The laptop replacement?

In the last year, I’ve wanted to leave the house, travel, and do stuff from other locations, occasionally. Fight the cabin fever, or something. My main computer at home is a sexy iMac, and while it runs perfectly, it’s not really what you would call portable, as it’s a desktop computer with a glass-fronted screen and requires a mains power socket. I do have a laptop, but it’s very old, very slow, quite heavy, and has a battery that lasts 80mins. Crucially, NOT 1.5 hours – as I’ve reminded myself several times, while shouting “NO! DON’T HIBERNATE NOW, YOU BASTARD!”

Recently I saw on Twitter about a group of writers in Bristol who meet semi-regularly, just to write (separately). As I understand it, it’s a bit like a Jelly co-working event, where everyone does their own thing and occasionally chats, but geared towards people who like to write instead of the typical Jelly attendee (which I found to be mostly web developers and people in marketing). Yesterday I queried this, and it turns out they do have access to some power sockets. But still, my preference would be to have something with a battery that lasted more than 2 hours, so I didn’t have to fight other people for available power sockets. And also so I can go other places too.

(Side note: *Everyone* does free wifi these days. You can get it at any library, at coffee shops, and places I’d never visit, like McDonalds. Even a local launderette has free wifi now. Power sockets? Yeah. Good luck with that.)

I’ve looked into ways of making the laptop run faster, but the fact remains, that the battery doesn’t last long enough to be very useful. The battery isn’t faulty by the way. It lasts 80mins now, it did when it was new. It’s just not a very power-efficient laptop. Consequently, it’s hardly been anywhere since I bought it, and I’m finally considering selling it while it still has some use, and hasn’t become a very elaborate doorstop.

You might think I could buy a better battery for my laptop? Well I’ve tried. I got one that was double the capacity, and promised 3+ hours. Sadly, my laptop is so old, that even with all manner of bios and software updates, it won’t recognise the extra capacity of the newer battery. It runs for 2 hours (and still shows an hour remaining, for example), then shuts down without warning. It’s like the battery is charged more, but the laptop isn’t capable of using that power. It will only accept the current size battery.

What else is there?

This week I started looking online at alternatives. Once I’d finished drooling over pictures and statistics of the Macbook Air and reminded myself I don’t actually have £900 at the moment to spend on what will still be an occasional device, and also ruled out £300 “budget” laptops that might be capable of *slightly* more than 2 hours (I don’t have £300 to spend either) but will still be slow and heavy, I headed to the online jumble sale that is eBay.

Hang on – the iPad might work. Hey – maybe the original iPad is now very cheap? No. Of course it isn’t. Apple products never lose their value. You can still pay £40 on eBay for an Apple Newton.

There was loads of (new) Android tablets for sale, from £40-70. I can only assume they are absolutely awful, as that seems insanely cheap. No brand names/model numbers to google for reviews, either. Maybe I’m missing the bargain of the century. I doubt it, though.

I looked at netbooks, but was wary. A friend of mine bought an Asus Eee PC a few years back when they were at the height of their popularity, and everyone was banging on about how great they were. I wanted to like it, but I hated almost everything about it. It ran a version of Linux neither supported by Asus nor the original developers (as Asus had modified it). I couldn’t get Java to install. It lost the wifi signal at random, the keyboard was horrible, the screen was so bad it gave me a headache, and it was so poorly weighted, that I couldn’t get it to a point where I could angle it towards me, without it falling over backwards. After 80mins with that, I’d have gladly never used one again.

I googled a few of the alternative netbooks for sale, and found some of them are capable of running OSx86. For those unaware, it’s a cracked version of the Mac’s OSX operating system. Basically you can make a non-Apple computer appear to be like a Mac, run Mac software, etc. It’s not supported by Apple, obviously, and information online suggest that in a lot of cases, not everything will work due to your hardware not being supported by this modded version. A computer where not everything works? Doesn’t sound much fun to me. I’m too lazy for that sort of break-it-and-fix-it-again stuff. Also not much into hacked/modded software either.

The idea!

