The Apple iPad comes with a fairly comprehensive on-screen virtual keyboard, but we all know deep down that typing a long article on it won't be much fun. With this in mind Apple has released the Apple iPad Keyboard Dock, a keyboard attachment that offers a full keyboard experience to go with the iPad.
The Apple iPad Keyboard Dock will feel instantly familiar to anybody that has used a Mac recently, because it's essentially Apple's Wireless Keyboard with an iPad Dock Connector attached to the back. It uses the same square style keys found on a MacBook, and is the same shape and size. Far from the cramped keyboard found on most netbooks, this is the real deal.
The iPad slots in to the top of the keyboard dock via a vertical plastic rest that sticks up around 55mm; this holds up the iPad vertically while you type. Because the iPad only has a dock connector on the bottom, this does mean that you have to use the iPad in vertical mode. But any application that supports the on-screen keyboard supports the Apple Keyboard Dock, mostly we used it with Pages, but we did also test it out with the other iWork apps and found it useful for typing in URL addresses and passwords in Safari.
We'll get along to practicalities in a moment, but first we want to point out that attaching an iPad to a keyboard dock instantly changes your perception of the device. It suddenly starts to look a lot more like a small form factor MacBook (or netbook) than a large iPhone; it just makes it feel different.
On the whole it works very well: the Apple iPad Keyboard Dock provides the usual keyboard set with a customised set of top row keys. As well as the typical screen brightness and iTunes controls, these now feature Home and Search buttons, plus buttons to start the photo slideshow, lock the screen, and access the virtual on-screen keyboard if you wish to add special characters. You might find this useful if - like us - you're testing out a US keyboard and want to access common European characters such as the pound sign or euro. Interestingly it uses the keyboard layout in preferences to act like a UK keyboard (Shift+3 provides a pound sign, not the hash character displayed on the keyboard). We assume the UK version will feature the UK keyboard layout.
We did find a few features hard to get used to, mostly because the experience of using the iPad Keyboard Dock feels, superficially, very similar to using a Mac; but there are fundamental differences in the software. Some shortcuts, like Cut, Copy and Paste work fine; others like Bold and Underline don't. Of course, the menu structure is different on the iPad, and you can't navigate menus with the keyboard (for some reason we also wondered why we couldn't navigate the home screen icons.) Slightly more annoying at first was our tendency to reach for the Home button (which sits in the same spot as the Esc key) but soon we found typing comfortable and straightforward.
Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the keyboard is that it had us reaching for an imaginary mouse and pressing now redundant keyboard shortcuts (like Command+S to save) then realising that both of these things were no longer required. In one feel swoop the Keyboard Dock instills in you a better understanding of why the iPad is more advanced than a laptop in several areas.
There is a rather big caveat though, and the fact that nobody else has mentioned it suggests to us that either it's something only we have noticed, or that it only affects certain people. The iPad Keyboard dock has a rather serious stability issue, especially if you're a clod-handed touch-typist. The regular Apple Wireless keyboard has a mounted bar that runs all the way along the back, the iPad Keyboard only has a raised bar in the middle. This means that the left and right sides of the keyboard hover above the surface by about 10mm.