“I don’t get it. Why do you want an iPad keyboard?” This was the question before me, as I dipped into the research, trying to find a constant companion for my tablet. My husband knows I have a tendency to get lost in my gadgets, and he was afraid that my tearing into this product category would lead to a case of the disappearing wife. Again.

“Because typing anything long-form on a capacitive screen is right up there with root canal.”

“Forget the tablet. Just take your laptop when you’ve got to do real work.” He just summed up hundreds of web comments about this very thing.

“You want me to unplug the ethernet, my USB cables, speaker wire and external monitor every time I want to go down to the coffee shop and write an article? You must want me to stay in the house a lot.”

“Well, the thought did dawn on me…”

“I knew it!”

“No, seriously. What’s the point of turning the iPad into a notebook when you’ve got a perfectly good computer sitting right there?”

“Well, I have my iPad with me all the time, so I’d rather just add a keyboard attachment than carry a whole other laptop,” I said. “Plus, you know that I need away-time from my desk, but when I hit the couch with the MacBook Pro on my lap, it gets really hot. I’m thinking, if I pair my tablet with a real keyboard and remote into the computer on my desk, that would be ideal — no unhooking cables, no fear of moving around a spinning hard disk, and no setting my legs on fire.”

“Hot legs, eh? There’s a dirty joke in there somewhere.”

“Shhh, I’m working.”

So there it was. As a writer, I wanted something that allowed for touch-typing, but as a couch junkie, I needed something that didn’t require a level surface. That immediately ruled out a lot of those ubiquitous iPad folios. You know the type — they’re basically two separate parts that stand up on a table okay, but flop around when you try to use them on your lap. For my needs, the distinguishing factor would have to be that it physically connected to the tablet somehow. That meant I’d need an iPad keyboard case.

Turns out there are quite a few products in this niche. That could be good news for people like me, or people who know others who’d love to be gifted something like this. After all, the iPad is a hot holiday item this year, and an iPad accessory is a pretty neat holiday gift. So here, I present to you my findings after checking out a selection of five different iPad Bluetooth keyboard cases that caught some attention this year.

Before I get started, let me just say — these are not your Grandma’s clunky, hard to pair, short-life iPad keyboards. There’s a new breed out there now, and even though I was once tempted to consider a netbook, I’m definitely not anymore. With the rising availability of utilities via new and better apps, enhanced multitasking, and now a very good physical keyboard at my disposal, there’s simply no need.

In all cases, initial pairing was easy-peasy, automatic rediscovery of the pairing was standard, and across the board, battery life was amazing — typically lasting at least several days, up to well over a week, depending on usage. And most of them charge via USB, so there’s no fiddling with extra batteries. With the additional iPad-specific keys (such as “home,” play/rewind/ff, photos, etc…), this product category really ups the usability factor.

So with that said, let me dive in. (Big thanks to the listed companies for sending me this terrific pile of products to check out!)

Clamcase for iPad 2 (white)

$149, available here

PROS: Solid build, rear camera hole, folds backwards to become a stand for media viewing or (folded all the way for) classic tablet mode, looks sharp and stylish (for that “wee laptop”/mini computer look),  closing the case sleeps the iPad, multiple viewing angles

CONS: Keyboard bed is recessed (makes typing difficult), scissor action keys feels a little cheap, build is too tight (opening/closing is stiff, tends to peel off screen protector), hard to remove iPad from case, heavy

A big kahuna of the iPad-as-laptop accessory niche, the Clamcase is very cute — like an itty bitty laptop. The company just came out with the white version, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Neither could others. Since I started using it, I’ve had people approach me, asking if Apple had suddenly come out with a netbook. Aside from the looks, I also have to single out this product for being the only keyboard case in my group that was designed to fold backwards, so it could be used as a stand or folded back completely for “tablet mode.” It’s a great concept, but unfortunately, it comes at a cost: The keyboard had to be made flat and pushed in.

