A Bluetooth keyboard offers 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 they come with trade-offs. For one, you’ll need a Bluetooth adapter if your computer doesn’t have Bluetooth built-in.
For example, gamers, coders, and writers should use 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. Durable Keyboards Have Better Value
The keyboard remains one of the few computer components that never goes obsolete. With PS2-to-USB adapters, many mechanical keyboards from thirty years ago remain useful today. And why would you want to use such an old keyboard? For its mechanical switches. They feel better and last longer compared to membrane boards.
Long Service Life
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 and provide a satisfying crunch when activated.
Easier to Activate for Marathon Typing Sessions
A common membrane keyboard requires around 70 grams of force to actuate while a Gateron mechanical switch only needs 35 grams of force — practically a feather-like touch. 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 Bucking Spring mechanical switch looks like:
As you can see, a membrane switch costs less money because of its reduced complexity compared to a membrane/dome design.
Bluetooth Mechanical Keyboards Aren’t Practical
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. However, the Minila costs a fortune, measures 1.57 inches thick, and weighs 1.5 pounds. The Minila just isn’t all that portable.
Unfortunately, it can’t form a wired connection through a Mini-USB 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.
The Kalih Chocolate Low-Profile Mechanical Keyboard Switch
Technology continues changing, though. Cherry-clone manufacturer Kalih announced a new kind of mechanical keyboard switch — the Kalih Chocolate. The Chocolate switch shrinks the profile of a mechanical keyboard from a thickness of 1.5 or 1.6 inches to less than 0.9 inches — a nearly 50% reduction. Keyboards based on the Chocolate weigh an astounding 520 grams.
Havit, a keyboard manufacturer, sells a low-profile mechanical keyboard with a profile of 0.9 inches. The Havit HV-KB390L does not include wireless support, though. This is purely a wired device.
Unfortunately, no keyboard with Chocolate switches also includes Bluetooth compatibility. Therefore, if you want an ultra-portable keyboard with mechanical switches, you must continue waiting.
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 (link to refurb model), 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.
There’s a long list of potential security holes and I recommend reading it, along with Kaspersky Lab’s list of Bluetooth security vulnerabilities, which includes Bluejacking and Bluebugging. The reason this issue is so important is that many users type their passwords and logins into a keyboard. If that keyboard’s text input gets sent to a malicious intermediary, you’ve given your logins and passwords to a criminal.
And that’s why user-upgradeable firmware is a must on all wireless keyboards. A handful of such devices exist that combine Bluetooth, user-upgradeable firmware, and mechanical switches. My favorite of these is the Plum Nano 75. It sports Topre switches, RGB LED backlighting, a compact 75-key form factor, and more — however, its ruinous price of $160 on Ali Express makes it a hard sell to almost anyone but the most diehard wireless keyboard enthusiasts. It does have one feature that very few other keyboards offer: it works when connected to a PC in BIOS mode.
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.
Nowadays, only a few Bluetooth keyboards include both wireless Bluetooth and wired compatibility. Two worth mentioning are the aforementioned Plum Nano 75 and the even better regarded Anne Pro 61-key Bluetooth keyboard. Not only does it work in wired mode for BIOS compatibility, it also avoids the pitfalls of other wireless keyboards. In particular, it has user-upgradeable firmware, a compact 61-key layout, and — of course — works in the BIOS. Unfortunately, it’s still around 1.5 inches thick. Even so, it’s the best combination of features available for a wireless, portable, mechanical keyboard.
The Anne Pro also offers three kinds of switches, RGB backlighting, and light weight. Out of all the keyboards mentioned in this article, the Anne Pro offers the most for the money.
lofree Dot Bluetooth Mechanical Keyboard
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. At $90, though, you might think twice about picking one up.
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. On the downside, users report that the novel typewriter layout makes it difficult to type on. Considering that the typing experience comes first when buying a mechanical keyboard, you might want to skip this one.
Why You Need Wires and Wireless in the Same Device
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 stand out.
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 — namely that it doesn’t have user-upgradeable firmware, it has mushy membrane key switches, and might not fit in your purse or satchel.
Should You Buy a Bluetooth Keyboard?
There’s no perfect Bluetooth keyboard solution, so you’ve got to either compromise or not buy a keyboard. If your laptop keyboard stops working, for instance, you may need a Bluetooth keyboard after all.
One surprising note is that micro-mechanical keyboard switches do exist. Aside from the Chocolate switches, a company called TTC sells switches with a height of 7.1mm, a suitable size for ultra-portable keyboards. It’s also a third the size of Kalih’s Chocolate switches. I’m hoping that Logitech adopts the technology for use in a Keys-to-Go successor. Another great application would be an Anne Pro version a razor-thin profile and AAA-battery support.
If you absolutely must buy a Bluetooth keyboard, my advice is to either go cheap or get the Anne Pro 61-key keyboard. The Anne Pro offers both USB and Bluetooth connectivity and a compact form factor — for under $100. At its price point, the Anne Pro ranks among the best portable Bluetooth keyboards on today’s market. Unfortunately, its thickness may limit how you carry it around.
Those looking for a slim keyboard for use with a smartphone or tablet, the Keys-to-Go board ranks among the best out there. Just keep in mind that without replaceable batteries, Keys-to-Go will eventually get thrown away. And its Bluetooth 3.0 standard is already insecure and susceptible to hacking.
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).
Still want a wireless keyboard? Check out these wireless mouse and keyboard combos.
Originally published October 2016.