As the power and versatility of iOS devices sinks in, many users invariably ask veteran iPhone and iPad enthusiasts about Bluetooth keyboards. As someone who's dabbled with Bluetooth keyboards since the addition of external keyboard support hit iOS, I've handled my fair share of these accessories in both my role as an assistive technology instructor and just a tech enthusiast on the internet. Just like with apps and web resources, it's almost impossible to work with or even hear about every example or even every type of Bluetooth keyboard, let alone every model. So we invite you to share your comments on these or other models to help others trying to decide what to buy.
It shouldn't be a surprise that Apple manufactures keyboards designed to complement their computers. In terms of their function and aesthetics, these peripherals hold true to Apple's philosophy of offering the experience they want to provide with premium materials at a luxury price point. Apple's keyboards won't have all the bells and whistles of some other keyboards, nor will they be anywhere near the cheapest option. What they will do is give you the closest experience to typing with a MacBook.
Apple Wireless Keyboard
Apple set the standard in full-sized keyboards with the Apple Wireless Keyboard about a decade ago. Made of aluminum, it had full-sized keys with a key layout similar to that found on modern MacBooks, with four keys to the left: Function, Control, Option and Command. The keys had a decent amount of travel and the tubular battery compartment acted as a riser to provide a downward slope to the keys. This was my first Bluetooth keyboard, used in conjunction with an iPhone 4 and iPad 2. It provides an excellent typing experience but is probably too large and heavy for mobile applications. Also, the keys are sufficiently raised to catch on anything that drags across the keyboard, which can pop loose the keycaps, making it surprisingly fragile given its build quality. This keyboard also only pairs with one device at a time, and its keys maintain the Mac layout even when paired to a Windows or Android device so that if you pair it with a Windows PC the keys to the left of the spacebar will be Function, Control, Option, and Command. This is still my favorite Apple keyboard.
Apple Magic Keyboard
At the same time as the refresh of many of its computers and the introduction of the 12-inch MacBook, Apple introduced the Magic Keyboard. At $100, this new keyboard was flatter and more compact, trading the batteries for a rechargeable design and typing feedback more similar to the more recent MacBook designs. This is the keyboard Apple packages with its iMac computers and promotes most widely. While featuring a sleek design, its price makes it stand out more for what it doesn't offer compared to competing products, such as multi-device pairing or mechanical switches.
Desktop Keyboards for the iPhone
There is a wide swath of keyboards that provide a good typing experience that is meant to simulate or exceed the level of comfort associated with working on a laptop. These keyboards are meant to be portable and work well with smartphones, tablets and even full-sized laptops and desktops. They are priced in the $20 to $50 range but can be had for less if you watch out for deals from Amazon, Staples, Best Buy or your electronics outlet of choice.
Anker Wireless Keyboard
The Anker Wireless Keyboard duplicates the Apple keyboard layout at a significantly lower cost, like a whole lot lower. And, while the materials don't seem as luxurious, Anker's build quality has made it stand out at its price point. Like the Magic Keyboard, Anker's competitor features a rechargeable battery.
Logitech has long been known as a manufacturer of quality peripherals. The K380 is one of their most compact multi-device keyboard. Slightly larger than the Magic Keyboard, the K380 uses two AAA batteries and pairs with three devices, which the user switches between by pressing F1, F2 or F3. Unlike most keyboards, the K380 and its higher numbered siblings use round, concave keys. The keyboard is somewhat thicker in the rear to accommodate the batteries, which provides a sloped typing surface. The keyboard intelligently lays out the keys to the left of the spacebar based on the operating system of the device paired, so that when typing into a Windows machine the keys are Control, Function, Windows and Alt, while for Mac they'll be Control, Function, Option and Command. I keep this keyboard at my bedside for quick Twitter sessions and to handle emails without having to venture to the office.
Amazon Basics Bluetooth Keyboard
The Amazon Basics Bluetooth Keyboard is one you'll recognize as a product released under a few different brand names. The one I had was from Targus. It's a no frills plastic keyboard with an Apple layout. It's cheap and feels cheap, but it is cheap.
Desktop Keyboards for the iPad
When Apple unveiled the iPad, one of the major selling points was the ability to use the new tablet as a productivity tool with the iWork suite and now Microsoft Office and Google Suite among others. With that in mind, several companies have put out keyboards that act as bases for the iPad and mimic the feel of a keyboard.
One of the most common iPad keyboards, Logitech's K480 distinguishes itself as one of the oldest mainstream keyboards capable of multi-device pairing. By turning the knob positioned next to a slot meant to hold an iPad, the user can choose one of three devices paired with the keyboard and switch quickly between connections. This means that someone working on this keyboard can quickly switch from navigating through Google Hangouts on their MacBook to composing an email on their Surface Pro 4 to sending a text message on their iPhone. To avoid having to confuse keyboard layouts, the K480 features two pairing buttons, one for iOS and one for Android and Windows. Selecting iOS will designate the keys to the left of the spacebar as Control, Function, Option, and Command, while using the PC option flips the last two to be Windows and Alt. I keep this keyboard in my office at work for use as a backup.
