Last year’s “Ultimate Keyboard” for the iPad sure ticked a lot of boxes, but didn’t totally nail it. Can the second attempt clinch it for Belkin over other brands?
Apple’s iPad is one of the only tablets on the market that has the pleasure of having so many keyboard cases made for it. It seems to be an area peripheral manufacturers take joy in, creating different styles of devices that make it possible to turn one of the best content consumption devices out there into one of the most portable content creation products available.
Belkin chimed in last year with what it claims was the “ultimate” in cases, and while it was a decent model, it doesn’t matter for the current iPad because the Air has a totally different design, and therefore you need something different.
Ready for Apple’s current flagship, the new Ultimate Keyboard Case from Belkin is also called the QODE — why, well, we have no idea… let’s call it a Quick Operating Data Entry device — and comprises of a metal and plastic design providing a plastic moulded case for the iPad Air with sections carved out for the power buttons, headphone jack, rear camera, and of course a section for the iPad Air’s Lightning Dock charge port and bottom speakers, connecting by vinyl to a metal fold over case with a keyboard built in.
The Ultimate Keyboard Case relies on magnets built into both sections to keep the iPad upright, and in this case, you’ll find three rows of them, with the idea that Belkin has effectively provided three positions to situate the iPad.
The keyboard relies on an island key configuration of a smaller QWERTY keyboard, and specialty function keys are also included, mapped with the function or “Fn” button to various other keys, with support for media playback, volume, on-screen keyboard viewing, screen lock, and others.
Belkin’s keyboard case, like so many out there, connects to the iPad Air by way of Bluetooth and features an in-built battery that charges over a standard microUSB port, the same way most smartphones take their charge.
For the second generation of its “Ultimate Keyboard,” Belkin has done some rethinking, as well as some listening to the criticism sent its way from the first one.
Some of the most obvious criticism came from its magnets which were in the first iteration reasonably weak. Actually, it wasn’t that they were weak, but rather in the wrong location, with the centre being the only place the magnets sat.
One location doesn’t appear to be enough for a near 10 inch metal encased tablet, and we even suggested — both in the review and in comments to Belkin staffers — that two magnets would be more ideal.
This year, the company has listened, with two magnetic points available in the Ultimate Keyboard, showing up as lines on the left and right edges, and giving the iPad Air a much firmer hold position.
With two magnets, an iPad Air in the Belkin Ultimate Keyboard case feels stronger and more reliable, surviving our dreaded bus test by dealing with the momentum and not snapping too far forward, except in cases where we’ve seen extreme braking and obvious inertia pulls that are too hard for the case to deal with.
In fact, it even survives when we hold it upside down, which is obviously not the usage scenario it was built for, but is still interesting all the same.
Belkin’s moulded case hugs the iPad Air reasonably tightly, though the corners don’t seem to connect as well as they should. They’ll hold, that said, but the iPad Air doesn’t click into place the way it feels like it should.
That said, after carrying it around for a couple of weeks, it works nicely, and the case is also thinner and better built from our tests, with the metal casing by the keyboard coming off as more durable, while the plastic body moulding feels stronger with some wraparound vinyl that holds the iPad in case to the keyboard.
Belkin even makes it possible to not use the keyboard if you so choose, and the tablet can sit on top without touching the magnets, which will deactivate the keyboard and let you use the iPad without typing. Basically, the keyboard will only kick into gear when the magnets are engaged, which is an intelligent way of working out when you want to use the keys, or hide them behind the tablet.
And that leads us to the important part, which on a keyboard case is, understandably, the keyboard.
For the most part, the typing experience is enjoyable and comfortable, especially if you’re the sort that happily hunts and pecks with speed.
The island keys, also known as a “chiclet” keyboard, help to make the keys easy to press, and there’s enough travel to be comfortable but not feel like your fingers are striking down on something too shallow.
And it’s really nice to see that the edges that came up on the sides have been removed, filed down so that they’re flat and easy for your hands and palms to lay on, rather than feel confined in the small rectangular space that is the keyboard’s typing region.
Some keys, though, aren’t in the right space, and if you’re coming from a Mac keyboard — or really any regular keyboard for that matter — you may be a little confused, and end up typing wrong letter.
Like the colon and semi-colon key. This normally sits next to the “L” key on a keyboard, and yet in the latest incarnation of the Belkin Ultimate Keyboard, this has been changed to the odd location of the right of the space bar.
So, if you use the colon key and your fingers have memorised the placement, what you’ll actually end up typing is L. In reviews, for instance, we set them up with subheads, and so rather than type “SUB:” we found we were typing “SUBL.”
The curious thing about this is that there was no real reason to move the key, because even though the iPad Air is a different size from the older iPad 2 through 4 models, it’s not a dramatically different surface area.
But it’s not just a different positioning, with some smaller keys applied here, too. And with smaller keys, you may find yourself pressing keys that you didn’t expect, such as the enter key when you’re meant to be pressing the apostrophe and quote key.
This one got to us more often than others, because the enter key was closer than we expected, and often typing an apostrophe would give us the wrong character, providing a carriage return rather than the punctuation we actually needed.
If limited space is an issue, it doesn’t help that Belkin has provided a couple centimetres of margins on either side of the keyboard, which is room the company could probably have made work to its advantage.
And then there are keys which feel like they do nothing, like the function button for the colon key, which is mapped to open up a web browser when used in conjunction with the “Fn” button, but doesn’t seem to do a single thing.
Also, seriously, do we really need a dedicated key for Siri, and does it need to be in a more prominent position than the Alt or Command keys?
This reviewer isn’t so sure, yet lo and behold, one is here, taking up space when it could probably be used as a function button on another key, like that internet shortcut on the colon key which is presently doing nothing.
You also won’t find a caps lock light here, which is a design issue left over from the previous generation. If it’s important to you, it’ll be pretty easy to work out if you it’s on, especially when you start typing IN THE ANGRY ALL-CAPS. If that’s the case, simply hit the Caps Lock button to switch it off.
Belkin’s second attempt manages to improve on both the typing experience and magnet case design, but somehow also dents the whole keyboard design in the process.
We’re in two minds about the new QODE case, though: on the one hand, there’s a really great keyboard case here, and those who rely on the iPad Air to write emails and documents will no doubt find that, but if you’re used to specific locations of keys and you can’t change your learning, this will be a hard one to get used to thanks to some of the design decisions here.
If that doesn’t bother you, it’s a great addition to the iPad Air, especially if you want a keyboard that you can use on transport.