It seems the biggest debate surrounding the iPad is whether or not it can replace a laptop. The answer, of course, depends on what you need to do. But one thing most people agree on is that if you plan to do a lot of typing, you’ll want a physical keyboard for your tablet.
Apple offers two solutions, the iPad Keyboard Dock and the Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard, but the market is now awash with third-party offerings that aim to provide better portability or more convenience. Most of these alternatives take the form of “keyboard cases” that combine a keyboard with a protective case, and one of the most interesting so far is Zagg’s $100 Zaggmate iPad Case with Keyboard.
The Zaggmate with Keyboard is essentially an aluminum hardshell case that fits onto the front of the iPad for travel, leaving the tablet’s back exposed. But inside the Zaggmate is a thin, Bluetooth keyboard and a single-position stand. When you’re ready to type, you remove your iPad from the Zaggmate, prop it up on the stand, and get to work. (Zagg also sells a non-keyboard version of the Zaggmate, which is essentially the aluminum shell with just the built-in stand for iPad viewing, for $70.) The inside edges of the Zaggmate are covered in a thin layer of foam that holds the iPad securely in place—it takes some effort to pry off the case.
The big appeal of the Zaggmate’s design is that it doesn’t add much bulk to your iPad. When put together for travel, the iPad/Zaggmate combo is just a few millimeters longer and wider than the iPad on its own—for a total of 9.8 inches by 7.6 inches—and only about 6 millimeters thicker. Still, at 12.8 ounces [0.8 pounds], the Zaggmate adds about 50 percent to the iPad’s weight, for a total of approximately 2.4 pounds.
The biggest downside to the Zaggmate as a case is that, unlike with most keyboard cases, the back of your iPad is provided no protection during transport. Those worried about scratches can opt for Zagg’s backside Invisible Shield for the iPad ($30) or NLU Products’ similar BodyGuardz back protector ($25), each of which still allows the iPad to fit in the Zaggmate.
The Zaggmate’s stand consists of a V-shaped piece of plastic that’s permanently attached to a hinge at the rear of the case, along with a narrow groove that runs the width of the case. With your iPad removed, you flip up the stand piece and unfold it until two pegs at the front of the V fit into slots just behind the narrow groove. You then place the bottom edge of your iPad into the groove and lean the iPad against the newly erected support. It’s a difficult procedure to describe, and it’s a bit confusing to set up the first time, but it’s easy enough once you’ve done it a few times.
This design allows you to place your iPad in the Zaggmate either vertically or horizontally, making the Zaggmate one of the few keyboard cases that allows for either orientation—most keyboard cases hold your iPad only horizontally, which is a significant drawback if you’re working on a traditional portrait-oriented document.
On the other hand, the stand offers only a single angle, though one that’s just about right for viewing a document when the Zaggmate is sitting on a desk. You can also place your iPad partly in the case, backside-down but resting on the plastic stand, to position the tablet at a roughly-20-degree angle for onscreen typing—for example, when you don’t have a stable-enough surface for using the Zaggmate’s own keyboard. Unfortunately, you can’t fold down the stand and put the iPad all the way into the case backside-down—the iPad’s back is too convex to fit into the Zaggmate this way. And that means when you want to use the iPad as a tablet, you have two big pieces (the iPad and the Zaggmate) to keep track of.
That V-shaped piece of plastic seems flimsy, but once secured, it’s actually pretty sturdy. If you tap your iPad’s screen—especially near the top—you do get some bouncing, but nothing that seriously affects your ability to occasionally use onscreen controls and buttons. I do wonder, however, how this little plastic support will hold up over hundreds or thousands of foldings and unfoldings.
Because of its small footprint, the Zaggmate isn’t quite stable enough for secure lap use, especially if your iPad is positioned in portrait orientation—the setup’s center of gravity is high enough that when I tried some laptop typing, a tap near the top of the screen usually ended up tipping the whole thing over. You’ll want to keep the Zaggmate on a flat, level surface.
One other case caveat: The edge of the case adjacent to the front of the keyboard is recessed in an attempt to keep the metal from pressing against your hands during typing. However, in order to hold your iPad securely during transport, this recessed area ends at the case’s corners. Unless you’ve got excellent fingers-curled-and-palms-raised typing form, the corners of the case will likely dig into your palms or wrists, at least a little bit. I’m a pretty good touch-typist with decent form, and it still bothered me regularly.
A smaller notch along the iPad’s bottom edge lets you connect Apple’s USB-to-dock-connector cable to sync and charge the iPad without removing it from the case. The Zaggmate itself charges via the included USB-to-MicroUSB cable, which plugs into a MicroUSB port next to the dock-connector opening. The Zaggmate’s 510 mAh battery charges in a few hours and gives you several weeks of normal use per charge. (The keyboard automatically sleeps after a period of inactivity to preserve power.) There are no other openings around the edge, which means that if you want to plug in your headphones to listen to music while on the move, you’re out of luck.
