How Feasible Are Tablet Keyboards For In-Flight Work?

I decided to put four contenders to the test.

Travelling to London for the HTC Desire HD/Z launch, I had a lot of work to do. This presented me with a problem, as my laptop, a four-year-old MacBook, isn’t exactly a monster in the power longevity stakes. My iPad, however, is. But it’s not equipped with a physical keyboard. In the interests of working out whether it’s feasible to use what’s often derided as a pure media consumption device for actual work purposes, I packed a few keyboard options and tested them on the in-flight tray table.

And for all those who might not like the iPad (for whatever reason), only one of my options is, strictly speaking, iPad specific. Fans of Android or Windows tablets could pretty easily implement any of the others in exactly the same way I’ve done here.

Contender #1: Inbuilt Touch Keyboard
Price: Free (once you’ve bought or stolen an iPad)
Benefits: It’s free, it’s always there, it’s supported by every data entry application out there.
Drawbacks: Typing at speed on it is an exercise in frustration and wacky mis-corrections. For whatever reason, if you type on a physical keyboard with the iPad, the auto-correct cuts down its savagery a great deal, but if you’re only using the default keyboard, you’ve got to put up with all sorts of problems.

Contender #2: Apple iPad Keyboard Dock
Price: $89
Benefits: The Keyboard Dock works well in multiple environments, as with the dock included it can be placed on the knees in regular chairs, as well as being powered and syncing if you’ve got a system or power point and cable handy. If you’re a touch typist, it’s much faster and more accurate than the touchscreen.
Drawbacks: It places the iPad in portrait-mode only, which is a big problem in an economy seat (something I already knew) as if the seat in front tilts back, it crunches down on the iPad. The dock side works, but it also makes it harder to pack into a bag due to its curved shape.

Contender #3: Apple Wireless Keyboard
Price: $99 (or free, in a convoluted technical way)
Benefits: The Bluetooth nature of the Wireless Keyboard means you can pop the iPad in landscape or portrait modes as space requires. If you’ve got a recent model iMac, chances are one of these came in the box – it’s where mine is from.
Downsides: Unlike the Keyboard Dock, there’s no physical connection and thus no way to prop up the iPad for best results.

Contender #4: PADACS PD116 Mini Bluetooth Keyboard
Price: $59.95
Benefits: It’s tiny – small enough to stuff into a pocket – and very light, which is a consideration if you’re limited in the weight of what you can carry.
Drawbacks: It’s too small to be really productive. I wasn’t any quicker than using the onscreen touch keyboard, and like the Wireless Keyboard, I would still be stuck with no inbuilt way to prop up the iPad if my case didn’t perform that function.

So which solution works best? I’d say that the combination Bluetooth keyboard and a case that can prop the screen up is a clear winner; it’s comfortable enough, should fit into even the pokiest economy seat (although probably not one of the SkyRider seats) and can be shifted around easily when meals turn up. Just don’t forget to pop the batteries out when you’re done.


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