There are many manufacturers of gadgets these days but only one has the goofy fanboy flavor that characterizes ThinkGeek. Trawl through their catalog and you’ll come across products that range from practical to just plain silly. On the face of it the TK-421 iPhone keyboard falls into the former category. It offers the possibility of easier report writing for busy professionals on the go. So just how productive can this add-on to your iLife be?
Over time the iPhone has matured as a productivity aid. One important change has been the addition of support for Bluetooth devices such as keyboards. As a result, several are either on or heading to the market. In addition to the TK-421 these include Nuu’s MiniKey (which I’ll be reviewing here shortly), devices from Duragadget and BoxWave and fold-out models from Cervantes Mobile (the Jorno) and Verbatim.
ThinkGeek describes the TK-421 (above) as a case with a flip-out keyboard. This is because the keyboard component is attached to a plastic shell that cradles the back of the iPhone. The keyboard rotates under this cradle when not in use by means of a central splindle. The spindle design means that the screen can’t be angled to face the user. Given that the phone is heavier than the keyboard, though, that makes sense. The unit would otherwise keep tipping backwards. Because the keyboard flips under the phone along the horizontal and not via a hinge, however, you have to support the screen with something even if you use it flat on a table. Nonetheless the design is flexible enough that you can also cradle it on your pinkies and type with your thumbs.
At first glance the TK-421 appears to have several advantages over the competition. Aside from having a cool name that is a reference to Star Wars, it is also relatively cheap. You can get it for around US$50, which is substantially less than the Verbatim and BoxWave models (but more than Duragadget’s). It also comes in versions designed for either the iPhone 3GS or the iPhone 4. Some other keyboards, including the MiniKey and BoxWave’s Keyboard Buddy, are designed for the iPhone 4 and may not integrate as well (or at all) with the older Apple product.
One other plus of the TK-421 is its small footprint. Because the keyboard is designed to rotate under the phone when not in use, the TK-421 is no wider than the iPhone is tall. I found this to be particularly advantageous when working in the confined space of an Economy class aircraft tray table. One disadvantage is that the keys are necessarily small. This might be a problem if you have hands like Shrek’s. I’ve also read criticisms of the extra thickness the keyboard adds to the phone. I like that feature because I tend to lose things with smooth surfaces out of my pockets. When the TK-421 is attached, I’m less likely to drop my iPhone without realizing.
The TK-421 comes packaged in a suitably sized cardboard box complete with instruction sheet and a USB cable for charging. My first impression was that without the phone attached it felt lightweight and flimsy. That changed once I connected the two. The fit of the case is tight and the bond is secure when you get the phone in.
As with many gadgets, the first thing you should do with the TK-421 is charge it. This is done by plugging the included USB cable into a computer. With the first TK-421 that I tried, I had some trouble getting the cable into the port on the back of the keyboard. The device also didn’t want to let it go when it was time to take the cable out. Moreover, the end of the cable that attaches to the keyboard is a non-standard size, which could be a real pain if you lose it.
The next niggle came when the keyboard was fully charged and I wanted to switch it on. The On/Off switch is small, stiff and inconveniently located in a small recess beside the spindle (see graphic below). This position and design makes it difficult to move with a finger or thumb. Also, there is little room to wedge in something you can use to flip the switch. In the long run this is not likely to be a major problem; the device powers down when not in use, so you aren’t likely to use the main On/Off switch very often. However, I found it irritating on those occasions when I needed to do a reset.
Connecting the iPhone and keyboard via Bluetooth is straightforward. The pairing process is activated in the TK-421 by pressing a small linear button at the top of the keyboard. Again, the small size of the button may be awkward for anyone with big fingers but a fingernail or other small-headed object should work. Pairing is accomplished on the iPhone by activating Bluetooth from the Settings/General menu and tapping the device name when the iPhone detects it. This brings up a prompt to enter a four-digit code and press Enter on the keyboard. Once I got the code, pairing worked every time. There were occasions, however, when I had to get my iPhone to ‘forget’ the device and then re-detect it before it would give me the code.
With the iPhone and TK-421 paired, you can begin typing. I tested the keyboard using several programs, including the iPhone’s native Notes and e-mail software and the premium version of the DataViz’s Documents 2 Go app. Since I do a lot of work on the go, integration of a keyboard with Documents 2 Go is a must. The TK-421 generally worked very well with this software. It made writing reports and reviews (including most of this one) significantly easier for me than using the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard. One of the main advantages is that the TK-421 has a more keys available at any time. For example, while the iPhone’s native keyboard presents letters, numbers or symbols separately, the TK-421 provides one-click access to letters and numbers just like a standard keyboard. Symbols are accessible by pressing the Shift or the Fn key.
A neat touch is the ability to use both the TK-421 and the on-screen keyboard together. This allows you to have one-click access to a wider range of keys than with either keyboard alone. For example, you can have punctuation symbols displayed on the on-screen keyboard while letters and numbers are accessible on the TK-421. If you are already used to the iPhone’s native keyboard, this makes typing a lot quicker than becoming familiar with the TK-421′s key layout. To access this feature, click the Fn key and the ‘;/:’ key.
Another plus is the inclusion of some keys that aren’t anywhere on the native keyboard. I have found the most useful of these to be the arrow keys. These make editing easier than the iPhone’s on-screen tap-and-scroll method if I need to reposition the cursor.
I did experience a few problems typing in Documents to Go but I concluded that some of these were due to the software, a dodgy Bluetooth link or the recent upgrade to the iPhone’s operating system (iOS 4.3). On one occasion I went into Documents 2 Go and although i could use the iPhone convention of double tapping on text to highlight it, the TK-421′s backspace key did not respond. I went into the phone’s Bluetooth settings and confirmed that the device and phone were still paired and then tried typing in the Notes app. That worked fine. I went back into Documents 2 Go and was able to type successfully. To confirm things were working consistently I typed in Notes again without a problem. When I went back to Documents 2 Go, however, it didn’t work again. I reset the keyboard by switching it off and on and it worked fine for a while thereafter. On another occassion the keyboard seemed to be typing in Documents 2 Go by itself. A reboot of the iPhone stopped this.
Some of these issues and the other operational difficulties that I’ve referred to in this review might also have been due to a faulty unit. On the first TK-421 that I tried the ‘q’ key did not work and the Space button did not click like the other keys, so I didn’t always know if it was responding to my touch. After I reported these problems to ThinkGeek, they speedily provided a replacement. The second unit had no physical defects and I haven’t experienced the software issues I was previously having.
Overall, the TK-421 has been a helpful and enjoyable device to use. In combination with Documents 2 Go it has been an excellent aid to working on planes, trains, taxis and in dull meetings. Its advantages over the on-screen keyboard include added screen space, one click acess to more keys and the availability of some keys that the native keybaord doesn’t provide. If you are looking for a small-footprint external keyboard at a very reasonable price and can tolerate the small design flaws, the TK-421 is definitely worth a look. If you have the iPhone 4, Nuu’s MiniKey offers something similar. A sample should be landing on my desk any day now. Check back soon for a review and comparison with the TK-421.