Sadly, that design really hindered usability. Not sure why the packaging says “chiclet” keys — these are definitely scissor action. Now, I’m not a fan of scissor action keys as it is, as they tend to feel sort of cheap, but this iteration is completely flat, with no bezeling. That puts touch typers at a disadvantage, unable to tell one key from the next. Add the fact that it’s set depressed into the case, and what you have is a bunch of typing errors, at least in my usage. There’s also the weight. While not the heaviest of the lot, it’s definitely more than feather light. The product sheet lists 1.7 lbs, and that’s without the tablet in there. For me, that was just a little too much.

Purchase from Amazon

Rocketfish iPad 2 Keyboard Capsule

$99.99, available here

PROS: Dual Bluetooth connectivity (for iPad plus another device), build quality, very good island keyboard, closing the lid sleeps the tablet and the keyboard, opening it wakes both, speaker chamber to acoustically amplify sound

CONS: No escape key, no rear camera hole, single orientation (landscape), single viewing angle, heavy

I love almost everything about the Rocketfish Capsule: It features chicklet-style island keys, which is my preferred style. Like the Clamcase, the keys are slightly smaller than standard, but it doesn’t take long to get used to. Aside from a very good keyboard, what impressed me was the dual Bluetooth connectivity. This means I can remote login to my laptop with this, then switch and continue using it with my iPad. That’s brilliant, and something the other products don’t offer. (Those could only pair with one device at a time. One thing that actually wowed me was that it has a little hollowed out divot at the speaker area, for acoustic amplification of audio.

But with all those pros, comes a few cons: First, it’s heavy, at 2.2 lbs. If the Clamcase’s 1.7 lbs crossed the line, then the Capsule trounced it. The second thing is, klutz that I am, I’ve picked this up and moved it around, only to find that I’ve knocked the top (iPad) part off the bottom tray. The hinge kept the device from hurtling toward the ground, but I definitely need something more stable. The last thing is the charging port. After a couple of days, it stopped working. The company assured me that this was a known issue in the pre-release model (which is what I have), and that it has since been corrected in the production version. If the port issue is fixed and they come out with a lighter build, but keep the same keyboard and dual connectivity, I’d be all over this.

 Purchase from Amazon

Adonit Writer 2

$89.99, available here

PROS: Smallest, lightest product of the group, decent keys despite being scissor action, uses AAA batteries for easy replacement while out, sleeps/wakes both tablet and keyboard by closing/opening, multiple viewing angles, attractive folio with felt lining

CONS: Smallest keyboard of the group made typos very common (space bar and delete keys are extremely short and easy to miss), no USB charging option, no escape key, single orientation (landscape) only, build quality feels a little flimsy

Now here’s an interesting new product type: Where the other two keyboards were seated in beefy cases with a lot of heft, the Adonit Writer comes strolling in offering the exact opposite. It’s like an iPad folio that thinks it’s a clamshell case. But it’s light, adorable and infinitely adjustable to suit different viewing angles. And although this uses scissor keys, they feel better than the Clamcase’s. There’s bezeling that makes each key distinct from the next, which really improves accuracy quite a bit.

Having said that thought, of all the keyboards I tried here, this was probably the toughest to get used to. That was for no other reason than the size. Most of these keyboards are smaller than standard, but this was even smaller than the rest, making it a challenge to type. I managed to get fairly used to it after a couple of days, but going back and forth between regular keyboards and this one basically confused the heck out of my muscle memory. So in the end, I’m torn about this item: I love the creativity behind this case; it almost makes up for the usability issues. Almost. Its attractive and lightweight form factor would have me reaching for it when I’m trekking all over the city, but in all other situations, I’d probably give it a pass.

Check back for part 2 tomorrow with reviews of the ZAGGfolio and Logitech Fold-up Keyboard, plus the final rankings.

UPDATE: Part 2 has been posted, so click here to check it out!

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