Adding a physical keyboard to an iPad mini is an easy and inexpensive way of converting the small tablet into something closer to a laptop. OK, more like a netbook.
But it’s so tiny — why bother? Because it makes typing much easier and opens up a huge range of uses for this super-compact computer. The argument over whether the iPad is a consumption device or creative device may rage on, but in my mind the answer has always been the latter. Once companies such as Zagg, Logitech, and Belkin started turning out quality Bluetooth keyboards, the iPad instantly became my favorite computer for writing, and thus creating.
The Belkin FastFit Keyboard Case for the iPad mini ($80) is one of a slew of offerings available for Apple’s littlest tablet. It comes in at only 7mm thick, thinner than the tablet itself. It connects over Bluetooth 3.0, which lets it run at low power — Belkin claims it will let you type for over 150 hours before a recharge.
For quick storage and traveling, the keyboard attaches to the iPad mini using the same magnetic closure and auto-sleep/wake system employed by Apple’s Smart Cover. When closed, the Mini’s screen is protected by the keyboard and the iPad is automatically put to sleep. Previously I have used keyboards designed in a similar fashion, but the keys actually rested on the screen of the iPad. This drove me crazy — every time I opened the case, I feared I was going to be greeted with a scratched screen. There isn’t a ton of room between the keys and the screen on the Belkin, but there are three rubber bumpers — one running above the “function keys,” and two small ones on the edges — which keep the keys off the screen and eliminate any potential of scratching.
The power switch is located on the top of the keyboard instead of the side, where you’ll find it on similar keyboards. At first, I didn’t see this being an issue, but then I realized that having the power switch on the side of the keyboard makes it easy (when the assembly is closed) to quickly identify if the keyboard is on or off and switch it accordingly.
Before pairing your FastFit keyboard with an iPad mini, you’ll need to place your iPad in a small track just above the keys on the keyboard. You can place your iPad in landscape or portrait mode, but it’s most stable in landscape mode. Unfortunately, due to how the iPad sits in the track, the viewing angle isn’t adjustable. I found the angle to be sufficient when I was seated at a desk. But when working at a standup desk (my primary setup) I was left wanting.
So what’s typing on it actually like? Tricky.
Steve Jobs once claimed smaller screened tablets required users to sandpaper the tips of their fingers in order to use the device. I would say that statement is more applicable to the FastFit keyboard than an iPad mini. Actually, it’s applicable to every keyboard I’ve used with the iPad mini. There’s little blame to be put on Belkin for the issue, however.
The iPad mini’s size lends itself to portability and ease of use. It’s size doesn’t lend itself to having a similar-sized keyboard attached to it, especially if the user expects it to meet the same requirements as a full-size keyboard. Compromises need to be made when making an accessory of this size. The keys, while decently sized and spaced, are often too difficult to accurately hit when not looking. At the very least, the keyboard requires far more concentration to accurately type on than a full-size iPad keyboard. It just ends up slowing you down, especially since iOS’s autocorrect switches off when you’re typing on a Bluetooth keyboard.
At the end of the day, Belkin did an OK job with the FastFit keyboard. The keys are responsive, the Bluetooth connection is solid, and the battery life is ample. For those who are willing to put in the time required to adjust to the smaller layout, the Belkin FastFit keyboard could be an adequate productivity booster. I found it frustrating, even after using it for long periods of time in the attempt to train my brain. So for those who already “fat finger” a standard keyboard, I would suggest sticking with the digital keyboard baked into iOS — at least then you get autocorrect to clean up after you.