A little while ago, we openly pondered if the Motorola Atrix’s Lapdock was the shape of mobile accessories to come or whether it was an idea that’d been scrawled down on the back of a beer mat.
With the announcement of the Asus Padphone and rumours abound of a quad-core sequel to the Eee Pad Transformer, it looks like the former and it seems that we are going to be seeing more of this kind of thing. The recently released Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 too, has an optional Keyboard Dock designed for those itching to get a bit of work done on their Android slates.
And lets not forget Asus’ Eee Pad Transformer and Motorola’s Wireless Keyboard, compatible with both the Xoom and the Atrix – Android tablets with keyboard options are already abundantly available.
If this is the way things are headed, we might as well get used to it. We picked up an Asus Eee Pad Transformer with keyboard, a Motorola Atrix with Lapdock and a Motorola Xoom (complete with a wireless keyboard plus a couple of docks) and compared them alongside our Galaxy Tab 10.1.
As well as giving you an idea of how these four typing solutions shape up against one another, it’s also good practice for getting used to carrying whole bunch of interconnecting, interlocking devices around with us.
We’ve seen the future and it’s Qwerty-shaped:
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 Keyboard Dock: as a dock
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is currently our favourite Android tablet; it’s as smooth and powerful as it is sleek and lightweight. A kicker then, than it looks like you might not be able to buy one here for a while…
For the time being though, we’ll ignore this and concentrate on the merits of the Keyboard Dock. Costing around £70 to £80, the Tab 10.1’s Keyboard Dock doesn’t provide much at all in the way of connections. On the back and side there’s just a 3.5mm jack for headphones and speakers and a 30-pin connection for charging.
This proprietary connection is the same as the one that’s on the bottom of the Tab 10.1 and allows you to plug in to the mains to keep the battery topped up.
The Keyboard Dock itself is ‘dumb’ in the sense that it has no auxiliary battery of its own, unlike the Eee Pad Transformer or the Atrix’s lapdock.
Samsung’s Keyboard Dock is however compact and light, much like the Tab 10.1 itself. Unlike the Transformer’s fiddly connection, when you slot the Tab 10.1 into the Keyboard Dock it clips snugly into place. The Tab 10.1 emits a beep when you pop it in, letting you know that all’s good.
The Tab itself leans back at an angle when its in the slot instead of standing upright at 90 degrees. Though you can’t adjust it, it seems optimally positioned, it’s not a bad viewing angle. The Dock is raised up off of whatever surface you’ve got it on too, creating a natural typing/viewing position. We didn’t really feel the need to have to reach out and tilt anything at any point.
So, how does it feel to type on?
As a keyboard, the Galaxy Tab 10.1’s Dock fares a lot better. For all its lightness and portability, the Dock never feels insubstantial or flimsy. A rare balance, but one that Samsung seems to have struck here.
With the exception of the four directional arrow keys bottom right all of the keys feel big enough to be able to type on easily without things feeling too cramped. Granted, it doesn’t offer you the freedom that Motorola’s bigger keyboards here do but it’s not a pain to adjust to.
We like how Samsung has mapped shortcuts to the Tab 10.1’s features and commands like Back, Search, Menu etc as well as controls for the media player (volume, skip, pause/play etc) and screen brightness.
That’s also true of all of the other keyboards/docks here to some extent, but it’s Samsung’s allocation of tablet features to specific keys that we like the most (bar one notable exception).
There’s a shortcut key for voice actions (intelligently placed next to the search button) and another which loads up the wireless settings control panel. So you’ve got quick access to somewhere where you can toggle Wi-Fi and GPS from the keyboard which is pretty neat.
One thing that really baffles us about the Tab 10.1’s Keyboard Dock is that there are a couple of keys that when pressed, fire up the virtual on-screen Qwerty on the Tab itself. Why anybody but Arnold Rimmer would need two keyboards is beyond us. What’s even more puzzling is that there are two of these buttons on the Keyboard Dock, as if one wasn’t enough.
Also, the ‘Mail’ shortcut button seems to load up the standard Android Email app; there’s no option to map a shortcut to the more useful Gmail app which, for an Android accessory, is a real head-scratcher.
We can live with these little snags though as the typing experience offered by the Keyboard Dock is decent enough.
Motorola Xoom: With the docks
Unlike Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1, there’s no single all-in-one keyboard-cum-dock accessory for the Motorola Xoom. Rather, you’ve got the option of choosing from a number of docks and cases to act as stands and the ability to connect the Xoom wirelessly to the Motorola Wireless Keyboard.
Let’s have a look at the available selection of docks first. The highest end dock available from Motorola is the Speaker HD Dock. This features built-in speakers and an HDMI-out so you can keen it connected to your HDTV while its propped up on your table or desk.
There’s also the Standard Dock, basically a secure stand with a socket for a mains adapter a 3.5mm jack so you can hook it up to some small speakers. This is more for display/charging purposes, but if you don’t have a big HDTV or don’t want to hook the Xoom up to one, then this will do as a basic kickstand/charging dock. At £25 to £35 it’s also much cheaper.
