Review: ZAGG Rugged Messenger iPad Keyboard case

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been reconsidering my ecosystem. At the same time, I noticed a great sale on the basic iPad ($250) at most major retailers. I decided to make the plunge and pick up the basic iPad, along with a rugged keyboard case. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve tried to make this device my primary mobile computing device, and I’ll talk more about that transition, but this review is strictly about the keyboard case that I chose.

The requirements I had going in to selecting a case were that it needed to be Bluetooth so that it could work with the basic iPad I got (no keyboard connector), and it had to have some protection on it, since I was planning to use this device when camping. As luck would have it, I’m currently writing this review in my pop-up trailer, at a State Park in the middle of the woods. Needless to say, the case I selected is getting put through it’s paces, since in the weeks since I bought it I’ve taken it biking and camping, multiple times.

Because of the limited audience for the basic iPad, there’s not a ton of options out there for keyboards. I spent a bit of time reading reviews of various cases before selecting the ZAGG, and when I decided to pull the trigger I was mulling over 2 different cases. One was the ‘book’ style case where the iPad and keyboard form a laptop-style clamshell enclosure. The other one was the Messenger folio that is similar to the Apple Smart Keyboard style, with a folding kickstand back to it. After spending a lot of time reading reviews, I opt’d for the Messenger style case. Many of the reviews of the book style hinted that the hinge didn’t hold after a lot of use, and additionally, the folio style still allows for the iPad to be used independently, without a bulkier case than necessary.

I’ve been using the case for a few weeks now, and I have to say, this is a really nice keyboard. The key travel is smooth, and the spacing is just right for my size hands. Some people might find it cramped, but I don’t know that you can get a 9.7″ device with a keyboard that is any bigger than this. I haven’t had any issues typing on it, and many of my blog entries over the past couple of weeks have been typed on this device.

One of the features that sold me on this device was the backlit keyboard. If I’m out in the middle of the woods, or typing in a darkened room, having backlit keys is a must. As a bonus, you can select different colors of backlighting, which gives the case a sense of personal style. There are also multiple intensity settings that you can use to make the backlight dimmer and brighter, depending on your need.

Overall the device feels rugged and protective. I haven’t tested this yet, and hopefully never will, but the iPad has now been on multiple bike rides, bouncing around in my pannier bags, as well as general use around the house and campsite. There are two parts to the case, the keyboard folio part, and the case that goes around the iPad itself. The case around the iPad feels sturdy and I think it should protect it just fine. The folio is slightly bigger and so in a fall, I assume the folio portion will take a lot of the brunt.

There as a few different function keys that are specific to the iPad, and you can actually pair this keyboard with multiple devices, though I haven’t tried that, and I’m not sure I’d have a need for that. The case around the iPad does come with a spot for the Apple Pencil, with is a nice touch.

I’ve been very please with the ZAGG Rugged Messenger, and if you’re looking for a protective keyboard case for an iPad, I think this is a great way to go. I’m finding myself enjoying using it, and even reaching for my iPad instead of my computer. Of course, the iPad is a story for another time.

Thinking about my tech ecosystem again

This past week was the WWDC conference, held every year by Apple to tout its newest features that will be making their way into their operating systems. This year, for the first time in a while, it felt like Apple had its ‘mojo’ back.

A couple of the announcements have me thinking about my ecosystem again. A few years ago I started moving all of my things into the Google ecosystem. Google Docs and Gmail were taking the world by storm and jumping on board seemed like the place to be. I was able to access my documents from any web browser, and I didn’t think twice about what it meant to participate in this new world that Google was creating.

I also jumped on board with a Chromebook, and for a reasonable price had a portable computing device that could easily access this new world. I eventually retired my Chromebook, due to age, and went back to a MacBook. Before I had gotten my Chomebook I had made my first attempt to make my iPad a fully fledged computing device. I tried to weave together a bunch of different apps to create a desktop-like experience, but it just wasn’t there yet.

Over time a lot of different apps have come to the iPad, including dedicated apps for Google Docs, Microsoft Office, and Apple’s iWork suite. These have helped to fill a huge gap in the productivity arena, and this past week Apple showed off their newest creation, a dedicated iPadOS. This operating system takes iOS and expands it to create a more robust, laptop like experience on the iPad. It was a bold move by Apple, if for no other reason than they had been resisting it in the past. This recent keynote showed that they’re finally acknowledging that people need a bit more power that allows them to go beyond the Apple paradigm of how to get work done.

With the inclusion of real file access, better text manipulation, and a much needed boost to Safari, I feel like I could actually use an iPad as my main mobile working device. Especially since there are now iPads in the $329 range that I could pop a ruggedized bluetooth keyboard and case on, and feel comfortable biking and camping with.

