Is an External Keyboard Really Worth It?

When Steve Jobs launched the iPhone in 2007, pundits thought he’d lost his mind launching a phone with just a touchscreen. Surely no one wanted to tap on glass all day! Then, the iPhone proved the pundits wrong, and even Blackberry launched a phone with an on-screen touch keyboard.

Last year, the iPad faced the same dilemma. People had come to accept typing on a touchscreen phone, but for a laptop-sized device, surely that wouldn’t cut it.

Then we got the iPad, and discovered that you could actually type quite fast on a full-sized touch screen. So much so, in fact, that many declared the iPad the perfect writing device!

So, is there still any need to get an external keyboard for your iPad? I’ve recently picked up an Apple Bluetooth Keyboard for mine, so keep reading to see what advantages a “real” keyboard brings to the iPad and whether it’s worth getting … or not.

Why Get an External Keyboard?

The iPad may have been initially dismissed as an oversized iPod Touch and a whismical toy for Apple fans, but it has turned out be a perfect device for a wide range of productivity and creative tools. The iPad version of Omnifocus has been called the best version ever, and Garageband finally is being used by non-musicians on iPad.

For writers of all types, the iPad can be the perfect writing machine, too. All apps run full-screen, so turn off WiFi and 3G and you’ve got the perfect combination for writing without distractions.

The iPad may be the best way to quickly triage emails, and with apps like iA Writer, many of us have written thousands of words directly on the iPad touchscreen keyboard. It just feels natural to write on, distraction-free.

Paired with an external keyboard, though, the iPad is an even better writing machine. Just like serious artists may want to invest in stylus for iPad painting, if you’re regularly writing hundreds of words on your iPad, it might be time for a real keyboard. You can still type on-screen when you want, but for longer pieces, the keyboard will help you type your fastest.

The Most Popular iPad Keyboard

There are a variety of keyboards that can work great with your iPad. If you already have a bluetooth keyboard, then you’re already set. The iPad works directly with any standard bluetooth keyboard, so if you have a new iMac with a wireless keyboard, or a bluetooth keyboard for your PC, you can use it directly with your iPad.

The Apple Wireless Keyboard may be the best choice for the iPad, since it includes function keys that make it easier to use. Plus, it gets incredibly good battery life, and matches the standard Apple hardware design style. You can switch between your iPad and Mac or PC easily, too. Just tap the power button, then connect it to the other device. When you’re done, tap again and switch back. And, if you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, or even another bluetooth devices such as an Android tablet, it’ll work great with them, too.

The Apple Wireless Keyboard.

The Apple Wireless Keyboard isn’t the only option, though. Apple also made a The keyboard dock for the iPad 1. with extra iPad-specific buttons. There are also a wide variety of 3rd party keyboards designed for iPad, including the Zagg case and more.

Paring Your Keyboard With iPad

It only takes a couple of quick steps to pair your wireless keyboard with the iPad. Turn on your keyboard, then open the Settings on your iPad and enable Bluetooth. Seconds later, you should see your keyboard listed as an unpaired device. Tap the keyboard in the Devices list, then enter the code that’s shown in the alert box on your keyboard. Now you’re ready to use the wireless keyboard anywhere you’d usually type on an iPad.

Adding your bluetooth keyboard to your iPad.

Becoming an iPad Keyboard Ninja

Once you’ve added an external keyboard to your iPad, there’s tons of new stuff you can do quicker than ever. You can’t use keyboard shortcuts like CMD-Tab to switch between apps (though we wish you could), but there’s tons of things you can do with a full keyboard.

The arrow keys especially are helpful for quickly navigating through your documents and getting to the spot you need to edit.

Here’s a quick list of the standard keyboard shortcuts you can take advantage of:

  • Command-A – Select all text
  • Command-C – Copy selected text
  • Command-V – Paste text from clipboard
  • Command-X – Cut selected text
  • Command-Z – Undo
  • Command-Shift-Z – Redo
  • Command-Up Arrow – Scroll to top of page
  • Command-Down Arrow – Scroll to bottom of page
  • Command-Left Arrow – Jump to beginning of line
  • Command-Right Arrow – Jump to end of line
  • Option-Left Arrow – Jump to beginning of previous word
  • Option-Right Arrow – Jump to beginning of next word
  • Shift-Arrow Keys – Select text

Depending on your keyboard, you may be able to use some iOS functions directly from your keyboard. The Apple Wireless keyboard lets you increase or decrease the screen brightness and volume, mute your iPad, or control your iPod music right from the function keys. You can also open or close the on-screen virtual keyboard by tapping the eject key on the far right of the top row.

Extra function keys on the Apple Wireless Keyboard.

An external keyboard can be extremely useful for those of us who use multiple languages. I have an Apple wireless keyboard with both English and Thai, and although I can type English in my sleep, it’s much easier for me to type in Thai if I can see the characters on the keyboard. Switching between languages on iPad is easy, too. Just tap the Command and Space bar keys together, and you’ll be quickly switched to your other activated keyboard language.