After watching several netbooks sell for £70-100, I was still too nervous to spend that much, on devices which reviews suggested have keyboards not really designed for typing on. And then, I hit upon an idea that is possibly completely stupid, or completely brilliant: the iPhone.

I have an iPhone. I take it everywhere with me, obviously. You can get clutter-free apps designed for writers, that sync your writing to/from other computers (PC or Mac), it connects to wireless easily, I can do email/tweeting on it obviously, and the battery life is much better than my laptop. The screen is small, but very good quality (easier to read than my laptop I think). So why don’t I just use that for writing?

The answer is obvious. Who wants to type a lot of stuff on an iPhone – with the tiny keyboard. It’s a great on-screen keyboard for emails and tweets, but for much longer things? No.

And then I remembered that the TV presenter and author Jason Bradbury wrote part of at least one of his books on the iPad. Not using the onscreen keyboard, but by connecting an Apple wireless keyboard to it via bluetooth. This got me wondering if you could do the same trick with the iPhone. And it turns out, that yes you can!

I’ve got an iMac – which commonly have wireless keyboards. However, when I bought it, I was dipping my toe into the water of Apple, and wasn’t sure I’d like using a Mac at all (it seems unbelievable now). So, like the cheapskate I am, I bought the wired keyboard version (not usable for this test). An Apple wireless keyboard is about £50. But you can use any bluetooth keyboard with the iPad/iPhone. I found one for sale on eBay for £12 including postage. This isn’t too much of a hit to take, if this turns out to be the most stupid idea ever.

It’s just arrived, I’ve connected it up (very easy – probably easier than pairing a bluetooth earpiece), and design-wise, it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Here’s what Apple’s official wireless bluetooth keyboard looks like:

US-layout (pic from Wikipedia)

And here’s what my cheap unbranded wireless bluetooth keyboard looks like:

More than a passing resemblance (pic I just took)

The difference is obvious, the second you start typing. The cheaper one feels *a lot* cheaper. The keys don’t go up/down even as smoothly as most other cheap keyboards I’ve used, and don’t come remotely close to a real Apple keyboard. I hit the wrong keys a lot more, as it’s got a few keys in the wrong place (it’s a US layout instead of a British, I think – as were ALL the cheap bluetooth keyboards on eBay… so no £ sign). Still, it was only £13 (or #13, as it would have typed), including postage.

When in an app that allows for typing, you can type on the keyboard as you would on the onscreen one. The keyboard also has shortcut keys to lock/unlock the phone (you can enter the unlock code via external keyboard), controls for music (pause, back/forward, etc.) volume and brightness controls.

So the working set-up looks like this:

Size isn't everything.

That keyboard isn’t bent at the bottom (odd camera skew). It’s 28.5cm wide and 12cm high – which is about the same as a normal full-size keyboard without the numeric keypad.

The phone is propped up with a stand that came free with my (also free) case that I got through the signal-problem-iPhone-4-case-programme. It can be propped at two different angles, depending on which way round you put the stand. The case+stand is the Incase Snap Case (clear), which I think is about £20 to buy now – but there are likely cheaper alternatives/stands. You could always prop it up with a book or something.

Wot I dids wroted

First things I’ve noticed:

The app I’m typing into above is a called “iA Writer” – which IS a terrible name – but it’s essentially a writing app that removes all the clutter normally on screen. I’m not going to pretend this is anything like using a full size laptop (it’s only a 3.5″ screen after all), but when you consider how much of a normal screen is taken up with the Apple dock (or start menu for Windows users), other windows, distractions like Tweetdeck (or Echofon in my case), YouTube, email and calendar alerts, the clock, etc. I’m not sure you’re losing as much as you might think you are. The original Asus Eee PC had a 7″ screen and 800 x 480 resolution. The iPhone 4 has a slightly higher resolution on a screen half the size, making it a lot easier on the eye. And because the on-screen keyboard disappears, you do get the full iPhone screen to utilise while editing/typing. The text in iA Writer is quite large and can’t be changed. There may be better options that decrease the margins or decrease the font size, or make the line spacing smaller, etc. to fit more on.

