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!