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!