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A Physical Keyboard for the iPhone

The new iPhone case from Typo Products adds a BlackBerry-like keyboard to the iPhone 5 or 5s. But there are trade-offs.

Typo Products

Ever since the iPhone debuted with its multi-touch interface, typing on glass has largely replaced the earlier method of typing on small plastic keyboards built into smartphones. The device most famous for its physical keyboard, the BlackBerry, has fallen out of favor, and the early Android models that included physical keyboards are much rarer today.

But some people who have switched to the iPhone from a BlackBerry still miss the tactile keys. They miss the rapid, fairly accurate, two-thumbs typing they mastered on their old phones. Some even go so far as to carry an aging BlackBerry along with their shiny new iPhones, primarily for email. Even those who type on glass all the time sometimes adjust by composing shorter emails, or by adding a signature line begging forgiveness in advance for typos and odd auto-corrections.

Now, a new company, Typo Products, is introducing a $99 iPhone case that comes with a built-in, backlit physical keyboard at the bottom edge. I’ve been testing the Typo keyboard, and can recommend it for physical keyboard die-hards. It has some trade-offs, and won’t likely appeal to most iPhone users who never became thumb-typing wizards. But those who miss physical keyboards will love this thing.

In fact, the company was launched by a Las Vegas taxi-advertising executive, with TV personality Ryan Seacrest, because both were strong fans of physical keyboards, and each was carrying two phones.

The Typo, which works only with the iPhone 5 or 5s, is a Bluetooth keyboard, and must be paired with the iPhone — one time only — before you first use it. I found this to be easy and quick.

It attaches physically easily, as well. It’s a two-piece case whose halves snap together in the middle. It has the usual holes to provide access to the phone’s buttons and for the camera. The company says the case provides some added protection for the phone, but isn’t primarily built for protection.

The keyboard itself is a four-row version, with sculpted keys that look and work much like a BlackBerry keyboard. In fact, BlackBerry has already sued Typo, claiming patent infringement. Typo says its product is “innovative” and doesn’t violate BlackBerry’s patents.

Once you set up the Typo, it takes over from the iPhone’s software keyboard anywhere text can be entered — email, texts, notes, etc. A key on the Typo can summon the software keyboard if you like.

The Typo also has a key to turn on backlighting, and another that mimics the behavior of the iPhone’s famous round home button, because — and here’s the first trade-off — unlike any other case I’ve seen, it covers the home button. The Typo’s substitute is a tiny key at the lower-right edge, so it isn’t as convenient as the real thing.

Oh, and on the iPhone 5s, you lose the use of the fingerprint-recognition feature, which is built into the home button, so you’re back to typing in passwords to log in to the phone. You don’t lose access to the Siri intelligent assistant, however. Holding down the Typo’s home key triggers it.

I found that the Typo does its job well. While I’m no thumb-typing Jedi, and have no problem with typing on glass, I was able to thumb-type pretty quickly and accurately on the Typo. A couple of former BlackBerry addicts I spoke with who had tried it were over the moon about it.

The Typo has some common auto-correction features built in, such as the ability to enter a period by hitting the space bar twice, and the smarts to auto-insert the apostrophe in words like “couldn’t” and “wouldn’t.” But Apple’s automatic spelling correction doesn’t work when it’s connected.

There are other keyboard cases for the iPhone. I haven’t tested them, but most have slide-out keyboards that hide away when not in use. The Typo’s keyboard is always ready to use, but it sits at the bottom of the phone’s long rectangular screen.

The good part about this design is that, unlike the virtual keyboard, it doesn’t take up any space on the screen. The bad part is that it adds about half an inch to the length of the phone, and makes it a bit harder to plug in headphones and power cords, whose sockets are now recessed beneath the protruding keyboard.

The Typo doesn’t draw its power from the phone’s battery, so it must be charged separately, with a separate cable. This can be an annoyance, but the company claims the keyboard will last one to two weeks between charges. In my shorter tests, it never ran out of juice.

Another trade-off: Because the keyboard’s top edge comes so close to the bottom edge of the screen, I found it made it hard to accurately tap on buttons and links that appeared on the display’s bottom edge.

In addition, there’s no key to initiate dictation. You have to bring up the virtual keyboard and tap the microphone key to dictate.

And the added length makes the whole iPhone a bit top-heavy, especially when typing, but I was able to adjust quickly by slightly changing my usual grip.

I ran into one bug. The keyboard wouldn’t work at all in the phone’s universal search bar until I rebooted the phone, as instructed by a Typo spokeswoman.

The company concedes that the Typo is a “niche” product, for a minority of iPhone users. I agree. But I also agree that, for that niche, this $99 case could well be a great deal.

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