Walt Mossberg on the $149 keyboard accessory for Google’s new Pixel C tablet:
It’s sturdy and heavy enough to form a fair base for lap typing. And it has a very clever, very strong, magnetic hinge, which allows you to tilt the screen smoothly but confidently at a wide variety of angles. Not only that, but, while the keyboard is Bluetooth, it charges inductively from the tablet, so you never have to plug it in.
Reviewers have panned the Pixel C’s software, but I’m more interested in its primary accessory: a premium keyboard that attaches via dedicated magnets housed in the tablet’s case.
After a few weeks with a keyboard cover for the iPad Air 2, I’ve grown bullish on the tablet-with-keyboard trend. But for tablets to truly replace laptops as our workhorse machines, we need more keyboard designs like the Pixel C’s—and fewer like the iPad Pro’s “Smart” Keyboard. Apple’s fabricky cover relies on goofy origami folds to prop up the iPad. Like the Microsoft Surface’s Type Cover, this design proves top-heavy and unstable when used on your lap.
The iPad Pro and iOS 9 seem to indicate that Apple now takes tablet productivity more seriously. To keep the ball rolling, next year’s iPads should make keyboard support a primary hardware feature, rather rather than an accessorized afterthought.
Step one? Steal that nifty magnetic hinge.
The Pixel C’s keyboard isn’t perfect. There are no dedicated function keys for things like volume controls or screen brightness. ↩
My laptop is too big for blogging.
My work machine, a Dell Precision M4600, is a powerhouse desktop replacement. But it’s also a behemoth—far too chunky to use comfortably on the couch or to cart around when traveling.
I could get a lighter laptop—something like the Macbook Air. But I can’t justify buying a second laptop just for home use. Instead, I settled on the BrydgeAir, a premium keyboard dock designed to transform an iPad Air 2 into a tiny Macbook clone.
The BrydgeAir is beautiful. It matches my iPad almost perfectly—down to the “space gray” aluminum finish. The keyboard’s brushed metal, black trim, and simple lines make it look like something Apple designed. In fact, I wish Apple did sell this product; it would prove their commitment to iPad productivity.
Brydge really sweated the details here—straight down to the unboxing experience. Magnets embedded in the lid produce a pleasing little thunk when it opens and shuts. That’s a fun touch, although I couldn’t help but think, “I’m paying for those magnets”—when some packing tape would have done the job.
Why the BrydgeAir?
Choosing the BrydgeAir took months—or years, if you count the time I spent nailing down my priorities. Below, I break down my wish list into sections; in each, I explain how the BrydgeAir met the need—or didn’t.
Since I acquired my first iPad in 2013, I’ve relied on an inexpensive Bluetooth keyboard from Amazon. It works reliably, and the keys feel fine. Most impressively, it uses very little power; I’ve never replaced the AAA batteries that came with it. Since the iPad can’t stand upright on its own, I added a sturdy, foldable little stand—the fantastic Satechi R1.
This keyboard-plus-stand setup works great on a desk, but it’s maddening to use on your lap. A few months ago, I decided I wanted to blog from the couch, but that meant constantly juggling the keyboard, the stand, and the iPad. Shifting positions risked toppling the whole rig onto the floor, and standing up required two or three separate break-down steps. My frustration mounted, and I started hunting for an iPad keyboard solution that worked better on my lap—with no shuffling, minimal futzing, and the freedom to move around.
The BrydgeAir fits the bill. It’s a clever design; the iPad slides into two rubber-coated aluminum arms, which grip the landscape-oriented tablet securely. The iPad feels firmly anchored when “docked”; I can pick up the “faux-netbook” from either end, without worrying whether it will slide apart. The hinges pivot from closed to completely flat (0 to 180°) and hold their position once set. And because the BrydgeAir weighs about the same as the tablet itself, the iPad can’t tumble backwards, out of my lap.
