Writing in the wild: Unleash your flow with a keyboard for the iPad

Writing on the iPadI am finding more and more that the iPad is a really great tool for writing sessions. However, if you are planning to write for an extended period of time, you’re going to need an external keyboard. In this post, I am discussing why the iPad is great for writing everywhere, how my setup looks like, and what good keyboard alternatives are out there for you.

Especially now, as the summer slowly returns to my little town in Canada, I enjoy taking my iPad to the park for morning or late afternoon writing sessions. Writing outside the the ultimate productivity boost for me. Breathing the fresh air and smelling the scents of an unfamiliar surrounding really gets me into my flow – maybe this is mandatory for someone whose dissertation is about the role of nature in sustainable consumption. However, nothing of this would happen without the external keyboard that I throw into my bag before strolling to the park.


iPad with keyboard? Why don’t you use an Air?

I knew this question would come up… The short answer is that I don’t have a MacBook Air. I am still rocking the first (and last) aluminium unibody MacBook (no Pro here) from late 2008. Thanks to the 8GB Memory update I recently installed, it is still a fast machine that fits most of my needs. Its Achilles heal is the battery though: Even if I got a new battery for it (and I should), I would run out of juice in the middle of my “writing in the wild” session.


Why the iPad is great for writing (anywhere)

The long answer is that writing on the iPad with an external keyboard has a couple of benefits over writing on a laptop computer:

Battery life: The Air has a great battery life of 5 to 7 hours (for the 11 and 13 inch model, respectively), but this is still dwarfed by the iPad’s 10 hour battery life. Okay, you won’t probably write for 10 hours straight – if you do, please tell me your secret! However, the extra juice of the iPad gives you the option of putting in a second shift after your mid-day siesta.

Health: Depending on your setup, writing with the iPad and external keyboard can be more ergonomic. The problem about laptop computers is that the screen is too low and the keyboard is too close to the screen. As a result, we often hunch over laptop computers. An external keyboard that is (or can be) detached from the iPad can improve your posture, especially when you also raise your iPad by placing it on a thick book or something like this.

Comfort: Beyond improving your posture, I also advocate using external keyboards because it is more comfortable. All laptop computers have the keyboard and, more important, the resting space for your hands on top of everything that heats up your computer (CPU, non-SSD storage). The truth is: computers get warm, and this is especially true for aluminium-clad laptops in the summer. In contrast, an external keyboard does not produce any heat by itself.

Thus, if you want to avoid sweaty hands (and legs, if you are writing like the gentlemen below) during your summer writing sessions, an external keyboard is a good idea regardless of whether you are using an iPad or laptop. On top of this, an external keyboard lets you avoid the high edges of the MacBook Pro, for which your wrists will thank you for.

Writing with iPad outside

The Brydge keyboard for iPad is one of the most beautiful (but not most ergonomic) solutions for turning your iPad into a writing machine.

Focus: The iPad is constantly bashed by some people for the lack of any “real” multi-window multi-tasking. As I said in another post, the iPad’s single workspace environment can actually be an assett for your productivity because it cuts down on distractions from other open windows (e.g., mail, twitter, and facebook updates). In addition, none of your little productivity killing habits like clicking Comman+Tab or using your trackpad / mouse to jump into Mission Control will work in iOS.

But it is more than just boosted self control: On the Mac, I often jump constantly back and forth between the PDF and the writing app in an effort to stay as close to the literature as possible. On the iPad, I find myself more committed to the writing app, and this allows me to develop my own voice.

Keyboard case for iPad that supports portrait mode

Only a few keyboard cases support portrait orientation for the iPad, but Logitech’s Ultrathin Keyboard Cover is one of them.

Screen estate: Okay, now I going crazy! The iPad has more screen estate?! Yes, it can, depending on your setup. In portrait mode, which I prefer for writing on my iPad when using an external keyboard, the iPad’s screen is about one centimeter higher than the screen of a 13 inch laptop. That the iPad’s screen is not as wide as laptop screens is no issue at all, because smaller columns of text help you to write as much as they help you to read. It is for this reason that distraction free writing app on the Mac (e.g., ByWord, iA Writer or OmmWriter) have lots of empty space on the left and right when you run them in full screen mode.

Considering that an iPad costs you much less than a 13 inch MacBook Pro or Air, you get a lot of bang for your writing buck.

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What is the point?

The take-away here is not that the iPad is a better writing tool than a MacBook. The point here is that just because your iPad came without a physical keyboard in the box, this is no reason not to pair it with one. In fact, for health and comfort reasons, it is a good idea to pair any laptop computer with an external keyboard when you are planning to write for an extended period of time.

