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Android devices have come a long way, even as far as replacing laptops and desktops for everyday tasks like taking notes. But even now, with all the advancements made, Android phones still lag in one critical area: typing!
I’ve tried all kinds of alternative keyboards for Android. My favorite is Gboard with gestures (around 50 WPM), but even so I can type three times faster with a physical keyboard. When you need speed, “thumb typing” isn’t enough.
Here’s how to connect a physical keyboard to any Android mobile device and turn it into a desktop replacement. The most straightforward option is a USB keyboard, and all you need is a $5 accessory you can grab off Amazon.
All You Need Is USB OTG
Note that Android devices are thinner than the connection bit of a USB cable—so how does one actually connect a USB keyboard to an Android device? With an adapter called USB On-the-Go (OTG), which comes in several shapes and sizes.
Specifically, you’ll need a USB-to-Micro-USB adapter (for older phone models) or a USB-to-USB-C adapter (for newer phone models). Not sure which one you need? Learn all about the different USB cable types and how to identify USB-C cables.
I used to have the Ksmile USB-to-Micro-USB OTG Adapter for my old Moto E, but now use the Basesailor USB-to-USB-C OTG Adapter for my Samsung Galaxy S8. If you prefer a cable, you might consider the Cable Matters 6-inch L-Shaped USB-to-Micro-USB OTG Cable or the Cable Matters 6-inch USB-to-USB-C OTG Cable.
Regardless of which kind you get, they all operate the same way: plug the proper side of the cable into your Android device, then plug your USB keyboard into the USB side of the cable. Connection established!
You can also play around with other USB-related uses, like tethering a DSLR camera to your Android device.
Setting Up the External USB Keyboard for Android
Once your keyboard is connected, you should take two minutes to set it up properly. It will likely work straight 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:
- Navigate to your device Settings.
- Tap on General management.
- Tap on Language and input.
- Tap on Physical keyboard.
- Under the section for the keyboard you plugged in (e.g. “Apple Inc. Magic Keyboard”), you can choose a keyboard layout for each of the keyboard apps installed on your device. I use Gboard so I changed my Gboard layout to English (US), Colemak style. (Why do I use Colemak?)
Now open any app and start typing. It should work. Congrats!
Note: The screenshots above are for Samsung Galaxy S8 running Android 8.0 Oreo. The steps may look slightly different for you depending on your device manufacturer, model, and Android version.
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 taking 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 Samsung Galaxy S8, it brings up Google Assistant.
Media keys are hit or miss. When I plug in my generic mechanical keyboard, 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 might be an Apple-only issue, and I fully expect most keyboard media keys to work fine.
I’ve encountered two downsides to using a USB keyboard with an Android device: 1) there’s no quick way to switch keyboard languages or layouts, and 2) you lose access to things like emojis and special symbols that aren’t typable with a physical keyboard.
Why Not Just Use a Laptop?
I have a laptop that I love and use daily. But I can think of a few occasions when connecting a keyboard to Android can prove a better fit than carrying around a proper laptop:
- Android devices and keyboards can often be acquired for cheaper than the price of a workstation laptop.
- You can detach the keyboard and use the mobile device on its own as necessary. (2-in-1 laptops do exist but are expensive.)
- You can keep all of your work on the Android device instead of syncing it with a laptop.
- You can use that certain Android app you like that isn’t available on your laptop.
- Android devices have 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 it! You can also control Android using your computer’s mouse and keyboard.
Image credit: bambambu/Shutterstock