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Technology, Travel

Continuing Thoughts on Portable Keyboards

I’ve been on a keyboard buying spree lately after cancelling my WayTools TextBlade order two weeks ago. While I like the iPad’s software keyboard, I can still type faster on a physical keyboard. Writing code on iOS devices prior to the iPad Pro has been a torturous exercise, with constant tapping and re-tapping of the 123 and #+= keys to access commonly used programming characters. An external keyboard makes this all so much easier.

With the money that was credited back to my account from WayTools, I now have three working keyboards that I can use with my iOS devices or Mac computers:

  • iPad Keyboard Dock (iOS only)
  • Logitech K811 Easy-Switch Keyboard
  • Microsoft Universal Foldable Keyboard (MFK)

These are in addition to my venerable Logitech K760 solar-powered keyboard which I’ve been happily using for the past four years.

Three keyboards for my iOS devices

iPad Keyboard Dock

This keyboard was originally sold as an accessory to the first iPad. Featuring a 30-pin connector, it also works with the iPad 2 and the iPad 3rd-generation (with Retina Display).

To get this keyboard to work with the iPad Pro, I bought a Lightning to 30-pin cable adapter and a 30-pin female to 30-pin male extension cable. At 0.2 meters long, the Apple adapter is too short to position the device and keyboard in a usable manner. Note that not all 30-pin to 30-pin extension cables are made alike; some only transfer power and not data. The non-cable version of the Lightning to 30-pin adapter is another option if you want to use the iPad Keyboard Dock with an iPod touch or iPhone.

Two downsides to using the iPad Keyboard Dock. The first is the cable and adapter mess that you have to go through to get the keyboard talking to the iPad. You’ll have just as many cables if you want to plug in an old PS2 or ADB keyboard into an iPad.

Second, the iPad does not charge when plugged into the iPad Pro’s 12-watt AC adapter via the Keyboard Dock’s passthrough 30-pin connector. The iPad’s charging indicator turned on, but the battery continues to drain.

Says it's charging, but the iPad Pro's battery is still draining when connected to the iPad Keyboard Dock

As a result, I don’t see myself using the iPad Keyboard Dock with the the iPad Pro. It still works well, however, with iPads that feature the 30-pin connector. I can see using an older-generation iPad has a distraction-free writing station in the future.

I was able to win the iPad Keyboard Dock on eBay for just a cent. The cables alone to get it to connect to a Lightning device cost $28!

Logitech K811 Easy-Switch Keyboard

I bought this keyboard for two reasons. First, it will work alongside my K760 in the office. I have two laptop computers, along with my iPhone 6s and my iPad Pro that I’d like to use with an external keyboard from time to time. Both the K760 and the K811 can only connect with three devices at a time. Having both keyboards on my desk allows me to use the K811 with one computer and the K760 with another computer. Both keyboards will also be paired to my iPhone and iPad Pro.

I’ve used abyssoft’s teleport in the past to link up my keyboard and mouse/trackpad to multiple computers, but I’ve noticed that transitioning from one computer to the next is not as smooth as it used to be.

Second, the K811 (or the Microsoft keyboard) may replace the K760 as my travel keyboard, as it’s slightly smaller and lighter than the solar-powered keyboard.

Typing on this keyboard feels different than on the K760 or the aluminum Apple Wireless Keyboard, but I am slowly getting used to it. One thing that has been throwing me off on all of these keyboards is the different buttons on the top row. For instance, F8 on the K760 is a battery indicator button, and the power switch is at the end of the top row. On the K811, F8 and F9 are for adjusting the backlit keys and the power switch is on the edge of the keyboard. My muscle memory is constantly under attack whenever I switch between these input devices.

The keyboard normally retails for $99, but you can find the K811 keyboard for around $84 on Amazon or between $40-75 on eBay.

Microsoft Universal Foldable Keyboard

The primary selling point of the Microsoft Universal Foldable Keyboard is that it folds in half. This makes the keyboard half the size of the K811 keyboard when you’re not using it.

The Microsoft Universal Foldable Keyboard is half the size and a tad lighter than the Logitech K811 Easy-Switch Keyboard

While the keys are all in the same place as a regular English keyboard, the size of certain keys is variable. Punctuation keys such as comma, brackets, and double quotes are smaller and the T, G, H, and N keys are bigger. There’s also the giant crease in the middle of the keyboard where it folds in half. I wonder if Microsoft tested slightly larger versions of this keyboard with keys that were the same size. I would prefer this even if the keyboard was slightly larger. A bigger MFK that folded in half would still be smaller than the K811 when stowed away.

The MFK can switch between two devices via Bluetooth. It has an OS-switch key in the upper-right that re-configures the Fn/Command, Option/Alt, Home, Control, and Escape keys for Windows, Android, or iOS. One thing that’s annoying is that the Esc key in iOS mode functions as the Home button, even though the dedicated Home button on the bottom row does the same thing. I’d prefer if it acted as an Escape key.

All of these keyboards could benefit from improvements to iOS. One is the ability to re-map hardware keys so I can make the Caps Lock key function as the Control key; I can do this on OS X within the Keyboard pane in System Preferences. Second, I would love to have Emacs-style bindings throughout iOS, as this would allow me to edit text faster. I’m a particular fan of Control-D to do forward delete.

Like the K811, the Microsoft Foldable Keyboard retails for $99, but it’s available for $59 on Amazon or around $40-50 on eBay.

Update 2017-01-24: After a year, the Microsoft Universal Foldable Keyboard stopped working. The power lights and Bluetooth connection indicator don’t light up when you unfold the keyboard. It only works when plugged into power via micro USB. While Microsoft has a limited, one-year warranty on its products, it is unable to replace this keyboard because I purchased it on eBay. Oh well!

Future Travels

I didn’t have the K811 nor the Microsoft Foldable Keyboard until this week, so I ended up bringing my K760 to the Code/Media 2016 conference in Dana Point last week. The K760 worked fine, but I would have preferred the reduced weight and bulk with the K811 or Microsoft Foldable Keyboard. I’ve been trying to get my travel weight down to ten pounds or less, and every ounce counts.

Since long typing sessions is not yet common on my trips when I’m traveling with just the iPad Pro or the iPhone 6s Plus, I think the Microsoft Foldable Keyboard would serve my needs better than bringing the K811. When folded in half, it’s much more portable. Over time, I hope to adapt to the odd-layout and smaller keys. If I’m traveling for work with my laptop, I would definitely bring the K811, the Roost Laptop Stand, and a wireless mouse. Having the display elevated is much better ergonomically for me.


Note: Some of the product links in this article are affiliate links with Amazon. Purchasing these items using these links may provide me with a small referral commission.

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5 thoughts on “Continuing Thoughts on Portable Keyboards

  1. Clever solution for the old aluminum Apple Wireless Keyboard. How did you manage switching between the iPhone and iPad? Did you ever encounter the situation where the keyboard would switch to the other device?

  2. mrrcollins says:

    Under use I’ve never had the keyboard switch devices. Sometimes one device will pair first, which means I have to turn off BT on that device, let it connect to the other device, and then turn it back on.

    • Got it. I was thinking about the situation when the iPhone/Mac/iPad are all on and seeing which one the keyboard chooses to connects to. I’ve also done the turn Bluetooth off on the other devices so it connects to the desired device method. I just find it easier to push a dedicated button.

      • mrrcollins says:

        That would be nice, I haven’t found an excuse to buy a keyboard that supports multiple devices. :-) I have too many toys as it is, lol!

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