Compact keyboard, good and bad
Like every other keyboard case currently out there, the Zaggmate’s keyboard connects to your iPad wirelessly using Bluetooth. The pairing process is quick and easy, and once paired, the keyboard automatically reconnects whenever you turn it on. (An On/Off switch lets you turn off the keyboard when you’re not using it.) In case you’re curious, yes, you can pair the keyboard with an iPhone, which sits nicely in the Zaggmate’s built-in stand; however, you can pair the keyboard with only one device at a time.
They keyboard itself uses laptop-style scissor keys that have about the same amount of travel—the distance you have to push a key to enter a character—as those on Apple’s current keyboards. The Zaggmate keyboard’s keys feel a tad soft when pressed, compared to those on Apple’s keyboards, but not nearly as mushy as the rubber/silicone keyboards used in many of the folio-style keyboard cases we’re currently testing. For on-the-go typing, the feel of the keys is fine.
The biggest drawback to the Zaggmate’s keyboard is that the keys are smaller than most laptop-keyboard keys—they’re more netbook-sized—and crowded more closely together, so if you’re used to touch-typing on a full-size keyboard, you’ll find yourself making quite a few mistakes until you get used to the smaller overall size.
Thankfully, the Zaggmate provides a full slate of standard keys, and most keys are in their proper location. This includes Fn, Control, Option, and Command keys to the left of Spacebar; and Command, Option, and Fn to the right. The presence of these modifier keys in their correct locations makes it easy to use standard Mac OS X keyboard shortcuts for editing functions such as copying and pasting text.
The only standard keys that caused me problems were the directional-arrow keys. Instead of being arranged in the traditional inverted-T layout, the left and right arrow keys are located directly under the right-hand Shift key, with the up and down arrow keys to the right of the Shift key. Even after a couple weeks of use, I regularly ended up moving the cursor to the wrong location. How big of an annoyance this will be depends on how often you use the arrow keys.
As with most iPad keyboard cases, many keys in the Zaggmate’s top row act as special-function buttons by default. From left to right, Escape serves as Home; then you get Spotlight, Slideshow, Show/Hide Onscreen Keyboard, Screen Sleep, F5, F6, F7, F8, F9, Previous Track, Play/Pause, Next Track, Mute, Volume Down, Volume Up, and International. (The International key lets you quickly cycle through multiple keyboards if you’ve enabled that feature in International settings.) To use these keys as standard Escape and F-keys, you hold down the Fn key.
My only complaint here is that by crowding this top row so close to the row below it—and because the keys are already smaller than normal—I frequently hit one of the special-function keys accidentally. For some of these keys, an accidental tap isn’t too offensive; with others, such as the Home key, it means a jarring interruption of your work.
Finally, it’s worth noting that as with all other external keyboards, you’ll likely find yourself disappointed by what you can’t do when paired with an iPad. For example, you can’t use the arrow keys to navigate messages in Mail, or to move between photos in the Photos app. But this is a limitation of iOS itself, rather than the Zaggmate’s keyboard.
Macworld’s buying advice
Some people will point out, correctly, that when you add the weight and size of a keyboard case to the iPad, you end up with something that’s a lot closer in size and weight to an actual laptop. So why not just get a laptop? For many people, the answer is that they love the iPad for the things that it does that a MacBook or MacBook Air can’t, but they also want the option to tote along a keyboard sometimes. A keyboard case gives you that flexibility along with a stand and some protection in a single package. On the other hand, if you’ve already got a favorite iPad case, Apple’s own travel-friendly Wireless Keyboard offers a better typing experience than does any keyboard case we’ve thus far tested—albeit with fewer special-function keys—for only $69; you just need an inexpensive travel stand.
If you’re considering the keyboard-case route, the Zaggmate iPad Case with Keyboard is a unique option that offers a much better experience than the iPad’s onscreen keyboard when you need to do serious typing, and it lets you position your iPad in either portrait or landscape mode. We liked the Zaggmate enough to give it a Macworld Best of Show award at January’s Macworld 2011 trade show. However, the Zaggmate isn’t perfect—its keys are small and cramped, it doesn’t offer the all-over protection of most other keyboard cases, and its metal edges require good typing form. If you need an iPad keyboard case right now, the Zaggmate is worth a serious look; however, there are other promising models on the way from Adonit, Clamcase, and Rocketfish, just to name a few. We’ll be reviewing those and more in the coming weeks.
[Dan Frakes is a senior editor for Macworld.]