The next thing that’s got me thinking more and more about getting out of the Google ecosystem is the continued drumbeat of the past couple of years around the technology society that we’re living in. For so many products on the market, the actual “thing” for sale is not the device, but the user of that device. From Google’s “free” services, to Roku streaming services, everyone seems interested in knowing everything about me so that they can convince me to buy whatever they want. Apple drove this point home with its announcement of their new login service, “Sign in with Apple” that allows you to sign in to websites using your Apple ID instead of Google or Facebook. Apple has stepped up to promise that they won’t sell your data, and are even taking steps to help you obfuscate your email address from apps.

People sometimes complain that Apple devices are just too dang expensive, especially compared to other devices. There is certainly some truth to this, and they opt to go for the premium side of the market, but at the same time, Apple has chosen to make their business more about the hardware that you buy up front (along with the services direct cost), and less about selling the data around who is using the device. That means that they can’t subsidize their hardware through advertising revenue, and hopefully it stays that way. My wife and I had a conversation just the other day about this, and she commented that perhaps Apple should lean more into this in their messaging to consumers. It might draw in more people who are simply done with the way that companies have been using their users.

All of this is to say that I’m thinking of going back more deeply into the Apple ecosystem, and moving more away from Google. It might spur the purchase of a new device or two, and most certainly would influence the choices I make around the services that I use. I’m not decided on anything yet, but its quite a bit of food for thought.

Smartphone Mid-range war

This week at Google I/O, they announced a new phone that has been taking the tech press by storm, the Pixel 3a (and 3a XL). This pared down version of the Google flagship Pixel 3 is priced starting at $400, which is half the (list) price of the Pixel 3. The 3a cuts out a lot of the top-of-the line specs, and leaves you with a phone that is an awesome deal for people looking for a mid-range level phone. The camera from the higher level phone comes down to this model, and creates a really compelling option for people looking to get a better phone than some of the other $300-$400 phones on the market.

One of the stranger things that I’ve seen, is how the press is comparing this phone to the iPhone Xr, which is Apple’s lowest price flagship phone. They look at the affordability of the 3a and lament that Apple doesn’t have anything near that price range. However, this just isn’t factually accurate. Apple has adopted a different model for it’s mid-range phones. They simply keep supporting, and updating, their older phone models, and downgrade them from being a flagship phone, to something more mid-range and affordable.

Currently, you can get the iPhone 7 (a phone I still use) for $449, and the iPhone 8 for $599. This puts them solidly in the mid-range price bracket, and a much better comparison to the Google Pixel 3a. From a performance perspective, the iPhone 7 is actually slightly faster on Geekbench scores, despite being an older model phone. The more expensive iPhone 8 scores nearly twice as high as the new Pixel 3a on milti-core Geekbench ratings.

I’m not here though to start a flame war between the two camps. What I want to accomplish with this short blog is show that there’s more than one way to the same goal, which is a full range of smartphones that span the gamut from mid-range to flagship. Whereas Android manufactures often design different lines of phones to meet the needs of both ends, Apple chooses to simply move their phones down the line and support them as long as it’s feasible. Even today you can put Apple’s latest operating system (iOS 12) on the iPhone 5s, which was introduced in late 2013 (though I wouldn’t really recommend it).

Android takes a different approach, and companies like Samsung have their Galaxy S line for their flagships, and their Galaxy A line for their mid-range. They then increment each line in turn, and deprecate the older models in each line. One big advantage of doing this is that even the mid-range phones get small pieces of new tech, because they get to come along for the ride with the new flagships. The Pixel 3a benefits from having the latest and greatest Google camera, because it’s available, and apparently cheap enough that Google can put it into the 3a. In the iPhone line, you’re stuck with the tech that was available when the phone was launched, and that includes whatever camera was considered state of the art a few years ago.

It’s an interesting contrast of philosophy, and it means that when we’re talking about the mid-range cell phone war, we can’t just compare Android to Apple. They’ve taken very different paths to cover the mid-range and flagship market. However, as a consumer, it’s important that we understand the distinction, so that we can make more educated choices about where we spend our money. It’s not just about grabbing the latest and greatest. There is a real choice that we can make, and that’s refreshing.

In defense of the mini tablet

In a recent episode of The Vergecast, the hosts were talking about the event that Apple held recently, and the new iPad that was unveiled. One of the hosts, I believe it was Casey Newton, commented that if you have an iPhone X you basically have an iPad Mini. As someone who loves my iPad Mini size and form factor, I couldn’t disagree more. I believe that the 7-8 inch tablet size is still a viable space, and one that requires something bigger than a phone, but smaller than a full 10″ tablet.

Let’s start though with breaking down the silly argument that Mr. Newton made, and we don’t have to go any further than screen size. The iPhone X has 8,568 square millimeters of area to it’s screen. I’m not getting into pixel density, but just the physical size of the viewport. When we contrast this to the iPad Mini we find that the Mini is at 19,560 sq. mm of space, which is 235% more physical area to interact with than on a the iPhone X. That’s not a comparison of two devices in the same product category at all. There’s simply no way that you can look at these two devices side-by-side and conclude that they are targeting the same type of interaction.

