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Review: Physical Keyboards for the iPhone 6

If you like the iPhone but desperately miss the physical keyboard of the BlackBerry, the new Typo 2 could be just the ticket.

Typo Products

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, he publicly scorned tiny plastic phone keyboards, like those in the then-popular BlackBerry. Standing in front of a huge photo of the leading keyboard-endowed phones of the day, he bragged that Apple’s new smartphone would jettison physical keys.

The iPhone, with its software-based virtual keyboard, has gone on to great success, of course. And nearly every competitor since has ditched the physical keyboard in favor of typing on glass. BlackBerry is in deep trouble, despite its beloved keyboards.

But a determined minority of phone users, especially those who perfected speedy, accurate two-thumb typing in the heyday of BlackBerry, has remained devoted to physical keys. They include TV personality Ryan Seacrest and a Las Vegas taxi-advertising executive, Laurence Hallier — a year ago they launched a company that created an iPhone case with a physical keyboard, called Typo.

But the Typo was blocked a few months later by a court injunction obtained by BlackBerry, which accused the product of violating its patents. Now Typo Products is back with another iPhone keyboard case, called Typo 2, using a revised design. It comes in a $99 model for the new iPhone 6 and a $79 model for the earlier iPhone 5 and 5s, and is available here.

 Typo 2 Keyboard Case on an iPhone 6
Typo 2 Keyboard Case on an iPhone 6

I’ve been testing the Typo 2, along with another keyboard case for the iPhone 6 called the KeyBoard Buddy, an $80 device from a company called BoxWave; you can buy it here.

These cases take two very different approaches to the unnatural act of grafting a keyboard onto an iPhone. But the Typo 2, which adds its keyboard just below the screen, BlackBerry-style, when held vertically, is more natural. It does add length to the iPhone, and blocks the home button/fingerprint reader, but otherwise allows the phone to be used as you’d expect. And its keyboard is always ready for use.

 Keyboard Buddy Case on an iPhone 6
Keyboard Buddy Case on an iPhone 6

By contrast, the Keyboard Buddy makes more major and awkward changes to the iPhone. It’s meant to be hidden until you need it, so it takes the form of a tray that slides out from the side of the iPhone. That means it doesn’t block the home button.

But Keyboard Buddy has two big downsides: It makes the phone significantly thicker, and when you use it for typing, you have to hold the phone in horizontal mode, which isn’t how most apps are optimized for use.

As I noted when I reviewed the original Typo last year, I am personally not a thumb-typing-on-physical-keys aficionado. I’m fine with typing on glass. However, people who pine for their old BlackBerrys — who type more quickly and accurately on real keys — will like the Typo 2. I found its redesigned keyboard to be fairly fast and accurate, even for me.

 Closeup of Typo 2 Keyboard
Closeup of Typo 2 Keyboard

Like the original model, the Typo 2 is a lightweight two-piece case that’s easy to attach to and remove from the phone. It has cutouts for all the iPhone’s buttons and ports, though you have to plug in the power and headphone cords through channels embedded below the keyboard. I found this wasn’t a problem, after a bit of practice.

Also like the original model, the Typo 2 doesn’t take up any part of the screen, unlike the built-in software keyboard. But it adds about three-quarters of an inch to the length of the iPhone 6, which I found made the phone protrude a bit from the front pocket of my jeans. (It actually makes the standard iPhone 6 almost as long as the jumbo iPhone 6 Plus.)

It has a key that emulates the blocked iPhone home button, but it cannot emulate that button’s fingerprint-reading function, so you must give that up and manually enter a passcode if you keep your phone locked.

The keyboard itself is rather different from last year’s model. Instead of BlackBerry-style sculpted keycaps, the keys are flat. The layout is more similar to that of the virtual iPhone keyboard, and the function keys (like ALT and Return) are larger.

As for the Keyboard Buddy, its extra width may appeal to some, but I actually found it too much of a stretch for comfortable thumb-typing. Having said that, the wide keyboard allows room for some keys the Typo 2 lacks, like arrow keys and a special command key for use with keyboard shortcuts. It also has a key that emulates the home button.

But I just couldn’t get used to typing in apps in landscape mode. And with the Keyboard Buddy attached, the iPhone 6 is a whopping 2.5 times its normal width. I also found the case extremely hard to remove.

So, of the two cases, I recommend the Typo 2. But there are some drawbacks and new considerations.

The biggest drawback is that while both cases easily integrate with the phone via Bluetooth, they require their own power supply, which means they must be charged separately from the phone. Typo says its case will last seven to 10 days between charges; BoxWave says two weeks.

In addition, some things have changed since Typo first came out last year. The software keyboard on the iPhone has been improved, to predict your next word and cut down on errors. And Apple has opened the iPhone to third-party keyboards, like SwiftKey and Swype, which many people love. I suggest trying these out before buying a keyboard case.

Second, that home/fingerprint reader button that Typo 2 blocks is now more important, because it’s a crucial element of Apple Pay, the iPhone 6’s built-in mobile payment system, which is likely to spread gradually in coming years.

Finally, BlackBerry has brought out a new $450 version of its ancient standard keyboard phone. Called the BlackBerry Classic, it runs new software and more apps than older models, yet revives the familiar keyboard and trackpad.

But if you are a physical keyboard fan who loves the iPhone, the Typo 2 should do just fine.

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