Keyboards for the 12.9″ iPad Pro – An adventure and review

As I’ve mentioned before, I use a 2015 edition iPad Pro 12.9 as a daily driver tablet and almost-laptop-replacement. With the right external keyboard case it can easily be mistaken for a Macbook, and serves most of my on-the-go needs at airports, meetings, conferences, and even in front of the television at night.

However, the two leading contenders for best iPad Pro 12.9 keyboard case have had their quirks and issues, and I’ve run headlong into both devices’ issues.

Those two contenders are the Zagg SlimBook keyboard case and the Logitech Create keyboard case.

A look at the contenders

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The Zagg SlimBook ($139.99 at Zagg, Amazon) is a Bluetooth device that pairs with up to three devices (iPad or not) with a removable shell for the iPad Pro itself and a hinge that lets you fold/open the joined device. it has its own battery, and is rated for about 700 hours of use on a single charge (2 years at 1 hour a day). It may be a challenge to find; it was out of stock for January, and Zagg sold out of the new run in about two days this week.

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The Logitech/Logi Create ($150 or less at Logitech, Amazon new, Amazon refurb) is a non-separable keyboard case that connects using Apple’s Smart Connector. It has no battery, and while the backlight draws some juice from the iPad, I didn’t notice battery issues from the draw. It’s more readily available, and comes in 4 colors. I got the purple one, as it was discounted at the time. If I were buying it again, I’d go with a more conventional color. You’ll see why in a bit.

Similarities

I consider these two devices the contenders primarily because they work as lap-top devices. You have different angles; the hinge on the Zagg holds it in place and gives plenty of adjustment angles, whereas the Logitech has a single magnetic-locking position for keyboard use. But they both provide a stable base of operations, which lets you use them like a laptop.

They also both provide methods for using the device without the keyboard in place. With Zagg, you remove the iPad and its shell and set the keyboard aside. Note that the keyboard does stay paired, which could be bothersome or it could let you use an iPad stand to get a bit more distance between your eyes and the screen. With the Logitech, you simply disconnect the Smart Connector and fold the iPad over; without the SC connection, the keyboard is inert.

There are a lot of other devices that work great on a tabletop or desk, like the Logitech Slim Combo ($149.99 from Amazon), which I tried and wanted to like, but I needed the lap stability factor. A number of others follow the kickstand concept (like a Surface Pro). And there are a couple of devices like the Zagg (cheaper imports that are still readily available), but they don’t have the finish and finesse of these options.

Disparate Disappointments

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The Zagg’s strength, in the variable-angle hinge, is also its most common complaint. The hinge is susceptible to cracking, and if the plastic around the hinge breaks, you can still use the keyboard, but you can no longer practically open and close the device. After mine stopped working recently, I found numerous complaints online from others having this issue, and one person even built metal clamps to resolve the issue.

Zagg’s one year warranty would have covered this, except that they were out of stock with no information on restocking time frames, so I received a gift card for the purchase price (it was the retail price minus the Best Buy gift card and reward certificate amounts I used, but still more than I expected). I ended up ordering a screen film for my phone and marking the “notify me” option for the SlimBook; I ordered the replacement with the remaining gift card balance within minutes of the notification coming in.

The Logitech’s two disappointments together come in even worse than the Zaggs, to be honest. First, the material on the back will build up fingerprint residue and other daily stains as you use it, and if you get a lighter color (even the purple counts as “light” for this), it will look pretty sad after a while. The woven fabric doesn’t lend itself well to skins or stickers to cover up the grime.

 

But even worse, and again this is a frequent woe on Internet forums, the keyboard’s metal parts will indelibly scratch your $1,000 tablet’s screen. (This one was hard to photograph, so you’ll have to imagine it.)

It ends up looking like a half-inch-high barcode stripe along the top inch of the screen, and at first I thought it was fingerprint oil that just needed scrubbing with a microfiber. Alas it was permanent, and taught me that I should have installed the Zagg screen protector much sooner.

Luckily, it qualified under the AppleCare accidental damage classification, and I got a replacement for the $49 deductible (a month before AppleCare ran out, whew!).

Trying Another Keyboard

Since the Zagg was uncertain at the time, and I wasn’t sure where I’d stashed the Logitech keyboard back in November, I searched eBay and Amazon for alternatives. The best option I came up with was the iEGrow keyboard case. Available in gold or silver, it features a 5600mAh battery in the keyboard which can be used to boost your iPad or other USB-cabled device as well as running the keyboard itself.

