TouchFire keyboard cover for iPad a totable solution
BY ANDY IHNATKO July 11, 2012 1:40PM
The alignment is perfect, every time. One drawback, though: the rubber attracts schmutz like you wouldn't believe. Andy Ihnatko Photo
To keyboard, or not to keyboard? That is the question. Is typing on an iPad a copout? Is it a betrayal of everything that a slate computer is, should be, and can day become?
No, seriously. I think this question will define the slate market in the coming 18 months. But I’ll bore you with that discussion at a later date. My agenda for today is to bore you with a review of an interesting accessory that attempts to spackle the usability gap between the iPad’s onscreen touch keyboard and a Bluetooth one. The onscreen one takes up zero space and it’s always with you, but provides zero tactical feedback and you need to keep your eyes on the keyboard at all times. You can type as fast on a Bluetooth keyboard as you can on a notebook, and the physical keys allow you to touch-type...but it’s Another Damn Thing you need to carry around with you.
The $49 TouchFire Screen-Top Keyboard (order it from TouchFire.com) is a thin rubber overlay for the iPad’s onscreen keyboard. It’s an obvious solution, isn’t it? You can see the virtual keys through the clear silicone. Its raised, square bubbles give your fingertips something to orient themselves on, and you can rest your fingers on them without making accidental keypresses.
So why hasn’t this kind of thing shown up on the market before?
Why, for that matter, is this product shipping several months later than its creators promised? The project was launched on Kickstarter last year, and it was funded twenty times over its $10,000 goal by 3,146 backers.
One source of the delay was a happy one: after sourcing manufacturing in China (the hub of the world’s expertise in tricky molding), the makers were approached by a Los Angeles-based company who convinced them to move all mold and manufacturing operations to the US. Lovely.
But overall, this is a deceptively complicated sort of product that had to jump through a lot of hoops before it was ready for consumers. I’ve been sent other iPad keyboard overlays before and after TouchFire’s Kickstarter project. Good Intentions were the only good thing about any of them.
The TouchFire seems to have solved all of the problems. The TouchFire correctly aligns itself over the keyboard automagically. It uses the iPad 2 and 3’s built-in screen magnets to orient and affix itself. Toss it on and CLICK...perfect alignment, without any need to fiddle around.
Secondly, the feel of the keyboard is almost spot-on. A rubber overlay will never approximate the comfort and speed of a mechanical keyboard, of course. But it provides just enough resistance to reassure your fingertips that all is well, thanks largely to little dimples under each key that provide extra support. I managed to type at well above 60 with the TouchFire, compared to a little under 50 with the plain onscreen keyboard (and well above 100 on my Bluetooth iPad keyboard).
The magnets and the rubber’s natural grippiness hold the TouchFire securely in place as you type. But the iPad’s onscreen keyboard rolls away when you’re not using it. What happens to the TouchFire when you’re not using it? You can just dislodge the two magnetic “ears” at the top and flop it down out of the way, and then flop it right back up again. The wide strip of magnets at the bottom keeps it in position. It removes and reattaches so quickly that it’s also not a problem to just toss it aside.
The TouchFire is slim and flat. You can easily keep it sandwiched between the iPad and a smart cover. It doesn’t even look particularly weird. I’ve been carrying it around for a couple of weeks, and the TouchFire hasn’t left a single mark on the screen.
The TouchFire also comes with a ruler-shaped hard plastic storage box. Nice bonus. You can travel with the TouchFire without feeling like you need to keep it on your iPad 24/7 for its own protection.
Speaking of which: how durable is this thing?
That was my primary concern when I first saw the TouchFire on Kickstarter. I was reminded of the silicone muffin pan I once owned. It was a fantastic thing for a few weeks. Then it tore. I didn’t buy another one.
Tearing is an obvious concern. I’m also worried that the keys will lose their shape over time, particularly if I were to fall into the habit of leaving it squashed between the cover and the screen instead of taking it off when I won’t be using it for a while.
It feels super-thin and super-floppy, like the top skin on a bowl of Jello. But only time will prove how durable the TouchFire is. Like just about everything made from silicone, it will indeed attract dust and lint and crumbs, but all of that schmutz washes off with warm water.
The TouchFire is a good product. It does everything its creators says it does. I can type faster and more comfortably with it in place. It’s easy to carry around with my iPad, and it’s easy to put on and take off.
After writing about 10,000 words with it (including this review), I’m left with only one qualm: I can’t form a clear image of the TouchFire’s ideal user.
A mechanical Bluetooth keyboard is a transformative iPad accessory. It turns the tablet into something akin to a notebook and it does it so successfully that these days, I rarely travel with my MacBook. The TouchFire isn’t transformative. Sure, it makes the onscreen keyboard more comfortable, but it’s still a thin, soft chiclet keyboard. Yes, it’s barely noticeable when sandwiched between a smart cover and the screen, but it’s still an additional accessory that you need to purchase (at non-negligible cost) and carry around with you.
Then there’s the price. $49? Yikes. Even after using the TouchFire regularly, becoming quite familiar with it, and forming an appreciation for what it can do...it still seems like an awful lot of money. If you don’t intend to take especially good care of this little sheet of silicone, I’d recommend waiting a few months just to see how well the first round of TouchFires hold up against normal day to day abuse.
“If you want to type for real, take a keyboard; for maximum convenience, learn to accept the limitations of the bare onscreen keyboard.” I’m putting that in quotes, because it represents solely a point of view and not a statement of fact. For iPad users who want to make the iPad more comfortable to type on without making it any harder to tote around, the TouchFire is a unique, successful, and, yes, pricey, answer.