When the keyboard is connected via bluetooth, tapping the screen does not produce a keyboard onscreen as it usually would. You can show/hide it, only using a button (F5 in my case) on the physical keyboard. When you turn the keyboard off (there’s a switch on the back), it disconnects, and the iPhone reverts to how it would normally behave.

Although you can use a shortcut on the keyboard to go to the home screen, you then have to touch the screen to pick something. With the phone landscape (computer-like), the home screen is all 90 degrees out, and you can’t scroll between home screens (or I haven’t worked out how to, yet) using the keyboard. Sort of makes the ‘home screen’ keyboard button a bit pointless.

You can copy and paste using the typical command-c and command-v Mac shortcuts, and the text at the bottom of the picture above was selected using the cursor keys and shift, as you can do on any computer normally.

Autocorrect doesn’t seem to work (thank goodness) when using the external keyboard. I couldn’t possibly see how that would work in a touch-free way without being hugely annoying, so I’m glad it doesn’t.

Apart from the poor quality keys, it’s as responsive as typing on a computer. There’s no noticeable delay or anything.

How much does it all weigh?

If I’m going to bitch about the weight of my old fat laptop, I should do some comparisons. How’s this, then:

  • Current laptop – HP 510 budget notebook: ~2.5kg (I struggled to get it to fit on the scales, but 2.5-2.7 is similar to what I see online as official weight). Weight excluding the power adapter, essential for all travel, and a bag big enough to fit it in.
  • Macbook Air (11″ model) – 1080g.
  • Macbook Pro (13″ model) – 2060g.
  • iPad (current revision – 9.7″ screen) – 652g.
  • iPhone4+stand+cheap budget bluetooth keyboard – 462g (weighed myself).

Or to put it another way:

(To be fair, my old heavy laptop holds its own, weight wise. A current-spec 2″ smaller Macbook isn’t THAT much lighter.)

The weight of just the keyboard and stand (as I’d have the phone/case with me anyway, no matter which above option I used) is just 310g*. Less than half an iPad. And only about £30 worth if I lose it/break it/leave it somewhere. You could always get one of these if you wanted to lose even more weight (while pretending to be some sneaky hacker in an action film).

What do you think? Great idea? Silly idea? Far too small to be usable?

(*A google search suggests a real Apple wireless keyboard might weigh more. Or less. I can’t find a confirmed accurate weight for it. I’ve seen different figures all over the place, possibly due to some including packaging weight. Somewhere between 300g and 1.8kg, depending on website.)

Update: 28 June 2012, 22:17.

I’ve hit a bit of a stumbling block. Not only is the new keyboard rubbish to type on (I’m having to push the keys really quite hard to guarantee it registers), and incapable of producing a pound sign (£!), it also keeps disconnecting itself. It’s connected, then it isn’t. Then it is, then… it isn’t. I also tried to connect it to my iMac and it was having none of it.

Reviews online suggest that most bluetooth keyboards are rubbish and/or made for specific devices. There’s a HP one that is meant to be quite good to type on, but it apparently only works with the (now discontinued) HP Touchpad. I’m not sure I’m ready to spend £57 on an official Apple bluetooth keyboard (rated highly by Apple fans and also Apple-indifferent buyers), and there are hardly any being sold second hand (and the ones that are, are almost as costly). Logitech make some ones that are probably quite good, but they’re even more expensive than the Apple one. There are some cheaper ones built into iPad cases, designed for iPad users. These look very small, and also – will not support my iPhone with their case mechanism.

Ironically, I’ve not used my laptop in ages. Then tonight, I hit a problem which could only be solved by using something with a wired network connection. (Cable router wasn’t working on the “auto” wireless channel option. I needed a cabled device to access the login/setup pages, and pick one manually, so the other computers could connect. I don’t know why. I’ve never had this before.) That rules out an iPad/tablet, or mobile, and my iMac is too far from the router for any cables I have. I guess in this circumstance I’d have borrowed a laptop from a housemate. Or bought a longer cable.

Update: 30 June 2012.