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The battery adds substantial weight to the case, but if it saves me having to carry a battery pack, it could be worth it. The main complaint that showed up on Amazon was that the circle on the back doesn’t quite align with the Apple logo on the iPad Pro itself, but that didn’t bother me too much.

I used it for about three days but found that the case didn’t quite fit the iPad Pro; the edge along the home button side was noticeably raised compared to the camera side. It did come with a rubber keyboard skin that wasn’t impossible to type through, and offers some protection to the screen.

I probably would’ve kept it and suffered through the ridge issue, but that notification from Zagg came in, so the iEGrow is going back.

Closing Caveats

It’s been two years since I started using the iPad Pro, and in that time I switched keyboards twice. If the Zagg hinge were better or the Logitech keyboard didn’t permanently damage the iPad Pro screen, either could be a slam dunk (or both could). I did finally relocate my Logi, so I’ll be returning the iEGrow and using the Logi (with the Zagg glass screen protector and a microfiber keyboard cover) until the SlimBook arrives next week.

I am a bit surprised that there haven’t been more top-brand choices with Apple renewing the iPad Pro 12.9 in 2017, and that Zagg let their device disappear even from Customer Service. I will say that Zagg customer service was excellent when trying to deal with this issue, as was Apple’s support with the screen issue last fall.

I will also note that if you’re thinking of using your credit card’s extended warranty feature to protect in an eventual failure, make sure you don’t use gift cards or reward certificates; some if not all card warranty programs will decline protection if you didn’t pay for the device entirely with their credit card (this happened for me).

And finally, while the 12.9″ iPad Pro has very limited top-shelf keyboard case options, that is not the case (so to speak) with the 10.5 or 9.7. The 9.7″ iPad Pro seems to work with most cases that fit the iPad Air 2–feel free to buy one of mine on eBay if you like–so you’ll have plenty of options. The newer version of the Belkin QODE Ultimate Pro keyboard for iPad Air 2 is one of my all-time favorites; I wrote about the original version here after Belkin’s CMO sent me one to try out, and I ended up buying the new version on my own and loving it.

Do you have insights or experiences with the iPad Pro in keyboard cases? If so, share in the comments, or join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter.

Disclosure: All of the devices discussed/reviewed here, with the exception of the first generation Belkin QODE Ultimate Pro mentioned in passing, were purchased out of our own pockets and no consideration was given by (or asked for) from the vendors in question. The Belkin device was provided free of charge in 2014, but with no expectation of review content or direction.

 

Amazon links are affiliate links, and we get a small commission of sorts if you buy through them. Vendor links are direct and we get no consideration for purchases through them.

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Internet on the Road, part 2 – how to optimize your travel connectivity

rsts11 note: This is the second of a two-part series featuring mobile internet routers. The first part is posted over on rsts11travel.com, as it is a bit milder technology. The second part appears on #rsts11 since it’s a bit more POHO than random travel, and will be cross-promoted on the travel side. 

When you travel, you probably have a number of devices that demand connectivity.

Many venues limit your allowed devices, and maybe you don’t want your devices out on the open network. Additionally, you may want to use streaming devices or shared storage in your room, and that may not work with typical public network setups. Last time we looked at some battery powered routers with charging functions and other network features.

Today on rsts11 we’ll look at some choices for sharing a wired connection as well as a cellular modem. We’ll briefly revisit the Hootoo and Ravpower routers from part 1, and then dive into Meraki, Peplink, and Cradlepoint devices for the higher-power user.  Continue reading

Internet on the Road part 1 – A crossover with #rsts11travel

rsts11 note: This is the first of a two-part series started on #rsts11travel, featuring mobile internet routers. The second part will appear here on #rsts11 since it’s a bit more POHO than random travel, and will be cross-promoted on the travel side. 

When you travel, you probably have a number of devices that demand connectivity. However, a lot of venues limit your allowed devices, and maybe you don’t want your devices out on the open network. Additionally, you may want to use streaming devices or shared storage in your room, and that may not work with typical public network setups.

Today on rsts11travel we’ll look at a couple of options for aggregating, optimizing, and even protecting your connectivity on a public hotspot, hotel network, or even on your own cellular connection.

There are three schemes we’ll consider in this series.

