Buying Guide: Find the best iPad keyboard

For serious typing sessions--or if you just can't get the hang of the iPad's onscreen keyboard--an external keyboard offers the tactile advantages of real keys without sacrificing the iPad's portability and touchscreen features.

The iPad supports almost any Bluetooth keyboard, but there are many, many keyboards on the market that are specifically made for use with the iPad. These tend to be designed for portability, and they usually include special iPad-function keys for adjusting volume and screen brightness; controlling media playback; opening iOS's Spotlight-search screen; going to the Home screen; and more. Some even offer dedicated buttons for cut, copy, and paste. Most iPad keyboards are integrated into some sort of protective case, although a few are standalone models; regardless of the design, most include rechargeable batteries that last for weeks or months on a charge.

I wrote the first edition of this buying guide back in December 2011 after testing roughly three dozen iPad keyboards. Since then, I've had a chance to test several dozen more, and I've incorporated my findings into this updated edition.

Things to consider when shopping

There are a few things to consider when shopping for a keyboard for your iPad.

Always on or removable? If you frequently need a physical keyboard when using your iPad, you'll appreciate the convenience of a keyboard built into a case, as the keyboard will always be with you. If, however, you use an external keyboard infrequently--or you just like to use the iPad unencumbered for non-typing tasks--you may find a form-fitting, folio-style keyboard case to be a hassle, as it can be difficult to remove. Keyboard shells, described below, are a nice compromise, and standalone keyboards offer the most flexibility.

Portability versus usability With the exception of standalone models, iPad keyboards involve usability tradeoffs: The thinner the keyboard, the worse the feel of the keys; the smaller the keyboard, the more crowded the keys will be, or the more you'll find keys that are the wrong size or in the wrong locations. (Standalone keyboards generally offer standard key feel and size, a standard key layout, and a typing experience closer to that of a desktop keyboard.) You'll need to decide which tradeoffs you're willing to make in the name of portability--especially if you're a touch typist--and check for these tradeoffs when shopping. A literal hands-on test is immensely valuable if you can get one; otherwise, be sure the store or website you're buying from offers a good return policy.

Note: There are plenty of iPad keyboards that offer interesting features, an attractive design, or a small footprint, but in my recommendations below, I place a heavy emphasis on the typing experience: If a keyboard doesn't dramatically improve typing compared to the iPad's onscreen keyboard, I don't recommend it. Similarly, my recommendations are somewhat biased towards touch-typists, so a keyboard that's especially cramped or that organizes keys in a non-standard layout has to be otherwise very impressive to get my recommendation. (There's likely a good amount of overlap between touch-typists and people who want a physical keyboard, so I'm fairly confident this is the right approach.)

With that out of the way, here's a quick look at the main types of iPad keyboards available, along with my recommendations for a few of the best in each category. If you're looking for a keyboard for the iPad mini, I've included a separate section for the mini at the end of this guide.

Folio-case-style keyboards

Easily the most-common type, these keyboards are integrated into a full-body, folio-style iPad case. The all-in-one design of folio keyboards is convenient, and most models make it easy to type on your lap--no desk or table required. These models, along with keyboard shells (below) also tend to include the thinnest keyboards. However, folio keyboards have a few drawbacks that can significantly affect usability and comfort. For starters, the actual keyboards tend to be cramped and have small, poor-quality keys, sometimes using odd layouts. Most also limit the iPad to landscape orientation--even though portrait orientation is often better when typing traditional documents--and a single propped-up angle. It can also be inconvenient to use your iPad as a tablet while in the case (you flip the keyboard behind the iPad, making for a bulky package), yet it's often a hassle to remove the iPad from the case--which means you end up carrying the keyboard even when you don't need it. My recommended models all have smaller-than-standard keyboards, but they otherwise make solid attempts to avoid these flaws; they also all support the iPad's magnetic sleep/wake feature.

Recommendations: Zagg's $130 ZaggKeys ProFolio+ (iPad 2, 3, 4) is pricey and supports only a single (rather steep) iPad angle. But the keys are easy to type on and--yes--backlit. In addition, the sturdy case offers all-over protection and a nifty back cover that redirects iPad-speaker audio towards you; it's easy to remove your iPad from the case; and it's the thinnest folio-style keyboard around. (The $100 ZaggKeys ProFolio loses the backlit keys.) If you can still find Zagg's older ZaggFolio (iPad 2), you'll get better keys, although in a slightly flimsier case.

Adonit's $80 WriterPlus For New iPad (iPad 3, 4) and WriterPlus for iPad 2 (iPad 2) offer good, if small, keys arranged in a standard layout, and use a clever design that lets you choose a wide range of screen angles. Both also let you quickly pop out your iPad and prop it up in portrait orientation (or use it on its own), and--my favorite feature--let you detach the keyboard and use the case as a standard folio when you want to travel light.

In terms of the traditional "looks like a leather folio" keyboard cases, the best one I've seen is Logitech's $130 Solar Keyboard Folio (iPad 2, 3, 4). For starters, it has a very good keyboard, it's thinner than the typical leather/pleather folio, and it's not too difficult to remove your iPad. But the Folio offers two angles, one for typing and another for video/photo viewing; when in the latter position, the keys on the bottom row of the keyboard change to media- and volume-control buttons. And unlike most of the other keyboards here, the Solar Keyboard Folio charges its built-in battery using ambient light--just make sure you close the case and place it solar-cells-up every once in a while.

