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7/9/2012
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TouchFire Keyboard Overlay Makes iPad Typing Easier

The TouchFire is an ingenious silicon overlay for the iPad's virtual keyboard that makes it easier to type faster and more accurately. Unlike Bluetooth keyboards, the TouchFire doesn't add any appreciable weight or bulk to the iPad.

You know the old saying: Build a better iPad keyboard and the world will beat a path to your Kickstarter project. Maybe that's not exactly how the saying goes, but when Steve Isaac and Brad Melmon went on Kickstarter last October with their revolutionary idea for an iPad keyboard, people flocked to their project page in droves, wallets open. Isaac and Melmon asked for $10,000 to get their project off the ground. The Kickstarter community countered with over $200,000 in pledges. (Full disclosure: I was a backer, pledging $80.)

There are countless Bluetooth keyboards for the iPad, including some terrific ones such as the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover and the ZAGGfolio. But even these compact devices add significant bulk to the iPad. The Logitech weighs about 12 ounces and the ZAGG device weighs over a pound. The TouchFire, on the other hand, weighs less than an ounce. And at $49.99, it's half the price of the other products.

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The TouchFire is a clear, soft piece of silicone with bumps for keys that precisely overlay the iPad's virtual keyboard. Magnets snap the TouchFire into position on the iPad 2 and "new" iPad; the device also can fit on an original iPad in its Apple case.

Typing on the TouchFire gives a sensation very similar to typing on a real keyboard. In general, it's faster and more precise than trying to type directly on the screen, though it doesn't quite measure up to using a Bluetooth keyboard. But for most users, it will likely be enough of an improvement.

When typing with the TouchFire, there were a few quirks that took some getting used to. The TouchFire feels like a real keyboard so sometimes I found myself forgetting that I was really using the virtual keyboard. For instance, I would try to type numbers by going to a top row of keys (that weren't there) or accessing symbols by pressing the shift key rather than tapping the button to toggle the iPad's virtual keyboard between letters and symbols. But it didn't take long to switch my mindset back to using the virtual keyboard's layout.

Because the TouchFire uses the virtual keyboard, you get to take advantage of the iPad's tools to enhance speed and accuracy such as auto-correct and automatically inserting periods at the ends of sentences and capitalizing the first letter of the next sentence when you tap the spacebar twice. You lose this with a Bluetooth keyboard. On the other hand, a Bluetooth keyboard lets you view your documents full-screen whereas the virtual keyboard covers up half of the screen.

TouchFire provides iPad typing exercises on its site that appear to be derived from those in the TapTyping iPad app. I compared my speed typing on the virtual keyboard, TouchFire, and Logitech keyboards. The Logitech was generally fastest and the most precise. The TouchFire was better than using the virtual keyboard alone. Because the TouchFire has nubs on the F and J keys, you're less likely to slip from the home row when you look away. Also, you can rest your fingers on the TouchFire keys without accidentally pressing them. It's definitely more comfortable for typing large amounts of text.

The TouchFire doesn't work when you're using the iPad in portrait mode. I didn't find this to be a very big limitation but if you like to use your iPad this way, the TouchFire probably isn't for you. Note that some Bluetooth keyboards also have this limitation.

You can carry the TouchFire with you in a couple of different ways. The device ships with a long thin plastic carrying case that reminded me of a pencil box. Alternatively, the TouchFire can attach directly to Apple's Smart Cover or Smart Case through a couple of magnets that you attach to the cover with adhesive clips. Fortunately, the company provides extra adhesive clips because it can be a little difficult to stick the clips in just the right place so that the TouchFire snaps to the cover and folds and bends along with it without bunching up. Despite fairly clear instructions, I blew it with my first set of clips. I got the second ones close enough that I decided to live with it rather than wasting more clips. If you choose to attach your TouchFire to your Smart Cover or Smart Case, always look closely to make sure the iPad goes to sleep when you close the cover. On occasion, the TouchFire slipped a little, preventing a tight seal and the iPad stayed awake.

Dirt was very attracted to the TouchFire's silicone material. It doesn't affect operation, but it wasn't all that pleasant. Fortunately, you can just wash the TouchFire in warm water to clean it off. The company says you can also use dish soap if necessary.

If you want the very best typing experience on an iPad, get a good Bluetooth keyboard, But if you're enjoying carrying an iPad instead of a laptop and just want to be able to type more easily--and you want to save some money--I highly recommend the TouchFire.

The TouchFire originally was targeted to be delivered to Kickstarter backers last December. Like many Kickstarter projects, TouchFire experienced several delays due to manufacturing problems, parts shortages, design changes, and the like. TouchFire founders Isaac and Melmon kept their backers abreast of the situation with constant updates that provide a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to bring a product to market.)

Name: TouchFire

The TouchFire is an ingenious overlay for the iPad's virtual keyboard that lets you type faster and more accurately. Unlike Bluetooth keyboards, the TouchFire doesn't add any appreciable weight or bulk to the iPad.
Price: $49.99
Pro:
  • Extremely lightweight at less than one ounce.
  • Lets you type faster and more accurately than with the iPad's virtual keyboard alone.
  • Takes advantage of the iPad's auto-complete, auto-correct and auto-punctuation capabilities.
  • Works with all iPads.
Con:
  • Does not allow typing as fast or as accurate as with a good Bluetooth keyboard.
  • Silicone material attracts dirt.
  • Hard to precisely attach to the iPad's Smart Cover and Smart Case.
  • Doesn't work in portrait mode.

The original TouchFire promotion video used on Kickstarter.

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