Review by Andrew Kameka on Monday January 27, 2014.
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Everyone who owned a smartphone prior to 2007 fondly remembers furiously typing on a physical keyboard. "I could type on that thing without even looking," someone might say about the old Treo or Dash long since discarded. Before the iPhone made the touchscreen mainstream, a physical keyboard was a must-have attribute. Today, it's a dinosaur feature only BlackBerry wishes to exhume.
The trouble with relying solely on BlackBerry for your QWERTY keyboard fix is that it also makes you dependent on an operating system that has seen brighter days. If you want to have a physical keyboard experience without missing out on what an iPhone has to offer, Typo Keyboard wants to be your solution. Created for the sole purpose of converting an iPhone into a device capable of meeting the needs of typing traditionalists, the Typo connects a four-row Bluetooth keyboard that can mix the old with the new. Be warned that it's not a mixture that everyone will find fulfilling.
Hardware and Design
Typo Keyboard is a two-piece accessory that is a case and keyboard. The back has a smooth matte texture common among iPhone cases, and the front keyboard is composed of thin plastic keys that slant left or right in order to counteract the tendency of mashing fingers to hit one letter and then mistakenly touch another. Typo cannot lay claim to this design because it is a shameless ripoff of BlackBerry. No honest person can look at the Typo Keyboard and not draw a straight line of inspiration from the BlackBerry Q10. The trail is so obvious that BlackBerry is suing Typo to keep them from releasing the device. (You can read more about the case here).
Though it may have the looks of a BlackBerry, no one who actually touches Typo will mistake this keyboard for something fresh out of the labs in Waterloo. The layout is the same and makes sense, but it lacks the responsive depth of traditional keyboards, so Typo keys feel cheaper and don't have as much weight to them. The keyboard has the favorable effect of creating more viewing areas of the screen because you no longer obstruct it with a virtual keyboard. The iPhone 5 and 5s-compatible Typo has the unfavorable side effect of obstructing the bottom of the phone. The flat and extended positioning makes it difficult to swipe from the bottom up to get to Control Center. It also covers the Touch ID sensor/home button, so users must give up on Touch ID and use the smaller home button on the bottom right of the keyboard.
Typing with Typo is sometimes refreshing. After a few days sending out tweets, group chatting in Hangouts, and taking Notes, I was moving at a decent pace. If you've ever typed on a BlackBerry smartphone, you will adapt very quickly to Typo. I lent my BlackBerry-wielding cousin my phone recently and within hours she was typing on the device with solid speed and accuracy. The slim frame of the device required that I make adjustments to physical typing, so the slender keys forced my fat fingers to be a little more graceful to operate in a smaller space. I also had to break my habit of rapid fire tapping and relying on auto-correct because Apple does not grant Bluetooth keyboards access to its auto-correct engine. As a result, there were more cases of "Hey egerybpdy" instead of "Hey everybody." Typo provides some correction for contractions so "cant" becomes "can't," but users will need to commonly need to tap on the screen to fix at least one error since the correction is not nearly as robust. For instance, it routinely failed to recognize possessive words like "woman's" and left the text as the incorrect "womans."
Typo places common punctuation on existing letters that users can find by pressing "Alt." Tapping Alt+B inserts a question mark, double tapping the space bar adds a period, and holding down on a letter or tapping the up arrow will capitalize it. Within a few days, I got comfortable enough to type with some consistency and really cut down my errors. According to a few unscientific iPhone typing tests, I averaged about 45 per minute with Typo. I reached 60 wpm with the virtual keyboard, but results will vary. My aforementioned cousin maxed out at 61 words per minute with Typo, so there may be hope for this device among the slow on-screen typists after all.
A "real" keyboard on an iPhone presented small challenges. Typo creates awkward moments when trying to enter text with headphones or a charging cable plugged in. The same is true when charging the 180 mAh battery tucked inside of Typo. While we're on the subject of battery, be prepared to see your phone lose a lot of it. I only have to charge Typo once every 6 days, which is very good. (Typo promises 7 to 14 days but I used it with above average frequency during testing, which might explain the discrepancy.) Keeping Bluetooth constantly on throughout the day and having the phone momentarily turning on because of accidental button presses will drain your iPhone's battery by a noticeable margin. Though it's not an astronomical drop, the loss in battery life is enough to make you wonder if "better" typing is really a top priority.
Typo is a prime example of what can happen when someone has a stellar idea but a so-so execution of realizing that dream. The $99 keyboard works and delivers on its promise to make typing on an iPhone more comfortable for people who crave physical keyboards, but it also makes mistakes that negatively affect the iPhone. Despite being an accessory that is complementary to its main product in one regard, Typo is a cure with more than a couple unintended side effects. Accessories should enhance a product, not get in the way of core functions. I'm there's a small portion of users who would benefit from having a proper keyboard to transition to iOS, but only those users will enjoy using it. Unless you are a terrible on-screen typists or a new convert to iOS who desperately wants the physical feedback of punching a key and seeing it appear on screen, the Typo keyboard is a relic best left to the people who truly need it.
Andrew is MobileBurn.com's managing editor. He is based in Miami, Florida.