Earlier this year I had a look at a couple of iPad keyboard cases from the likes of Logitech and Belkin as part of an iPad accessory survival guide. The nature of that article was more of a round-up covering multiple product categories rather than an in-depth review on each item.

As I mentioned during that article, we hardly scratched the surface in the keyboard folio category, which brings us to today where we’ll be looking at the two aforementioned offerings in greater detail in addition to another popular choice, the Zagg Folio for third and fourth generation iPads.

Modern tablets were designed primarily as media consumption devices. But more recently, units like the Asus Transformer and the just-released Microsoft Surface are challenging this idea with optional keyboards built for each slate. Microsoft in particular is keen on showing consumers that Surface can serve as a legitimate productivity machine which is one of the key reasons we wanted to revisit the iPad keyboard category.

Zagg Folio

Zagg’s Folio is essentially a full-cover case with a built-in keyboard. The exterior consists of a hard shell with a carbon fiber look. There are cutouts in all of the necessary places around the perimeter - volume rocker, camera, power button, microphones, speakers and dock connector.

The Folio folds out like a book. The iPad slides securely into one side -- perhaps a bit too securely until you work it loose -- while the wireless Bluetooth keyboard sits on the opposite side. The back cover behind the iPad flexes, allowing you to prop the bottom (or left edge in portrait view) of the tablet into a rubber-coated groove just above the top row of keys on the keyboard.

There are two padded bumpers near the top of the keyboard designed to provide protection to the iPad’s screen when the case is closed. Just below the right pad is the keyboard’s status and power LEDs as well as a physical Bluetooth connect button and an on / off sliding switch for the power.

Zagg says the keyboard will likely only need to be recharged a few times a year. Because of this, the company elected to "hide" the micro-USB charging port on the right side of the keyboard. You’ll need to remove the keyboard from the Folio to access it. I initially thought this was a design flaw but Zagg says it was done for aesthetic reasons. The company includes a 20-inch charging cable that terminates in a standard USB plug.

Speaking of, you can also remove the keyboard from the case and use it separately if you choose. The iPad still rests in the slot above the top row of keys just fine, either in landscape or portrait orientation.

Unlike the other two boards, the Zagg offering has a silver base with black keys. Each button is raised up a good bit from the base -- about as much as the Belkin. The button layout is more similar to the Logitech board with a small delete / backspace key as well as a shortened enter and shift key on the right side. There's a sixth row of buttons across the top of the number row used for various hotkeys.

Due to the thick outer shell, the Zagg Folio will add a considerable amount of weight and thickness to the iPad. Also note that the latch that keeps the Folio closed can be difficult to open at times.

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover

If you read the iPad survival guide, you’re likely already familiar with the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover. If not, I’ll give you a quick refresher before diving in a bit deeper.

Unlike the Belkin or Zagg offerings, Logitech’s product is exactly what it says in the name – a cover. It’s not a full-protection cover for your iPad. Think of it more like a solid version of Microsoft’s Keyboard Cover. The tablet connects to a magnetic hinge much like Apple’s Smart Cover. When installed and ready for transport, the iPad lays face down over the keyboard with the back of the tablet fully exposed to the elements. That said, it’s obviously the lightest of the group and will add the least amount of thickness to the iPad when on the move.

When ready to use the keyboard, simply detach the iPad from the magnetic hinge and lay it along the groove above the top row keys just like you would with the Zagg board. Logitech’s keyboard can also support landscape or portrait orientation. The Bluetooth connectivity button, power switch and charging dock are all found on the right edge of the board. There’s an LED indicator just above the delete key. The back shell of the keyboard is brushed aluminum to match the back of the iPad.

Logitech claims the keyboard should last up to six months on a single charge if used for a maximum of two hours each day. Note that the charging cable will require a USB port so you’ll either need another computer handy or you could use the iPad’s charger. It’s also worth pointing out that true to Apple form, Logitech provides a ridiculously short charging cable. The one included in the retail package is about one foot long.

