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Keyboards and Markdown Editors for the iPad Air


Random thoughts, bright ideas and interesting experiments. In short the ramblings of a fulltime nerd.


Keyboards and Markdown Editors for the iPad Air

Jakob Westhoff

This blogpost is a little different from the ones I usually write, as I wander off into the world of hardware accessories and tablets. In this case external Keyboards and Markdown editors for the iPad Air. I will talk about finished Soft- and Hardware products, ready for you to use instead of some development related topic, which I think is a first in this blog.

Why am I coming up with such a topic you might ask. The answer is quite simple: Instead of taking my MBP Retina with me wherever I go, I tend to get along with my iPad just fine most of the time. Especially if I know, that I am only going out to read something or write articles or documentation. The iPads astonishing battery life, as well as its very small form factor make it an ideal companion for me in such situations.

Hardware vs. Touch

Unfortunately I quickly had to realize, that doing quite a sophisticated amount of writing on a touch based keyboard isn't much fun. It works quite well if want to quickly answer an email, or issue a small chat message, but it is simply not working out once you are writing articles or fully featured project documentations. I started looking for external keyboards, that would allow me to harness my iPads advantages, while still having a real world hardware keyboard to type on. After quite some research I came up with three different models I wanted to test out:

  1. Zagg folio (Amazon-Link)
  2. Logitech Ultrathin (Amazon-Link)
  3. Belkin QODE Thin Type (Amazon-Link)

I ordered all of those keyboards over at amazon to check whether they would fit my personal usage criteria.

Zagg folio

Once they arrived I started with the Zagg folio. The folio is a solid piece of hardware. The keyboard feels robust and well manufactured. The pressure point of the keys seemed a little soft for me. Especially in contrast to the keys of my Macbook. In contrast to most other keyboards I had seen so far, the folio isn't just a cover. It is a full blown case, which opens and closes like book. The iPad is fixed in the upper part, while the lower part is the keyboard. This technique allows the iPad to be flexibly positioned on the top edge of the keyboard. Like with any laptop you may use the integrated hinge to change the inclination of the iPad. Futhermore the folio is the only one I have seen so far, that has LED-backlit keys, just like the Macbook, which eases operation in dark environments a lot.

Even though its way of holding the iPad seems to be really nice, it has been the main reason for me not to keep it. The problem with this kind of mounting, is that the center of mass is moved way to the end of the keyboard, where the iPad resides. This causes the whole construct to move and sometimes even fall over once you are interacting with the touch interface of the iPad, while it is inside the cover. Furthermore I only want to utilize the keyboard sometimes. In most situations I just want to use the iPad as a standalone device. Taking it out of the case every time, would of course be feasible, but didn't feel ideal.

Luckily there were still two more keyboards to try out.

Logitech Ultrathin

I moved on the Logitech Ultrathin. It is important to note here, that different models of this keyboard are available an older one, for iPad 2, 3 and 4 and a newer one for the iPad Air. In contrast to the Zagg the Logitech is a real cover, which is protecting the iPad if it is not used. It is fixed to it make use of the magnetic border, which is used by the SmartCover as well. In use the Keyboard is used as a stand for the tablet. A small groove is cut into case above the keyboard, which holds the iPad in place. It is firmly fixed this way. The tablet can be tilted once placed there, as the mount is placed on a hinge, which can be used to change the displays inclination. I liked the way of connecting the iPad a lot better, but the keys weren't what I have been looking for. There pressure point was way to soft for me. Furthermore the due to the really slim design of the keyboard, the keys didn't move far enough down for me. I never was sure, if I really pressed a key or not. Of course this is a very subjective opinion. Most likely I would have adapted the way the keyboard reacts to key presses quickly, but at a first glance I decided the Logitech wasn't going to be the one either.

Belkin QODE Thin Type

My third and last try out was the Belkin keyboard. In contrast to the two others the QODE Thin Type is created from aluminum. It feels cleanly manufactured and well designed. In contrast to the Logitech the iPad can't be titled once positioned inside the keyboard. I however didn't feel the need to do that anyways, as the inclination seemed to be okey for me. I really much like the pressure point of the QODE, as it is very similar to my Macbooks. The haptic perception of the whole Keyboard is quite pleasing. The keys have got an acceptable size and positioning. Only the Ä and - keys are in a strange place. However I got used to that quickly and quite easily.

One feature of the keyboard, which I really like is that it does not have any kind of on-/off-switch. Once the iPad is placed in the keyboard it is automatically switched on. Take it out and the keyboard is disabled again. Establishing the bluetooth connection to iPad once the devices are paired is about a second. I enjoy the capability of taking the iPad out of its keyboard stand at any time, without taking care of disconnecting the keyboard, or switching it of in order to get my touch keyboard back. Furthermore I don't need to switch the keyboard back on once the iPad is placed inside of it. Once paired everything just magically behaves as it should.

As you might have imagined after this lengthy descriptions of the pros and cons of each keyboard I decided to keep the Belkin QODE Thin Type and sent back the rest. I am still very happy with this keyboard. As a matter of fact, I am currently writing this article on my iPad, while sitting in a cafe, drinking a cappuccino enjoying the sunny weather :).

Markdown Editors

Once I found a proper keyboard I started searching for a nice Markdown editor for the iPad, as I mostly write texts formatted this way nowadays. Until now I used a simple plain text editor on the tablet. However there had to be something better out there. I wanted a certain degree of syntax highlighting, assistance with lists and codeblocks, as well as clean typography. Furthermore I needed Dropbox or iCloud syncing functionality to easily switch between my Mac and my iPad.

After reading myself through the internet again, I came up with 2 editors, which seemed to fit my bill nicely:

  1. iA Writer
  2. Byword 2

iA Writer

I already knew iA Writer, as I had been using it on OS X for more than a year now. Therefore bought it for the iPad to test it out. It mostly is a clone of the OS X version, provides a very clean and structured interface combined with clearly visible, but yet unobtrusive syntax highlighting. It allows to sync texts via iCloud.

The only thing, that didn't seem ideal was the font the developers chose. It is the same they are using on the Mac, where it looks clean and well placed. However with the small screen estate of the iPad it seemed unnecessary wide and spacey. Don't get me wrong I still like the iPad version of iA Writer very much, but it seemed to me there might be a even better alternative out there.

Byword 2

I went to the Appstore again and bought Byword in its current version 2 release. It seemed to be almost identical to iA Writer on a first glance. It had a clean and structured user interface, uncluttered and focused on it's main purpose: Writing. It has nice and unobtrusive syntax highlighting, just like iA Writer did. It provides assistance with lists and other common Markdown elements. Furthermore it supports Dropbox and iCloud for synchronization of documents. I am quite sure once iOS 8 is released it will support the new file dialog as well, to provide easy access to other cloud storage solutions.

But best of all the chosen font did really fit the iPads screen size. Still being clearly visible and easy to read it managed to look, like it had been created just for that device.

I am staying with Byword for now. I even switched my main Markdown editor on OS X from iA Writer to Byword as I like the consistency across platforms.


I hope you enjoyed this non development topic post, as much as I enjoyed testing out all the different approaches to solve my hardware problems :). Maybe this post makes it a little easier for you, if you are looking for a similar solution. If you got any further questions, which I might answer about the presented Hard- and Software solutions. Drop me a line in the comments and I will try to answer it to your satisfaction.