If you've been reading TUAW over the last month, you've noticed that I've been methodically working my way through the variety of keyboard cases for the iPad Air that have been announced. For those of you who have been waiting for me to announce the one that I think is the cream of the crop, you can stop waiting -- the ZAGGkeys Folio for iPad Air (US$99.99) is without a doubt the best iPad Air keyboard case released so far.
The ZAGGkeys Folio is a rather thin (.697"/17.7 mm with iPad Air inserted) plastic shell with a faux leather exterior in either black or white. It's not the lightest keyboard folio for the iPad Air. Be prepared to add over a pound of weight to your skinny tablet, as the ZAGGkeys Folio weighs in at 18.87 ounces (535 grams).
The keyboard on the white version is white with a surrounding gray shell, while the black version has -- naturally -- a black keyboard. The Folio contains a 950 mAh lithium polymer battery that lasts for "months" in regular use. However, there is a special situation where that battery may drain a bit faster, and that's when the backlighting feature is used.
Yes, the keyboard is backlit! That's perfect for those times when you're typing away at night on a dimly lit airliner and don't want to turn on the overhead reading lamp to illuminate your keyboard. Instead, you simply tap one key on the keyboard to turn on the backlight, which can then be adjusted to glow in one of seven colors -- red, light green, dark green, light blue, dark blue, purple or white. The letters on the keys are transparent, so you can really see them with the backlight turned on.
Of course, backlighting means nothing if the keyboard isn't comfortable to type on, and that's where the ZAGGkeys folio really shines. The other keyboards I've reviewed so far from Kensington, Belkin, and Logitech all have some oddities in terms of key size or placement that make them more difficult than expected to type on easily. I'm an extremely fast touch typist, especially when I'm blasting out reviews on an Apple Wireless Keyboard. I think that keyboard has met its match with the ZAGGkeys Folio, as I'm able to type just as fast and with as much accuracy as I do on the Apple keyboard.
The keyboard has a pretty good feel to it -- it could be a little more "snappy" in terms of response, as it's mushier than the precise click of the Apple keyboard. However, it's much better than any of the other iPad Air keyboards I've tested so far. The key placement is perfect -- every key is exactly where it should be, so my fingers aren't prone to pressing the wrong key when I try for punctuation or pressing the tab key.
There are six rows of keys, with the topmost row being special iPad-only functions. There's also a special battery level button that indicates with a series of LED blinks how much battery capacity is left; a button to turn the backlight on or off and cycle it through three brightness levels; a button to switch between alternative international keyboards, and a set of arrow keys, one of which provides a way to switch the color of the backlight.
The iPad itself is held into the protective shell of the back plate by several almost-invisible plastic clips that are molded into the lip of the case. While it's easy to get the iPad in and out of the Folio with this design, I worry that it might not hold the iPad into place securely enough. Only time will tell...
There are two buttons on the right side of the keyboard; one is an on-off switch if you want to be absolutely sure that the keyboard is turned off, while the other is a Bluetooth pairing button. Pairing is dead simple; you just press that button to make the keyboard discoverable, pop into Bluetooth in Settings, and connect to the keyboard. There's also a micro-USB port on the side near the buttons that is used for charging the Folio's internal battery -- ZAGG thoughtfully provided a USB to micro-USB cable for charging.
The way the Folio is set up, you open it to turn on your iPad Air. It links via Bluetooth very quickly, so much so that it's often faster to just type in your lock screen passcode on the keyboard. The "screen" hinge is nice and tight, so you can adjust it back or forth for the best visibility. The screen will only tilt about 45° back, so you don't need to worry about having the Folio suddenly flip over backwards.
As a hardcore user of Siri, I love the addition of a microphone button in the top row of keys. I found it much easier to simply tap and hold that button to engage Siri's attention rather than tap the iPad's Home button.
I certainly don't have any qualms about the Folio's ability to make your iPad typing-friendly. My only real complaint is about the construction. As I noted earlier, it doesn't feel like the iPad is being held too securely in the "top" of the Folio, and I noticed some very thin gaps in the seams in the gray material used for a lot of the case that just looked unprofessional. In comparison to the aluminum construction of the Belkin Ultimate Keyboard for iPad Air or the smooth lines of the Logitech FabricSkin Folio for iPad Air, it just looks and feels less sturdy.
In terms of typing, the ZAGGkeys Folio for iPad Air is the current leader of the pack. The key placement and size is perfect for fast touch typing, and the backlighting makes typing in dark rooms a piece of cake. And surprise! All of this comes at a price that's a bargain compared to what other accessory manufacturers are charging for less capable keyboard folios. If you plan to use an iPad as your main device for blogging or writing, then this is the keyboard to get at this time because it simply lets you type quickly and accurately.
Excellent keyboard feel and key placement
Backlighting is nicely implemented and a very big help when typing in dark conference rooms
Fast Bluetooth pairing
Top row of keyboard is dedicated to iPad functions, including Siri
Less expensive than competitive offerings
Construction seems somewhat less robust than Belkin and Logitech offerings
Heavier than other keyboard cases
Who is it for?
Anyone who needs a fast, comfortable, and capable keyboard for an iPad Air and is less interested in the looks of the case than in how it works