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Qwerkywriter's retro iPad keyboard is a flawed masterpiece

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The internet has made our culture impermanent, and in its confusion, humanity mistook nostalgia for authenticity. Our cameras take images in unprecedented detail, but we only share them if they look like Polaroids from more than half a century ago. The hipsters of today dress like they're about to teach a physics class in a Midwestern public school, circa 1954. That's why the Qwerkywriter feels like such a product of its time: a $399 84-key Bluetooth keyboard that's been styled to look like the love child of an Olivetti Studio 42 and an Underwood No. 5. A gleaming exhibit of the future designed to seem as if it's been in the back of a junk shop for the last hundred years. It was a Kickstarter success, but can the product vault the hurdle between nostalgia and authenticity to become an actual product?

Gallery: The Qwerkywriter mechanical iPad keyboard | 9 Photos

Hardware

The first thing you'll notice about the Qwerkywriter is that it's strikingly beautiful -- so much so that all of the people who have visited my home have made a beeline for it. It's also pleasingly heavy, weighing in at 1,253 grams (2.8 pounds) and made from solid aluminum that's covered in a matte black powder paint. These things combine to give you a feeling of old-timey rigidity that's hard not to like. It's sufficiently heavy that it should discourage you from taking this down to your local coffee shop, although if you spot someone in your Starbucks with one of these, give 'em a hostile glare from me, K?

In the original pitch, Qwerkywriter was to come with USB and Bluetooth connections, but only the latter made it into the final version. As such, the micro-USB port that's tucked 'round back is now just used to charge the battery, which has a promised life of between one and three months of heavy use. At the back of the device is a fake paper table that's used as a stand for smartphones and tablets, letting you turn this into an ersatz word processor for term papers and, yes, your screenplay.

As a tablet dock

Remember when I said that you could use the Qwerkywriter as an ersatz word processor? About that. The design of the built-in tablet stand makes it difficult, if not impossible, to use it as a Bluetooth keyboard. As much as the stand makes you feel like a modern-day Stephen J. Cannell, the angle is actually too steep for you to use a tablet comfortably. As I write this on my iPad, I'm having to push the keyboard half a foot farther away and slouch just to get a half-decent line of sight on the display.

The other big annoyance is that the paper tray will obscure your tablet's home button, and there's no dedicated hardware key to replace it on the keyboard. On the iPad, there's a way around this, which is to activate Voice Over -- that lets you use CTRL+CMD+H in place of the home button. For some reason, that isn't working on the Qwerkywriter, although I managed to get Shift+CMD+H to do the same job after some trial and error. I'm told that the final version will have a foam lining in the tray to push the home button high enough to use -- but considering how much of the promo shots of the device show it as a companion to the iPad, this is a massive, horrible oversight.

Update: The folks from Qwerkywriter have added that the foam insert will also help deal with the tilting issues.

Keys

Did you know that there's currently a global shortage of Cherry MX keyboard switches? That's what prompted the Qwerkywriter team to opt for Kailh Blue mechanical switches. Much like the Cherries, each key is wonderfully loud and satisfyingly clicky, and since each is mounted on a pillar, there are acres of travel. The keycaps, meanwhile, are spaced 0.5mm farther away from each other than you'd see on an average chiclet keyboard. The raised chrome edges that encircle each keycap make them feel closer together, so be prepared for a learning curve in your first few days of typing. One other thing is that the Windows/OS X Command keys have both been ditched in favor of a custom "Qwerky" key with a fancy atom-age logo. There's one problem with this, and that there's so much space on either side of it that it's actually a chore to find it if you're used to standard Windows or Mac keyboards.

If there's one flourish that's worth discussing in isolation, it's the addition of a return bar, a mainstay of traditional typewriters that does the same job as the enter key. Pull it in from the left and it'll carriage return down to the next line, although the switch can also be mapped to other commands, if you want to. It's nowhere near as efficient as just hitting the enter key, but there's something immeasurably satisfying about celebrating the completion of a paragraph by giving the bar a good slap.

Conclusions

Before the Qwerkywriter landed on my doorstep, I knew I was going to either love it or hate it. The surface indications were that it would occupy the same lame pantheon as Native Union's old-timey iPhone handsets. The irony of it would be the key selling point, the message being, "Look at me; aren't I eccentric," as you carried your ridiculous iPad stand from one coffee shop to another. It turns out that I was wrong.

Qwerkywriter has been created with some measure of love, clearly. It's weighty, well-built and beautiful to look at. To use one, after the first few minutes, is a delight, and it's so different from traditional keyboards that you feel the need to play with it as soon as you see it. You can see where every penny of that $399 cost went, even if it is a little too steep for most people. But the $329 pre-order price should soften that blow, at least a little.

What I would say is that if you're just in the market for a decent mechanical keyboard, don't buy this, because for around $150, you can get a solid unit from plenty of companies. Matias' One, Razer's BlackWidow or Das Keyboard's 4 Professional are all fine options that come with none of the fuss or price that are available here. Then there's the fact that the Qwerkywriter is a little muddled in its execution, neither portable enough to be a tablet stand, nor grand enough to be useful for daily desktop use.

But if you're looking for something that's beyond the run-of-the-mill peripheral, that's beautiful despite some of its compromises, then it's a different story. If you have this sort of cash lying around and want to type with a device that has been lovingly crafted, then you need to give this a try. Yes, there is a little bit of "look at me" ostentatiousness that'll draw envious eyes, but sometimes you just need to tolerate the jealousy of others. In spite of its flaws, some of which are maddening, I love this product and I think you might too.

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