Two common aftermarket Mac accessories are keyboards and speakers. For those shopping for both—especially if you have limited space or just don’t like a lot of clutter—Verbatim’s TuneBoard Speaker Keyboard may be an appealing option. The TuneBoard combines a full-size keyboard with a pair of compact speakers, although it’s not without compromises on the audio front.
The TuneBoard is rather large as keyboards go: 18.9 inches wide, 8.1 inches deep, and 1.8 inches thick at the thickest point. But a good chunk of that bulk is taken up by the speaker area—the actual keyboard section is only 6.3 inches deep. The keys are traditional dome-style desktop keys, which means they’re thicker and require more travel (the distance you have to push a key for it to be recognized) than laptop-style scissor-style keys. The keys have a good feel, with little mushiness and solid tactile feedback when pressed. On the other hand, the TuneBoard’s keyboard section is approximately 1.3 inches thick, which is quite a bit thicker than most modern keyboards and not especially ergonomic. And unlike many USB keyboards, the TuneBoard doesn’t provide a USB port to connect a mouse or other input device.
The TuneBoard offers a full complement of standard keys, including true Mac modifier keys (command and option). Keys are arranged in a standard layout with a couple exceptions. First, the numeric keypad uses a nonstandard arrangement that omits the equal sign (=) key and puts the hyphen, asterisk, and backslash keys in odd locations. Second, the Help key is located between the right-hand Option and Control keys, which led me to accidentally launch OS X’s Help Viewer far too frequently. (The Help key’s normal location, above Delete and next to Home, is occupied by a function [fn] key.)
One unique aspect of the TuneBoard is that its keys are backlit. The blue light shining through each key’s character makes it easier to find particular keys in low light. On the other hand, you can’t adjust the light level—you can only toggle the lighting on and off—and, worse, the backlighting shines between keys, as well, calling to mind a tricked-out sports car with neon lights underneath. This look, together with a glossy finish that shows dust and fingerprints, takes away from the TuneBoard’s appearance.
Just above the keypad are Back, Play/Pause, and Forward buttons for controlling iTunes playback, as well as an Eject key. Just above the speakers (discussed below) are Mute, Volume Down, and Volume Up keys, as well as a Bass Boost button and a button to toggle the key backlighting on and off. None of these keys requires any special drivers; they work out of the box.
Listen while you work
At the back edge of the TuneBoard is a metal grille covering two 1-inch speakers. The TuneBoard uses a single USB cable for both keyboard input and audio output. You just plug this cable into a USB port on your Mac and the keyboard works immediately (although the first time you use the TuneBoard, Mac OS X will open the “unknown keyboard” wizard to verify the keyboard’s layout). For audio, the only configuration you may need to perform is to open the Sound pane of System Preferences and, in the Output tab, select USB Audio Keyboard; all audio will then play through the TuneBoard’s speakers, which are powered entirely by your Mac’s USB port. The back of the keyboard hosts a headphone jack for private listening and a microphone-input jack for use with VOIP or Skype.
Because the TuneBoard’s speakers are powered by the keyboard’s USB connection and the drivers themselves are so small, the TuneBoard can’t produce extremely loud volumes, nor can it reproduce true bass frequencies—bass starts to roll off above 100Hz, and tones below 100Hz are nearly inaudible. (The “Bass Boost” button just boosts the overall volume of the TuneBoard’s audio output; it doesn’t actually enhance bass performance.) Overall, the TuneBoard’s audio performance is listenable but somewhat tinny—similar to that of a MacBook’s built-in speakers.
In addition, the speakers are positioned toward the outer edges of the keyboard, even though many people sit to the left—in the middle of the QWERTY section of the keyboard—while typing. As a result, you hear an off-center stereo image that’s noticeable given that your ears are only 1.5 feet or so from the speakers.
Finally, I found that the keyboard’s audio connection sometimes “went to sleep” if my Mac didn’t actively produce any audio for a period of time. When the computer did play audio again, it took a few seconds for the TuneBoard to produce it, and there was an audible crackle whenever the audio connection “woke up.”
Macworld’s buying advice
The idea behind the TuneBoard is a clever one, and the TuneBoard’s keyboard section is solid, especially if you prefer desktop-style keys. At $70, the TuneBoard’s combination of a decent keyboard with acceptable speakers is less expensive than many keyboards alone. However, given that most Macs these days include speakers that compete with, or easily best, the TuneBoard’s speakers, the TuneBoard is a better fit for the Mac mini and Mac Pro—computers with only a tiny, monaural internal speaker. Even then, unless your desk space is especially limited and you’re not too picky about audio quality, you’ll likely be happier with a dedicated keyboard and a separate set of $30 or $40 computer speakers.
[Dan Frakes is a Macworld senior editor.]