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The $670 Alternative to MacBook Air: iPad, Toccata Keyboard

iPad with Toccata keyboard

On Wednesday Steve Jobs unveiled a new MacBook Air, with an entirely solid state hard drive, seven-hour battery life, super-slim design and a price tag of $1,000 (for the 11-in. model). Yet for the previous week, I'd already been using an ultra-light Apple notebook with an entirely solid-state hard drive, a battery that charges fast and lasts for so long I rarely have to care (I just plug it in every other night), and an eminently portable 9.7 in. screen (which detaches). It has a pretty generous 32GB of storage. Most importantly, it cost me, in total, a mere $670.

What's it called? The iPad, of course—augmented by the best external iPad keyboard I've seen, the $70 Toccata keyboard case from an Australian company called PADACS.

A couple of months back we wrote about a similar case/keyboard that was getting a lot of buzz in the U.K. That was the Keycase iPad Folio, which launched recently in the U.S. market at a too-pricey $100 level. The Toccata (which launched on the U.S. market in early October) is not only cheaper, it is also — judging by early online reviews — a slightly sturdier version of the exact same design.

Like the best products in the Apple ecosystem, the Toccata just works. It connects automatically via Bluetooth when you press any key, and switches itself off when not in use. You recharge it via USB after 45 hours of runtime, a welcome relief to those of us who've been using the battery-powered Apple Bluetooth keyboard, which can die at the most inopportune moments. The way the screen stand is set up, you have a number of ridges and grooves in which to lock the screen, so you can control the angle quite well. I'm typing this review on the Toccata on my lap, on my couch. It's not teetering, nor is it forcing me to hunch over.

The case is a rich thick leather-like material that keeps itself shut with magnets. The keyboard itself is rubberized silicone, which might be a dealbreaker for some. Personally, I love it. The keys are soft yet solid enough to take some finger-tapping punishment, and they elicit a beautiful sound when you're in a typing flow, like rain on a window pane. (Besides, plastic or metal keys would scratch the iPad screen when the case was closed.)

This is by no means a full-sized keyboard, since it has to be the same size as an iPad screen. But the keys have a ridge on top and are raised to just the right level that I almost never make a mistake, even when not looking at the keyboard. And I've got some pretty stubby fingers, ones which are too big for other mini-keyboard solutions.

There's a line of F-keys, including volume control, music controls, and a button that takes you back to the iPad home screen. There's only one key I have a problem with, and it's a doozy: the single and double quote key isn't where it should be (between the colon and the enter key), but rather has been relegated to a ghetto between the space bar and the cursor keys. This means that when you type a word with an apostrophe, you'll invariably press enter by mistake and find yourself on a new line.

That's the trade-off: On the plus side, you get a fully functioning, eminently portable iPad keyboard inside a fancy professional-looking magnetic case. On the negative, you have to map a new position for the quotes key into your muscle memory. It took me a few days to do that, but I didn't mind.

In that time, I also started writing everywhere—on the bus, in waiting rooms, at the cafe where they've blocked off the electric outlets. These are all comments that will be made by those who held out buying the iPad—because of its tricky touch keyboard—and are now celebrating the on-the-go productivity-boosting MacBook Air. My iPad-Toccata combo laughs at your electricity-hogging, crotch-burning laptop.

Which is why it catches so much admiring attention from computer-toting cafe patrons. (It also helps that it fits perfectly in my Muzetto iPad bag, which is so much nicer to carry than a laptop bag, but that's a whole other review.)

I don't mean to dis the new Air entirely. I like that it's getting a lot cheaper and closer to that truly portable iPad size. It may be for you if you're in the market for one primary computer and you need something light and relatively portable. The iPad doesn't do everything power users need; I still use my MacBook Pro for serious editing work. But if you're a writer of any stripe, the Toccata vastly improves the iPad's functionality, whether it's bashing out a ton of emails, blog entries, or the great American novel. I used to say the retro-style, $200 AlphaSmart Neo was the best tool a writer could buy. The Toccata has changed my mind.