Logitech includes some iPad-specific hotkeys on their board as well but they aren’t dedicated buttons. Instead, there are just five rows of keys and in order to access the hotkeys, you’ll first need to press the Function key. It’s not a big deal compared to the two other boards with dedicated hotkeys but it’s worth pointing out.

The keyboard layout is very similar to the Zagg offering, which isn’t exactly my favorite. The keys on the right side of the board are simply too short and small for my liking. I prefer a sizeable enter and delete / backspace key; two things not present on this unit. The keys are also a bit shorter in height than the other two units but whether that's much of a turn off will largely come down to personal preference.

Belkin Keyboard Folio

Belkin’s Keyboard Folio is another full-protection product similar to Zagg’s Folio. The exterior of my sample is grey with almost a soft suede-like feel to it. It certainly looks to be a quality case with intricate stitching around the edges. The Belkin name is embossed on the front cover and of course there are the necessary cutouts around the perimeter that allow you to use the iPad without having to remove it from the enclosure.

There’s no latch, clip, Velcro or magnets holding the front cover closed. As I briefly touched on in the survival guide, the Belkin Folio reminds me of a transformer in that there are several steps necessary to convert it from iPad case to keyboard case –- a lot of “moving parts” I guess you could say.

Even after working with it for a while, it’s still kind of clumsy feeling. It’s the sort of thing that would take a minute or two to figure out if you were totally new to it. One of the good things about this folio is that you can adjust the screen angle to exactly where you want. With the other two units, you’re essentially stuck at one fixed angle.

Belkin’s keyboard doesn’t appear to be removable from the case like the Zagg offering but the keyboard itself is my favorite of the bunch. The keys have plenty of travel. The entire board is a bit wider than the other two. It's about half an inch wider than the Zagg and ¾" wider than the Logitech. This extra real estate means Belkin was able to fit full-sized enter, backspace and shift keys on the right side.

Furthermore, there's room at the top for a sixth row of dedicated hotkeys just below the on / off switch and charging LED. The micro-USB charging port is on the top left edge of the keyboard.

Belkin includes a charging cable that reaches roughly 5.5-feet in length. We are told the keyboard should last around 60 hours during use or about 2,000 hours on stand-by.

Conclusion

Not to sound like a broken record but it bears repeating: if you are planning to do some light writing or text editing on the iPad, a keyboard will go a long way to make your job easier. On the other hand, if your work consists of serious word processing tasks day in and day out, you'll be best served sticking with a notebook.

If you fall into the former category and already own an iPad, a keyboard is certainly a worthy investment. Picking the right board to suit your needs unfortunately isn't as easy as it sounds. Ultimately, it will come down to personal preference. For what it's worth, I ran several typing tests with each keyboard and got an average words per minute (WPM) score as a measure of sorts for how easy it is to type on them. With the Zagg Folio I averaged 70.8 WPM, the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard 61.6 WPM, and the Belkin Keyboard Folio 65.9 WPM.

I felt Logitech’s offering was more sleek and refined than the other two but their keyboard layout is a bit iffy. Furthermore, the unit only covers the front side of the iPad, leaving the back susceptible to damage.

Belkin’s offering is more “complete” but it just feels awkward and clumsy because of all the “moving parts.” It is a well-built case, however, and the keyboard feels solid under the fingers. The case offers all-around protection for the iPad and the keyboard is the best of the bunch.

Zagg’s offering, however, is probably the most well-rounded in my opinion. Sure, the case adds a lot of bulk and weight to the overall package but it feels like it would do the best job at protecting the iPad from everyday life. The case is simple to operate once you get inside and despite the less-than-optimal keyboard layout, the board works well. Between the three, I’d give a slight nod to Zagg’s solution.

I was able to find the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover and the Zagg Folio online for just south of $80 while the Belkin Keyboard Folio was around $15 cheaper at $65.