cover-like device that you snap onto your tablet, keys face down with a hinge along the long edge of the Mini. Unlike the Logitech Ultrathin, though, you don't remove the tablet from the hinge in order to use the keyboard; instead, you open the tablet as though it were the screen of a laptop; a thick ridge in back of the tablet supports it in an upright position.

It's simple to snap an iPad Mini in and out of the magnetic hinge of the Zaggkeys cover -- this keyboard is a good compromise between travel protection and not-all-the-time usage.

However, as I secured my tablet, it felt like the keys would be practically brushing up against the screen. (There are actually little rubber guards at each corner that appear to prevent that, although I wonder how those hold up over time.)

In addition, the ease of slipping the iPad Mini in and out of the Zaggkeys comes at a bit of a stability price -- when I touched the screen while it was sitting inside the hinge, my tablet wobbled a bit. It didn't feel like it was going to fall over -- I never worried it wasn't secure. But it still made using the touch screen feel a bit uncomfortable. On the plus side, the hinge design allows you to adjust the angle of the screen.

When closed, the keyboard as cover felt securely attached -- I'd feel confident using this as a cover case for my Mini when traveling, despite its light weight.

Keyboard impressions

The keyboard layout is quite good considering the form factor, close enough to a standard keyboard that I could do some fairly speedy typing. It was much easier for me to find the right keys on the Zaggkeys Cover at the outset than the Logitech, although I preferred the key action (if not the layout) of the two Logitech keyboards.

At a Glance

Zaggkeys Cover

Price: $99.99 (direct); $63.17 - $101.95 retail

Dimensions/Weight: 7.9 x 5.5 x 0.7 in., 10.8 oz.

Mobility: Very good

Protection: Fair

Easy removal: Excellent

Keyboard function: Fair

Keyboard ergonomics: Very good

Best for: Someone who wants a well-protected tablet along with a light keyboard for occasional use -- and who isn't going to do a lot of fast, heavy typing.

Unfortunately, the keyboard was also a bit too sensitive -- several times I hit a letter once and the letter appeared twice. A subsequent scan through reviews on Amazon.com showed several complaints about keys not working at all after a short time, although that didn't happen with mine.

One nice feature: The keys are backlit, and you can adjust the strength of the lighting as well as the color with function keys on the keyboard.

Bottom line

If you're looking for a light, easy-in/easy-out standard keyboard for your iPad Mini, this may be of interest -- especially if you need to type in low light. But be advised that you may get some letters repeating. And if you like to touch your screen from time to time, do it with a light hand.

Conclusions

As someone who prefers a full-size keyboard, I was skeptical that I would want to use any iPad-Mini-size offering. Much to my surprise, these keyboards were usable, even if none felt like I'd want to be typing on it all day. Mobile keyboard design has definitely advanced since the days of first-generation netbooks -- although "very good" for an iPad Mini form-factor keyboard is still pretty cramped.

Of the three keyboard covers I tested, Logitech's Ultrathin was my favorite, thanks to its light weight, pleasant key action, portability and decent layout -- with the bonus of being exceptionally easy to snap on and off. However, the Ultrathin falls short as a protective travel cover compared with the Zaggkeys.

However, layout compromises in an iPad-Mini-size space -- as well as keyboard action -- are matters of personal taste. If you are looking for the lightest possible keyboard and snapped-shut protection isn't an issue, you may also want to test out the Belkin FastFit.

The Zaggkeys Cover has the closest thing to a standard keyboard layout, although I found the key action to be temperamental; in addition, my iPad wobbled a bit if I used the touchscreen while it was in typing mode. The Zaggkeys is also a good choice if it's important to you to be able to adjust your tablet's viewing angle or have a backlit keyboard.

Just remember that if you're a touch-typist, any of these will take some practice since the keys are closer together than you're likely used to. (If you hunt and peck with a couple of fingers, a cramped layout may matter less.) If nothing but a full-size standard keyboard will do, though, you probably want to look at a regular wireless keyboard that has not been designed to double as an iPad Mini cover.

This story, "Touch and type: 3 keyboard covers for the iPad Mini" was originally published by Computerworld.

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