Bluetooth keyboards offer a winning combination of portability and cross-device compatibility — but they’re not perfect for everyone. While there are Bluetooth keyboards out there worth buying, you should be aware that there are some real trade-offs to consider.
For example, gamers, coders, and those who write often may fare better with wired keyboards, which tend to offer better reliability, functionality, and security. Should you get one? Here are six reasons why you may want to rethink the Bluetooth keyboard.
1. Keyboards Should Be Long-Term
The keyboard remains one of the few computer components that will never go obsolete. With PS2-to-USB adapters, many mechanical keyboards from thirty years ago are still useful today. And why would you want to use such an old keyboard? For its mechanical switch (how mechanical keyboards work).
Unlike today’s membrane keyboards, a mechanical keyboard offers a combination of durable keycaps along with switches that will last for up to 50 million key presses — and the keys for a mechanical keyboard are usually easier to activate.
A common membrane keyboard requires around 70 grams of force to actuate while a Gateron mechanical switch only needs 35 grams of force. Plus, mechanical switches activate when they’re half-pressed unlike membrane switches which only activate when they’re full-pressed.
This is what a membrane switch looks like:
This is what a mechanical switch looks like:
Mechanical Bluetooth keyboards exist but they aren’t practical, mainly because you lose the portability that makes a Bluetooth keyboard worth getting. For example, the Varmilo VB87M keyboard weighs around 4 pounds, which is more than my entire Dell XPS 13 laptop.
Sure, there are a few excellent options out there, such as the Filco Majestouch Minila:
Unfortunately, it doesn’t connect through a miniUSB cable, which offsets the fact that it’s one of the few portable Bluetooth mechanical keyboards around. Before buying anything, I advise reading up on what kind of keyboard switch is best for you.
2. You Can’t Trust Manufacturers
Logitech and HTC both claim to sell “mechanical” Bluetooth keyboards, but if you look closely, you’ll find that neither model actually possesses any mechanical switches. It’s a shame because both are, by most standards, high-quality devices.
For example, the Logitech Keys-to-Go model protects its keys using a fabric covering. Here’s a good shot of it:
But in marketing speak, the term “mechanical” can refer to anything that adheres to the following definition:
It does not mean what you’d expect it to mean, namely that the keyboard actually employs spring resistance with metal actuation points. A tear-down of the HTC Nexus 9 keyboard and the Logitech Keys-to-Go proves that neither offers the mechanical switches that one would expect.
Here’s what Logitech’s Keys-to-Go looks like after removing the fabric covering the keyboard:
As you can see through the transparent (potentially acrylic) keycaps, there’s a scissors-style membrane switch. Here’s a side-by-side comparison between Logitech’s computer-rendered marketing image (left) and what the switch looks like (right):
The render doesn’t look anything like the production version. Even so, I can say that the Logitech Keys-to-Go keyboard is a fantastic keyboard, although it still suffers from many of the issues with Bluetooth keyboards, such as an unreplaceable Li-ion battery.
On the positive side, its spill-proof design and portability make it an ideal keyboard for mobile productivity. Right now it retails on Amazon for between $30 and $50.
I should also note that the Logitech’s Keys-to-Go uses Bluetooth 3.0 rather than the more modern Bluetooth 4.0, which is an example of our next issue.
3. Standards Become Obsolete & Insecure
Unlike a wired connection, the Bluetooth wireless protocol rapidly changes over time, which would be fine except that Bluetooth keyboards don’t receive security updates as they age. What’s considered secure today might be easily exploited tomorrow.
For example, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) published a best-practices guideline for Bluetooth usage, which notes that older Bluetooth standards that don’t support the Low Energy extension are vulnerable — and that’s pretty much all Bluetooth 3.x keyboards.
4. No Bluetooth In the BIOS
What’s a Basic Input Output (BIOS) environment? On a PC, and some Mac computers, users can enter a pre-OS boot environment and change basic variables, such as CPU frequency and other settings. Unfortunately, Bluetooth drivers are loaded by the operating system.
Without wired capabilities, it’s impossible for a keyboard to function in a BIOS environment. A handful of Bluetooth keyboards do possess the ability to work over a wired connection in a BIOS environment, but these are almost always expensive mechanical models.