One downside? When open, the hinges stick out, downward from the base. They thus serve as “legs,” akin to those found on many desktop keyboards. That’s inventive, but it’s not particularly ergonomic (experts recommend that you angle your keyboard the exact opposite direction). Fortunately, I’ve never suffered from RSI issues. Still, there’s another related annoyance: these little legs make the BrydgeAir less stable on my lap; it tips and bounces as I type. I eventually got used to the movement, but I wish the BrydgeAir lay flat instead.
Not a “case”
Other iPad keyboard solutions require that you clip the iPad into some sort of case—often one that can’t be detached from the keyboard. That was a non-starter for me; I prefer to use my iPad sans protection. Plus, I didn’t want to pry the tablet out of plastic armor every time I wanted to read.
The BrydgeAir handles detachment fairly well, although the same friction that secures the iPad while typing also makes the combo tougher to pull apart. I typically unfold the clamshell to 180°, grip each device with one hand, and pull in opposite directions.
There’s one disadvantage to the BrydgeAir’s detachability: what should I do with the keyboard when it’s not attached? Aluminum’s not the most durable material; it seems unwise to toss it into my bag with months-old bananas and car keys. Fortunately, because the BrydgeAir’s profile is nearly identical to the iPad itself, my WaterField sleeve holds it just fine. Then, when I’m ready to head out, I can dock the two devices and slip them both into the sleeve (the combo just fits). That’s more fiddly than I’d like, but it’s no worse than handling a standalone keyboard, the iPad, and a stand.
Great typing experience
My AmazonBasics keyboard works great, but it wouldn’t win any awards from the local chapter of the Typists Union. It’s got the mushy, plasticky feel I’d expect from a $25 keyboard.
As for the BrydgeAir… maybe my expectations for a chiclet-style keyboard are unrealistic. It doesn’t feel like a significant upgrade over the (far cheaper) Amazon alternative. The keys snap a bit more, but they’re noticably spongier than the full-size keycaps on my Dell workstation.
Another issue? The iPad occasionally registers two key presses for a single keystrike. This is endlessly irritating, but I don’t blame Brydge—that happened with other Bluetooth keyboards, too. Hopefully Apple can improve the reliability of its Bluetooth stack in upcoming releases. Or, better, perhaps we’ll see Brydge support the new “Smart Connector” when it migrates from the flagship iPad Pro to smaller devices. Hardware connections trump wireless every time—at least for reliability.
Because the BrydgeAir mirrors the iPad’s profile, the QWERTY keyboard gets compressed into a fairly small footprint. Those with big hands may find it cramped (though I haven’t had trouble adjusting). And shrinking the keyboard requires other, more irritating tradeoffs. A few useful keys—all included on my Amazon keyboard—are absent from the BrydgeAir. There’s no backspace, for example; I miss being able to delete both forwards and backwards. Function (Fn) is missing, which makes the Fn + Delete backspace shortcut impossible to perform. Finally, escape (Esc) is gone, too, which makes it tricky to dismiss dialog boxes and (especially) the over-helpful Siri.
Speaking of Apple’s “intelligent assistant”, the BrydgeAir boasts a dedicated Siri button at the bottom left corner. I use Siri too rarely to justify such prominent placement. Plus, it’s immediately adjacent to the Ctrl key; I frequently invoke Siri by accident, when I meant to cycle through Safari tabs. Siri would have been better relegated to the device’s function row, located above the numbers.
Useful function keys
The BrydgeAir’s top row of keys groups together convenient, iPad-specific functions. Here’s the run-down, in order:
- Home. Equivalent to hitting the Home button on the iPad itself. I understand why this is here, but you can’t really do anything from the Home screen without lifting your hands from the keyboard. Apple doesn’t support keyboard navigation outside of apps.
- Lock. This key puts the iPad to sleep–which proved surprisingly useful. Although some reviews claim that closing the BrydgeAir clamshell will automatically put the iPad to sleep, that never worked for me. With the dedicated lock button, I can quickly lock the iPad, close the BrydgeAir combo, and go. And when the iPad is sleeping, hitting this lock button summons the PIN keypad (which can be filled out via the external keyboard).
