You're doing it wrong, or why using an iPad keyboard is like attaching a sail to your car

You're doing it wrong, or why using an iPad keyboard is like attaching a sail to your car

Earlier today Rene posted an interesting piece called The state of the mobile keyboard…and what comes next! and it got me thinking: I'm fully aware that some people have no problem writing long amounts of content on the iPad. I envy those of you who do. I just can't. And I can't help but feel like using a keyboard with the iPad is just wrong.

I dearly love a good computer keyboard. As a writer and a tech nerd, there are few sensory experiences more satisfying for me that getting my fingers on a good solid keyboard and pounding out a thousand words on whatever topic I'm writing that day. But it may surprise you to learn that I thoroughly hate iPad keyboards. As far as I'm concerned, they're a waste of time.

Bear in mind that I'm differentiating between firing off an e-mail or a short response to long-form writing. The former I don't mind doing on the iPad at all. The latter is where I run into trouble, time and time again.

Typing on glass is like dancing on a wet floor

Look, I was one of the first 20 people at Boston's Boylston Street Apple Store to walk out with an iPad on April 3, 2010. I've used an iPad almost every day of my life since then. I get the iPad. I love the iPad. But I've never been comfortable writing on one for any length of time. And how I've tried.

I was so excited to have the iPad - a powerful system that was much lighter-weight and much more portable than the 13-inch polycarbonate MacBook I'd bought the previous year, which in and of itself was a huge weight and size reduction from my previous daily driver, a 17-inch MacBook Pro.

At first I thought it was just the on-screen keyboard that gave me fits. I'm a touch typist and don't look at the keys very often, so typing on a smooth glass surface is a chore for me. I have to constantly check the position of my fingers to avoid producing absolute gobbledegook that even iOS's prodigious auto-correction can't figure out.

The long slog through failed keyboard after keyboard

I bought Apple's own iPad Keyboard Dock figuring that would fix it, but I found that it was an ungainly and uncharacteristically (for Apple) inelegant solution, because it forced a portrait perspective. It also wasn't portable - it could only be used while sitting at a desk someplace. If I'm going to sit at my desk and work, I'd rather be using my Mac.

Eventually I just stopped using the iPad Keyboard Dock. As time went on and I replaced that iPad with an iPad 2, and the dock didn't work anyway. I think I gave it away eventually.

Third parties came along with Bluetooth keyboards specifically designed for the iPad. This was a better idea - the keyboard didn't require a physical connection to the iPad, so you could orient it however you wish. Many of them sported some sort of attachment or indentation to enable you to prop up the iPad while you're typing (in fact, many still do). But the experience of using the keyboard still sucked.

It's because iOS isn't designed for keyboard input. Inevitably I had to do something that required me to lift my fingers from the keyboard and touch the screen. Activating a menu option of some type. Touching a button. Whatever. That act of lifting my hand from the keyboard and touching the screen is jarring experience for me. It's totally different from moving my hand a few inches down to touch a trackpad, or moving it a bit to the right to wield a mouse. It breaks my concentration and takes me out of what I'm doing.

Then there are the fundamental differences between operating an iOS device and an OS X device. When I'm writing I often checking facts or referencing other material I've found online; doing so in iOS is arduous, at best. Stop typing, press the Home button, open Safari, check the page. Copy a passage, maybe. Then switch to the note-taking app. paste the passage. Oops. Did I forget something? Back to Safari.

Compare that to simply moving the cursor seven inches to the left and clicking on a window to bring it forward, or command-tabbing to cycle through application windows.

"I could have had a V8!"

In between getting the iPad and getting Bluetooth keyboards for the iPad 2, I had an epiphany: I was at Macworld Expo in San Francisco and I was sitting in the press room when I realized that a large number of my colleagues were using not iPads but MacBook Airs. The 11-inch MacBook Air, in particular, was a revelation.

