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Tech Review: NUU’s MiniKey Keyboard for the iPhone 4

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A few weeks ago on this site I reviewed ThinkGeek’s TK-421 Bluetooth keyboard case for the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4. Since then I’ve had a chance to test the MiniKey, a similar product from NUU. NUU’s publicity states that the company is dedicated to producing innovative smartphone accessories that ‘provide convenience to the consumer’. Does the MiniKey live up to these worthy goals and how does it compare with ThinkGeek’s competing product?

Although NUU doesn’t call it a keyboard case, the MiniKey, like the TK-421, is a keyboard to which an iPhone can be attached. Both devices are roughly the same length and width as an iPhone and consist of two parts: a keyboard and a cradle-like case that is designed to permanently hold the phone (calling it a case is not entirely accurate because it only covers the back and sides of the phone). The MiniKey has several design differences from the TK-421, though. For one thing, it is only officially compatible with the iPhone 4. It can be used with a 3GS (and possibly other iOS devices that have Bluetooth capability) but with limitations.

The reason why the MiniKey is said to be designed for the iPhone 4 is because the case is molded to fit that device’s profile. The iPhone 3GS is a different shape from the iPhone 4 and is too wide to fit in the MiniKey’s case. However, the MiniKey can be used as a keyboard without attaching the phone. I tried using a 3GS by holding the MiniKey in one hand and positioning the phone where I could see the screen. I also used the MiniKey with the phone sitting loosely inside the cradle in a slightly inclined position that was conducive to typing. It might have looked odd to anyone around me but it worked.

Carrying the MiniKey around detached from the phone was a favorable option for me because I like to keep my phone inside a heavy-duty Otter Box case. It did seem like I had a second iPhone in my pocket. It felt less bulky and less likely to break than the TK-421 when carried without the phone attached. NUU’s product is made of a rubberized material that feels solid and resistant to scratching. Also, it doesn’t slip around as much as the TK-421 if you are typing on a smooth surface.

The design of the MiniKey integrates well with the iPhone 4 and has a smaller footprint than ThinkGeek’s product when open. Unlike the keyboard on the TK-421, which rotates out from under the attached case on a spindle, the keyboard on the MiniKey slides directly out from under the case. When fully exposed it is held in place by magnets and measures about two-thirds of the width of the phone. This makes the MiniKey’s keyboard much smaller than that of the TK-421. Consequently, there are fewer keys and the keys that are available are smaller.

I praised the TK-421 for a keyboard layout that made many keys easily accessible with only one or two taps. Although the MiniKey has a more compact keyboard, it also makes good use of space. Basically, each key has at least two options, with each option being accessible either directly or by tapping the Shift or Fn key. One tap on the Shift key before typing letters allows you to capitalize the first letter. The keyboard then reverts to lower case automatically. Tap the Shift key twice and you can type an entire word or sentence in capitals. This procedure also works with Shift and Fn when you want to type individual numbers and punctuation marks or a string of such characters.

In addition to Shift and Fn there is a Command Key. Tap this once and you can use the arrow keys to jump to the beginning or end of a document or line. If you select a word or text string using Shift and the arrow keys or by double-tapping the touch-screen, you can use Command + C and then Command + V to copy and paste. These key combinations are simple to use but redundant if you use the touch-screen method to select text because copy and paste are accessible with one additional tap on the screen. According to the MiniKey’s instructions, you can also use Command + A to select all text. Either the instructions are unclear or I was being dim because every time I tried this key combination nothing happened.

Notwithstanding this minor issue, using the MiniKey with an iPhone is easy. The first thing to do is charge it with the included USB cable. Once it has power, you switch it on using a small slider above the keys. The On switch of the MiniKey is much better designed than that of the TK-421, which was barely operable. The MiniKey’s switch also has three positions: Off, On and On with a backlight that illuminates the keys. The backlight is useful if you need to type in low light such as on an overnight flight or after the lights go out in a prison cell (well, why not?).

You pair the MiniKey with a phone by activating the latter’s Bluetooth option from its Settings app. As with other Bluetooth devices, you will be prompted to enter a four-digit code. I found this to be a quick and reliable process with the MiniKey. It retained the code even when put into stand-by mode (which you do by sliding the keyboard back under the case). This often wasn’t the case with the TK-421.

Typing on the MiniKey is better suited to thumb users than finger typists. Because the keys are small and stiff, I found it difficult to finger type for any length of time without getting cramp. Typing on the TK-421 was more comfortable over extended periods. When preparing longer blog posts, articles or reviews, therefore, I would prefer to use the ThinkGeek keyboard. For editing documents, texting or composing other short text pieces, I would opt for the MiniKey because of its ease of use, compact size and solidity.

One of the big benefits I found with both the TK-421 and the MiniKey Bluetooth keyboards is that they have arrow keys. If I were an iPhone designer, I would definitely include these on the touch-screen keyboard of the iPhone 5. Another neat option with the TK-421 was the ability to use both its keyboard and the iPhone’s native keyboard at the same time. The MiniKey doesn’t have this facility but there is a small button on the base that allows you to toggle between the external keyboard and the iPhone’s touch-screen keyboard. You can use this to access any special characters that the MiniKey doesn’t have.

As someone who uses my iPhone’s camera a lot to capture the surprising things my toddler does, I was pleased to see the hole in the MiniKey that allows the phone’s camera to work regardless of whether the keyboard is in use. This is a design benefit over the TK-421. With that device you have to swing out the keyboard if you want to take pictures.

Overall NUU’s MiniKey is a well thought-out and constructed iPhone peripheral. Its compact design makes it an unobtrusive attachment to an iPhone 4 and a lightweight extra you can take with a 3GS if you want to carry a keyboard in your travels. It is a less comfortable keyboard to type on than models with bigger keys but those devices tend to be less portable. Whether the MiniKey works for you will partly depend on which side of that trade-off you’re on. Considered with reference to NUU’s publicity material and the growing iPhone keyboard marketplace, I wouldn’t call the MiniKey innovative. If you’re a whizz with your thumbs, though, it could definitely be convenient.

Product images for this review were provided by NUU Limited.

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About Michael Simpson