The iPad may be exactly what some mobile computing users need, right out of the box. But for others, it will come up decidedly short -- no physical keyboard, limited physical connectivity, no telephony capability.
Could investing in a few accessories make the iPad a more useful device for mobile office work?
We put that notion to the test, reviewing three "first-party" accessories from Apple: the iPad Keyboard Dock ($69), the iPad Camera Connection Kit ($29) and the iPad Dock Connector to VGA Adapter ($29), to see if they're worth the investment.
Our conclusion? You can certainly make the iPad more useful by adding accessories, but you cannot eliminate all of its weaknesses as a work tool.
While the quality of construction and design in these products was as good as one might expect from Apple, not all are worth the price of admission.
One, the keyboard dock, does exactly what it appears and claims to do, and does it well. One does more -- the camera connector kit can actually enable some VoIP capabilities. And one, the VGA adapter, does less.
Let's take a look.
iPad Keyboard Dock
As we noted in an earlier review of Apple's iWork apps
, the iPad will work with any Bluetooth wireless keyboard. We tested it with the Microsoft Bluetooth Mobile Keyboard 6000
($89), which worked well. Apple also has a Bluetooth keyboard for $69. Going wireless means you're not bound to a desk.
But many users will only ever want to use a keyboard when they are at a desk. For them, the Apple keyboard dock is a more elegant solution. For one thing, it can double as a charging cradle.
The product works like many iPod docking accessories, with a connector that sticks up from inside a brace. You place the iPad over the connector and press down -- it's very easy to mount. The screen sits, well supported, at a pretty good angle for working.
One unavoidable limitation: since the single connector socket on the iPad is at one end of the device, you can only mount it in the dock in portrait orientation. This is not a serious drawback, though, because the main reason you'd want to switch to landscape mode is to make the onscreen keyboard big enough to use.
A heavy block behind the keyboard holds the whole assembly rock steady with the millimeters-thin keyboard laying flat on the tabletop. A socket at the back of the block lets you plug in the charging/syncing cable and connect either to a power source or computer.
The keyboard has a good feel for touch typists, despite the Chiclet-style keys. The addition of up, down, left and right arrow keys and true shift and caps lock keys also make it much easier to use than the on screen keyboard.
For Windows users, the absence of separate Backspace and Delete keys (with separate functions) will be a minor annoyance.
A more serious shortcoming -- though it's no reflection on this product -- is the absence of a pointing device. With the keyboard dock you can touch type at speed, but when you need to move the cursor, you have to reach up to the screen. This will be counterintuitive for most users and not as accurate as moving a cursor using a pad or mouse.
iPad Camera Connection Kit
The camera connection kit would at first appear to be a purely consumer convenience. It includes two dongles that plug into the iPad's connector socket. One lets you plug in a USB cable -- to connect a camera directly. The other has an SD memory card reader.
Both work well with the iPad's native Photos app. When you plug in a card or camera, the app automatically generates thumbnails on the screen. You can then select images individually and delete or import them -- or delete or import all (if you don't select any).
The surprising part comes when you try plugging in other USB devices. As far as Apple is concerned, the product is only for transferring photos from a camera or card. But we had been tipped that plugging in a USB telephone headset could in fact enable VoIP services such as Skype. This turned out to be the case.
When we plugged in one of three USB phone sets we tried, a six-year-old Plantronics headset, the iPad popped up a message saying the device was not supported. But after we had downloaded and installed the free Skype iPhone app - which of course also runs on the iPad - the app was able to find and use the device anyway.
Not only did it work, but it worked very well. The headset supports wideband audio (better quality than standard headsets) and the iPad also has pretty decent sound quality. In a limited number of test calls, the sound quality was above average for Skype. And the connection quality was good for the most part too.
The iPad and Skype won't work with all USB phone devices. Those that draw too much power, including an iPevo handset
we tried, and a ClearOne Chat 50
speakerphone did not work.
However, we discovered while testing these devices that Skype also works reasonably well with the iPad itself as a speakerphone, using its built-in microphone and speakers.
Not all Internet VoIP services work or work as well with either a USB headset or the built-in speaker and microphone.
iCall, a VoIP-based, ad-supported free computer-to-phone
service with an iPhone app, produced some comically bad connections with voices unintelligible and sounding like nothing on this earth.
Whistle, another free computer-to-phone service
, worked but not well. There was latency of over a second on some test calls to regular phones and jitter (causing break-up) as well.
iPad Dock Connector to VGA Adapter
The less said about this product the better. It drew an enraged response even from some Apple die-hards. The problem? It doesn't really do what you expect, or even everything the company says it can.
The VGA connector does not mirror the iPad display on an attached VGA monitor, which would be useful for some kinds of apps to show the working window on a larger screen. In fairness, Apple doesn't say it can do this.
But it does say you can watch "slideshows and movies" on an attached VGA monitor, and in some cases you cannot.
Only certain applications can send video or slideshows out through the adapter. The native video player and YouTube applications work, but in our testing, even the iPad's own Photos app would not display single images on an attached screen, only slide-shows.
And even with the applications that did work in our testing, you don't see anything on the attached screen until the video or slide-show actually starts playing.
This might still be a useful product for users who want to store iWork Keynote presentations on a lightweight device and take it to boardroom or classroom to play through a projector or VGA-connectible TV.
But if you thought the adapter would work like a VGA connection on a laptop or netbook to let you view apps on a larger screen, don't waste your money.
The three Apple accessories we tested, which all came out at or about the same time as the iPad, are likely just the tip of the iceberg. Others have already followed -- though most so far are geared to consumers -- and more will come.
Can they turn the iPad into a general-purpose enterprise work tool? Probably not, but they can certainly make it more useful.