Here at BGR, we constantly get emails from readers looking for help with their gadget buying decisions. While I wish we had time to address each of our readers individually, this unfortunately isn’t the case. One of the more common lines of questioning comes from readers wanting to switch from BlackBerry smartphones to the iPhone, and today I’m going to pose a solution they may find useful. To this group of readers, the idea of moving from RIM’s amazing physical keypad to a device that only offers a virtual keyboard is often the biggest hurdle. We like to think we know a thing or two about cell phones here at BGR, but of course we can’t presume to know how each of our readers might fare when moving from a physical to virtual keyboard. What we do know, however, is that there are options out there that might help make the transition as smooth as possible — and one such option is the Keyboard Buddy case from Boxwave.
Let’s get physical, physical
The “iPhone Pro” has become something of a white whale in the gadget world. While millions of people are perfectly happy with Apple’s on-screen virtual keyboard, many still yearn for the tactile response only a physical keypad can afford. Apple has stated in the past that it sees no point in slapping a hardware QWERTY onto the iPhone, but the company flip-flops more than a fish out of water when it comes to iOS products, so its prior claim that physical keyboards are unnecessary on mobile phones is inconsequential. In fact, Apple is even said to be testing an iPhone model with a hardware keypad at the moment, though well placed sources insist that we won’t see any such phone from Apple in 2011.
I’m on the fence, myself. I’ve grown quite fond of Apple’s virtual board and can likely tap out an email just as fast on an iPhone as I can on any physical QWERTY-equipped phone on the market today. But speed is only half of the equation. I still love the feel of RIM’s BlackBerry keypads, and years of typing on a computer keyboard results in an inherent desire to feel keys depress as I poke at them. As such, you can imagine my reaction when Boxwave reached out and asked me if I wanted a Keyboard Buddy iPhone case to review. A slide-out QWERTY for my iPhone? Count me in.
Design on a dime
Boxwave’s Bluetooth Keyboard Buddy case for the iPhone 4 sports an interesting design. Rather than taking the expected route and making a case that might create a seamless look, Boxwave designed the case to look like two completely separate pieces. The keyboard-equipped piece on the bottom tapers gradually and includes a plastic bezel painted silver. The top portion that encases the iPhone is slightly tapered as well, however, so instead of creating two joined pieces that form a continuous line, the Keyboard Buddy makes it look like the iPhone 4 is sitting on a platter. Odd indeed, but after a while it didn’t really bother me.
The construction of Boxwave’s QWERTY case is quite solid. The case maker opted to go with a rubber coating as opposed to a hard plastic, and the decision was a wise one. The case feels good in the hand and the rubberized exterior provides much needed grip — but I’ll get to that later. The top portion of the case holds the iPhone very securely. In fact, there is no play whatsoever and it even takes a fair amount of effort to remove the iPhone from the Keyboard Buddy. Overall, the case is also fairly slim considering it packs a QWERTY, though it is significantly thicker than most modern sliders, as can be seen above.
One issue I have with regard to the design of the case is Boxwave’s decision to use a mini-USB port for charging instead of a micro-USB port, which is essentially an industry standard at this point. It’s not a huge deal on the surface, but it means users now have to carry yet another charger instead of having an existing charger pull double duty. Of course nothing is more ridiculous than the proprietary dock connector Apple still insists on using, so I suppose it’s only fitting that Boxwave would opt for a less conventional route.
My other main issue is weight. Boxwave’s Keyboard Buddy case is nice and light on its own, but when paired with the glass and metal iPhone 4, the combo is a bit on the hefty side. It’s not so heavy that it is uncomfortable to carry around in a pants pocket — the real problem arises when it comes time to tap out messages on the keyboard.
Slip sliding away
As I mentioned, the case itself is very light. The iPhone on the other hand, is quite hefty. This means that when the Keyboard Buddy is slid open, it’s very top-heavy. We’re talking Dolly Parton, here.
This was done out of necessity, of course. The iPhone itself is so heavy that if Boxwave had tried to balance its keyboard well, the result would have been entirely too heavy to be usable. Instead, it had to go light, which means the user has to employ an extra firm grip lest the iPhone topple over and fall out of the user’s hands. The rubber finish helps a great deal in this area, but it’s still not the same as using a true QWERTY slider. This also creates a bit of a challenge when one hand has to let go of the device, say, to tap a character while the other hand is holding down the shift key or function key. The remaining hand has to hold the keyboard extra tight, and I almost dropped my phone on two occasions in this scenario.
Tap Tap Revenge
The keyboard itself is good but not great. This is somewhat disheartening news considering we’re now talking about the accessory’s main attraction. Luckily, my concerns boil down to personal preference for the most part, so all may not be lost.
The feel of the keyboard is not the problem for me. Boxwave’s keys have a decent enough feel to them and they provide good tactile response. They also emit a nice click sound with each tap, providing the auditory feedback one would expect in addition to tactile feedback. My problem with the keypad, however, is the layout. The Keyboard Buddy case sports a Nokia-like layout that positions keys in aligned columns rather than staggering them as a keyboard should. It also positions the space key off to the right instead of in the center of the board, which is something that should never, ever be done. There are plenty of people who won’t mind the peculiar placement of the space key, however, so this is hardly a deal breaker in many cases.
Beyond that, this is a Bluetooth keyboard and the iPhone treats it as such. By that, I mean typing with the Keyboard Buddy is like typing with a full-sized keyboard rather than a typical QWERTY keypad on a mobile phone. So, for example, a double-tap on the space key will not create a period and a space. The first letter of each new sentence will not automatically be capitalized. The shift key must be held down while a letter is pressed in order to capitalize it — tapping each key successively won’t work. And so on.
There are a few things I really like about the keyboard, though — most notably, the fact that it includes a few specialized buttons for iOS. The top left button imitates the iPhone’s home button, allowing users to close apps with a single tap or open the task manager with a double-tap. Then, the top right button is a dedicated Spotlight key, which will open Spotlight search from any screen. This is a great feature for those who use Spotlight often, though it is a bit odd to type in Spotlight using a landscape QWERTY when the display remains in portrait. Finally, tapping the function key and the space button will open and close the iPhone’s virtual keypad, which is hidden by default when a Bluetooth keyboard is connected to the device.
The bottom line
Boxwave’s Keyboard Buddy case definitely isn’t perfect, but what is? There are clear pros and cons, and then there are a few quirks that some will loathe and others won’t mind in the least. Luckily for everyone, Boxwave is a stand-up company with a 100% customer satisfaction policy that includes a 30-day window for returns. If an iPhone 4 with a slide-out QWERTY keypad sounds like something that might float your boat, the most you have to lose is shipping if it turns out you don’t like Boxwave’s offering. And if my aforementioned complaints haven’t scared you off yet, I think there’s a good chance you’ll like the product. Battery life is outstanding (Boxwave’s site claims 45 days; mine has been going for a week so far on a single charge), the case has a good feel to it… and, of course, it adds a physical QWERTY keypad to your iPhone 4.
The Keyboard Buddy case is available immediately directly from Boxwave’s website for $69.95 with free shipping within the U.S.