For close to 15 years, I've wanted a portable device I can use to write when on the go. Palm Pilots with IR keyboards, Sub-Notebooks, Netbooks, Ultrabooks and Chromebooks -- I've tried them all and discarded the lot. For various reasons (software and hardware), they failed to deliver a compelling solution be it too small, too heavy, crap software, poor quality, poor battery life, too expensive...and so on.
It seems technology has finally turned a corner.
Ever since Scrivener was released for iOS, I've been able to write on my iPad without the hackery of External Folder Sync. Being a nerd is great, but sometimes I just want to write without jumping through hoops. As a writing device, iPad has a lot going for it. It's more portable than a laptop (well, most models), its screen is beautiful, iOS encourages minimalism and comes with much less technical debt. iPad is an appliance and eschews complexity.
Where they fall down (or perhaps where I do) is that typing on glass sucks. For me, nothing beats the tactile feel of writing on a well-made, responsive keyboard1. External keyboards have been a feature of the iPad since the very first model. Up to a few days ago, I used full-sized Bluetooth keyboards that are physically separated from the iPad. It works around the house or at work quite well but not so much for travel.
For a while, I've wanted a keyboard for my iPad mini that allows me to turn it into a mini clamshell laptop. I often travel for work and need a solution that works equally well on a desk, aeroplane tray table and my lap. So, when Brydge offered the Brydge 9.7 on sale last week, I took the plunge and bought one for my iPad mini 4.
Disclaimer All photos were taken in low light using my iPhone 5s. Pictures don't do the product justice and are for illustration purposes only.
It arrived yesterday morning (surprisingly early) courtesy of Australia Post.
I'll start off with what I like:
- Build quality (discussed below)
- iOS function keys
- Backlit keys
- Good Bluetooth connection
- Closing the clamshell locks the iPad
The first thing that struck me, apart from its size, is the build quality. It's outstanding. The keyboard is made from a single piece of machined aluminium. The hinge is firm but pliable and holds the iPad snuggly without risk of scratching. It's also easy to pull the iPad free, which I do for reading in portrait.
The keyboard has a heft and weight I appreciate and that makes me confident it won't collapse or tip over. Sure, it adds weight to the iPad, but still nothing remotely close to that of a laptop, even one as svelte as the retina MacBook.
The keys sit well in their recesses and move freely when pressed but with just enough give. The keys have good travel and pressing them feels as satisfying as my MacBook Air and much nicer than the butterfly-switches in Apple's aforementioned retina MacBook.
The back-lighting is a welcome feature and is well implemented with minimal bleed and several levels to suit the environment.
The writing experience
I knew when I bought this keyboard it would be cramped. It is indeed cramped -- there's no getting around that. However, I have been impressed by the clever layout that prioritises the most important keys while moving less important ones to Fn calls. Initially, I did fumble a bit but after a few minutes, my typing began to improve.
With more practice I can easily see myself improving to the point where I can comfortably type for a couple hours, say on a flight or in my hotel room of an evening.
It will be great for typing out emails and messages, writing notes, blog post, quick fiction sprints and doing command line stuff remotely.
In truth, I don't have many but here's a couple to stew on:
Nitpick 1. The shared Tab/Caps lock key. Caps Lock is a useless key; I wish there was a way to remap its functionality like I can on the Mac. This is a limitation of iOS but also a mistake by Brydge. I emailed Brydge about it and they confirmed there's no way to remap the keys.
Nitpick 2. The micro-USB charging port. Seriously, on an iPad accessory! It should have been a lightning cable. Apparently the battery last several months so hopefully I won't have to carry around the extra cable.
Nitpick 3. Because the mini's bezels are so narrow and the iPad sits deep in the hinge, touching objects on the bottom of screen is tricky because I have large fingers. Using a stylus will probably help here.
Overall my impressions are highly favourable and I can confidently say this is the solution I've been looking for. Perhaps, it's only ever going to be an accessory; perhaps not a primary device. However, the enormous potential of this combination has got me thinking of what future me will do.
An iPad coupled with a physical keyboard is a very capable alternative to a laptop. In many ways it's more flexible, allowing more forms of input and interaction. When iOS 11 arrives it will bring with it features that have long been the preserve of the Mac.
Add to this the realisation that I'm automating more and offloading tasks to cloud services and remote machines and future me might not need our want a traditional desktop operating system.
This is the main reason why I won't buy a retina MacBook as the keyboard is neither well-made nor it is responsive in ways I expect. ↩