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Thursday, March 15, 2012

ZAGGfolio Review

When I first saw keyboard docks for tablets I always thought it seemed like a stupid idea. The first one I saw was the iPad Keyboard Dock. It seemed pretty clumsy and riddled with design problems. It was oddly shaped making it hard to pack around; it only supported portrait mode; it was a wired dock making it only useful for the iPad; it was expensive at about $100.

The idea of using a physical keyboard always made a lot of sense to me. Using a physical keyboard was certainly more productive than using the on-screen one. I could touch type just like I was used to. Plus, the physical keyboard doesn’t take up any screen real estate. But it also meant having the cart around 2 devices: the iPad and a keyboard. And if you didn’t have a smart cover you would need a stand of some kind. In the end, for all the sense it made to have a physical keyboard it just seemed like a big hassle to effectively reproduce the laptop experience with a tablet. By the time you add up the cost of all of the accessories you may as well have just bought the laptop.

But this line of thinking is flawed. An iPad with all of these accessories is not the same as a laptop. For one thing the laptop is usually much larger. Full laptops have less battery life. They don’t have touch screens. They don’t have built in 3G connectivity12. They’re less versatile – you can’t leave the keyboard and mouse behind. They allow for more distractions with multiple windows and multi-tasking.

With the advances in OS X Lion a regular laptop can help with focus using full screen apps. But battery life is still a problem. And you have no choice but to cart around the keyboard and trackpad with you where ever you go. The difference between and touch screen and a mouse is huge. The touch screen feels much more intimate and tactile; like you’re interacting directly with the machine. Using a surrogate virtual finger just isn’t the same; it’s less accurate and fiddly.

So, after much pondering I decided to give the ZAGGfolio a try.

The Case

The case has a hard plastic exterior with a soft lining inside to protect the iPad from scratches. When opened and laying flat the keyboard takes up one side while the iPad slides into the other. The case is designed such that both the keyboard and iPad can be removed. During my tests I found it cumbersome to remove the keyboard. More often than not I would end up not having the keyboard properly aligned. In practice the removal of the keyboard is something I can’t imagine anyone doing with much frequency. The iPad on the other hand didn’t have this problem.

Inserting the iPad is very simple; so is removing it. The slide for the iPad is snug, but not so tight that it’s impossible to align it properly. If I had to complain about the snugness of the case I’d say that removing the iPad can be on the difficult side. I like to be very gentle with my iPad so the amount of force I had to use to grip the iPad while pulling it out was too much for me. I noticed that the LCD started showing some pressure effects which made me nervous. In order to remove the iPad I had to hold the iPad at the bezel and push the case off. This is in contrast to the feeling of pulling the iPad out of the case.

When the iPad is in the case all of the external ports and speaker are still available. The volume buttons and mute switch are along the top of the device when it’s open. The home button is halfway up the right side. The headphone jack is safely at the bottom on the left.

Speaking of the headphone jack: the case is has a notch, not a hole for the headphone jack. When I first saw this I didn’t understand what it was for. But after playing around with the case it became clear. Having a notch means that you can open and close the case with your headphones plugged in. If Zagg had chosen to just use a hole for the headphone jack you would have to remove your headphones any time you wanted to open or close the case. Smart.

The Keyboard

With the keyboard out the iPad can be put into it and used as an easel in any orientation: landscape or portrait, upside down or right side up, left or right. In addition to the keyboard’s ability to be used as an easel, the case can also act as a stand so that just the keyboard can be removed and used separately. I haven’t tried this configuration since I don’t see the utility, but it’s nice to know its there if I need it.

As you would expect, the keyboard contains the standard compliment of keys. In addition, there is a line of “function” keys along the top row of the keyboard. These keys give you quick access to all sorts of features. These keys are:

  • Home, to go to the home screen.
  • Spotlight, to go to the spotlight search.
  • Picture Frame, to lock the screen and show a slide show of the photos in your camera roll.
  • Keyboard, to toggle the on-screen keyboard.
  • Cut, Copy and Paste, to do what you’d expect.
  • Previous, Play/Pause, Next, to control media playback.
  • Mute, Volume Up and Volume Down, to control volume.
  • Lock, to turn off the screen and lock the iPad.

