Thanks to the Apple iPad Air's diminutive footprint and light weight, and the many applications and capabilities it offers, it's a marvelous portable device for a wide variety of uses.
But its extreme portability and incredibly slender footprint also mean there's danger afoot, in the form of possible damage to the expensive device if you're unlucky enough to drop it. And as handy as its on screen keyboard may be, it's no substitute for a real keyboard you can touch type on. This limits its use in a professional environment.
Enter ZAGG and iHome (among others), who've brought to market a variety of cases and keyboard-based accessories to help keep your iPad Air productive and shatter free. The companies sent me three of their products to audition, a relatively straightforward cover and a keyboard/case from ZAGG, and a keyboard/case from iHome. All of them do their job well, but in very different ways.
Let's tackle the ones with keyboards first: the ZAGGkeys Folio ($99) and the $80 iHome Slim Keyboard case for iPad. Both hold your device snugly and offer good, Bluetooth-based keyboards that improved the typing experience immensely compared to the virtual keyboard on the iPad's screen.
And yet they're very different. The ZAGG is a hard plastic case into which you insert the iPad, snapping it into place in the lid. Once you've done that you have what looks basically like a netbook computer, which is great if you need such a thing but which - and to be fair this is also an issue with the iHome product - also eliminates much of the iPad Air's incredibly small footprint.
The lid into which you snap the iPad has holes in it for the iPad stuff you need exposed: camera, buttons, connector etc. And its hinge, which ZAGG says is patent pending, is stiff enough that you can position the screen at pretty well any angle you want and it'll stay there.
This makes it ideal for "lap top" use. I cover seminars and events such as that periodically, where I record the proceedings on my digital voice recorder and use the iPad for taking notes to remind me of points I want to revisit later along with the approximate time they occurred on the recording. But the iPad is so small and light it tends to slide around on my lap, and sitting it at a comfortable typing angle while still seeing the screen is difficult.
The ZAGG's stiff hinge changes all that, and it works great. I can sit it on my lap, at any angle I want, and when I type I can still see the whole iPad screen, rather than half of it being obscured by the virtual keyboard.
The downside to the ZAGG is that it's best if you mount the iPad into it and leave it there permanently, so all the iPad's great size advantage is lost. On the other hand, it protects the iPad very well - and that's important!
The sample ZAGG sent me also has a nice rough finish on the exterior that helps prevent it from sliding around on your lap (or wherever you use it).
The iHome "Super Slim Keyboard Case" doesn't have such an exterior finish; in fact, its classy leather construction is quite slippery and so I preferred the ZAGG in that regard. And the iHome doesn't work nearly as well on your lap as the ZAGG does. Fortunately, it has its own charms that make it worth a look.
For example, though its footprint is a bit larger than the ZAGG's, it's much more convenient if you only need a keyboard for casual use. That's because instead of having to snap the iPad into its hard plastic case, you merely slip its four corners into little brackets on the case - which are kind of reminiscent of how we used to mount family photographs into an album - and then Bob's your uncle.
The iHome case forms a built-in stand that allows multiple viewing options, though it works a lot better on a flat surface such as a table. And since the iPad is only held in by its corners (at least in the sample iHome sent; other models are different) there are no holes required in the case for the buttons and connector to poke through.
Sadly, the camera needs such a hole, if you plan to use it, but you don't get one. That seems kind of silly. On the other hand, it's so easy to get the iPad out of the case it may not be much of an issue. It certainly wasn't with me: I don't use the iPad for taking pictures anyway, so it didn't matter. But it's worth thinking about.
As with the ZAGG, the iHome keyboard is a good one on which to type; in fact, I didn't really prefer either product in this regard (I wrote most of this column using the cases). But while I preferred the ease of getting the tablet in and out of the iHome product, if I know I'll be in a venue where I have to use the thing on my lap the ZAGG wins hands down. So, really, it's six of one, a half dozen of the other: it depends on how and where you're going to use it.
My main issue with the Zagg is how tough it is to get the iPad Air out of it. Clearly, it's designed with the idea that you'll leave the tablet in it all the time, and that's fine if that's what you're looking for.
Tough choice to make between these two!
Not all keyed up…
If you don't need a keyboard but want a nice cover to protect your iPad Air anyway, ZAGG's iFrogz Script ($60) is a reasonable choice. It offers a nice foldable cover that gives good protection for the iPad's screen and body.
It's a folio-style case into which you snap the iPad Air, the flap folding over the screen to keep it scratch-free. The nicest thing about it is that it's the one product of the three reviewed here that doesn't make the iPad Air's footprint much bigger than it is.
I wish the iFrogz would hold the iPad more steadily, though. When I sit it on my lap the iPad's bottom edge tends to slide and can easily fall over. I don't know how ZAGG could have fixed this, but perhaps it might have helped if there were a couple of small ridges you could use to hold the iPad's edge steady.
Not only that, but the pattern on the iFrogz' inner surface tends to inflict itself on the screen almost as if it had fingerprints of its own. It wasn't a big deal, though and I do tend to be a tad anal about having a clean screen.
Of the three devices looked at here, the iFrogz is the one I use the most and that's where the iPad resides most of the time when I know I don't need to do a lot of typing. It keeps the iPad safe and convenient, and it's nearly as easy to remove the iPad from it as the iHome model is. But if I know I'll be doing a lot of typing, one of the Bluetooth keyboard-included models is what the doctor ordered.
That leaves the tough decision of whether to use the ZAGGkeys or the iHome. And that really depends on where and how you're going to use it. The ZAGGkeys is probably the most flexible, unless you want to get the iPad Air in and out, in which case it gives up a lot of its advantage to the iHome.
See? You just can't please some people!
Copyright 2014 Jim Bray