After nearly a month of hype, the Ryan Seacrest-backed Typo keyboard is nearing release and AppleInsider had a chance to spend some hands-on time with the device ahead of its launch later in January.
Update: Typo has reached out and informed AppleInsider that the production model will indeed add a bit of extra room just below the iPhone's screen for swipe-up Control Center access. The additional 1.7mm should be enough to fit the tip of a finger, thereby granting access to all iOS 7 functions.
For those who have handled a legacy BlackBerry, or the Canadian company's new Q10 smartphone, Typo's design will be familiar (too familiar for BlackBerry, which is suing Typo for alleged patent infringement). But that's the point.
Typo isn't looking to trail-blaze a path toward a new and unique mode of input. Quite the opposite. The idea is to resurrect the physical QWERTY smartphone keyboard in a world dominated by all-screen devices made popular by Apple's iPhone.
Whether Typo can pull off such a heady feat is up to consumers, but that the product even exists proves there is a market for iPhone users who long for BlackBerry-style clicky keys.
Typo is small, light and well-built. Attaching it to an iPhone 5 or 5s is as simple as pulling the case apart, sliding in the phone and slipping the parts back together. Inside, Typo is designed to tight tolerances, keeping the iPhone firmly in place.
The plastic casing wrapping around the iPhone's body is relatively thick and has a non-slip soft-touch finish on both sides.
Typo's design includes generous-sized cutouts for power, volume and mute controls, as well as complete access to the iPhone's speaker, microphone, Lightning port and headphone jack. What is obscured, however, is the home button — arguably the most important physical control on the iPhone.
Which brings us to Typo's first obvious drawback: elimination of TouchID. While the unit has a dedicated home button replacement located at its bottom-right corner, the key does not include Apple's fingerprint-reading technology. This means users who lock their phones with passwords instead of numbers will have to type in their code on Typo, switch unlock methods or turn off the security function altogether.
On the plus side, pressing any key on Typo — even after it enters sleep mode — automatically powers up the device and bypasses the usual lock screen to bring up the passcode entry prompt. Pressing the iPhone's power button will wake the device to its default lock screen for viewing of notifications.
Overall build quality is high, though we did have a slight issue with the keyboard module. Typo has left a small gap between the screen and the keyboard housing. Unlike the rest of the case, the QWERTY plastic here is thin and flexible, likely to accommodate the internal battery and communications circuitry. This results in a noticeable bowing when typing on the upper rows of keys. While not a deal breaker, it makes the device feel less sturdy than an integrated keyboard.
In use, Typo is reminiscent of older BlackBerry devices. Key presses are crisp and the silver colored cross-bars offer just enough space to delineate rows. After a short time, we were able to commit to thumb-touch-typing thanks to the partially sculpted keys. Layout is nearly identical to a QWERTY BlackBerry, with buttons pulling double duty as number and symbol keys via an ALT function. A button located near the space bar conveniently brings up the iOS keyboard for special situations, like emoji or international character input.
One of Typo's strong suits is that it allows complete unobstructed access to the screen. Instead of thumbs hovering over a virtual keyboard, users are able to see more of an email or message thread. Of course, switching to landscape mode makes Typo nearly useless unless it is removed and used remotely, but the same can be said of lauded BlackBerry designs.
The device also sports backlit keys, which can be toggled on and off to save juice. Battery life is pegged at an impressive 14 days, but the facTypo is yet another device to charge up via the included micro-USB connector.
In our tests, which included a variety of text edit, email and messaging apps, we found the unit to be extremely responsive with no latency between key press and text entry. Even under a "stress test," which consisted of pressing a single key as fast as possible, Typo exhibited zero lag. Basically, the device worked as good or better than most full-size Bluetooth keyboards on the market.
Typo is an interesting product. In many ways it fits the "on-the-go" accessory category and is perfect for shooting out quick emails and texts. But as a semi-permanent add-on meant to stay attached to an iPhone for extended periods, it feels too bulky. The design also makes concessions in utility.
While we were aware that the home button would be "relocated," something we did not anticipate was restricted access to iOS 7's Control Center. With the keyboard installed, it is nearly impossible to perform the swipe-up gesture activating the feature, which leaves control of Wi-Fi, orientation lock, Bluetooth and other system functions buried in the Settings app.
From our experience thus far, Typo is one of the better Bluetooth iPhone keyboard solutions on the market, but is by no means perfect. Key feel is good, the materials are solid and text input is extremely fast.
That being said, Typo is not for everyone. The accessory's design adds a substantial "chin" to the iPhone, throwing it off balance when typing while adding nearly an inch in length. Also, using Typo will add yet another device to the list of gadgets that need recharging. Most vexing for us, however, is the nullification of TouchID, which has made securing our iPhone 5s an unthinking task and will presumably provide a basis for future Apple services.
For die-hard physical keyboard fans and BlackBerry converts, Typo could be the answer you've been waiting for. For everyone else, Apple's virtual multitouch solution is likely a better bet.