The keyboard is smaller than I’m used to. Even so, I found it to be perfectly be usable for anything I needed to type up. Using the external keyboard has been a really great experience. I like having the tactile feedback from a physical keyboard. Plus, having the physical keyboard means that I have more room on screen for the document I’m working on.

I did notice a few strange things with the keyboard layout though. For one, the screen lock key is directly above the backspace (or delete) key. If you mistype a word and need to correct it, you may end up inadvertently locking your screen. Many of the function keys really seemed like a stretch to me. Do I really need special keys dedicated to clipboard functions? If you’ve used a computer at all in the past 30 years you’ll probably be familiar with the standard key combinations for these commands. Do I need a key to turn on the on screen keyboard? Probably not. I bought an external keyboard so that I wouldn’t have to use the on screen one.

Perhaps I’m an outlier, but if I had to chose between having those function keys and having a larger inverted “T” for the arrow keys I would have picked the arrow keys.

Also, the caps lock key doesn’t have an indicator light. I never know if it’s on or off without first typing something. In practice I found this to be more of a nuisance than anything, but it still feels like an omission. My Apple Bluetooth keyboard has an indicator light and it runs on batteries, same as the ZAGG keyboard. Under normal usage, the indicator would only be on a tiny fraction of the amount of time the keyboard is in use.

Battery Life

When I got the ZAGGfolio home I opened the box, put my iPad in and started working with it. I never bothered to give the battery an initial charge; I just started using it with whatever juice came from the factory. In the month or so since I bought it I have yet to charge the keyboard battery. This is par for the course as far as Bluetooth keyboards go. I’m guessing I’ll need to charge the battery sometime in the next few months. But that brings up an interesting point.

The ZAGGfolio, and in fact all of the ZAGG Bluetooth keyboards for the iPad, have an internal, non user serviceable battery. This is a design trade off. On the positive side Zagg is free to design the keyboard however they want. Without any constraints around standard batteries and how the user will have to replace them Zagg was able to make the keyboard slimmer. But this also means that the user can’t replace the batteries when the run out. The user has to charge the device using the provided USB cable instead. The keyboard doesn’t come with a wall wart for charging, so you need to be near something that can charge a USB device.

Luckily, the charging light on the keyboard will flash when there’s about 20% battery remaining which should give enough time to find an outlet.

I thought the ZAGGfolio would be an interesting experiment. I knew it would make typing on the iPad a lot easier and make it more useable as a content creation device. What I didn’t know was how deeply it would affect me. When first using the Zaggfolio with the iPad I would constantly be trying to reach for a pointing device (mouse, trackpad, trackball) when I needed to move the cursor. After a while I got used to using the touch screen. But, after using the ZAGGfolio almost exclusively for a few days going back to the MacBook Air was a little jarring. I’d constantly be trying to reach up and touch the screen to tap on icons to drag things around. After using direct interaction for a short time, using a surrogate seemed crazy, slow, and abstract.

Keyboard Navigation

Unfortunately iOS isn’t designed from the ground up to use external keyboards and all of the interaction baggage they carry along. Specfically missing is the ability to tab between fields in data entry applications. I use OmniFocus to keep track of tasks that need to get done. But I can’t tab between fields when entering new tasks. I have to type, reach up, tap, repeat. It works alright, but it’s certainly not ideal.


I’m still sort of on the fence about the ZAGGfolio. I think it’s an interesting idea and very well executed. I’m just not sure it’s for me. At $100 it’s no small chunk of change. If you’re the kind of person that can get by without a laptop, need the extra versatility that it provides, or someone that travels a lot then you’d be hard pressed to find another accessory that offers what the ZAGGfolio offers.

If you don’t travel often, or are just as comfortable with a laptop then it’s a much harder sell.

  1. Although 3G connectivity isn’t built into every model it’s an option unlike a regular laptop. ↩

  2. It’s true you can get 3G connectivity on a laptop using a MiFi or a Rocket Stick but these are addons. One’s an extra device you need to carry, the other is a USB dongle you have to plug in. Either way these are poor substitutes for built in support. ↩