Review: Belkin Ultimate Keyboard Case for iPad Air

Belkin aims high with one of the earlier efforts at an iPad Air keyboard case. (November 11th, 2013)

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Product Manufacturer: Belkin

Price: $129

The Good

  • - Large, well-spaced keys
    - Aluminum front/keyboard section offers good mix of weight vs. screen protection
    - Stylish design
    - Best handheld mode in a keyboard case yet
    - Three magnetically-locked stand positions

The Bad

  • - No auto-wake/sleep functions
    - Plastic backing might leave iPad vulnerable in a fall
    - Backing uses single large cutout for Lightning port, speakers
    - Keyboard sports awkward layout

In a hands-on with the Targus Versavu Keyboard Case, I observed that buying a case around the launch of a new Apple device often entails compromise, since not every manufacturer is on board yet. Even if they are, they may only have a few options available -- designers do, after all, need to experiment to come up with something high-quality. Belkin's QODE Ultimate Keyboard Case is an early effort for the iPad Air, but we'll see in our review if that's necessarily a mark against it.

I should say flat out that if impact protection is an important factor, this probably isn't the case for you. While the front cover/keyboard section is made of very tough aluminum, the back is pure plastic apart from a fake leather hinge and light inside padding. It's enough to protect against dings and scrapes, but I might be worried if I dropped an iPad from standing height. Really, the case seems engineered with a narrow mission in mind: to offer screen protection and a Bluetooth keyboard while remaining as light as possible.

Within those parameters, the UKC does well. The importance of that aluminum can't be understated, since it offers some of the best screen protection possible while minimizing weight and bulk. The case we received was also painted a stylish matte black, although as a result it quickly picked up some obvious smudges.

The plastic frame's design allows for easy installation, and does a reasonable job of protecting an iPad's edges without intruding into the bezels. Inset cuts permit access to ports, buttons, and switches; these are generally well-tailored, even if I was mildly disappointed that Belkin used a single combined cutout for the speaker grills and Lightning port.

A couple of things I should comment on before we get to the keyboard itself are the case's handheld mode and its magnetic closure. The UKC does what could be the best job I've ever seen from a keyboard case when it comes to handheld use. By definition it still adds extra size and weight, but the keyboard folds back so flat -- with keys facing inside instead of out, significantly -- that this is a minor distraction unless you can't stand your Air being encumbered at all.

The magnetic closure, meanwhile, is one of the strongest I've ever encountered. This makes the case a little tougher to open, but it's worth not worrying about whether your iPad will go exposed in your messenger bag. Something I don't understand is why the magnets fail to trigger an iPad's auto sleep/wake function -- for a product that costs $129, one would expect the same convenience you get from a $39 Smart Cover.

The keyboard is the main selling point of the UKC naturally, and with good reason as it turns out. Its keys are well-spaced and reasonably large, making them about as easy to type on as any laptop. There are also not one but three magnetically-locked angles you can rest an iPad in, which is crucial for people of different heights, or if you'll be typing on a couch one minute and in an airplane the next. The magnets also turn the keyboard on and off automatically to save power.

There are some oddities in Belkin's arrangement. For one thing, keys like the colon/semi-colon aren't positioned where you'd expect them, and yet there's a dedicated Siri/dictation button that's redundant with the home button. If you want to prop up an iPad without draining the keyboard's battery, you're out of luck. There's no manual on/off switch, and there doesn't appear to be a timed keyboard shutdown. There's also no simple way of checking battery life and connection status -- there is a status light, but it's hidden on the right-hand side next to the micro USB port, and comes on so seldom that you just have to hope the case remembers your iPad...and that you charged within the last few days or weeks.

All told, the Ultimate Keyboard Case gets a mild seal of approval as long as you're willing to cope with its limitations. It doesn't quite live up to its name, but given the dearth of keyboard cases for the Air, it's currently one of the best options. People who can afford to be patient should probably wait to see what companies like Logitech will soon ship before they take the plunge.

by Roger Fingas


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