Switch input languages by pressing Command+Space.

Insert Special Characters

If you’re using lots of extra characters on your iPad, or want to type up HTML or CSS code, an external keyboard will be a huge time saver. You can just naturally type slash, brackets, carets, and more, just like you always have on your computer.

OS X and iOS also include support for a ton of special characters with special keyboard shortcuts, and all of these work perfectly on iPad with an external keyboard. You can type Alt-Shift-K to insert an Apple logo like , or Alt-K to insert a degrees symbol, like 72˚. There are more supported keyboard shortcuts than we could list, but the good folks at GoSquared have put together a beautiful PDF with all of the available Mac (and iPad) special character shortcuts you can download here for free.

Some of the awesome keyboard shortcuts you can use in iOS.

If you’re using another Bluetooth keyboard designed for PCs, the Windows key will work the same as the Mac Command key.

Apps That Get Better With a Keyboard

Using an external keyboard for writing frees up your iPad screen space to show more of your documents, which is a great advantage when using the iWork apps such as Pages and Keynote, or other productivity apps. External keyboards even enable some hidden features on some apps.

In Numbers, for example, you’ll see a quick complete function bar as you type in function names. Usually, you’ll just select functions form the list, but if you’re used to typing up Excel formulas, this is a very quick way to do the same in Numbers. If you’re typing text, the virtual keyboard will disappear, but while typing numbers or formulas, it’ll stay open to give you a virtual Numpad and other easy access keys. Plus, you can simply just hit Enter or the arrow keys to jump to the next cells. These features can make you much more productive in Numbers.

Numbers works great with an external keyboard.

One thing iOS doesn’t support is standard formatting shortcuts, such as Command-B for bold or Command-I for italics. Some apps have worked around this, including Essay, a beautifully designed rich text and HTML based universal notepad app. They’ve added special command keys that you can enter after activating the command entry by pressing Alt-Space. This makes it quick and easy to format your documents the way you want.

Essay's awesome keyboard formatting support.

Final Verdict

So, is an external keyboard for you? I use my iPad for writing all the time, and still love to recline on the couch and type up my thoughts directly on-screen. It just feels natural, and is one of the reasons I love my iPad. However, when writing articles such as this one, the advantages of a full keyboard are obvious, especially when entering HTML formatting.

Do you use an external keyboard, or are you considering getting one? Let us know what keyboard you have and how you use it in the comments below!

  • Julia Altermann

    Oh, this is right along my alley!

    At first, I admit I looked down on people who bought themselves an external keyboard. I felt fine typing right on the screen and it was fantastic NOT to have to carry around anything but the iPad.

    But then I started testing the ZAGGmate and I was blown away. Not only can you slip the iPad into it so it’s basically just one device, but my writing speed increased (up to my normal 65wpm) and my accuracy. Moreover, it’s so much more comfortable for me because I don’t have to bend over the iPad in an uncomfortable angle. When on the road (tram, bus, train…) the iPad sits quite securely on the ZAGGmate while I write.

    Recently, I’ve been sent the Apple Keyboard Dock for iPad 1 and while I wouldn’t take it on the road, I think it’s even better for home use since you can type on it a little easier than on the ZAGGmate (key size, no frame to have your wrists get accustomed to).

    Overall, I’m all sold on external keyboard. For short stuff like emails or tweets, I use and like the virtual keyboard, but for writing articles (yes, I do write most of my articles on the ZAGGmate while riding to and from work), I prefer the external keyboard.

    Thanks for this great article, Matthew!

    • Matthew Guay

      Thanks for the comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I was a type-on-glass-only guy at first too, but now that I’ve got a bluetooth keyboard, the iPad feels like it could replace my computer a fair bit more. Especially since it makes it so much easier to type in HTML :)

      • Julia Altermann

        I actually sold my Macbook to my mom because since the iPad 1, I hardly ever took it out of its sleeve anymore. Most of everything, I can do on the iPad 2 and for heavy duty stuff like pro editing, I have my iMac.

        I’ve just gotten into coding on the iPad, even though for that I prefer the virtual English keyboard layout since on the German keyboard, many coding keys (brackets etc) are hard to reach.

        • Matthew Guay

          Not surprising at all. Before I got the iPad, I’d planned to replace my desktop with a full-featured laptop. Now, I’m planning to switch my desktop out for a Mac Mini, and use iPad fully for mobile stuff. It’s that good.

          And hey, I’ve got an iPad 1 :)

      • Julia Altermann

        Just one more thing: the link to the keyboard shortcuts reference – HEAVENLY! Thank you!

  • James Gill

    Hi Matthew, thanks for such a great article, and thank you also for featuring GoSquared’s Help Sheet for OS X character key shortcuts! Much appreciated :-)

    • Matthew Guay

      And thanks for offering such an awesome cheat sheet for special characters :)

  • Lizzie

    I bought the keyboard along with a 1st gen iPad when it came out. How many times have I used it? A grand total of twice! I bought it thinking it might be awkward to do a lot of typing on the iPad, but surprisingly it is not.