Honorable mentions: Most other models in this category are simply bulky leather (or faux-leather) folios with a disappointing keyboard tacked onto the inside of the screen cover. Of the several dozen other folio keyboards I've tested, the two best, Belkin's $100 Keyboard Folio for iPad 2 and Kensington's $100 KeyFolio Pro Performance Keyboard Case, have been discontinued since the previous edition of this roundup. However, Belkin's latest model, the Ultimate Keyboard Case for iPad ($100 in black; $130 in white), arrived in our office this week; after a couple days of testing, I think it's worth a cautious recommendation, especially for non-touch-typists. The downsides are that the keyboard is more cramped than those of the recommended models above; an otherwise nifty Siri button is located where the left-hand Command key should be, and Belkin has overlaid the special-function keys with the number keys in the top row (you access the former using the Fn key). But the Ultimate Keyboard offers three different screen angles and a thin, rigid shell; you can flip the keyboard behind the iPad for traditional tablet use (the keyboard automatically turns off when your iPad isn't propped up); and the keyboard is otherwise pretty good.

Clamshell (laptop-case) keyboards

These models essentially turn your iPad into a laptop: The iPad acts as the laptop screen, while the keyboard and its surrounding enclosure, attached by some sort of hinge, play the role of the laptop base. The downsides to most clamshell keyboard cases are that they tend to add a good amount of weight and bulk to your iPad; they usually make it difficult to use your iPad as a tablet when you're not typing; and they use smaller-than-normal keys in a cramped layout. But the quality of those keys is often a step up from that of the average folio-case keyboard; the laptop-style design works well for typing on your lap; and most offer a good range of screen angles. Like folio-style models, most clamshells hold the iPad in landscape orientation, though you may find ones that let you prop up the tablet in portrait orientation. The available options are significantly better today than when I wrote the first edition of this guide.

Recommendations: ClamCase is the best-known vendor of clamshell keyboard cases, and for good reason: The $169 ClamCase Pro (iPad 2, 3, 4) is a great combination of clever design, solid iPad protection, and a very good (if slightly cramped) keyboard. Though on the heavy side (three pounds including your iPad), this well-built clamshell encloses your iPad in an attractive, aluminum-and-plastic case that looks and functions almost exactly like a laptop--so much so that while testing it, I constantly tried to use a palmrest trackpad that doesn't exist. Flip the keyboard/base around towards the back, and the solid hinge makes a great stand for watching video, or rotate the base flat against the back of the iPad to turn the entire package into a thick tablet. (Just be sure to turn off the keyboard to avoid accidental typing.) The keyboard itself is one of the best I've seen in a keyboard case: It's a bit cramped, and the modifier keys are on the small side, but all the keys are in the correct place, it's got a nice array of special-function keys, and there's little here that will frustrate a touch-typist. The ClamCase Pro offers the best on-your-lap typing experience of any iPad keyboard case I've tested.

ClamCase's $149 standard ClamCase--available in black, white, or black/white, with specific versions for each iPad generation--is bulkier, uses an all-plastic case, and uses keys that aren't as good, but it's still a decent option if you insist on a clamshell model.

Brydge's Brydge+ ($200 for aluminum, $130 for black polycarbonite composite; iPad 2, 3, 4) foregoes a protective iPad cover in order to give you the thinnest clamshell-keyboard design I've seen. The keyboard/base section hosts two sturdy, iPad-gripping hinges--slip your iPad into these silicone-lined hinges and they grab the tablet firmly enough that the keyboard won't detach without some firm tugging. Your bare iPad serves as the laptop screen and top case. The Brydge+ also includes a pair of tinny-but-decent Bluetooth speakers to give you louder audio. The Brydge+ is a well-made and impressively designed accessory--especially the aluminum version--but there's a caveat for touch-typists: The keyboard has good keys, but in addition to being slightly cramped, it wedges the Up Arrow key between the right-hand slash (/) and Shift keys. In my testing, I regularly pressed the Up Arrow key, thus moving the cursor to the previous line, when I meant to press Shift. I could never get past this odd layout. (The company also offers a $170 Brydge--sans the + in the name--that omits the Bluetooth speakers.)

Honorable mentions: New Trent's $64 Airbender Keyboard Case (iPad 2, 3, 4) has a keyboard that's a tad more cramped than those of the Brydge+ and ClamCase models, its keys feel just OK, and it commits the same key-layout sin with the Up Arrow key as the Brydge+. But the Airbender offers some unique and welcome features: After lifting the "screen," you can rotate the iPad into portrait orientation--in fact, it's the preferred orientation. (The hinge/stand isn't very sturdy in landscape orientation.) In addition, the hinge/stand can detach from the keyboard, letting you create a more ergonomic typing station by placing your iPad and the keyboard at different levels. And if you want to use the iPad on its own, a quick-release latch on the stand lets you detach the iPad, still clad in the Airbender's thin, protective top case. If the keys themselves were better, this might be the keyboard case I'd use.

Keyboard shells

These models are the thinnest and lightest of the keyboard cases. They integrate a thin keyboard into a rigid shell that protects the front or back of the iPad in transit. (Most cover the iPad's screen, leaving the backside exposed.) When you're ready to type, you pop the iPad out of, or pull it away from, the shell; stick it in a prop-up slot above the keyboard; and start typing. Most keyboard shells offer only a single angle for your iPad, though they often let you use your iPad in your choice of portrait or landscape orientation. As with clamshell-case models, the keyboards here tend to be a bit cramped, and the keys are usually smaller than normal; the models I've recommended are nevertheless quite usable, and they have good keys. Keyboard shells can be used on your lap if you're careful, but they're usually less stable on your lap than folios and clamshells.

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