The Touchfire is a weird little gadget, a silicone skin which covers your iPad’s touchscreen keyboard with a floppy membrane that partially simulates a real, physical keyboard. Launched over a year on Kickstarter, the Touchfire finally goes on sale today. I have been testing one out for the past couple of weeks. Is it worth the $50 asking price? Well, that depends.
The Touchfire is a very cleverly engineered little widget. The skin itself it thin and tough, and the keys are dimpled with four bumps each to let you rest your fingers on them without registering a keypress.
The skin fixes itself in place with magnets, just like the Smart Cover, and can even be used in conjunction with the Smart Cover (although you probably won’t want to do this – more on that in a second).
Finally, the Touchfire comes with its own durable and slimline case, although to be honest you could probably just toss it into your bag without too much worry.
The Touchfire magically snaps into place every time, thanks to the magnets in the top corners and the bottom edge. This also means that when you don’t need a keyboard, you can either flip it out of the way and leave it hanging by the bottom magnet, or just pull it off entirely and then throw it back on again when you need it. It’s that easy.
You can also choose to stick a couple of magnet-attracting plates onto the inside of the Smart Cover to keep the Touchfire folded but attached at all times, but this isn’t recommended.
If you’re a touch-typist, you’ll love the Touchfire. It has markers on the home keys, and you really can rest your fingers on it as if it were a real keyboard. The weird feel takes a little getting used to, but it won’t take long.
Also good is the spacebar: there isn’t one. Or rather, the silicone isn’t raised up. This means you can use the touch screen beneath as usual: double-tap the home button and you can switch apps, adjust volume and brightness and so on, all with the keyboard still in place.
If you don’t touch type, you’re going to hate the Touchfire. I’m a fast but messy typist who half looks at the screen and half at the keyboard, and I can’t get on with this prophylactic skin unless I force myself to touch type. It just seems to be in the way.
Worse, it removes several shortcuts which I use constantly. With the bare screen, you can swipe up on the comma key to get a single quote, for instance. Or you can press and hold a key to get a pop-up for accented letter, to which you then slide your finger to select. This sliding doesn’t work with a skin in the way.
I also found that my hands recognized the presence of a physical keyboard and tried to use it as such: I kept trying to hit Cmd-V to paste, for example, only to find there is no Cmd key. And I was forever stabbing around in the bottom right corner trying to hit the non-existent arrow keys.
This last part might just be a question of getting accustomed to this hybrid setup, which brings me to…
The Touchfire aims to replace the need for an external keyboard, but while it adds some tactile feedback, it misses out on everything else that a good Bluetooth keyboard will give you. There are no arrow keys, no keyboard shortcuts and none of the extra space afforded by a full-sized physical keyboard.
Neither do you get to use the whole of the iPad’s screen to see what you’re typing, you can’t prop the iPad upright to see what’s going on, and you get none of the special function keys arrayed across the top of all iPad (and Mac) keyboards.
Yes, it’s very portable, but I’m not sure that this is the right thing to be dropping your $50 on. If you really need to type a lot on your iPad, use a real keyboard. Even the Logitech and Zagg cases,with their shrunken layouts, are better.
Oh, and I haven’t forgotten about the magnetic Smart Cover catches. These are two square of sharp-edged metal which stick (via adhesive pads) to the inside of your Smart Cover. They attract the magnets in the top corners of the Touchfire and let you stow it out of the way, like the Millennium Falcon on the back of a Star Destroyer.
This is great as long as you always leave the Touchfire in place, but if you don’t, you have two chunks of hard metal in contact with the screen of the iPad. Not good.