    Your article has inspired me to dust it off for another whirl. Thanks for the tips!

  • Neil

    I have just got a bluetooth keyboard mainly for using SSH. Without it SSH is cumbersome on iOS but a full keyboard and you can work just like any other computer administering servers with ease.

  • Copper

    I’ve had no luck with navigating Numbers with the arrow keys on my Apple Wireless. I can move to the next column using tab, or the next row (in my current column) using return, but that has been it. No way to move back up or left without tapping. Has anyone else been able to get arrow keys to work as expected as per the article?

  • Jira

    Do you know ภาษาไทย? I’ve seen a lot of posts that you mentioned Thai or Thai language.

    Awesome post. Wish I could be in ประเทศไทย right now. Thanks, bro.

  • Jira

    Forgot to add. ภาษาไทย on iOS keyboard is crazy. I can’t find anything there. Hope it gets better in the future. That’s probably the only reason I want an external keyboard.

  • Hammy Havoc

    It’s useful to carry one around with you in your rucksack if you’re not taking your MacBook with you if you’re planning on doing some really heavy typing later on in the day, but the beauty of the iPad is in it’s simplicity. As with most things; It’s nice to have the choice available to you.

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  • inspirationfeed

    Contradicts itself of being a tablet.

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  • Frank Zweegers

    Handy.. but you better can buy a macbook instead of an iPad.

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  • Thura Z.

    Thanks…good article. Got apple wireless keyboard and flawlessly much improving with writing. Any thoughts of sharing with the case for keyboard or with the ipad case. Much appreciated.

  • Marc

    I’ve been using an InCase Origami Workstation. It folds over the Mac Wireless Keyboard and unfolds to become a stand for the iPad. I prefer this to the Zagg because I can keep my smartcover on and more easily go between tablet and using a keyboard. In fact, I use the smart cover to elevate the iPad slightly above the keyboard on the InCase stand and tilt it more towards the horizontal. This makes it more stable for touch, elevates it higher so it is more ergonomic, and I am much less likely to hit a key when I am touching the base of the screen. I only take the keyboard when I want it. I’ve considered attaching velcro to both cases, but they are so light and thin that I haven’t had any trouble carrying both in one hand.

    • insane dreamer

      Marc, does that case allow you to hold the keyboard on your lap with the iPad and type as you would with a laptop? It’s hard to tell from the pictures where it would work in that situation or whether a table is required (in which case it wouldn’t do more than the iPad2 smart cover).

  • insane dreamer

    Unfortunately, because of the lack of a Dvorak software keyboard for the iPad (hard to comprehend why), using an external keyboard is the only option for those of us who type Dvorak, at least for typing anything substantial.

    With the iPad2 and the smart case, you can stand it up as a monitor of sorts while using the bluetooth keyboard and it works relatively well. You need a table though–won’t work on your lap.

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  • ipadwise

    Looks really useful. Thanks a lot for the this info. And many thanks for the the link-love. Really appreciated. Keep it up..!!

  • TekSone

    Insane dreamer, to answer your question:

    “Does that case allow you to hold the keyboard on your lap with the iPad and type as you would with a laptop?”

    I use mine in my lap in the car, on the plane and wherever else I may need to. It is nice and sturdy (with the help of velcro) because it is in the shape of a triangle (almost) which keeps it from falling flat. I love mine.

    Marc, I put a BodyGuardz on the back of my iPad2 and bought a pack of white industrial strength velcro. I applied a piece of velcro (the soft side) to the back of the iPad2. I applied a piece of velcro (the hard grippy side) to the walls I use the iPad2 in the most. I have white walls, so the white velcro blends in. So in the kitchen I can read my recipes, in the bathroom I have a jukebox, in the bedroom I have an wall alarm clock and in the living room I have a picture frame. I put a piece of black velcro on the back of the Origami and attached and it worked like a charm. Now I have that added confidence when walking with the two in one hand. Put my extra piece of velcro on the back of my mifi and it sticks to the back of the iPad2 (when not at home) so I don’t walk off and leave it on a desk somewhere. Gotta love velcro.

  • Michael

    Love the article, thanks.

    I was already using the apple bluetooth keyboard, due to writing travel articles, which can be a few ‘000 words. The reference of key under finger allows me to type at a much faster speed, but I prefer the option of iPad with, or iPad without keyboard, over a laptop or similar.

    The ability to use the keyboard when I’m grounded, or glass when I’m on the road is fantastic, and it all travels together quite nicely in a couple of Crumpler brand cases.

    The tips in this article are great, and I even learnt a few things, like language change (I write articles in English and Spanish, with a lot of Spanish words, and names, it was a pain to change on screen each time I needed a ñ or á character.)

    A keyboard isn’t for everyone, but if you are typing a lot on your iPad, and are a touch typist, then it’s certainly worth considering.

  • Jeff

    Where did you find the English – Thai keyboard?

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  • Ajay

    Nice article. But did any of you find limitations using the bluetooth keypad? Currently we have some limitations.