There’s also this, the Portfolio case. A protective cover that can also double as a kickstand, this would be more suitable for working when out and above, as opposed to the other two docks which are more at place in the home.
As you can see it can be repositioned allowing for different viewing angles. And when you’ve got it Bluetoothed up with the Wireless Keyboard then you’ve got infinitely more space to get comfortable. This means that the Xoom with its Bluetooth keyboard and multitude of docks has something of an edge on everything else here; the ability to chop and change and switch things out as and when you need them.
Now, on to that Wireless Keyboard itself. Like the keyboard of the Transformer and the Tab 10.1 you get shortcuts to usual Android navigation functions and commands; Home Back, Search and Menu (done over in the usual Motorola icons) and you get controls for entertainment features too (pause/play, skip forwards/back, stop and volume controls).
There’s also shortcuts that’ll launch the Xoom’s browser, load up Gmail and your contacts list as well. All good stuff. But how is it to type on?
The keyboard layout here is the biggest and most spacious compared to the offerings of the other three here. The buttons are evenly spaced out and, with the exception of the spacebar, all provide a good amount of resistance, giving the impression that this will take a fair amount of wear and tear. The spacebar’s not actually that bad all things considered; just a little on the wobbly side.
Thanks to the positioning of the battery case you also get a good bit of lift on this. It’s also incredibly light, meaning you can easily type with it on your lap, prop it up on a train table when you’re on the go or wherever’s convenient really.
The only obvious drawback of the Xoom’s accessories is that unlike the Transformer or Motorola’s own Lapdock for the Atrix, you don’t get any kind of auxiliary battery that can be used to charge the Xoom itself.
Plus, seeing as the keyboard needs a Bluetooth connection (there’s no option to physically connect it) it’s extra mean to your Xoom’s battery. So it loses some points on convenience here.
Asus EeePad Transformer and keyboard
Asus’ Eee Pad Transformer is the King of Connections here; the tablet portion alone comes with a 3.5mm jack, microSD and an HDMI out, kicking the connection-light Tab 10.1 to the kerb.
Then, add the keyboard portion of the Transformer and *boom* all of a sudden you’ve got two full sized USB ports in there along with an SD card slot.
This gives you the freedom to plug in a USB mouse and a memory stick, making it the most viable option here if you’re in the market for a replacement laptop, but kinda fancy an Android tablet as well. The SD card slot makes getting pictures off of your SLR and on to your tablet a piece of cake. It’s a shame that there aren’t any decent image resizing/manipulating apps on the Market yet.
The Transformer’s lower half also doubles as an extra battery for the tablet portion as well, always a bonus, boosting it to 16 hours. Among its many connections there also sits a secondary proprietary port, so you can keep everything topped up with the same charger.
Our only real gripe (as we mentioned in our review), the connection between the Transformer’s tablet and the keyboard section isn’t very smooth, making it difficult to tell if its properly locked in or not. This was particularly annoying when we were busy plugging in mice and SD cards and wondering why the Transformer wasn’t registering their presence.
This writer’s sausage fingers were perhaps a bit too big for the Transformer’s keys; we didn’t take to typing on this as easily as we did any of the others here. Then again, somebody with smaller, more nimbler hands might find this size of keyboard more to their liking.
One thing that we found that’ll probably annoy typists of all hand sizes is the positioning of the lock screen button, which is just above the backspace key. More than a few times we ended up locking our Transformer when we simply wanted to correct a typo. We imagine that this is something you’d get used to with time though. Though there’s no dedicated delete key, holding down shift and tapping backspace performs this function.
The keyboard is reassuringly solid and the build quality is great. We liked that when propped up on our desk, the Transformer’s hinge acted as a kind of prop or ad hoc stand. This gives it a good natural typing angle, unlike the Atrix’s Lapdock which is parallel/flush to whatever surface you’ve got it on.
In a similarity to the Lapdock, the Transformer’s keypad has an optical trackpad with a clickable button, giving you an additional degree of control. We found this most useful for when you’re typing something up on Polaris Office and want to move the cursor and select big blocks of text.
While responsive and easy to use, the position of the pad can sometimes cause a problem when you’re typing. But its location on the keyboard is something you’d probably learn to live with over time, just as you would on any other laptop with an optical control. Also, it can be turned off; the fourth key along from the left on the top row toggles it.
We also liked that you get keyboard shortcuts for commands like Home, Menu, Search and Back – useful for when you’re browsing the web or the Android Market – and some buttons which controlled entertainment features too.
Motorola Atrix and Lapdock
The Lapdock is something of an anomaly here; it’s the only keyboard accessory in this article that connects to a phone instead of a tablet. Secondly, when you connect the Atrix to the Lapdock it loads up Webtop, giving you different experience.
Webtop is a Linux-based OS that comes pre-installed on the Atrix. It features a full Firefox web browser that’s more akin to the desktop version than Firefox for Android is. Webtop kicks in to life whenever you slot the Atrix in to the Lapdock; until then it remains dormant in the background.
