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Scosche freeKEY Bluetooth keyboard: A hands-on test

A few days ago I highlighted a new flexible and water-resistant Bluetooth keyboard from the folks at Scosche. As many of the people commenting on that post noted, flexible "chiclet-type" keyboards of this type have a reputation for being difficult to type on. TUAW blogger Erica Sadun mentioned that when she's used chiclet keyboards, her fingers have actually started to hurt after a short amount of time due to the extra pressure required to depress the key switches.

After hearing that from Erica, it was with a great deal of skepticism that I opened a box from Scosche the other day that contained one of the freeKEY Bluetooth keyboards. Is the US$59.99 ($49.99 through Amazon.com) freeKEY a good portable keyboard for iOS device owners who want to travel light, or does the design of a keyboard like this keep it from really being useful? In the following review (see next page), I'll provide a hands-on test of the freeKEY with an iPad 2 and let you know how it held up to my lightning-fast typing.

Design

The freeKEY is set up in a standard QWERTY layout, featuring most keys where you'd expect them. One notable exception was the backslash character ( \ ), which sits in an odd location to the left of the space bar. If you're used to tapping on the Command key in that location, be forewarned.

For Mac and iOS users, the NumLk key and keypad are unusable

The keyboard also has the standard top row of half-keys that are assigned to Esc and F1 through F12. To the top row are added NumLk, Ins, Del, PrtScr and Pause buttons. Some of those are familiar to owners of Windows PCs, although many Mac users would be perplexed by their use. The NumLk key changes a pattern of keys on the keyboard into a numeric keypad, with the numbers and functions marked in a pleasant gold color. This function does not appear to work with the iPad or Mac, as I was unable to use the numeric keypad to type numbers, instead resorting to the regular number row on the keyboard.

Although the freeKEY is obviously designed with Windows users in mind -- it does have a Windows key on the bottom row between Ctrl and Alt -- it works well with just about any device that can process input from a Bluetooth keyboard. I was able to pair the keyboard with my Mac, although it had difficulty determining what kind of keyboard it was. In fact, I used the keyboard to type most of this review. When used with a Mac, the Alt key seemed to substitute for both the Command key and Option key, and the Windows key turned into the Control key. Needless to say, that was confusing.

Setup

Setup of the freeKEY was easy. Using the retractable USB to micro-USB cable, I plugged the keyboard into a USB hub to charge the battery. As soon as the green charge LED disappeared, I knew the battery was topped off. With an iPad, setup is done through Settings > General > Bluetooth, and the keyboard was easily discovered and paired. When using it with a Mac, I used System Preferences > Bluetooth to add a new device, and once again, the keyboard was discovered and paired quickly.

Note that once you've paired with one device -- an iPad, for instance -- then pair with another device, like a Mac, you'll need to pair once again to use the device with an iPad. Fortunately that process is fast. You tap the Connect button on the battery "bump" on the freeKEY, which makes the keyboard discoverable, then try to connect from the iPad. You're asked to type a four-digit passcode and press Enter, and within seconds the iPad and freeKEY are talking to each other.

At left, the battery and electronics "bump" on the freeKEY

Typing Feel

Let me make this clear -- my favorite keyboard is the Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, which has a great typing feel and works extremely well when I'm pounding out words. That means I'm comparing the freeKEY to a keyboard that I'm used to and like very much.

What I found is that I only had to apply a little bit more finger pressure to the freeKEY than I usually do on the Apple keyboard, which meant that as soon as my fingers were "calibrated" to the feel of the freeKEY, I was able to type almost as quickly as I do on the Apple keyboard. Of the two keyboards, I still prefer the Apple keyboard, but I feel confident enough about the freeKEY that I'm taking it with me on an upcoming trip instead of the Apple keyboard.

Why would I take the freeKEY on the road with me? Space and weight savings. The Apple Bluetooth Keyboard is 11" wide, 5" deep, almost .75" high at its thickest point, and it weighs 11.4 ounces with batteries. Rolled up, the freeKEY takes up about 4.5" by 2.5" by 1.25" and weighs only 4.2 ounces with its battery. With all of the tech gear I usually take on trips, every ounce counts.

Scosche freeKEY all rolled up into a keyboard burrito

Water Resistance

There's a small "door" on the freeKEY that covers the micro-USB port and a tiny on/off switch. When that door (which is connected by a small flexible rubber leash) is shut, there are no open ports on the keyboard where water or other liquids can seep in. It's perfect for situations where you may be concerned about splashing liquids onto a normal keyboard, and the freeKEY might be the best keyboard for kids to use. Concerned about what will happen if they spill a soft drink on a keyboard or touch it with peanut butter and jelly-covered fingers? Not a problem with the freeKEY. You can actually rinse it off under a faucet for cleaning.

Conclusion

As flexible keyboards go, I like the feel of the freeKEY. The touch is just light enough that I can type quickly on it, although it's not as "perfect" as the feel of the standard Apple Bluetooth Keyboard. It's light, flexible and splashproof, and being able to roll it up and stuff it into a small pocket on a jacket or in a backpack makes it more travel-friendly than the Apple keyboard.

There's only one concern I have about the Scosche freeKEY: the price. There are other flexible and water-resistant keyboards on the market for much less. Two that appear to be the identical keyboard with different branding are the Menotek Flexible Bluetooth Keyboard ($32.98 on Amazon) and the Rêveware Flexible Bluetooth Waterproof Keyboard ($29.99 on Amazon). All three keyboards are identical in terms of layout and color, with the only difference being the name of the distributor. On the plus side, Scosche is a brand-name retailer with good support, and that could make a difference to those who purchase this keyboard.

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