I’m becoming increasingly convinced that as mobile users move away from laptops in favor of iPads, keyboards are going to be the most indispensable tablet accessory. So Apple Gazette is taking a look at a wide variety of iPad-compatible keyboards — wireless, compact, Bluetooth-enabled — so you can pick the one that’s right for you.
Our first keyboard on the docket is the Expression, by an accessory manufacturer you’ve probably never heard of called Freedom Input. But don’t write it off just because it’s not a top name brand; I was impressed by a lot of what the Freedom Expression has to offer.
Weighing the same as a standard-sized Smart Cover, the Expression isn’t much to look at. It’s got a basic black design on front, and a brushed steel look on the back. It measures 8 2/3 inches long by 4 3/4 inches wide and about half a centimeter deep. So it fits easily into a purse, briefcase, or even the outer pocket of your iPad case. The brushed steel construction gives it the kind of unbending, solid feel that you might not get from a plastic keyboard. It weighs roughly the same as a Smart Cover for a full-size iPad.
An on/off slider right beside the micro USB port allows you to preserve battery power when it’s not in use. The Bluetooth pairing process is so easy, my mom could do it. As long as you only ever use it with one device, it will always be paired to that device when you turn it on. In other words, pair it once and you’ll never have to do it again.
The 80 keys have a springy feel to them the way that you expect keyboard keys to feel; this is no touchpad or faux board. But unlike a traditional keyboard where there are gaps between the keys (more in some places versus others), the Expression’s keys maximize the available space by doing away with gaps altogether. Every single key is tucked snugly right up against the next, which takes some getting used to if all you’ve ever used is a laptop or desktop.
On the rear, there are four narrow rubber “feet” strips that do a good job of gripping whatever surface you place the keyboard on, keeping it from sliding around while you’re using it. On the front, the familiar bumps are there on the F and J keys, helping your forefingers find the right starting points without having to look.
My only major issue with the Expression is the placement of the space bar. It’s shifted to the left a little further than it I think it should be, so every time my right thumb comes down to hit the space bar, I hit the Command button instead. A few other buttons gave me some hiccups as well. I literally could not find the quotation mark button for a good five minutes. It’s not hidden or anything, it’s just in an awkward spot that’s very far away from where a standard keyboard puts it: on the far left next to the shift button.
The Expression works with tablets other than the iPad (it even works with other kinds of devices, like your PlayStation 3), but it’s definitely made with the iPad in mind. It’s got loads of convenient buttons that give you direct access to various iPad functions. There are buttons at the top that adjust the screen’s brightness; cut, copy, and paste buttons; play, back, and forward buttons for media playback; a “reload” button; volume controls; a button that brings up the virtual keyboard or hides it; two “home” buttons that have the same rounded-square printed on them as your iPad’s home button; and best of all, arrow buttons. The virtual keyboard’s lack of arrows is one of my biggest pet peeves about the iPad, so their inclusion here is a godsend.
Battery life is a dream. Freedom Input claims the Expression has over 300 hours of battery life, and I absolutely believe it. I’ve been testing mine for two or three weeks now, and I’m still on my very first charge — a charge that only took an hour or so to max out via the included USB cord. Those results may not be typical, but I’m impressed nonetheless. There’s no backlighting, which is a bummer, but that light would probably suck up extra battery usage, so its absence is understandable.
In addition to the USB cord, it also comes with a simple neoprene slip case. Honestly, I found it challenging to “slip” the keyboard inside the slip case. I don’t have much use for the slip case; I just slide it down inside my iPad bag or folio case and I’m good to go.
The Freedom Expression isn’t going to turn any heads when you whip it out, and it has a few odd button placements. But it’s rugged, it’s dead simple to use, it has all the hotkeys you want from an iPad keyboard, and the battery life is just stunningly good.
If you’re looking for a reliable iPad keyboard that gets the job done without any fancy trappings, the Freedom Expression is a great choice.