As a dock, the Lapdock gives you a couple of USB ports, so you’ve got room for a mouse and a memory stick; the bare essentials for getting some work done on the go. There’s also a couple of speakers built in to the back which although aren’t very powerful give you a degree of entertainment value.
Though there isn’t a 3.5mm jack on the Lapdock itself, if you wanted to hook up to some other speakers, or perhaps spare fellow commuters your taste in music, you can plug your headphones into the Atrix’s 3.5 round the side and that’ll work fine.
There’s not a lot of connectivity options here; no microSD and no HDMI, even though the Atrix itself has ports for both of these. But aside from that the Lapdock has another trick up its sleeve – the auxiliary battery.
This gives you an additional maximum of 7 hours of power, which you’ll be grateful for if there’s no spare mains sockets going.
In a pinch, you can also use this reserve tank to charge up the Atrix for emergencies. You’re out and about, the Atrix’s battery is dying and you’re waiting on an important call. Presto, you pull your Lapdock out of your bag and you’ve got yourself some extra power. Just remember to disconnect the two before taking that call, otherwise you’ll look a bit silly.
The Lapdock’s optical trackpad has the added bonus of being bigger than the Transformer’s. You also get the ability to turn it off if you don’t want it on, like when you’ve got a mouse plugged in for example.
The 11.6-inch screen gives you a bit more viewing room than the 10.1 inch screens of the Xoom, Transformer and Tab 10.1. Webtop, though not boasting the visual quirks of Honeycomb, is still pretty pleasing on the eye and easy to use.
The screen can also be tilted to suit you although due to the design of the Lapdock (the Atrix slots in behind the main screen) you can’t tilt it back as far as you can with the Transformer, which can practically tilt through 180-degrees.
Our main Lapdock bugbear is that it’s keyboard is flat, parallel with whatever desk or surface you’re resting it on. So you’re automatically not in a comfortable typing position.
Also, there’s not as many shortcut keys as there are on the other keyboards. Things like media volume and screen brightness can be adjusted by holding down the Function key and tapping the relevent key, but there’s no Android-y shortcuts like on the others.
A minor point perhaps, but we got used to just being able to tap Home or Back and then have the tablet do its thing.
That 11.6-inch screen, though bigger than everything else in terms of size isn’t touch-sensitive. Not the end of the world, but it just means that your interactivity options are just limited to the trackpad or an optional USB mouse.
In terms of overall usefulness, we’d have to say that the Transformer takes the crown here, mainly due to the sheer number of connections available. It’s a shame that there aren’t any great image manipulating apps on the Market, as this would boost the Transformer’s viability as a work device even further. Running on 3.2 Honeycomb, the Transformer is also the most up to date Android tablet with a dedicated keyboard solution going.
We have to say though that we found the Transformer’s keyboard less easy to type on compared to the Tab 10.1’s dock and the Motorola Wireless Keyboard. So if you crave a bit more room, then you might want to consider either of these options.
Price and availability are worth considering. At the time of writing, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer starts at £350 to £400 for the 16GB tablet, with the keyboard portion costing an extra £90 to £100. In some places you’ll be able to get them bundled together for a lot less, like this £430 Carphone Warehouse deal.
Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 was priced at £400 for 16GB versions on launch, with the Keyboard Dock setting you back £80. However, the current legal dispute with Apple rules this out as an option altogether, at least for the time being.
The Xoom, with all of its bits and bobs amounts to the most expensive offering here. The tablet itself is now priced at around £400 for the Wi-Fi version and £480 for the 3G and Wi-Fi deal.
The Speaker HD Dock is £100 odd. Factor in the Wireless Keyboard (£60 to £70) you’re looking at either £595 (Wi-Fi only) or £640 (3G and Wi-Fi). There’s also the Portfolio Case (£35) if you want a portable cover/kickstand.
Simply Electronics has the Xoom going got a little cheaper here at £360 and £465 for Wi-Fi and 3G plus Wi-Fi.
Lastly, there’s the Lapdock. At £270 on its own now it’s automatically a cheaper proposition. Enter the Atrix, which can be had for free on a £40 contract from Orange, and you’ve got the most cost effective solution here.
The two USB ports mean that you can connect a mouse and a USB stick so its automatically a mite more useful as a work tool than the Tab 10.1’s dock or the Xoom/Wireless Keyboard combo. It also has the advantage of doubling as an auxiliary battery for your Atrix.
Between this and the Transformer, we reckon that your choice hinges on whether you’d rather get an Android tablet or a new phone. Though both devices were given the same rating in our reviews (four stars a piece), if you twisted our arm we’d say that the Transformer is a better tablet than the Atrix is a phone.
If money’s an issue, then the Atrix and Lapdock offering undercuts the Transformer by over £100. But that extra money will get you an up-to-date Android tablet (while the Atrix still languishes in 2.2 Froyo-land) that has more connections than the Lapdock can shake a stick at.