I'd seen netbooks at that point and was summarily unimpressed. And I was certainly aware of the MacBook Air. Hell, I'd been reporting on them for several years at that point. But it wasn't until that moment that I slapped my forehead and realized that this was exactly what I was looking for - something thin, lightweight and portable, but a general purpose computer with a real, honest to God keyboard.

After I got back I started shopping around and the following month got a fabulous deal on the MacBook Air through Apple's online store, buying one refurbished. I saved hundreds. I have no compunction recommending the same for you, if you're on a budget and looking for a good value.

I still have that MacBook Air. It's held up well. I've since switched to a MacBook Pro with Retina Display, but that MacBook Air is still a great machine for when I don't want the bulk of the rMBP weighing me down.

Not there yet

When Microsoft introduced the Surface, some pundits wondered why Apple hadn't thought to incorporate a similar keyboard design into the iPad. Apple markets its own Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard as compatible with the iPad - it shows up on the iPad accessories page, for example. But I think Apple doesn't have an iPad specific keyboard anymore precisely because they don't think the iPad needs one. For as long as iPad keyboard use gets short shrift from Apple, I don't think that's going to change - keyboards are always going to feel grafted on. There, but not quite there.

That brings me back to the headline of this article. For me, using a keyboard with an iPad is functionally possible but practically useless. A bit like unfurling a sail on the top of your car. Sure, you can catch the wind and maybe even get pushed along, but you're not using either thing for their intended purposes.

Since my first fumbling with the iPad Keyboard Dock, I've periodically tried out iPad-specific keyboards. They've improved. The latest one I've tried is Logitech's K811, which I recently reviewed. It gets the job done admirably, but it's still a problem in search of a solution when it comes to using it with an iPad. (I really like the K811 for other reasons, like its backlighting and its ability to sync to up to three Bluetooth devices, switching between them using a button press. I love using it with my Apple TV.)

The bottom line is that when it comes time to get down to writing, I'm always going to opt for a physical keyboard and, just as importantly, an operating system that's thoroughly optimized for the task. I don't feel that iOS is there yet, and I don't think that an iPad with a keyboard is the right solution.

Do you use a keyboard with your iPad? Do you think I'm full of it? Or do you agree that writing long-form content on the iPad is more of pain than it's worth? Sound off in the comments!

Peter Cohen

Managing Editor of iMore, Mac and gaming specialist and all-around technologist. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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There are 40 comments. Add yours.

anthonyl says:

I think it's a case of everybody is different, what works for some doesn't work for others. I use my Ipad with a keyboard for writing all the time. It did take some getting used to, but I get a lot of work done with it.

richard451 says:

"But I think Apple doesn't have an iPad specific keyboard anymore precisely because they don't think the iPad needs one" -- isn't that like saying Apple doesn't market iPad specific earpods because they don't think the iPad needs one?

Peter Cohen says:

I don't think there's an equivalency there. Apple puts a headphone jack on the iPad - it understands that people are going to use headphones or earbuds with them.

richard451 says:

Apple puts a bluetooth chip on the iPad that can connect to Bluetooth keyboards. Do you think Apple does not understand that people are going to use keyboards with it?

Peter Cohen says:

I understand that Apple knows that people will use keyboards with their iPad, and it's obvious that Apple does too. But Apple no longer makes a keyboard specifically for use with the iPad.

GlowingBlue says:

I'm sure they know people will be using bluetooth keyboads, but I side with the writer in that iOS isn't really optimized for long-form writing.

Doing a 30-page essay will drive you crazy on the iPad. Editing, copying, pasting, restructuring large blocks of text. It's not fun, trust me.

SockRolid says:

re: "Do you use a keyboard with your iPad?"

Nope. I have an iPad mini and I'll never need to touch-type on it.

re: "Do you think I'm full of it?"

Partially full of it. I've seen several people using clamshell-style keyboard-cases (on full-sized iPads.) Effectively turns them into mini-notebooks, and they were able to easily type into them while sitting down and resting them on their knees. Just like a laptop.