With that silly comparison out of the way, then what is the primary target of the iPad Mini, if not to be a bigger iPod Touch? Form factor is key for how humans interact with technology. Despite our desire to be a completely digital society, we still need tools to interact with the digital space. We’ve chosen tools such as keyboards and mice as the methods that we interact with traditional computers. We’ve added the dynamic of touch and ultra-portability with laptop/tablet hybrids. However, there is also the basics of ergonomics that can play a big role in how we interact with tech.

In the case of the iPad Mini (and to be fair, other small tablets in this space), the ability to hold the tablet with one hand is a defining factor in the ergonomics of how it’s designed. Much like we often hold a book, or a notepad, with one hand, the iPad Mini simulates this type of tactile experience. It’s easy to hold while sitting, or resting it against a leg or pillow while we interact with it. It creates space for a different type of interaction than other piece of technology in our lives.

My phone, as powerful as it it, is most often used as a way to communicate. That communications might be through a phone call, or text messaging, but more likely is through social media and email. It’s a small portable device that has a screen just big enough to get the job done for short bursts of communication. The screen works well for these interactions, but it’s not the best for things like movies or books. There just isn’t enough real estate to be comfortable.

On the other end of the spectrum, larger tablets are often capable of mimicking the capabilities of full laptops. Tablets with keyboards, and laptops, are powerful computing machines that allow us to create large pieces of work. We can write large works, or create amazing videos and music, on full size computing devices, much easier than small phones. Despite the power of phone apps, they still pale in comparison to the power of a full computing device.

In the middle we have the iPad Mini (and other tablets of this size) which fill a unique niche. The ergonomics of the device create a wonderful experience for consuming media. The form factor of the Mini means that it is comfortable to hold in many situations, and mimics the feel of physical media such as a comfortable book. Additionally, the slightly larger screen size means that media is easier to look at and often is easier on eyes than a smaller phone screen.

Therefore, I see the Mini size as the perfect media consumption device. Reading books, viewing videos, and even touch-based games, are all very natural on a device the size of the Mini. It’s comfortable to sit and hold the Mini with one hand, sitting on a couch, or lounging in bed. It just feels good in your hands.

One thing I (and many others) would love to see is support for the Apple Pencil on the iPad Mini. Just like a small sketchbook, the size of the Mini would be be ideal for small drawings, note taking, and other things that you would use a small notebook for. The addition of a pen style input would bring the Mini into another new realm that aligns well with its form factor.

I hope that the Mini continues to be supported. I know that there are many Android devices, such as the Amazon Kindle, that could meet much of my needs for this form factor. However, I still like the Apple iOS ecosystem, and would like to remain there. Perhaps Apple will also see this value and even offer some better priced iPad Mini’s, and really adopt the strengths of this great form factor device.

Apple’s Education Event

Yesterday I took the time to watch the live blog of Apple’s “Field Trip” education event. Apple in education has been something that has been near and dear to me since my childhood. The very first computers I worked with were Apple IIe computers in our computer lab. I was even lucky enough to have a teacher-aide in the family who was able to bring one home for me over the summer for me to work with. Although my first computer that I owned was a Commodore 64, the Apple line was always present in my educational settings.

However, in recent years Apple has been getting it’s butt handed to it by Google in the education space. Specifically, the advent of the Chromebook and it’s associated Google services. Google took their model of cheap computers that can access web based applications, and brought it to schools that were suffering from lack of funds to keep expensive Mac computers refreshed. Google’s GSuite is a robust set of tools that allows for all sorts of productivity, and isn’t dependent on any specific piece of hardware from any specific manufacture. This is a perfect situation for schools that are often strapped for cash, and for system administrators. Google’s user-based design means that devices can be passed around from student to student, and everyone’s content stays with them, no matter which device they’re on.

Apple is still married to the old way of doing things, with documents stored locally and then sync’d to the cloud. Despite Apple’s best attempts at web based versions of their productivity suite, the best experience is still the locally installed fat clients on either a Mac or an iPad. This means that you’re tied to an expensive Apple device to use these services to the best of their ability. There is one area though that Apple shines… content creation.

Apple and MacOS/iOS have always been the king of creative digital creation. Ever since the first iMovie and Garageband apps hit the scene, they have ruled this lower-to-middle end of the creator space. Apple still has to compete in the high-end, professional market, but for the regular guy/gal, tools like iMovie and GarageBand are more than adequate to create amazing content, quickly and easily. This also applies to students who need nice and easy tools to learn and create things for school and for their budding creative endeavors. This type of simple creation just too hard to accomplish on a Chromebook, and get the same level of results.

Where I think many schools are landing is with a hybrid approach. They have dozens of Chromebooks lying around for students to do writing and create presentations. But then for creative content creations, such as music or video, they have a few Mac’s that students can use for those purposes. This is what one of my son’s school’s does, and it seems to work really well. The kids are able to move between the devices just fine and context switching just seems natural for them.

I feel bad that Apple has lost their lead in the education field, but they got beat fair and square by Google, who offers a better solution for cash and resource strapped schools. However, if they keep their focus on creativity, and things that simply can’t be done on the web, they still can have an important role in schools for a long, long time.