The Third Device

A blog about the iPad.

External keyboards and the iPad

Okay, touchscreen keyboards are getting pretty good. And Apple’s implementation is particularly solid. But I’ve always been a tactile, physical keyboard kinda guy . On my Blackberry and on my Macbook Pro, I can type just about as fast as I can talk (which believe me, is pretty fast). On the iPad, not so much.

Now not everyone knows this, but the iPad does support the use of an external Bluetooth keyboard. The folks at Cupertino would of course prefer you use the Apple iPad Keyboard Dock, or even the  Apple Wireless Keyboard, but in reality almost any Bluetooth keyboard will work. Which is a good thing because neither Apple keyboard is quite portable enough to slip into a gadget bag.

Back in the heyday of PDAs (Palm, iPAQ, Pocket PCs, etc), portable folding keyboards were readily available and somewhat popular. Initially these were infrared and needed to be pointed at the host device to work, but later on they became Bluetooth enabled and more versatile. But as PDAs fell out of favor, these accessories eventually disappeared from the market.

I was able to track one down on eBay for a reasonable amount (well, $50 seemed reasonable to me) and just took delivery of it today. It’s called the Stowaway Sierra and is (or at least, was) made by a company called Think Outside.


The Stowaway Sierra

The Sierra is pretty unique in that it folds out in several sections to form a full sized keyboard complete with dedicated number row (which most portable keyboards sacrifice). When unfolded and laid flat on a table, it feels sturdy enough and you can type with confidence – but obviously, because of its construction, it’s not as stable or as rigid as an Apple Wireless Keyboard would be. You can’t lay the Sierra in your lap and type on it; it will buckle and collapse unless you tuck a magazine or hardbound book underneath.

Cue transformers theme! "More than meets the eye..."

The keyboard came with an installer CD in case you plan to use it with a desktop computer or PDA – not going to be much use with an iPad, though. However, the pairing process was extremely straightforward – just hit a tiny recessed button on the Stowaway and then open up the Bluetooth preference pane in the iPad settings. The iPad gives you a number to type in on the keyboard, you type it in and then hit Enter, and bada bing, you’re all set to go. It will hold the pairing even when you fold the keyboard back up, so the next time you need to use it you can just start typing straightaway.

And now to type this blog post.

Of course, you’re still dealing with a touchscreen OS, so the cursor keys have no effect, and don’t think that you can take the next step and pair up a Bluetooth mouse either. But for the meat and potatoes typing – you’re good to go.

So, you might ask – why go to all the trouble of buying a touchscreen device and then buying an external keyboard? Why not just buy a laptop?

The answer, in a nutshell: flexibility! It all depends on what you need to do. For about 75 to 80 percent of what I use my iPad for (surfing, Twitter, games,  reading) I don’t need a keyboard. But for long emails, chat sessions, and in fact even for typing this blog post: it’s unbelievably liberating to be able to type on a real keyboard that I can just tuck back into my bag when I’m done.  The Stowaway/iPad combo is still a heckuva lot lighter than carrying a laptop. The Apple iPad Case also sets up at a great angle for BT keyboard typing, and color coordinates with the Sierra pretty well too.

Next project: an external DVD burner! Just kidding.


June 16, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. when SWYPE for ipad comes out, that may totally change how i type. with the on screen keyboard, i already type as if my fingers are on a dance revolutuion game. with swype, ballroom dancing naman!

    Comment by jerrytieng | June 18, 2010 | Reply

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