  1. Connecting multiple devices to wifi
  2. Connecting multiple devices to a wired network
  3. Connecting multiple devices through a mobile hotspot/cellular modem

A caveat up front with regard to security and obfuscation: Not all of these options offer the same level of security for your devices, and most will not limit visibility of your connectivity as far as the facility staff, the ISP, or others on your network is concerned. Nothing in this series should be taken as replacing your OS and application updates, antivirus and anti-malware/anti-spyware software, and of course realization that security is subjective.

Read more at rsts11travel.com

Check out the travel section – #rsts11travel has more coming this week!

You’re tuned to rsts11, the tech blog from Robert Novak (Est. 2011). If you’d like to turn to the new travel section, visit rsts11travel.com and see what we’re writing about over there.

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Coming in the next week or two will be a two-part mobile power piece as well as a slightly more detailed hotel review from your host’s birthday escape. Unfortunately, no pina coladas, but fortunately, no getting caught in the rain either.

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rsts11 will continue to roll out tech content,including some hardware reviews and homelab / POHO build travelogues, a bit of big data, and some more economy power-networking options.

Thanks for your support!

Another look at mobile workflow – iPad Air keyboard cases

I have a bad habit of buying lots of accessories for an electronic device I’ll have for a year or so, and then they pile up because people don’t want to buy them with the old device. This is usually the case with mobile phones and laptops, but it also comes up with tablets. I have three keyboard cases and at least three regular cases for my iPad 3rd gen, including a Hello Kitty keyboard.

During a particularly nifty Target promo around their Cartwheel app, I got a 15% discount off any electronic device over a two day period. This included iPads, and since my 16GB 3rd gen iPad was full, I got a 64GB Air at nearly 20% off (with redcard discount). Then I went about looking for a case.

I need a case, just in case, you know

An article someone pointed me toward said the Case Crown Omni was the best on the market. I bought it to use while I searched for a keyboard case that would work. I don’t have a lot to say about it except that it was indeed a good case, better than any I found at local retail in a few days of looking.

Among the recommendations that came in was one from Kieran Hannon, the CMO of Belkin (who also own the Linksys brand, in case you’ve been under a WRT54G for the past year).

He unsurprisingly recommended his firm’s “Qode” (pronounced as “Code”) line of keyboard cases, with the top-of-the-range Qode Ultimate Keyboard Case being well rated (albeit a bit pricey at $130). There’s also a Slim Style model (msrp $80) with a kickstand on the iPad holder, and a Thin Type model (msrp $100) that works as a stand when in use and clips over the iPad when not in use.

61gBQETEYkL._SL1500_[1]As an aside, the Belkin product I use the most (up until now, at least) is their swivel power adapter with USB and AC outlets. The SurgePlus model is the current one, with 2.1A charging on USB. I suspect the 3-4 of them I have are old enough to be the 1A versions (time to upgrade!). Great for travel, especially if you’re at an event where they think one power outlet per table is generous.

The Belkin Slim Style

I bought a Slim Style at Target, marked down from $80 to $71 and further discounted 5% via redcard (I think this was after the Cartwheel deal). I used it for a day or so before mentioning on Twitter that it was nice, but the kickstand design wasn’t very lap friendly. This is what you could call the Surface Dilemma, after Microsoft’s almost-there laptop-replacement tablet which hasn’t yet wowed everyone with its lap-friendliness.

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My assessment of the Slim Style was that, on a desktop (or probably even on a roomier airline tray table), it would be good. The keyboard and its layout felt reasonable, and I felt it protected the iPad well enough that I could just drop it into my laptop bag without fear.

But I returned it, because of the lapability factor, and mentioned this on Twitter.

The @belkincares account asked if they could help, and were very courteous even though they (luckily) couldn’t make my lap resemble a tabletop more. I’ve had a few good exchanges with @belkincares over the past year or so, from stacking cable inquiries around their older KVMs to some arcane questions about the wireless bridge line.

This keyboard case goes to ULTIMATE

About a week later, Belkin had generously provided a Qode Ultimate Keyboard Case for me to try out at no cost.  I plugged it in to charge and then started using it the next morning.

The Belkin Qode Ultimate Keyboard Case

The Belkin Qode Ultimate Keyboard Case in use

The Qode Ultimate has a more contained layout, in that rather than a kickstand, the iPad shell magnetically “sticks” to the keyboard shell. It has three positions, as with the Slim Style, but they’re within the footprint of the keyboard, and thus much more convenient on the lap or on a tray table.

ipad-qode-shellThe keyboard shell is sort of a dark blue “aircraft-grade aluminum alloy” that I didn’t recognize as blue at first. It does pick up fingerprints and the occasional light scratch, but I only notice that when getting the iPad out or putting it away, since this part is on the bottom when in use, and also hidden when you’re using it in “reading mode” (i.e. folded back).

