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Reality Absorption Field: iPads in notebook's clothing

Ross Rubin

Apple's latest incarnation of the iPad turned out to be a distillation and refinement of what has defined the product. The Apple offering ships free of any keyboard connectors or covers in contrast to the Surface 2 and Nokia 2520 that vied for headlines with the iPad Air's introduction.

With so much written about the notebook's attempts to capitulate to the iPad's success, though, one must consider the other side of the tablet-notebook continuum even in the world of Apple. The maker of MacBooks and iPads draws distinct boundaries between the two product lines. While Apple may not be interested in doing much to make the iPad experience more like the Mac's, third parties have stepped in with everything from Wi-Fi-based storage that can accommodate SD cards to remote desktop applications that provide at least a window into Mac applications.

And then there are the keyboards of every stripe -- standalone Bluetooth keyboards, Lightning keyboards, folding keyboards, typewriter keyboards, silicone screen-top keyboards, magnetic cover keyboards, and keyboards integrated into and removable from cases and folios. No wonder Microsoft and now Dell have seen opportunity for thin keyboards that attach to their tablets with a minimum of fuss and no need for pairing.

If products such as the Belkin and Logitech's svelte keyboard covers were attempts to compete with the slim type cover of the Surface, though, have there been any products to compete with the keyboard docks from ASUS in its VivoBook line and HP in its Split X2? As Dell would put forth with its recently debuted Venue Pro 11, there's value for each type of keyboard. In fact, two Kickstarter projects have produced what create the closest things to an iPad notebook experience -- the oddly spelled Brydge (which ranges from a $100 polycarbonate model to a $200 aluminum model with integrated Bluetooth speakers) and the more oddly named $160 CruxSKUNK. Behold, the iBook! (Wait, that sounds familiar.)

Both Bluetooth products make typing on the iPad faster and have pleasing keyboards, which are pretty much the point. The CrunxSKUNK has slightly larger keys and an overall larger form. This is in part due to a metal frame into which one inserts the iPad before securing it with fasteners near its hinge, a hinge that could stand to have less "give." In contrast, the Brydge's footprint is almost identical to the iPad's save for two hook-like extensions at its base. These extensions have silicone-like pads (removable to accommodate different iPad thicknesses) and keep the iPad firmly connected to the hinge despite a bit of lateral wiggle that may occur while traveling. The Brydge makes removing the iPad faster and easier than the CruxSKUNK does.

Overall, the Brydge seems to fit the iPad gestalt better, but both products must accommodate the iPad's hardware and software limitations. Since they uses Bluetooth, they must have its own battery that, unlike many Windows docking keyboards, can't charge the iPad. That's not so bad as some Windows options rely on Bluetooth as well. However, unlike Windows (or Android per products such as the HP Slatebook X2 and ASUS Transformer Prime) iOS does not support cursors, so both the Skunk and the Brydge offer an uninterrupted aluminum plane on the part of the wrist rest where the trackpad might be.

Because of this, nearly all on-screen objects must be selected and manipulated with your fingers as would be the case if you were holding the iPad. However, with the iPad propped up in a clamshell configuration, you must traverse the depth of the keyboard every time to touch the tablet. The extra effort required to do this illustrates why, despite the defense of touch in Windows clamshells, it's a relief to have trackpads at closer range in them (Acer Aspire R7 excepted).

From there, the suitability of the ersatz laptop will depend on how sophisticated your software needs are. Most Web apps aren't a problem and there are a number of basic office suites for the iPad. Windows, and some Android devices, have the ability to show multiple apps on the screen at the same time, a feature the iPad lacks. Being able to glance at updates from other apps, such as e-mail, news and social feeds, can be a helpful capability. However, relatively few scenarios require actively moving around multiple apps (although some time spent in Office is spent doing exactly that). At a minimum, it would be helpful if Apple offered even faster switching among apps than it now offers in iOS 7.

It's also helpful to bear in mind the demo that Microsoft gave of the Surface Pro 2. While that PC has the muscle to skim through raw footage from state-of-the-art high-definition video cameras, surely it can't accommodate much of it due to its limited storage, which is a problem for the iPad as well.

Alas, neither product stands to fit the new iPad Air, but both work with the less expensive iPad 2 still on the market and updates will likely be in the works. When compared with products such as thin keyboard covers, the Brydge and Skunk offer more variety in terms of viewing angles and a faster path to typing that doesn't require reorienting. They can also keep the iPad more stable on the lap at certain angles one encounters when using a notebook. Other operating systems and designs may do a better job of preserving more of the notebook experience, but the iPad's immense popularity in a notebook-like size category makes it a tempting candidate for laptop impersonation.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.

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