Touchfire: All keyed up and ready to go

January 25, 2013

Go Bag LogoApple’s iPad could be the perfect device for a road warrior, but it has one glaring shortcoming — the lack of the perfect keyboard. The built-in onscreen keyboard is workable, but no tactile feedback means that you look at your fingers as you type, instead of the words on the screen. That makes typing on a tablet slower than on a laptop, and that means you avoid your iPad for typing-intensive tasks, even though in every other respect it might be the perfect choice for communicating on the road.

Touchfire solves this problem in a novel way: It’s an extremely thin, clear plastic overlay with raised keys that rests on top of the onboard keyboard, mapping to each onscreen key. Unlike other aftermarket keyboards, it doesn’t add weight, bulkiness, or require batteries to recharge. This little piece of plastic doesn’t look like it would make much of a difference, but it does.

Leveraging the same internal magnets Apple’s Smart Cover exploits, Touchfire either clings to the screen or to the cover — you decide when you open it. When deployed, you can fold Touchfire back and keep it folded up and stuck to the bottom of the iPad, so you don’t have to remove it and possibly leave it behind, or go through an unnecessary step of closing the cover just to remove it from the screen. Touchfire adds nothing to the iPad’s profile or weight — and no batteries required.

There are the reassuring bumps on “F” and “J” keys that touch typists used to orient their hands. The slightest touch works to “strike” a key — it seems more sensitive to the touch than fingertips, if that is possible. Press-and-hold still works just fine, revealing alternate keys.

In my own tests Touchfire worked as quickly as I did, correctly interpreting keystrokes that often don’t register with nothing between me and the screen. This review was written entirely with TouchFire as I sat uncomfortably in a chair with the iPad on a low table angled up with the Smart Cover tucked — exactly the kind of “work anywhere” situation tablets are supposed to address.

There is a bit of a learning — rather, comfort — curve. For me that passed quickly, and as I grew more comfortable with Touchfire I caught myself looking up at the screen as I typed, allowing me to take advantage of autocorrect and autocomplete as never before. In other words, I unconsciously began touch typing.

Touchfire has its quirks. Obviously, it only works in landscape mode. There is no Touchfire for iPad Mini yet, though co-founder Scott Isaac says the company is pulling out all the stops to get that released this spring.  And, as innovative as Touchfire is, it is technology in the crosshairs of two features Apple could introduce: gesture typing, and a Smart Cover that incorporates a keyboard like the Microsoft Surface. (Although, as huge a fan I am of gesture typing, I think Touchfire would still be worth owning even if Apple introduces gesture typing in an iOS upgrade. The reason is simple: gesture typing is a standing/walking/one-hand-free input method. Touch typing is always done at rest.)

This thin piece of plastic doesn’t exactly replicate a true keyboard experience. But it bridges an enormous divide on the world’s most popular tablet by significantly improving the keyboard experience and goes a long way to enhance the iPad’s credentials as a compromise-free laptop substitute.

For now — and at $50 — Touchfire is something of a no-brainer for people who want to use an iPad as a primary computing device but but have been put off by keyboard frustration. When I acquire an iPad Mini — and if Apple doesn’t build a keyboard into a cover — it’s going in my go bag.


Previous Go Bag reviews:
Cache and carry: Why you need a go bag
Surface with Windows RT: The prettiest thing you’ll never want to touch again
Small is Big: the iPad Mini


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