Quite frankly, software keyboards just don’t cut it for hardcore productivity. Even the best software keyboards, like SwiftKey, fall far behind even low-quality hardware keyboards in speed and typing comfort. Four major, some exotic and some mundane, keyboard technologies inhabit marketplaces: NFC powered keyboards, OTG (On the Go) keyboards, Bluetooth 3.0 and 4.0 keyboards.
Of these, I prefer using OTG keyboards for their quality and reliability. However, remember that no single keyboard type can fit all individual needs. Each possesses both strengths and weaknesses that the discriminating consumer should keep in mind.
Four Keyboard Technologies
Of the four keyboard technologies (NFC, Bluetooth and OTG) presented in this article, the most widely used is the Bluetooth 3.0 standard. That’s because of inconsistent implementation of OTG and NFC drivers in Android devices. Also, few keyboards work without additional configuration in Android’s settings menu.
NFC stands for Near Field Communication. NFC keyboards are extraordinarily exotic, some even receive power wirelessly, from the NFC signal. Many phones, particularly iPhones, don’t incorporate this technology – even many Android devices don’t use it. More modern devices do include it, leading to a wealth of automation software such as NFC Task Launcher and a large variety of potential uses. I use NFC for its location-based features, including sleep-mode and car-mode.
- Low power: NFC keyboards consume hardly any energy, as they don’t broadcast over a great distance, such as Bluetooth.
- Upcoming keyboard doesn’t use batteries: An upcoming NFC keyboard from One2Touch converts the NFC signal into a power source. Other NFC keyboards require batteries, although require very little power.
- Super portable: Most NFC keyboards use smaller batteries and, as demonstrated by the One2Touch keyboards, are foldable. Most of these will either fit in your pocket, or double as a case.
- No pairing: There’s no pairing process involved in connecting an NFC keyboard. According to One2Touch, simply place the Android device on the keyboard and start typing.
- Requires NFC: If your phone doesn’t have NFC, you won’t be able to use an NFC keyboard.
- Short range: NFC signals don’t broadcast over a great distance. You have a range of millimeters.
- Expensive: The cheapest NFC keyboard, the Android NFC Elecom keyboard, costs more than $50.
- App required: Unfortunately, native NFC keyboard support isn’t include within the Android software environment. One2Touch keyboards rely on an app to work properly. Although this app is available in the Play Store, not all devices will be compatible with it and not all devices include Play Store support. You can remedy this with forced installations and sideloading. For the uninitiated, sideloading allows you to transfer files to your Android device from a computer.
OTG stands for “On the Go”, which is an interface standard allowing most USB peripheral devices to connect to Android devices. Not all versions of Android support it – Google added the feature in Android 3.0, Honeycomb. Also, not all device manufacturers include it. For example, the Nexus 4 notoriously lacks OTG support, without modification. However, for those of you lucky enough to possess OTG capability, setting your phone or tablet up requires a few simple steps. Most important is an OTG cable, which can link many, but not all, USB peripherals to your device. Some Android devices require that you enable this feature in Developer Mode. Others enable it right from the get-go.
I should point out that although most USB keyboards can function as OTG devices, not all are suited for it. Your mileage may vary.
- Inexpensive: You can use most USB keyboards as OTG keyboards. Some of these are quite inexpensive, while others may cost a bit more. Also, the OTG cable itself costs around $5 or less.
- No battery: You will only need the battery of your phone to operate these devices.
- Variety: USB keyboards come in all manner of shapes and sizes. Some, such as the Matias travel keyboard, can fold in half.
- Requires OTG compatibility: If your device isn’t at least Android 3.0 and above, you won’t have OTG compatibility. Even many newer Android gadgets aren’t OTG compatible. Make sure you do your research before buying.
- Compatibility: Because of the wide range of USB keyboards, not all devices will work properly.
- Power drain: Some keyboards may drain more than others. For example, if your keyboard features LED back-lighting, it will likely run your Android device’s battery down much faster. However, keep in mind that simply enabling USB host mode on your device may have a small, but noticeable, decrease on your battery life as it turns on a 5 volt bus.
Bluetooth (up to) 3.0 Keyboards
I have several Bluetooth 3.0 keyboards, none of which I’m truly satisfied with. That’s mainly because of the power drain caused by Bluetooth 3.0 on both the battery inside of the keyboard and the mobile device. Most devices provision for enough endurance to last several days of use. They frequently run out of battery life after a week or more of heavy use.
- Cost: Bluetooth keyboards are relatively cheap – my aluminum Inland keyboard cost $10 after a rebate. My Motorola cost $12. Both are good quality devices with solid battery life. However, it could be much better.
- Portability: Bluetooth keyboards tend to be more portable than USB devices. On the other hand, they weigh a bit more because of their batteries for similar sized devices.
- Battery life: Expect a shortened battery life from your Android device when using a Bluetooth keyboard. Oftentimes, I find my phone running out of juice two or three hours earlier than it would normally, when running Bluetooth.
- Weight: The addition of batteries may increase the device’s weight and bulk slightly. However, some devices (such as the Inland keyboard pictured below) will be highly portable.
Bluetooth “Smart” 4.0 Keyboards
The newest standard in Bluetooth, 4.0 includes a new feature branded as “low energy”. The feature allows greatly reduced wireless power consumption. This means that you won’t need to change, or recharge, the battery nearly as often as you would with the older standard. It’s often referred to as “Smart” and “Smart Ready”, which refers to reverse compatibility. Smart devices work only with the 4.0 standard, whereas Smart Ready devices are fully reverse compatible.
- Low energy: Because of its low energy requirements, Bluetooth 4.0 keyboards require very small amounts of energy, meaning better on-the-road performance and less recharging. It will also decrease the amount of drain on your Android device by a huge amount. Most reports indicate it’s as if Bluetooth weren’t turned on at all.
- Less bulky: Because of the low energy requirements of Bluetooth 4.0, it can afford to incorporate a smaller battery than Bluetooth 3.0 keyboards and still get a much longer battery life.
- Separate battery: Like Bluetooth 3.0, the 4.0 version includes batteries that must be recharged separately from your Android device.
- Bulky: Although these devices use smaller batteries, they still carry around the extra weight.
- Hard to find: The 4.0 standard suffers from a serious labeling issue. Searching for Bluetooth 4.0 keyboards will show very few results. However, looking for “Smart” and “Smart Read” will show a much wider selection.
- Low adoption: Despite the standard existing for many years, very few Android devices include the 4.0 update. Before purchasing, make sure your phone or tablet supports 4.0.
For those in search of a hardware keyboard for Android, four technology standards inhabit marketplaces. Of these, no single technology dominates the field. If you choose one, make sure it fits your needs. For example, if your device doesn’t possess NFC, don’t purchase an NFC keyboard. Out of the four dominant keyboard technologies (NFC, Bluetooth 3.0/4.0 and OTG), I prefer OTG for its simplicity and low price. However, I’m really looking forward to NFC keyboards when the price comes down.
Anyone looking squeeze hardcore productivity from their Android device? Let us know in the comments.