Why a funky little keyboard?
I’m a pretty heavy user of technology, and have been for some time. The life of an academic is one dominated by the production of materials that have almost all now become digital. I write, a lot. I also take photographs (of both unpleasant illnesses and other, more wholesome things), record video, edit and adjust all of the above, write lectures and produce teaching materials, and then deliver these lectures to, hopefully, wrapt audiences. All of this is done digitally.
As the capabilities and capacities of modern computing hardware have advanced, I’ve found my preferred hardware options have evolved along with them. I have one of the “cheese grater” MacPro workstations at home, which gets used for heavier lifting tasks like video editing and transcoding. It also is crammed full of hard drives. This is a beastly machine, and I’m obviously not going to be moving it around. My main day-to-day machine is a MacBook Pro, the 15” model with the Touch Bar. And I hate its keyboard, but more on that later.
The MacBook Pro has the grunt necessary to do image editing and moderate video production work, and is awesome for presenting and recording lectures on the fly. But as I want to be able to work on things using my really big monitor at home, I eventually found myself gravitating to the use of cloud-based syncing services (both DropBox and Google Drive) for the majority of the documents that I work on day to day. And realistically, most of what I am actually doing on a day to day basis is the generation of text, not photos and videos. The text lives on the cloud services, and they both have apps on the iPad, so the text can travel with me if I have an internet connection.
As I write this, I’m on my way back from a meeting that occurred at the end of a long sequence of long flights. I was just attending, not speaking, so I didn’t anticipate having any great need of more substantial computing power. I usually travel with an iPad as well as my laptop anyway, and Apple is singing a song called “An iPad is enough for people to actually get stuff done”. So I decided to give it a go, wandered down to my nearest JB HiFi, and picked up the Brydge 9.7 Bluetooth keyboard and a little neoprene case to complete the ensemble.
Typically I would travel carrying this:
This time, I decided to try carrying only this:
Finicky Fingers Fumble on Flat Keys
I mentioned earlier that I hate the MacBook Pro keyboard and Touch Bar. I know I’m not alone in this. I much prefer the greater key travel with the “chiclet” style keyboards from 2-or-more generations ago of the MacBook Pro. When I’m not using my WASD custom-made mechanical keyboards, of course.
Living on the Brydge
The iPad is held in place by a pair of robust, rubber-lined interference fit hinges. These hinges feel very solid, and hold the iPad at any angle between fully closed and 180 degrees, although why you would want to do that I don’t really understand. The rubber buffers hold the iPad firmly enough that you can pick the whole assemblage up by the ‘screen’. Small rubber buffers at the lower corners protect the screen from contact with the upper surface of the case, while the keys themselves are recessed a couple of millimeters from the surface, so screen marring is not an issue. There’s evidently a couple of magnets embedded in the keyboard, as the iPad goes to sleep when it all folds up, just like it does with most protective cases. Fully closed, the Brydge+iPad combination looks very much like a 10” MacBook Air.
The top row of the keyboard, where the function keys should be, features an array of specific task keys that smooth the transition between using the iPad as an iPad, and using it like a tiny laptop. In the top left corner is a dedicated Home Key, pressing this once returns the iPad display to the home state, just as clicking the Home Button does. This key will trigger Siri if long-pressed, and a double press brings up the task manager; again, exactly the same functionality as the home button, but down on the keyboard rather than awkwardly up on the screen bezel. Also arrayed in here are backlight controls, onscreen keyboard toggle, media controls, and keys to trigger Bluetooth pairing. A lock key instantly closes out the screen and hides all running apps.
While cramped in comparison to a full size 104-key keyboard, and lacking some of the niceties such as separate number pad, large arrow keys and an escape key, overall using the Brydge keyboard for simple text entry is a very satisfying experience.
Some minor tripping hazards
Typing certainly flows smoothly, but there are some aspects of working with the iPad in the Brydge that pulled me up short again and again. For instance, I keep looking for a trackpad for cursor control. Switching from keyboard to finger touch on the screen and then back to the keyboard can easily break your train of thought.
When using the keyboard you can navigate inside text and select/deselect using the shift and arrow keys in combination, but this is still slower than a click/drag as you would do with a mouse. Unlocking the iPad when it goes to sleep requires you to reach up and apply a thumb (or other relevant finger) to the TouchID sensor in the home button. The upper left-most button on the Brydge brings up the home screen, and a double press on this button will open the task manager screen, but then there is no way I can find to navigate from screen to screen, or app to app in the task manager, from the keyboard. I can’t help but feel that I’d be faster doing this from the keyboard than I am reaching up and down.
I definitely would not see the appeal of an actual laptop or desktop machine that used touch gestures on the screen as a fundamental part of user interaction. In this sort of hybrid use case, and for a short period, it’s niggly but not intolerable.
OK Craig, Produce!
In the good old days, meetings like this would have printed proceedings. We went through a short period of proceedings on scratch-prone CD’s, and now we live in a time where the proceedings are either online or on a USB device. This meeting went down the USB route. As I was travelling with only the iPad, I had no way of accessing said proceedings. I will admit that it had not occurred to me that this would happen.
On the one hand I knew that I’d be able to read the proceedings eventually, on the other hand I reminded myself that I was challenging myself to see how well the iPad+Brydge could work in a productivity context, so I resolved that I would take good notes from each of the lectures, typing these notes up in real time. The actual note-taking would be done using the iPad version of Scrivener 3.0, a document planning, writing, and text management application that I’m increasingly using in my day to day life. I’ll write up my thoughts on Scrivener in this context in another, later review.
So, what is typing like on the Brydge?
Overall, I find it very pleasant. There’s no escaping that the keyboard is small, and certain keys (particularly delete, enter and the arrow keys) are a lot smaller and differently placed than I am used to. But, the keys are a good size, with a satisfying ‘clunk’ at the end of their travel. The key travel distance is 1.2mm, which does not seem much at all, but still delivers a far superior experience to the almost completely absent key travel of the new butterfly switch keyboard on the MacBook Pro. I’m able to touch type adequately, indeed I’m typing this in darkness on the Brydge keyboard right now. I’m not as fast on this as I am on the WASD, and I’m making more errors than usual, but it is definitely fast enough for me to be productive.
Click click click click Genomes Immunology Phosphate…
Over the course of three days worth of lectures and 15 separate presentations I took a total of 5,978 words of notes. Twenty three pages, double spaced. These documents ranged from ~225 words to 717 words in length, with an average of approximately 400 words/session. Along with the notes I’ve been writing this review, so in total over the last four days I have written around 7,700 words on the iPad. I’m quite pleased with this.
Is the iPad a productivity powerhouse?
I was a little sceptical at first, but in my use case and with the particular combination of applications that I am using, I think the answer to this is yes. I’ve been typing away for a couple of hours with everything set up on my seat back tray, with room to spare for a cup of marginal coffee and my hands at rest. I’ll even take a photo to show you, just look down below:
If you look closely enough, you can see the end of the previous sentence.
For taking notes, making little side notes to myself, and even the odd bit of dropping out to Safari to do impromptu research on something I did not understand at first glance, this all has worked very well. I even did a little light editing on some photos in my down time. While I have only had the Brydge for a little over a week, and thus I don’t yet have a feel for longevity of the device, as it stands at the moment I would have to give this little keyboard a solid recommendation. If I had to choose between this keyboard and my MacBook Pro to just do plain text generation, I’d have to think very, very hard indeed. And I’d probably go with the Brydge.