The iPad shell piece is black plastic with a leatherish inset that incorporates the kickstand “hinge.” The Belkin logo is on the “front” (i.e. bottom of the keyboard) and the Belkin name is on the leatherish hinge section and on the front of the keyboard.

The keyboard turns itself off unless the iPad is “connected” to one of the three kickstand positions. So if you flip it back so that the keyboard is behind the screen, it’s automatically powered off. Same with closing it up; the keyboard is off and the battery life is extended.

For some reason, Belkin have swapped two of the keys on their keyboards. I believe the Slim Style and Thin Style place the colon/semicolon key between “L” and “Enter” whereas the Ultimate places the quote key there. In each case the other key is to the right of the space bar.

Kensington to the semicolon’s rescue?

I’m slowly getting used to the keyboard layout. It’s very typeable except when I need a semicolon or a colon. However, I decided that if I was going to write a review, it would be good to make sure that I liked the Belkin keyboard case for reasons other than it being given to me at no cost.

So I picked up a Kensington KeyFolio Exact case, which I found on clearance at Marshall’s for $40. It includes a Google Drive offer (which is apparently processed manually by Kensington, as I haven’t received the code for the offer in the past week), so it was an inexpensive experiment.

The KeyFolio is bulkier, with a detachable bluetooth keyboard, a stylus holder in the hinge, a wider range of color options, and a lower price if you’re going to buy it at retail.

The Kensington Exact and Belkin Qode Ultimate keyboards

The Kensington Exact and Belkin Qode Ultimate keyboards

I found that the keyboard itself was brilliant, managing to fit both the semicolon and the quote key between “L” and Enter by making the keys a little bit smaller. And since the Kensington had a fixed “kickstand” mounting point in the case closer to the hinge, they had room to put separate number and function key rows on the keyboard. The Belkin Slim Style also does this, since it has most of the surface area to spend on keyboard real estate. And I actually found myself using the function keys on the Kensington, which I hadn’t done on the Belkin.

(Above photo is of the actual keyboards, Kensington Keyfolio Exact on the top and Belkin Qode Ultimate on the bottom.)

I used the Kensington for just short of a week, and while I loved the keyboard and almost got used to the stand layout, I found I had to go back to the Belkin Qode Ultimate. Why?

I preferred the Qode Ultimate’s ease of turning off the keyboard, the lightness and grace of the entire case, and its turning off the iPad screen and locking it when I closed the case.

I expect I will hold onto the Kensington in case someone I know needs a super-cheap case for their Air and doesn’t need lapability. I am tempted to try the Thin Style just to see how that style of keyboard feels as a case. But the iPad is back in my Qode Ultimate Keyboard Case, just in time to head off for a company sales meeting out of town next week. And maybe I’ll have to write with fewer semicolons.

Summary:

All keyboards tested charge with standard micro-USB cables (included), and paired very easily with the iPad Air via Bluetooth. Battery times are based on the manufacturer’s website or packaging (YMMV of course). Prices found on 8/22/2014 online.

Belkin Qode Slim Style keyboard case – $34 at Belkin or Amazon.

Good design, great keyboard, excellent value for the cost, but suboptimal for lap work.
2.5 days working time, 60 days standby time

Kensington KeyFolio Exact keyboard case – $29-39 at Amazon, $40 at Marshall’s, includes a 65GB 1 year Google Drive credit (~$15 value)

Great keyboard, kickstand design could use some work, doesn’t seem to lock the screen when closed.
40 days working time, 180 days standby time

Belkin Qode Ultimate keyboard case – $129 at Belkin, around $90 at Amazon.

Slim and sturdy case, very lap-friendly, no dedicated function key row, semicolon key is on the bottom row.
11 days working time, 180 days standby time

The final word:

The Qode Ultimate turns your iPad into a laptop, although it comes at a premium (which I feel is worth it). The Qode Slim Style and Kensington KeyFolio are good keyboards for tabletop use, and come in at a lower price.

Disclosure: Thanks to Kieran Hannon and Belkin for providing the Belkin Qode Ultimate Keyboard Case at no charge to me. Other than a twitter inquiry of “and the verdict?” they did not require or request a review, blog post, or any other consideration.