Android devices have come such a long way that they’ve all but replaced the laptop and desktop for everyday tasks like taking notes. But even after all this time, with improvement after improvement, they still lack in one critical area: typing.
Believe me, I’ve tried all kinds of alternative keyboards for Android. My favorite is Gboard with gestures (around 50 WPM), but even at my best, it’s still significantly slower than the speed and comfort of an actual keyboard (around 140 WPM). When you need speed, “thumb typing” isn’t enough.
Fortunately, you have options. Bluetooth and NFC keyboards are convenient and easy to set up, but did you know that USB keyboards are viable too? All you need is one accessory that you can buy off of Amazon for under $5.
You Need USB OTG
Keen readers will note how Android devices are thinner than the connection bit of a USB cord. So how does one actually connect the keyboard to the device? With an adapter! In particular, one that adapts USB to Micro-USB (the same port used by most Android devices for charging, except for newer Type-C devices).
This adapter is called USB On-the-Go (OTG) and comes in several different shapes and sizes. The one I have is similar to the UGREEN 6-inch USB OTG Cable (UK), but if I could do it over again, I’d probably get the Ksmile Cordless USB OTG Adapter (UK) instead. If you prefer a cable, you might also consider the Cable Matters 6-inch L-Shaped USB OTG.
Regardless of which kind you get, they all operate the same way: plug the Micro-USB side into your Android device, then plug your keyboard into the USB side. Connection established! You can also play around with other USB-related uses, like tethering a DSLR camera.
Setting Up Your External Keyboard
Once your keyboard is connected, you should take two minutes to set it up properly. It will work right out of the box, so this step isn’t strictly necessary, but it won’t take long — and you might as well tweak it to your liking from the start.
- Pull down the notification drawer.
- You’ll see a new item called Select keyboard layout. Tap on it.
- In the Choose keyboard layout prompt, you can keep it as Default, but I recommend tapping on Set up keyboard layouts to see what else is available.
- Scroll through the list and select the layouts you think you’ll use. If you type in non-English languages, be sure to select them. For me, I just disabled the traditional English QWERTY layout in favor of English (US) Colemak style. (Why do I use Colemak?)
Don’t see the notice in your notification drawer? Just go to Settings > Personal > Language & Input > Keyboard & Input Methods and you can change it all there.
Things may look different depending on your device model, manufacturer, and Android version, but the general steps should be similar. For example, on my Samsung Galaxy Tab S, the notification drawer items and settings pages are different but the functionality is all the same.
Now open any app and start typing. It should work. Congrats!
A Few Tips You Should Know
One thing I found surprising is that Android actually supports most of the special keys on a keyboard. Seeing as how touchscreen keyboard apps aren’t one-to-one replications, I didn’t think this would be true. But it is.
For example, the Home, End, Page Up, Page Down, and Delete keys work just fine. This is so useful when typing longform, such as when recording notes or writing up a paper. The Enter key also works as expected, inserting new lines or submitting forms as appropriate to the context.
Print Screen also works, which triggers the screenshot action at the operating system level. Since taking screenshots on Android can be a pain, this is an amazingly simple workaround that’s peculiar yet convenient.
The Windows key (if using a Windows keyboard) and the Command key (if using an Apple keyboard) will trigger special functionality depending on your version of Android. On my Moto E, the key brings up a simple Google search overlay. On my Samsung Galaxy Tab S, the key brings up Google Now on Tap.
Media keys are hit or miss. When I plug in my CM Storm QuickFire Rapid, the keys for volume control and playback control are functional. But when I plug in my Apple Magic Keyboard, none of the special keys register. That’s probably an Apple-only issue, and I fully expect most keyboard media keys to work fine.
I’ve only encountered two downsides: one, there’s no quick way to switch keyboard languages or layouts, and two, you lose access to things like emojis and special symbols that aren’t typable with a physical keyboard.
Why Not Just Use a Laptop?
Don’t get me wrong — I have a laptop that I love and use daily. But I can think of a few occasions when an Android device with a keyboard can prove a better fit than a proper laptop.
- Android devices and keyboards can often be acquired for cheaper than the price of an entry-level laptop.
- You have greater flexibility in that you can detach your keyboard at will and use the device on its own. (2-in-1 laptops exist but are expensive.)
- You can keep all of your work on the Android device instead of syncing it with a laptop. This is also useful if you like a certain Android app that isn’t available on your laptop.
- Android devices have much longer battery life than laptops.
Once everything is setup and working, you can even take it a step further by mirroring your Android screen to a computer. You probably won’t want to work like this 24/7, but if you occasionally need a bigger screen, try this method.
Still not sold on the idea of using a physical keyboard with your mobile device? There remain other alternative typing options to consider.
How do you like using an external keyboard on your Android device? Are there any other keyboard-related tips that we missed? Let us know in a comment below!
Originally written by Erez Zukerman on November 27th, 2012.
Image credit: bambambu via Shutterstock.com