There are dozens of them on the market, and they're relatively cheap. Go to Amazon, search for "keyboard case for ipad" and see what I mean. (Odd that the iMore Store doesn't seem to have any.)

jhrogersii says:

I understand your reasons for not using a keyboard. However, the title of this article is just linkbait, pure and simple. Just because I do prefer using a keyboard to draft articles and take notes doesn't mean I'm "doing it wrong." No more than you are by not using one.

I say this as someone who is probably in the minority of iPad users. I switched to the iPad Mini because I loved the form factor and battery life. However, I just don't use it nearly as much as my old full size iPads. The keyboard isn't as good a fit with the Mini, and the larger screen is better for creation and productivity in my opinion. I'm very much looking forward to getting a new 9.5" iPad in October, with a nice Bluetooth keyboard case to go with it.

ZeroLeonheart says:

My wife got me the first Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard for my iPad 3 as a Christmas present and it's been awesome to use. Sure, I don't carry it with me all of the time (I typically don't fire off massive novellas daily) but when I need it, it's 100 times better than the on-screen solution, and its portable, which is a big deal. Again, not for everyone, but loads cheaper than buying a MacBook Air (god knows I want one though).

prlundberg says:

I love the Type keyboard on my Surface. I don't use it all the time, but it's great to have when I do and it makes a nifty cover. It's what turns it into a true productivity device, without the keyboard I could just as well use my phone for most tasks. With the keyboard (and a wireless mouse), I don't need my laptop anymore, although I do still need a home PC.

edit: I don't mean to come here and sound like a fanboy, my point is that it would be a good thing if Apple would pay more attention to that potential. It really can make a tablet a lot more useful. Microsoft's biggest mistake (IMO) was not that the desktop was there, but that you still needed to use it for some basic configuration that was difficult to do without a keyboard and trackpad. They have improved on this with 8.1 but still have a ways to go.

Richard Devine says:

Since that's my iPad in the picture, I can safely say I love using a keyboard with my iPad. Quick runs to the coffee shop with my iPad, the keyboard, and I can work for hours. Love it

CORYK333 says:

Don't wink, you hate him for using that darn keyboard & you know it!!!!

/s

Richard Devine says:

It might be wrong, but it feels so right!!

Gus2259 says:

Peter
Great article. I think a good analogy is " I use a hammer, when I need a hammer, not because I have a hammer". Too many times we try to force fit something without good justification. I recently retired from one of the world's largest mega corps whom I shall not name. As a business they were very good to work for and very good to me. They instituted a variation of Six Sigma which is a process designed to make decisions based on data and not by feel. It parts of the business it was fantastic but then they tried to force fit it into areas of the business that made no sense. It was done because the corps CEO thought it was a good idea and the company minions said " yes sire, your new clothes are beautiful" when the guy was butt ass naked.

My point? iPads are great tools but we should use that tool when it fits our need. If we use it just because we like it then we should expect to suffer the consequences without complaint. It's not the device at fault it's the operator.

jasondeno says:

I use my ipad all day for notetaking, meetings at work and sitting in MBA classes. it works great for most of that. But I wouldn't type on it all day.

That being said, I wouldn't own an iPad, Air and MacBook Pro all at the same time either. iPhone->iPad->iMac for me.

Orealy YouThink says:

I have a Zagg with my 4th Gen.
It works for me.
I tried the touch type, no dice.
Zagg work fine for the price and I don't get frustrated...

nolhayes says:

First off, to each is own.
I have an iPad 4. I wanted a keyboard for when I write in my journal app as well as when I'm at work and want to bang out iMessages to people in bulk and speed..
What I didn't want, and knowing this will save you time and money, is something else that I had to charge and something that was too bulky. A lot of keyboards are full sized with a numeric keypad on the right which didn't sit well with me.
Long story short I looked at iPad cases but didn't want to get one because of the bulk and charging they added. So I settled on a logitech solar powered keyboard, bought from Amazon for less than retail. And it does the job great! It also has a home button that can be used as a home button on the iPad.

onix7cv says:

I consider my iPad my new laptop, and my laptop my new desktop. I'm sure you get what I mean. And is that sense, I find that I prefer traveling with my iPad than with my very heavy HP 17in laptop. Don't get me wrong, my HP is a beauty, but it is heavy! So, when I know I do not need to do college homework, or a big freelance project, I will only take my iPad and my $20 bluetooth keyboard.