The US-keyboard thing has irritated me more than I thought it would. Lack-of-a-£-sign aside, I like a nice big L-shaped return key (rotated round, obviously) – as found on all UK keyboards – and this doesn’t have one.

It connects to bluetooth really badly. It connects, then disconnects, reconnects, disconnects. Yesterday, I told the iPhone to forget about it, and set it up again afresh. Then, I tried to type a sentence, and because of the sporadic disconnect/reconnect, the first few words appeared on screen, and  the last  few. The middle was lost forever.

The light in the top right (above the button 3-from-right) is the bluetooth-connecting light, but also doubles as the battery-low light. Which designer thought that was fine? You don’t know if it’s connecting, or dying. Maybe the flashing light occasionally is warning that the battery is low? It shouldn’t be, given that I’ve used it sporadically for a day, and it had brand new batteries to start with. According to Amazon reviews, an Apple wireless keyboard lasts quite a number of months on one set of batteries. Another (think it was a Microsoft or HP one) lasts nearly a year. If this thing is going to eat a pair of batteries a day, either I’m going to spend all my free time charging rechargeables, or I’m going to need to set up a business so I can apply for a Makro/Costco card to buy Duracells in bulk.

I wondered if the connection issue was just an iPhone problem, so tried to pair it with my iMac instead. No deal. The mac won’t recognise the return key. Balls.

This thing has the model number: BK3001BA. Which isn’t very helpful. Presumably BK stands for “bluetooth keyboard”, and BA is short for <something> American, or <something> Apple. Or a reference to the colour. There’s no manufacturer listed. The instruction manual (one piece of paper, folded) suggests that the “Micro USB port is used for recharging, about 2 hours”. This device has no such port. I’m not 100% sure these are instructions for this keyboard.

Googling the model number just finds me wholesalers selling it, with just descriptions, not anyone else’s experiences of it. However, the box and layout (including the silly light) are identical to the “SANOXY Bluethooth Keyboard for iPad” (complete with badly-spelt “Bluetooth”), currently for sale on

It has average reviews, to say the least.

“This product is really cheaply made, even cheaper than its low price suggests. Not every iPad accessory that’s low priced is garbage. Many great cases, chargers, etc that I’ve gotten from amazon have been great. This keyboard is not one of the good value products.”

“Wow, for 1/3 the cost of the Apple Bluetooth keyboard, this thing is 1/100th the quality. It doesn’t even maintain a connection if you aren’t constantly typing. It types multiple letters when you only hit the keys once. Sometimes it types letters in reverse order (e.g. I’ll type “her” and it’ll come out as “hre” — and no it’s not my fingers). It disconnects and then won’t reconnect without hitting the Connect button on the bottom AND then selecting Connect on the Mac’s bluetooth menu.”

“i put good battery in this product and over night they were already dead. sent this keyboard back!”

“This keyboard is pretty cool for how cheap it is, but whenever I start typing fast, it seems to miss the first letter”

And on they continue. Even the people who like it, know it’s rubbish. Sadly, I started looking around at alternative options and didn’t turn up much. I found a lot of ones built into cases for the iPad, which won’t really be suitable. All the keyboards on ebay seem to be US-style. And although I’m aware that sometimes pictures are “for illustrative purposes only” (annoying!), all the ones for sale on Amazon seem to be the same.

A quick search of alternative keyboards found that Logitech don’t supply many bluetooth keyboards in a British style. And the ones they do can be £70+ (more than an actual Apple keyboard….crazy). There’s something called a Zaggmate which is for the iPad really, and builds it all into a case. It has good reviews, but £100.

I’ve found a few other bluetooth keyboards for £20-45 (the latter getting dangerously close to the £57 optimum keyboard provided by Apple), but the reviews (of which there aren’t many) are about 50/50 split between ‘it’s rubbish’ and ‘it’s really good when you think about it, for the price’ (who are they trying to convince?)

I contacted the ebay seller and requested to return the keyboard. It’s obviously not working properly. I’ve also complained about it being a US-style, with no mention of this anywhere in the description (the pictures were too small/low quality to be able to see from those (and anyway – they’re for illustrative purposes only, so don’t necessarily match what you have delivered)).

