While I’m a big fan of Swype, SlideIT, and other advanced Android keyboards, there’s something to be said about a keyboard with keys on it. I mean the physical-type keyboards – you know, the clunky ones that go clack-clack-clack as you frantically type your next great novel. I wouldn’t want to have to use one of these every time I have to reply to a quick text or email on my phone, but when I decide to go out to the neighborhood café to get some serious writing done, it’d be nice to be able to take just my phone and a run-of-the-mill USB keyboard – if only for the weird looks from the other patrons.
But how can you hook up an ordinary USB keyboard to your Android phone?
Three Magic Letters: Oh, Tee, Gee
Above is the simple cable that makes the magic happen. It’s a USB OTG cable, which, expanded, really means USB On-The-Go. One its far, blurry end, you can see a Micro USB plug that fits into my Samsung Galaxy S II, the same way any other USB or charger cable fits. The near end, in focus, has a regular-sized USB jack in it – the same type you can plug a keyboard into, or a USB key, or anything else really (just because you can plug it in, doesn’t mean it’ll work with your phone, as you’ll see later on).
This is the single most important piece of hardware you’re going to need to connect a USB keyboard to your phone, and there’s no real way around it. It’s a bit tricky to get: Your neighborhood computer store may not have it, but Amazon sure does. The good news is that it’s tiny (so you won’t pay much for shipping, even if it’s international), and it’s really cheap, selling for around $1 (a single buck yes).
Once you get the cable (and the keyboard), it’s time to discuss software.
Root Not Required
Ideally, you should be able to plug the cable into your phone, plug a keyboard into the cable, and start typing. For my phone, that’s exactly how things went:
This obviously isn’t perfect, though, because a large software keyboard is still taking up a lot of screen space. A quick tap on the phone’s Back button fixes that, though:
And this is another look of the same setup, this time from the outside (i.e, not a screenshot of the phone). You can see the OTG cable snaking into my phone, and in the middle of the frame you can see it plugging into the cheapo Logitech USB keyboard I used. After hitting the Back button, I was able to just keep typing smoothly.
If You’re Using a Weird Layout
As you may recall, I use an alternative (read: better) keyboard layout called Colemak. When I connected an external keyboard before, it suddenly went QWERTY on me, which was very disorienting. If you have the same problem, you can get and install a $2.50 app called External Keyboard Helper. This app lets you set your own layout (and includes Colemak), and can also make your software Android keyboard disappear in case it doesn’t go away on its own (not a problem if you’re using Swype, as shown above).
USB Thumb Drives, Or: A Matter Of Luck and Circumstances
Originally, I was also going to cover mounting USB thumb drives using the same system. After all, if you can stick a keyboard onto the end of the OTG cable, why not plug in a USB thumb drive? There’s a free app called StickMount (requiring root access) that can help. But alas, no matter how much I fiddled with my USB thumb drive, I just couldn’t get it to work. The device is rooted, it’s running Android 4.1 (not 4.2, which StickMount is currently incompatible with), the thumb drive is operational, and yet, nothing useful happened when I plugged in the drive.
I guess this goes to show that with Android, your mileage may always vary. This does not mean you won’t be able to plug in a USB drive using this exact same system – it just means I was unable to. If you already have an OTG cable and have plugged in a keyboard, you might as well give it a go with a USB drive and share the results in the comments – I would be curious to hear how you fared!