- Backlight control. The BrydgeAir boasts built-in backlighting, which is handy for couch computing in a dim environment. I’m a touch typist and a battery life miser, so I don’t expect to use this feature very often. Also, for what it’s worth, I notice significant “light bleed” around the keys (rather than through them). That could be a common problem for backlit keyboards (I’ve never had one before).
- iPad brightness controls. My old Bluetooth keyboard didn’t have this feature, but it’s a must-have from here on out. These keys are especially critical with the BrydgeAir; tight clearance between the iPad’s screen and the keyboard base makes it difficult to perform the “swipe up” gesture that surfaces iOS’s native brightness controls.
- Software keyboard show-hide. Typically, I wouldn’t need the software keyboard when using the BrydgeAir. However, iOS 9 allows users to “two-finger touch” the onscreen keyboard to move the typing cursor. If I were determined, I could invoke the software keyboard via the BrydgeAir’s dedicated key, lift my hand to re-place the cursor, then hit the key again to hide the onscreen UI. That seems clunky, but it does work.
- Search and browser (?) keys. Weirdly, these two buttons do the exact same thing: switch to the Home screen and show the Spotlight search interface. I wonder if Apple changed something in recent versions of iOS that made the browser key (marked with a globe) stop working correctly? In any case, it’s now wasted space. That’s especially painful, given the other keys that are missing (see above).
- Media controls. I don’t often listen to music on my iPad, but these are fairly standard controls on external keyboards these days.
- Volume controls. Ditto.
Here are a few quibbles and notes that didn’t fit above:
- The BrydgeAir boasts a pair of built-in, Bluetooth stereo speakers. These are wasted on me, since I bought the device solely for its keyboard / stand functionality. In fact, I hadn’t even tried the speakers before writing this review. My take? You’re better off using the iPad’s onboard unit. The BrydgeAir’s speakers sound relatively tinny and clipped, although they’re loud and stereo (unlike the iPad’s single speaker). Honestly, I’m surprised this feature made the final product; Brydge would have better off dropping the speakers—and the price.
- There’s a groove at the front of the BrydgeAir designed to make opening the clamshell easier. It’s a nice thought, but you’d need very long fingernails to use this indentation.
- The iPad-BrydgeAir combo feels great when closed. It’s heavy—but substantial, solid and secure.
- Brydge designed the BrydgeAir to match the original iPad Air—not the Air 2. On the first Air, the volume rocker and mute switch mirrored the BrydgeAir’s power switch and pairing buttons exactly. Apple dropped the mute switch with the iPad Air 2, but the BrydgeAir wasn’t updated, eliminating this little symmetric touch. The obsessive user might wrinkle his nose.
- I wish Brydge sold through Amazon. Yes, I’m spoiled, but I’ve grown accustomed to Amazon Prime’s two-day shipping. I ordered my BrydgeAir on a Saturday, and it didn’t arrive till the following Friday.
The BrydgeAir is a premium product in more ways than one. On the one hand, it’s pricier than the average iPad keyboard. The BrydgeAir typically retails for $149 through Brydge’s website. It’s on sale ($129) right now for Black Friday, and the right coupon code brings the total cost under $100. Still, that’s quite the price tag for a tablet accessory.
But, setting aside minor complaints, the BrydgeAir is also “premium” in terms of build quality and functionality. The device trumps nearly everything else on the market.
I’ve found my dedicated blogging machine.
- I reached out to Brydge’s support team for this issue. They wrote that both devices have to be “perfectly aligned” for this function to work. Then, they added this: “Some batches of iPad’s [sic] did have the magnetic polarity altered which has caused many accessories that offer the auto off function to not work. This is why we do not advertise this function as a feature of the Brydge.” Welp. Even if the feature worked, I probably wouldn’t rely on it. I need to know that the iPad is turned off, since I set a long auto-sleep timeout in Settings. I’ll stick to powering down manually. ↩
- The code I used, “GoDoMore”, offers a discount of $30 on the BrydgeAir. It appears to work with the Black Friday discount. ↩