I’ve had a look on ebay for Apple keyboards, but second-hand Apple wireless keyboards sell for £40-45. It’s £57 new. £40 seems too expensive a second-hand punt, given the number of very-similar-looking clones around, and not knowing how well other people look after things.

Update 1 July 2012

Yesterday afternoon, I went to an Apple store and shelled out £57 on the cheapest good British-layout bluetooth keyboard available anywhere in the world (you don’t think so? Well where were your reviews when I was looking, eh? Eh?). Tests so far, have proved it is every bit as good as I expected. It is heavier than the cheap one featured above, which screws up the graph 🙁 but I’m not going to change it. So there. You can’t make me. I…oh alright then.

As you can see, it’s changed things a (tiny) bit.

The details are:

  • Current laptop – HP 510 budget notebook: ~2.5kg (I struggled to get it to fit on the scales, but 2.5-2.7 is similar to what I see online as official weight). Weight excluding the power adapter, essential for all travel, and a bag big enough to fit it in.
  • Macbook Air (11″ model) – 1080g.
  • Macbook Pro (13″ model) – 2060g.
  • iPad (current revision – 9.7″ screen) – 652g.
  • iPhone4+stand+cheap budget bluetooth keyboard – 462g (weighed myself).
  • iPhone4+stand+best bluetooth keyboard in the world – 478g (weighed myself)

The weight of just the keyboard and stand (as I’d have the phone/case with me anyway, no matter which above option I used) is just 325g*. Yes, it’s 15g heavier than the budget keyboard and stand. But this one actually works. It works so well, I’ve written half another blog post on it. That’s a blog post written on it. Not written about it. It’s a post about something else, is what I’m saying. I’m not intending to devote a month of posts to this topic.

This isn’t quite the full weight, because obviously if you don’t want an expensive silver keyboard to get scratched/damaged, you have to put it in something. For the moment, I’m going to use the box it came in,making the weight of just the keyboard+box = 422g. The weight of the iPhone+stand+boxed keyboard = 582g. It’s still the lightest thing on the list above, even with the box. And the box is neither here nor there really. When I took my laptop somewhere, I took it in a laptop bag. If you were going to carry an iPad or a Macbook Air (or even a cheap netbook), you would need some sort of *thing* to put it in, which would inevitably add extra weight.

Can it really replace my laptop as a thing I can use to write whole blog posts/emails on? I dunno. I’ve only had a working setup since yesterday afternoon. Who knows. Only time will tell.

(*The actual weight of JUST the British-style Apple wireless keyboard is 317g, as weighed by me a minute ago. The weight including the box (but not the manual, etc.) is 422g. This information seems impossible to find online. This makes the total for iPhone4+stand+keyboard (in box, without manual) 582g.)

2 thoughts on “The laptop replacement?”

  1. Hey – I’ve got the original keyboard you sent back. My wife has never really tried it properly with her iPad but it seems pretty intermittent with my Nexus 7 android tablet.

    How reliable has the proper apple wireless keyboard been, now you’ve had it a couple of months?


    1. Hi Dave,
      The proper Apple wireless keyboard has been absolutely flawless. It never fails to connect on every use. I switch it on, and the phone recognises it instantly. There are very few wireless bluetooth keyboards that are rated highly on websites for both connectivity, and niceness-of-typing-on, and hardly any that are under about £45-£50. And then you’re getting dangerously close to going “ah.. well I might as well buy Apple’s ludicrously expensive £57 one then”.

      The only slight issues with using it with my iPhone have been software glitches. For some reason, scrolling up and down large bodies of text using the cursor keys sometimes doesn’t work properly (the cursor moves, but you can’t see it, as the box doesn’t scroll. Sometimes when you start typing again, it refocuses, sometimes not). I’ve had this problem in the Gmail app, and a few instant messaging things. It is fine in Apple’s mail app, IM+ and iAWriter though, so I think it must just be a weird software problem in specific apps.

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