The Zagg Limitless is a thinner and lighter design than the K480 that provides a typing experience far more similar to an average laptop. Like the K480, it switches keyboard layout between Apple and Android/Windows, but does so automatically, without having to designate the layout at the time of pairing. It can pair with three devices and can be had with backlighting for an additional $30. This is the keyboard my wife and I keep in the living room to control our Apple TV and her iPad. It also goes with us on trips.
Since the iPad first made its appearance, there has been a demand for larger tablets, which has meant there has also been a demand for larger keyboards to accommodate them. The K780 takes the rounded keys of the K480 and puts them into an elongated body with a rubberized base accommodating a numeric keypad and a ledge suitable for an iPad Pro, Surface Pro 4 or similarly super-sized tablet. To add further versatility, the K780 comes with a USB wireless receiver that can be paired with the keyboard to make a device without Bluetooth capabilities like a desktop one of the three devices simultaneously paired to the keyboard. Like the Zagg Limitless and the K380, the K780 intelligently selects its layout to conform with the operating system of the paired device. I use this keyboard in our home office where its quiet keys are a handy feature during podcast sessions.
Compact and Folding Keyboards
When the priority is portability, a compact or folding keyboard can sometimes be worth the inconvenience of nonstandard layouts or smaller keys. Different companies have adopted different design philosophies to accommodate this demand.
iClever Folding Bluetooth Keyboard
Like the Amazon Basics keyboard, this one seems to have been around under different brand names for a while. With a rechargeable battery and a tri-fold design, this keyboard can fit in a jacket or cargo pocket. It has two hinges, with the two ends of the keyboard folding in and down to close over the center. The keyboard powers on whenever it's unfolded. My version is actually laid out for Windows, but it's just a small adjustment to strike the key two to the left of the spacebar whenever I want to strike the Command key. For such a compact keyboard, the keys are surprisingly large and feature a fair bit of travel. If you can ignore the slight flex that occasionally occurs when you strike a key close to the hinge, you will have an almost laptop-like typing experience. Another tradeoff you make for such a compact design with full-sized keys is that there are no function keys. I carry one of these in my backpack, just in case I need to send off a rapid series of texts or tweets.
Anker Ultra-Compact Bluetooth Keyboard.
Anker's super-portable keyboard doesn't fold, but it is surprisingly thin and features a width and height similar to a trade paperback. It is fairly rugged and very easy to slide into the outer pocket of a backpack or similar space for easy access. The keyboard features a layout equivalent to the standard Apple layout, with the exception of the arrow keys, as the up arrow finds itself squeezed between "/" and the right Shift key. This is complicated by the fact that the keys are ever so slightly smaller than usual, making the keyboard somewhat cramped if you have larger hands. I've had one of these for ages and still use it on occasion to type on my phone in a pinch.
Rii Mini Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard
Speaking of small keys, you can't get much smaller than the compact keyboards from Rii. If you've ever used a Blackberry or similar device with a hardware keyboard, you'll find this keyboards tiny caps familiar. Only a few inches wide and less than two inches tall, these devices are meant for thumb or forefinger typing that's faster than using the touchscreen but won't set any speed records.
Some products have sought to pull double duty as both protective cases and keyboards. These keyboards are often constrained by the dimensions of the iPad they're covering, but most of the keyboards discussed above have a folio version. I have used a few of these keyboards, but have never found one I would recommend.
No keyboard is perfect for everyone but some keyboards are perfect for a very specific subset of the market. They're usually something that will cost a pretty penny and make a statement about the person using it.
LoFree Bluetooth Keyboard
The LoFree keyboard is a recently crowd-funded option that duplicates the Apple keyboard layout with mechanical keyboard switches, providing a typewriter like experience. This keyboard is not meant to be extremely portable and is one of the few keyboards that can set you back more than Apple's offerings. On the plus side, it comes in some rather novel colors.
Apple Smart Keyboard
Apple's keyboard for the iPad Pro is not a Bluetooth device, but is included here for the sake of completeness. This keyboard takes a different approach, with a folio form factor that is soft to the touch and features a shallowness that will be familiar to anyone who uses a modern MacBook laptop. As with Apple's other keyboards, the materials used here are of a superior look and feel to most of the competition.
Logitech G613 Mechanical Gaming Keyboard
This beefy desktop keyboard includes the connectivity of the K780 with superior key response time and Logitech's own, quiet mechanical switches. This keyboard may not be an option for road warriors, but if your workflow involves turtling at your desk with a computer, tablet and phone, this might be the keyboard for you. I really want one of these, but its hefty price and constrained supply will likely leave me just wanting one for some time.
There are now hundreds of Bluetooth keyboards on the market, and seemingly a new product announcement or crowd funding launch heralding the arrival of yet another every week or so. The important thing to do is to decide what you want the keyboard to do and then check out reviews with that particular use case in mind. It doesn't matter if the keyboard has backlighting if you can't see the keys or that it can pair with three devices if you only want to use it with your phone. What does matter is that you find the one that's right for you, so shop around, put your hands on lots of different options and choose for yourself. And once you've found one you like, share what you've found -- the good and the bad -- with others in the community either in the comments or by posting in the forums.