Kensington KeyFolio Expert

The Kensington KeyFolio Expert is another keyboard case that lets you write on your iPad in portrait mode.

And together with the other benefits listed above, the iPad can be a low-cost, more comfortable, and sometimes better alternative to other (ultra-) portable devices. It really depends on your needs whether or not writing with an iPad makes sense for you: For example, do you rather want to focus on one document, or do you need to jump back and forth between windows? Picking the best device for your needs, and how you integrate your devices, is the key for academics.


How does my Writing in the Wild setup look like?

I am using the standard Apple Wireless Keyboard together with the original stand for my first generation iPad. It is the same keyboard that I am normally using for my MacBook, and I didn’t want to invest in a keyboard case until I upgraded my iPad. However, if you don’t have an external keyboard already lying around, or if you would like to have a more integrated solution, I strongly recommend buying a dedicated keyboard case. I list a few of my favourites at the end of this post, but you can also check out my list of 10 jawdropping keyboard cases for serious writing.

My setup for writing in the park

This is how I currently write outside. Works okay, but a dedicated keyboard case would be easier to transport and I would be more flexible where I could go.

The advantage of my current setup is that the Apple keyboard is full size. That means that both the keys and the spacing between the keys are normally sized. Thats great because it makes switching back and forth between external keyboard and the internal keyboard of my Mac a lot easier. Another benefit of this setup is that the keyboard is detached from the iPad (allowing for a better posture) and that I can use the iPad in the portrait position (allowing for best use of the screen estate).

The downturn of this setup is that I definitely have to have a table for writing outside, and a sturdy one at best. I wouldn’t be able to just sit on a park bench and type away. If you are hoping for this, you might want to check out some of the iPad keyboard cases that combine iPad and keyboard in a laptop-like enclosure.


Quanta costa?

The Apple Wireless Keyboard will set you back $69, and the dock will be another thirty bucks. By the way, I recommend you look out for more stylish alternatives that will cost you about the same as the original Apple dock. The elago P2 Stand and the Twelve South BookArc are two of my favourite docks / stands for the iPad, and they are currently both on sale at amazon.com for $30 and $34, respectively. Alternatively, if you are looking for a more lightweight stand, Twelve South’s Compass Portable Stand ($40) is another good option.

So altogether, this setup will set you back around one hundred bucks. Not much considering that you can re-purpose your iPad into an ultimate writing-in-the-wild machine, but unless you have a wireless keyboard already lying around at home, I recommend buying a dedicated iPad keyboard case. Why? Because for the same hundred dollar or less, you will get the additional benefit of a case that will protect your iPad much better than Apple’s Smart Cover will ever do.

Adonit Writer Plus

Adonit Writer Plus is one of the best keyboard cases for the iPad currently on the market. You can detach the keyboard for better ergonomics or to just use it as a case without keyboard when you want to travel light.

I have compiled a list of 10 keyboard cases for the iPad that I think are best in class at the moment. If you are thinking about taking your iPad for a write [sic!], I highly recommend checking out that post. But I know we are all busy people, so here is the short version of my most favourite iPad keyboard cases:

  • If you want to write with your iPad in portrait mode, go for either Logitech’s Ultrathin Keyboard Cover ($99, third picture in this post) or Kensington’s KeyFolio Expert (currently on sale for $69, fourth picture in this post).
  • If you don’t care about portrait mode, I think that the Adonit Writer Plus ($85-110 depending on the model and colour, sixth picture in this post) has probably the best keyboard right now.
  • If you are all about style and money is no issue, have a look at the Brydge (second picture in this post). It is a kick-starter project with 7 days left on the clock, so act fast if you want to be among the first with this case.

Read next: Find out what stylus specializes on handwriting and conceptualizing ideas to cater academic users.

Are you using your iPad for extended writing sessions? And if so, where do you go and what keyboard do you use? Does it help your productivity? Please share your ideas about where to go, what to take, and how else you turn your iPad into the perfect writing machine in the comments.

Disclaimer: Image of my writing setup in the park by academiPad. Feature image by Brydge, Adonit image by Macgadget. All other images by the respective manufacturers. All amazon links in this article are affiliate links.

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  1. I agree that I prefer my iPad/Bluetooth keyboard set up over the MacBook air. The battery on my iPad (first generation) lasts about ten hours, and I also can’t “alt-tab” myself into endless distraction. I write screenplays, not books, but it’s generally the same principle: a writer’s a writer.
    I wrote about my experiences trying out the iPad as a screenwriting tool here, if you’re interested:

  2. Will says:

    For a stand, a simple wire stand (usually used for displaying plates or CD’s, I think) also works. They’re as light and as cheap as iPad stands come, though they might not have the style of the elago P2.

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