Ever been stuck in a doctor's waiting room longer than expected with a report to finish and the only option is to try to bang out a draft on your phone? One alternative to typing with your thumbs is to pack along a folding Bluetooth keyboard. The question is, which one? We recently got hold of an iClever IC-BK03 Trifold Bluetooth keyboard, went for a flu jab, and tried it out.
Trifold keyboards are an exercise in compromise. They need to be lightweight, yet rugged enough to tote around, and they need to be compact, yet provide keys that are large enough to actually type on. They're a simple set of parameters that aren't as simple to achieve.
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Out of the box, we found the IC-BK03 to be a pleasant surprise. Many folding keyboards tend to be bulky, yet fragile affairs made out of plastic with hinges that aren't very strong, and present gaps that are perfect for trapping debris. Worse, the keyboards are often staggered in odd row and column arrangements with some common keys relegated to function keys to save space.
When closed, the IC-BK03 measures 143 x 89.6 x 16 mm (5.6 x 3.5 x 0.6 in) and weighs 318 g (11.2 oz), but unfolds to dimensions of 251.7 x 89.6 x 6.6 mm (9.9 x 3.5 x 0.25 in) and weighs 11.2 oz (318 g). It is built into an aircraft-grade, matte aluminum-alloy housing with sturdy spring hinges hidden behind plastic covers that slide smoothly into place without leaving any gaps. We found the aluminum structure light, but substantial and well balanced by the battery compartment in the center.
When open, the keyboard had a distinct wobble, but this went away as it was broken in with a couple of hours of typing. One fault we found was in the rubber hinge gaskets that also act as bumpers – one of which was improperly installed and needed to be coaxed back into place. Though there's no lock, the hinges had enough friction and springiness to stay in place, but typing on the lap required a lot of care to keep it from folding in on itself.
Opening the keyboard switches it on, indicated by a flashing green LED indicator. There's no power switch, though it does go into sleep mode after 15 minutes of inactivity and can be switched off by holding down any key for three seconds.
Power for the IC-BK03 comes from a 210 mA lithium battery with a specified working time of 84 hours and a standby time of 218 days. Despite several days of heavy use, we couldn't exhaust the battery and because the manufacturer advises against recharging the battery needlessly, we couldn't test the claim that it recharges in two hours via micro USB cable for fear of causing damage.
We found the setup to be extremely easy, requiring little more than opening up the keyboard, selecting the operating system from its list of Android, Windows, or iOS, then hitting the Bluetooth function. Initial pairing was established very quickly both with a smartphone and tablet, though the reconnection was much faster with the phone. After initial setup, reconnection was simply a matter of opening the keyboard, so getting back to work was relatively easy.
The Bluetooth connection is rated to 10 m (30 ft) and we found it surprisingly stable at that distance. At the usual working distance of within arm's reach, the connection was rarely lost except when the keyboard went to sleep mode and needed to be reactivated.
As someone who spends a large part of the day tapping away on a full-sized keyboard, the IC-BK03 proved a refreshing surprise. The keys were of the usual chiclet design, but with an ergonomic curved face and a nice travel stroke and firmness. The unfolded size is equivalent to that of the center of a full keyboard and the rows and columns of the keys are also familiar and well-suited to touch typing. Also, unlike other small keyboards, the key functions were close to standard, with the colon and apostrophe keys being where they should be rather than relegated to the function keys.
The main flaws of the keyboard are that the peripheral keys are much smaller and take some getting used to, and the fact there is a slight lag when typing at speed, which causes typos. In addition, the "E" key had a frustrating tendency not to register unless pressed just right. However, the function keys were consistently functional and the media and edit function keys did what it said on the tin without any trouble.
We tested the IC-BK03 on both smartphones and tablets and found that, while it was a noticeable improvement over virtual keyboards on the tablet, it was when paired with the smartphone that the trifold design came into its own.
With is plush cloth case, the IC-BK03 was easy to carry in a jacket pocket, taking up no more room than a smallish phablet, so it was very easy to have on hand. It was possible to write long articles for several hours without any more fatigue beyond that of dealing with a small keyboard and an even smaller screen. But as an alternative to trying to peck out words on a virtual keyboard it was a welcome change.
The IC-BK03 retails for US$33.
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