I would prefer to have my laptop with me of course, but it's just so bulky. It's a lot of work just to take it out of my bag. Sounds lazy doesn't it? But I guess times are different, and my brain always remembers how light my iPad is when compared to my laptop. I do want a Mac Book Air, but I just have to convince my dear wife before I get one. Windows laptops are just so much cheaper, that is a hard arguement to make. I feel lucky just to have an iPad. :)

ex2bot says:

I have actually written almost all of a 43000 word (so-far) novel two-finger style on the *virtual* *portrait!* keyboard on my 3rd gen iPad—but only because I have to. I'm disabled, and it hurts too much to sit up in a chair at a desk for more than an hour (sometimes less). It can be done, slowly. I depend on autocorrect and sometimes I use dictation, too.

GeniusUnleashed says:

I think it's simply time for Apple to make the MBA a touch screen device. It could be the first with hybrid OS, OSX/iOS.

GlowingBlue says:

I do use Apple's bluetooth keyboard with my iPad. Not for long-form writing though.

I find writing to be fine, but the editing that follows is something I leave for my Mac. Screen space, proper keyboard, and a good mouse. Maybe I'm just old ;)

Team George says:

I think the wonderful thing about the IPad is the fact that it is so versatile - you can type anyway you want. I flit between physical and built in keyboard. It's great to have the choice.

Sent from the iMore App

Iocane Powder says:

I reluctantly agree here. I so wanted the iPad to be complete. But when it comes to long form writing it just doesn't work. Perhaps I'm too old school and need that tactile reinforcement.

Perhaps the most annoying thing to type is a password. Assuming you are using one of substance, pecking around for upper case, lower case, symbols and numbers is just soul draining.....especially when you miss a character, hear the buzzer, feel the shock....soul draining.

I like the case idea in the photo above, but then if you're going to use a separate keyboard, as Peter points out....why not just a MBA? Damn technology....always moving the line of comfort around.

Planetary Paul says:

I have the Logitech Ultrathin keyboard with my iPad v3. It protects the iPad screen when in transport. The iPad has a HAND-e-holder strap permanently attached for presentations and everything fits nicely in a thick fluffy Incase sleeve. To me this is the ultimate mobile configuration.

One small point on the Logitech Ultrathin keyboard: I would have covered the entire surface behind the groove with solar cells for charging. The iPad would reflect light onto those.

TiNuts says:

I use my iPad with an apple Bluetooth keyboard to write college papers all the time. The keyboard is kept in a separate fold up "case" that unfolds to expose the keyboard and prop the iPad. I also use it for hand/stylus written note taking and circuit drawing. I can go from writing notes to typing papers within seconds. I can't do that with any laptop. I have found that using pages for iPad is much much less cumbersome than writing on a desktop/laptop. I can create reports that look more professional and quicker with an ipad than i can with a pc. You mention having to tap for menus and such; I have found that much quicker and more efficient than having to mouse/touchpad around for the same thing.

To me, avoiding using a keyboard with an iPad just relegates it to an almost useless device, since you can already do anything an iPad can do with your MBA.

rkevwill says:

Peter, agree with you totally. I'm not a fan of onscreen keyboards for real work either. (perhaps cause I am terrible in using them). Anyway, I've not jumped the laptop ship for a full size iPad yet myself, as in my work, I need a full fledged computer at this time. That may change in the future with advances. However, I will probably find a good keyboard if this happens. I play with my wife's iPad mini at times (that sounds kinda dirty), and we often only take that on weekend trips, but at present, I am sticking with my 13 inch air. Why no 11 inch? When remote accessing in for work, the page scales nicely on the 13 inch, and I have to scroll on the 11 inch.

