Sticking a Keyboard on Your iPad: Fingers-on With the TouchFire

iPad users still frustrated with the lack of feedback while typing on their tablets may find relief in the new TouchFire screen-top keypad. But the new Kickstarter-funded accessory is not without its flaws.

I was pretty excited to finally receive my two TouchFire screen-top keyboards in the mail this week, after having ordered them last December. You might not expect someone to be particularly thrilled with a seven-month shipping delay, but I didn’t mind.

That’s because my relationship to TouchFire began with Kickstarter, the crowdfunding Web service designed to let startups and entrepreneurs get investments from the general public. I had seen lots of KickStarter projects, of course, but TouchFire was the first for which I’d ever personally plunked down my hard-earned cash.

The reason for the plunge was simple. I really wanted something to improve the typing experience on my iPads - without the bother and weight of a separate Bluetooh keyboard. The idea was especially appealing for short trips where I wanted to leave my laptop behind.

So I pledged $80 for the project. In exchange for my donation, I would receive the “Kickstarter Special”: two keyboards in black and white, two storage cases and five pairs of cover clips in colors that complement the iPad Smart Covers (this was before Apple’s Smart Cases came out, which I’ll get to in a minute). With an initial estimated delivery date of Dec. 2011, I waited for my new keypads to arrive.

And I waited. And waited.

To be fair, the team behind the TouchFire project were very good about communicating with me and all the other “investors” about what was going on. Every couple of weeks or so, I would get an update about how the manufacturing process was going. I was riveted by how the design team dealt with magnets that didn’t fit, and learned how third-generation iPad speaker magnet polarity was apparently completely random (who knew?) - a nail-biter that had not the team figured out a solution might have required more than one version of the TouchFire.

By the time it got here, I was personally invested in the TouchFire product.

How did it turn out?

In many ways, the TouchFire met or even exceeded my expectations. It took me a little while to figure out how to attach the thing to the inside of the Smart Case cover for my third-generation iPad. (I attribute part of my confusion to a bad 24-hour virus.)

I was concerned that my Smart Case would have problems, since it wasn’t released when the TouchFire was in mid-production, but was happy to find it worked just as well as the Smart Cover on my wife’s iPad 2. I was also stunned (and a bit intimidated) by how light the TouchFire was. I was expecting something thicker and perhaps slightly less pliable - and was initially worried that it would tear in my hands. But there have been no problems with a few days of normal use.

The typing experience is also surprisingly responsive, considering how thin the overlay is. It works whether you use a light or heavy hand with the keys, though you get a better feel with a lighter touch. That’s due to the silicone material itself, and the friction it provides.

Some reviewers have called this sensation “tacky,” but I don’t think its true stickiness so much as more friction than you’d feel using a “normal” plastic-key keyboard. The solution is simple, but takes a little practice: pull up your fingers after striking a key.

Overall, I think the typing works well. I typed the first draft of this review on the iPad with the TouchFire, and found myself running at just about seven-eighths normal typing speed.

If you have a Smart Case or Cover, the TouchFire folds back out of the way pretty easily. If not, you can fold the material back and have the corner magnets lock in into a tri-fold configuration. But it’s a bit awkward when holding the device in your hands,

And then there’s the dirt problem. I consider myself relatively tidy, but after literally 15 seconds of screen overlay, I peeled back the TouchFire to find a lot of debris from my screen. It was kind of gross, actually. The good news is you can wash the whole thing in water. The better news is, there’s a nice case that comes with it, which I definitely suggest using.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the TouchFire may be the price: $49.99. Not cheap for a simple keyboard overlay, especally when you consider other iPad keyboards - with “real” keys - can go for $99 or less.

Still, the TouchFire’s light construction, above-average functionality and ability to work with existing iPad covers makes it a winner.

Images by Brian Proffitt.