Whilst smartphone design has reached a mature stage where every model is looking more and more like another, the laptop has been thrown out of its traditional clamshell form and is morphing into all sorts of weird and wonderful hybrid styles. All this in a bid to fight back against the surge of tablets and plummeting market share.
Ruthlessly, tablets have also started to mutate and it's now possible to buy tablets that can act like laptops (Asus Transformer) and laptops that can act like tablets (Microsoft Surface Pro).
Why then, when people add a keyboard to an iPad do onlookers seem to think it's an admission that the iPad is a failure?
Given how much it's possible to do now with an iPad, I'd argue that wanting a keyboard for longer sessions is no failing. The iPad is still an excellent tablet, but dock it with a keyboard from time to time and you may find you hardly ever need to switch on the computer, or at least take it out the door with you.
The market is currently awash with keyboards, with a general trend toward making them disappear into plastic covers and cases, often resulting in compromise. This is fine and several answer the practical need for physical keys with aplomb, but are any of them capable of bringing MacBook feel to iPad? Apple kit, with its wonderful mix of aluminium and glass feels special before you even switch it on. It's a shame that there isn't anything out there that carries that design ethos into a keyboard peripheral.
Well as luck would have it, there is. I present to you, the Brydge+.
Recognising that many Apple customers are paying for form as much as they are function, the Brydge+ Keyboard was born of a very successful early KickStarter campaign. Now under new ownership, its mantra remains, bridging the gap between iPad and MacBook Pro and as you can see from the pictures, this is exactly the effect their top of the range keyboard has. Current Brydge keyboards support iPad 2, 3 and 4. A new version for iPad Air will be out this year.
Machined out of high grade aluminium, more than any other, the Brydge+ makes you feel like you are using a mini-MacBook Pro. The keys have 'proper' travel and feedback. Touch-typing is easy right from the start with the familiar chiclet layout and mostly full sized keys delivering the goods.
Function keys have been reimagined for the iPad, so the top row includes a 'home' key, brightness up and down, media controls and some app shortcuts. There's also a 'keyboard' button, which displays the touchscreen keyboard. This is useful for hunting out the odd missing symbol, for example, the Brydge+ is US-centric, so as a Brit I occasionally need the touch-keyboard to locate a pound sign.
The Brydge+ typing experience is excellent, but this is not the only function it improves upon. Above the keyboard on the Brydge+ is a grille housing a pair of stereo speakers! I'm feeling kind, so I'll describe the iPad's speaker as.... poor. Good only for alert beeps only really. Well, the bluetooth driven Brydge+ speaker is already ahead by putting the speaker in a sensible position, rather than on the back firing sound away from the listener.
We're still not talking high-fidelity here, music still sounds best on headphones but, it does markedly improve Skype and Facetime calls and they definitely enhance the movie watching experience. I also like the fact that they don't automatically connect to the iPad each time you're working. Bluetooth can eat the battery, so to turn the speaker on when you want, you simply press 'control' and the 'B' key together. If you're not using the speakers every day, you should get months of use out of the Brydge+ between charges.
As a design statement, the Brydge is a huge success. The clever hinges use gravity to hold the iPad in place and a good shake (over the bed, I'm not a risk taker) suggested it would take quite a lot of force to separate the two accidentally. Happily, with a gentle slow tug, it's easy enough to decouple the iPad when you want the classic touchscreen experience.
When connected, I've yet to use anything that feels so complete, to the point where I've occasionally been caught moving my finger down to the bottom looking for a touchpad before I remember I'm not actually on a laptop! The Brydge's price puts it firmly at the top end of keyboard solutions. In the flesh, it's easy to see where the money has gone though. Mechanically this is the best iPad keyboard on the market and the design and engineering is pure Apple levels of quality. No corners have been cut.
So before I close, are there any drawbacks to the Brydge+? Well, if you were after a keyboard that makes it feel like a laptop (or Mac), then not really. However, if you're used to super-thin plastic keyboard cases, you may be surprised at the weight the Brydge+ adds to your iPad. It's fine to carry about and it disappears into a bag, but other keyboards generally aim to add as little as possible to the weight. The second thing is that Brydge+ does not protect the back of the iPad, which can be prone to scratching and most owners feel a strong need to protect their investment. In fact, the Brydge+ itself is a bit of an investment and you'd also want to protect it too! You can buy a nice branded neoprene zip-pouch on the website that will look after your precious gadgets, but obviously this increases the cost.
If you love your iPad and want a keyboard that matches its design ideals, I have no hesitation in recommending the Brydge+. Alternatively, if you'd love the idea of a keyboard this good, but cannot justify the outlay, then you can follow Apple's recent design move with the iPhone 5c and buy something 'unapologetically plastic' from Brydge too.
The Brydge sacrifices the aluminum shell for a high quality polycarbonate, but mechanically remains the same and is priced more in line with the everyday competition. I'll be bringing you a review of that in the coming days.
Thanks to Brydge Keyboards for providing a review unit. Find out more at www.brydgekeyboards.com