Tablets and the ultimate victory of the keyboard - and the hinge

A new generation of tablet keyboards shows that what we really want is a device that's the tech equivalent of a mullet: business in front, party at the back. And it's all down to the lowly hinge.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

When you go into a coffee shop, sit in a plane, or ride public transport, take a look at all the tablets around you. Some have keyboards, some don't.

But if you look at what people are doing with those tablets, it's quite clear just why those keyboards are there.

The tablets that are being used as pure tablets are displaying books, crushing candy in casual games, browsing the web, or reading email.

Those with keyboards are editing documents, filling in forms, and answering mail. Watching those tablets, it's clear that the keyboard isn't going away; while tablets have introduced simplified interaction modes, for deeper interactions the keyboard still reigns supreme.

Back when the iPad was new, I'd see people at conferences and events trying to take notes on its touch keyboard. Now those same people are unwrapping and unfolding keyboards and typing away, just like they'd have done with a laptop.

It turns out, for note taking, that a physical keyboard is more comfortable and less prone to error than its touch alternative — and it doesn't take up half the screen while doing it.

It's not just the people I watch using keyboards. It's also me.

I recently bought an iPad Mini; anticipating the launch of Office on iOS. My previous test iOS device was an ageing iPhone 4 that was showing the strain of running iOS 7.

Now, after a couple of weeks of using the iPad purely as a tablet, I'm seriously considering buying a keyboard/case combination. Yes, I can use its touch keyboard for notes when I hold it in portrait mode, but I still lose a lot of screen — more than I do with my 8-inch Windows tablet, or with my Nexus 7. But I'm holding out for a keyboard with a hinge.

At CES and a recent computer accessory event in London I saw a lot of Bluetooth keyboards, with support for virtually every tablet out there. Most were simple standalone devices, perhaps with a slot to hold a tablet as if it was a screen, or were built into fold-out leather cases.

They were all very attractive, some with backlit keys, some with keys that replicated the features of their touch alternatives. But most of them seemed to be missing something — something that Asus had put into its Transformer series of Android devices.

What was that missing sweet spot?

It turns out that it's the key feature of a laptop PC (be it Windows or Mac): the hinge. Do you want to be carrying a flexible plastic keyboard that's likely to fail as soon as it flexes, or a sturdy keyboard that weighs more than your tablet? Or do you want something that's flexible, strong, and reliable, like the good old hinge.

While Microsoft's Surface replicates the hinge with its mix of magnetic keyboard covers and kickstands, a new generation of tablet cases is on the way that bring all the benefits of a laptop hinge: they're stiff, strong, well balanced, and secure.

Put a tablet into one of these new cases, and you'll turn your tablet into the equivalent of a small laptop, just with a removable touch screen.

Docked in its hinged keyboard case, the tablet folds up on a hinge to reveal a backlit keyboard. There's no need for a kickstand, or any other way of propping up the tablet. Instead the whole combination is neatly counterbalanced (and can come with extra battery power for the tablet), keeping moving parts and connections to a minimum.

With one of these cases you can use your tablet as a tablet when you want to, and you can use it as a laptop when you need to. It's the best of both worlds, and there's no need to switch between ecosystems when you change operating modes.

Back when Apple launched the iPad, the tablet was seen as a separate and new category. But that wasn't how people wanted to use it — but they also didn't want another laptop. A modern keyboard case can help us extend our devices across categories, and give us the hybrid device we really want.

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