SteveW928 says:

I think you bypassed the optimal path, Peter. I doubt I'd have stuck with the 'dock' either, but what I do use is Apple's BT keyboard, the same one I use on my iMac in the office.

I don't use it all the time, of course. If I'm just responding to an e-mail or doing a bit of text entry into an app, I use the on-screen. But, if I'm going to be doing some writing, then I pull out the BT keyboard. The key points is that it's super familiar, as it's the one I normally use on the desktop. The 'case' ones aren't true-sized, which I'd hate as well. (Having been a PowerBook 100 owner... been there, done that. It's fine if it's the only keyboard you ever have to use in your life... but will still mess you up for years afterword.)

Your point on multiple side-by-side apps or documents is key for a lot of writing, for sure. But, that's more an OS and app issue than a keyboard issue. I've written several full articles while on flights on the on-screen keyboard even. But, working from research is time consuming for sure. One app to check on that front is WriteUp. It at least allows a browser and writing pane to be on-screen at once. (I'm hoping the author will one day add parallel text panes!)

Another huge advantage of using an external keyboard is re-gaining the full iPad screen. In fact, often, I think that is the main advantage, as I can actually type pretty fast on the on-screen keyboard.

The MBA is nice for sure. My wife has one. However, it's just not the same thing as the iPad in mobility. I can use my iPad in so many situations in which the MBA is just too much a bother to get out and setup. But, sure, there are times when it would be an advantage over the iPad for sure. I guess it just depends on one's workflow.

Stephen Barlow says:

I use my iPad to connect to a Main Frame system which is text based so using a keyboard makes it so much easier. When using the on screen keyboard it covers half the screen so is not practical to use in this situation. I have a work laptop running windows XP but find it so much quicker to use the iPad to connect to the main frame. Time for my laptop to start up and connect can be as long as 12 mins where as with the iPad I'm in in about 2mins.

Smithy1783 says:

I too have had an iPad and used one every day. I am sure that we all witnessed the evolution of the iPad from consumption device to consumption / creation device as iOS moved forward.

My preferred option all the way has been on-screen keyboard for all those little bits of typing and the Apple BT Keyboard and the Twelve South Compass. As Apps came along with increasingly tempting functionality, I switched from Keynote to many of the now hugely successful Text Editors.
I plumped finally for Byword when I adopted Markdown for my text entry method. Byword was fantastic with backup / synching between my iPads / iPhone & MacBook Pro via Dropbox and iCloud. At first the onscreen additional row of keys for Markdown really helped me to hone my Markdown syntax.
However, I now find the very "first world problem" of taking my hands off the key board just a little too jarring when writing long form reports etc.
I have tried the Logitech Keyboard cases and love some of the protection and portability functions and I like the BT switcher of one of the other models.
But, now I am with Peter to the extent that I would like Apple to re-think their BT keyboard. Apple have plenty of precedent for improving on good ideas. My hopes for the future would be a beautiful keyboard with Apple's fantastic keyboard, with BT device switching and perhaps a row of programmable keys (maybe with LED display and API for App developers to exploit). The keys could be programmed through an accompanying app. This could allow my current flirtation with the Text Editing beast that is Editorial App for iPad to grow to a full on relationship. I am not suggesting that the keyboard can replace all on screen functionality but I do think that programmable function like keys could provide a new way for the screen real estate for compatible apps.
If Apple could bring their design prowess to this idea, then perhaps the functionality of Apps like Editorial can be enhanced though the functionality of the accessories that work with iPad.

toddshillington says:

Great article!! would love to see more articles like this...(reminds me of how Kevin and the crew at CrackBerry post their thoughts)

I use the Apple bluetooth keyboard however it is a pain to carry around.
I also use the One Keyboard by matias for my computer and can switch to my iphone with the press of a button...big time saver and love the keys.

abazigal says:

Back when I just got my ipad3, and long before I would own a macbook air, I had these romanticised notions of using it in tandem with a bluetooth keyboard as some sort of laptop / tablet hybrid. It seemed like the perfect combo. Sit down at my desk to type out lengthier replies to articles on forums, emails etc. Take out the ipad for when I wanted to just lounge on the sofa. Dump everything in my bag when it was time to go.

I had myself so thoroughly convinced of the benefits. Instant-on. Ready 3g. Inbuilt camera. Greater selection of apps. Didn't need to buy a laptop.

However, reality was an entirely different story. I initially went with the zaggfolio. It was quite bulky, and added a fair amount of weight to my ipad, Typing with it was quite a decent experience actually, and I even got used to the slightly cramped keyboard. Then the problem came when I wanted to use just the ipad. Try removing the ipad from the zaggfolio's sleeve while maintaining your balance in a crowded train. It was also impossible to use in portrait mode.

I eventually went back to using my ipad in tablet mode only. I am sure this setup works for some people, but not for me. And anyways, I am now the very satisfied owner of both an ipad and a macbook air.

smohsin says:

Well thought out piece! I've always felt the same using my iPad, but couldn't point my finger at all the reasons so aptly. Especially when researching or looking up things in the multiple browser tabs, at the same time writing an email or other piece too. Good Catch!

Rene Ritchie says:

I use dictation. Since Siri, I'm way too lazy to type. Natural language voice transcription is awesome.

IHound says:

I'm with you. The iPad & iPhone keyboards drive me bonkers! I use them because I feel I have to. But they're inefficient, annoying & autocorrect can be just plain weird. That being said, you will only pry my IPad mini from my cold dead hands......

fgraver says:

Apple didn't make a stylus either, but I sure love using one - I use it with my favourite handwriting app and take handwritten notes. But - having a keyboard is what makes the iPad a useful multi-purpose tool for me. Sure I can use the on-screen keyboard occasion, but it's a pain for longer documents.

One big advantage with a bluetooth keybaord is that autocorrect is disabled. That alone makes it worth using! :)

Trodecke says:

Perhaps I can answer this best with a short story. Two years ago I took a business trip to San Francisco with two coworkers. We decided to use it as an experiment to see if we could survive with only our iPads in tow. We left our laptops at home and set off on an adventure. 2 hours into the first day there we found out that our budget proposals had to be completely re-written by the next day.

We spent 5 hours that night, in my hotel room, updating the documents with nothing besides our iPads. We didn't even have BT keyboards to use (Which most likely would have helped). We did it all on the built-in glass keyboard of the iPad. I did all the typing while my coworkers dictated some portions and offered suggestions on others. What made our experience all the more exciting was that we were not doing this in any native application on the iPad but rather through a VDI application (think remote controlling a Windows system from an iPad).

We were able to get the documents updated and the budget proposals were approved but I can definitely and honestly say this; I do not want to, ever again, even for a short period of time, write entire documents on an iPad. It's great for the quick, get in and get out "fix an issue" type thing but it is not designed for full fledged content creation, even for something as relatively simple as a budget proposal. ;)

barryotoole says:

I have the iPad Air and the iPad mini retina. I use the mini like a tablet and the air like a laptop - with a keyboard case. There isn't anything in my workflow I can't do on iOS.

Bruno Deserto says:

I don't use it with a keyboard but I have tried that and to be quite frank I think I could have my work done with no problems at all. However, there is no doubt it is much more comfortable to use a proper keyboard on the MacBook Pro/air but I am surprised with how much work can be done with the iPad. I bought the IPad Air some time ago and it is my first iPad. I truly love it.