Going Keyboardless

I started using the iPad when the first generation was available. As an early adopter I loved its versatility. No, it wasn’t an outright MacBook replacement, but in a pinch, I could type with the iPad.

I used the cramped on-screen keyboard so much that eventually it didn’t feel cramped anymore. My large hands grew accustom to the landscape orientation of the keyboard. The portrait view worked while thumb typing. Some people found that neither of these orientations worked well for them, as they couldn’t get comfortable and see past the constraints. If they could’ve only seen the added abilities it brought to iOS… but sadly, most people do not.

For these people, there was Bluetooth support. External keyboards have always been optional for the iPad. Pick up an Apple wireless keyboard, for instance, and you can pair it to the iPad. Third party wireless bluetooth keyboards in general work for the iPad. These days, some of the third party models are actually sexy, like this one.

There are limitations, of course. Most specialty keys on the board (like the function keys) don’t/didn’t work. If you think about it, you could do worse. Who uses the top row and side keys all that much? The iPad with a full-size wireless keyboard is a doable typing setup, even without a host of keyboard shortcuts.

Since the first generation, I used every new model iPad besides the fourth generation, which was largely similar to the third. Month-in-and-month-out, I found myself typing with the Apple Bluetooth keyboard or the on-screen board. It was doable in many situations that worked in my use cases. It encouraged me to write more, even. I was motivated in part by the uniqueness of the writing experience. For another part, I actually got good writing done with the iPad that I didn’t need the Mac for.

But in the spring, my career path took a turn for the better. I have been working from home. Not too long ago, I was able to become a full-time independent graphic designer, which is a great scenario for my professional lifestyle. I like to work in solitude. There are times that I miss the company of office personnel, but it can never compete with the productivity and clarity of working solo.

Working solo in my home office introduced new workflows. For instance, I can setup my MacBook on virtually any desk, counter, or table and it’s a reasonable workstation. I can roam throughout the house with the MacBook and use it in ways that I couldn’t when I worked five days a week at the office. This means that I have found fewer scenarios that I would use my iPad. The iPad truly became a consumptive device. I haven’t found a reason to type with mine except at church in Sunday school. My MacBook Pro is a great notebook that works wherever I want to get work done, and the built-in keyboard makes it the ultimate — and mostly convenient — writing device.

The iPad + external keyboard takes more effort. If I’m going somewhere to use it, I have to carry at least two parts: the iPad and the separate keyboard. If I want them in a bag, then that bag needs to be large enough for the two devices plus who-knows-what-else, like power cords and maybe even the MacBook as my backup tool. And that means… As you can see, typing with an iPad is a slippery spiral into more and more complexities. You spend more time thinking about what you’ll need to do it, and less time thinking about what you write.

Or, you could just write the old fashioned way: with your notebook computer. Then you wouldn’t have to think about so many components.

To end my critique of iPad typing, I want to observe what Ben Brooks mentioned in his iPad typing piece. “There are also ergonomic concerns over typing on an iPad — mostly that it is too low and you end up looking downwards at the device.” He’s very right. Docks and stands for the iPad place it on a flat surface well-below the recommended position you want to be viewing. My head craned downward gets sore in fifteen minutes or so. The iPad typing setup — with an external keyboard and stand for the screen — might look nifty for a college kid, but it’s so bad for your posture that no one should type like this regularly.

And, like Ben, the solutions to the problems have escaped me. “I’ve yet to solve any of this. I’ve heard rumors of people trying to install the bluetooth module into a custom case, and I’ve thought about 3D printing my own iPad stand that houses it, but that’s all far too time consuming for what time I have.”

Ben is addressing a mechanical keyboard he likes paired with his iPad, and how he would utilize it more efficiently. In all scenarios, an external iPad keyboard introduces some stopgap. We don’t know how to effectively eliminate the added difficulties.

Even if I used an iPad stand that brought it up to eye level, it would introduce new difficulties. Who wants to tote the stand around? It would most likely be left at one workstation. This would tie down the iPad to that work station, if I wanted to write. And that’s not cool, because one of the primary draws to the iPad is its portability. You solve the one problem and takeaway one of its better characteristics in the process. If I want to get writing done on the iPad, I would like the solution to be sufficient anytime in anyplace.

What all this means is that I’ve reconsidered my stance on the iPad in the last few months. I was a strong advocate for the iPad over the years: saying you should consider it a real tool for work and pleasure. You still should, but the limitations of the iPad are more opaque to me now than before. In the context of working at home, I have less reason to pick up the iPad. The MacBook truly is a power tool, when compared to the pad.

My iPad Air is still a high quality device. I’m just not inclined to type with it that much anymore. Gone are the days that I want to fiddle with the external components. My hobbies include what’s made possible with the a large screen, tap-computing, and iOS — going keyboardless.

Joe Darnell

Joe is a UI and graphic designer with prior experience as the creative director for three media-based businesses. Joe’s passionate about web design and graphic design with about 15 years of experience in the media industry. Additionally, Joe is the host of the Top Brew and Techtonic podasts, both featured on iTunes.