is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
For two months or so now I’ve been carrying around my iPad Air 2 with a Belkin Qode Ultimate Pro keyboard—and leaving my MacBook on my desk as much as I can. This combination of a tablet and a Bluetooth keyboard is much more capable than it would have been even just a year ago thanks in large part to the improved support for external input that Apple shipped earlier this fall with iOS 9.
But Belkin deserves credit, too. They’ve built the best iPad keyboad I’ve come across yet. Several years ago I tried a Zagg Folio but didn’t stick with it very long. Belkin’s excessively named but thoughtfully designed Qode Ultimate Pro Keyboard Case for iPad Air 2 is a huge leap forward over Zagg’s—and over most any other that I’ve looked at.
For starters, the Qode doesn’t make the false assumption—as many others do—that if you want a keyboard then you wouldn’t also want to have substantial impact protection for your iPad. In fact, encasing the iPad is actually critical to the Qode’s clever design, and so it ships with a well-made hardshell case that features a few very smart construction details.
First, the bottom edge of the case, near the speakers, is shaped in such a way so that sound is directed towards the user, effectively amplifying the audio. This alone won my affection; unless you’ve got an iPad Pro with its amazing four-speaker, auto-balancing sound system, then you’re familiar with the puny sound performance from previous iPad models.
The Qode’s case also features small, embedded magnets that let you easily secure it to the keyboard itself while also making it easy to pull the two apart easily. The magnets work in either portrait or landscape orientation, and they allow the iPad to be positioned at two different viewing angles.
The embedded magnets may actually be the case’s most impressive detail, as they figure prominently into the Qode’s inventive approach to power magagement: the keyboard itself only works when the case has been magneticaly secured to it. Therefore, when the magnets are pulled apart or released, the keyboard powers off, making for very efficient battery life. I honestly can’t recall the last time I charged my keyboard (via micro USB, regrettably but acceptably) but right now the battery is still at 93% capacity.
The Qode’s keyboard itself is also quite satisfying. It’s backlit and almost has the feel of a MacBook’s keyboard, with responsive keys that click pleasingly—for my money, it’s a better approximation than the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard. While its arrangment and key pitch are still tighter than a MacBook’s, they’re more generous than most portable keyboards and typing is pretty comfortable. My one complaint is the inclusion of a mostly unnecessary button dedicated exclusively to invoking Siri; it’s placed right next to the Option key and I hit it by accident far too often. The real estate would have been better used for a wider Command key or a dedicated button for returning users to the home screen.
However, a less than capacious keyboard layout tends to come part and parcel with external iPad keyboards, which are compromises almost by definition. Because the iPad was expressly designed for use without one, adding any keyboard subjects you to at least some awkwardness, and the Qode is no exception.
Some of this is very evident in how well—or not—the Qode adapts to other use cases. It seems clear that the majority of Belkin’s design effort went into turning the iPad into a laptop-style typing device. Even when you’re not typing, Belkin makes it easy to collapse the keyboard and case together, clamshell style, for easy portability. But the Qode doesn’t do so well when you want to use your iPad again as a, well as a tablet.
For instance, if you want to fold the keyboard and the iPad together flat with the screen facing upwards, so that you can pick both of them up in one piece and use the touchscreen, the Qode doesn’t accommodate you. Instead, you have to detach the keyboard, which is easy enough to do, but then the two severed pieces can no longer be held together elegantly. This leaves the keyboard in a somewhat unresolved state; there’s no clear, intentional design for what to do with it once it’s removed.
Also, the included hardshell case, as well thought out as it is, is only partially compatible with Apple’s Smart Cover, which protects the front of the screen. To be sure, the case does indeed let you attach a Smart Cover to an opening along the left side (in portrait mode). It’s just that the Smart Cover must be disconnected in order for the iPad and case to be magnetically secured to the keyboard. Once removed, there is once again no intentional, designed solution for what to do with the Smart Cover.
Maybe my biggest complaint, though, is that the Qode’s very shrewd battery management approach can be overly aggressive. After about three minutes of inactivity, the keyboard turns itself off. That’s not an unreasonable length of time for a desktop operating system, but with an iPad there can easily be long stretches when you’re engaged with the touchscreen before needing to return to the keyboard. It takes just a brief moment for the keyboard to reconnect via Bluetooth, but the delay can be frustrating.
Still, the Belkin Qode comes as close as any Bluetooth keyboard I’ve seen to being an ideal companion for the iPad. As I mentioned in my recent post about doing real design work on an iPad, when I travel for business these days I can usually rely on my iPad as my sole “work” device—thanks in large part to the Qode. Traveling with this combination is actually a pleasure, especially on airplanes. Even with the moderate added bulk of the keyboard, the two fit more easily on a seatback tray and are together much lighter and more pleasantly portable than my MacBook Air and its power charger.
I also tend to leave my MacBook on my office desk more often now than not; in most meetings I find that having the Qode lets me do what I would do with a MacBook just fine. The combination is so effective for me that I’ve come to question how much I need a MacBook; I’d almost rather have the full power and screen real estate of an iMac on my desk and the portability of an iPad and a Qode. It’s probably overly enthusiastic to suppose that many people will also begin to consider returning to stationary desktop computers, but it’s apparent to me that within a few years having an iPad and a keyboard will obviate MacBooks almost entirely for many people.+