One of the few Bluetooth keyboards to also support a connection via USB cable is the Varmilo VB660M. Unfortunately, the keyboard was discontinued, and it’s almost impossible to find one now.
You can get the Varmilio VB87M instead. It’s one of the best — if not the best — Bluetooth mechanical keyboards available today and is sold through Massdrop on an intermittent basis, or you can get the VB87M with Cherry MX Brown switches on Amazon. (Massdrop offers configurable models so you can choose switch types and backlighting options.)
Unfortunately, the VB87M suffers from all kinds of connection issues when used with Windows, as the controller will not function on older versions of Windows, which do not support the Bluetooth 4.0 standard. While the Bluetooth standard itself is reverse compatible — meaning you can use a Bluetooth 4.0 device on a 3.0 wireless card and vice-versa — Windows 7 doesn’t support Bluetooth 4.0 modules.
A Ray of Hope for Bluetooth Enthusiasts
There’s a ray of hope for writers who hate wires. A Bluetooth keyboard that beats down the BIOS issue is the lofree. Unlike other keyboards, the lofree can pair with a computer using either Bluetooth or USB — which means it functions in BIOS. And at $75 via its Indiegogo campaign (which is already funded), it costs less than many membrane keyboards.
It offers a lot more than just USB functionality. The lofree also includes LED backlighting, a portable and compact layout, compatibility with all major operating systems, and a slim profile (for a mechanical keyboard). Overall, it’s a winner if you need Bluetooth compatibility and occasionally need to use it in BIOS.
More or less, the Bluetooth standard is messy and fragmented. The same problem also plagues Linux where 4.0 modules fail to function properly. Compared to a wired connection, Bluetooth suffers from substantial compatibility issues.
5. Bluetooth Has Pairing Issues
This is Bluetooth’s biggest problem, and a quick scan of customer reviews of Bluetooth keyboards shows countless complaints about compatibility issues.
For example, the latest version of Ubuntu doesn’t work with Bluetooth 4.0 devices… and Windows 7 isn’t compatible with Bluetooth 4.0… and versions of Android older than 4.3 Jelly Bean won’t support Bluetooth’s Low Energy extension. Overall, Bluetooth’s compatibility issues can spoil the main advantage offered by Bluetooth keyboards in the first place.
With any luck, we’ll see some WiFi-Direct keyboards in the future (difference between WiFi-Direct and Bluetooth). WiFi-Direct requires a WiFi-Direct compatible wireless card, but that’s okay because most modern Android devices are compatible. The problem is that good WiFi-Direct keyboards are hard to find.
6. That Battery Won’t Last Forever
In fact, a Bluetooth keyboard’s battery might not even last a few years. All Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries fail over time (three ways to ruin a battery), and the more discharge-charge cycles it goes through, the faster its battery chemistry loses coherency.
Furthermore, while a seldom-charged Li-ion battery can last a long time, most are not user-replaceable. If it does fail, you’ve got to discard the entire keyboard unless you have soldering skills (learn how to solder). Bluetooth keyboards with replaceable batteries do exist, but they’re uncommon and few standout.
One exception is the Logitech K480:
The K480 offers a solid combination of a slender form factor, multi-device compatibility, and replaceable AAA batteries. Unfortunately, it still suffers from the majority of issues plaguing Bluetooth keyboards.
Should You Buy a Bluetooth Keyboard?
There’s no perfect Bluetooth keyboard solution, so you’ve got to either compromise or pony up the cash and pay a fortune.
One surprising note is that micro-mechanical keyboard switches do exist. A company called TTC sells switches with a height of 7.1mm, a suitable size for portable keyboards. I’m hoping that Logitech adopts the technology for use in a Keys-to-Go successor, which would be really nice.
If you absolutely must buy a Bluetooth keyboard, my advice is to either go cheap or check out the lofree Kickstarter campaign. The lofree offers both USB and Bluetooth connectivity, a low profile (for a mechanical keyboard), and a low $75 price tag. For the money, it’s among the best portable Bluetooth keyboards on today’s market.
If you don’t need wireless capabilities, invest in a solid wired mechanical keyboard, and if you need it for a mobile device, consider buying a USB On-the-Go (OTG) cable (make sure your device is compatible with OTG cables, although most Androids are).
Does anyone else have buyer’s remorse after scoring a Bluetooth keyboard? Tell us about it in the comments down below!