When I first watched the promo video for the Typo physical keyboard for the iPhone, I thought it was a complete joke. With word that Ryan Seacrest was an investor and seeing how much the Typo keyboard looked identical to a BlackBerry keyboard, I thought it was actually a Funny or Die or Rick Mercer sketch that I was viewing. But the jokes didn’t come. This was and is a real iPhone accessory. And as much as it puts me in an awkward position to admit it —   I can’t lie — it’s actually a pretty damn good one, too.

I’m in Las Vegas this week for CES, and Typo has been here showing off their bluetooth keyboard for the iPhone. The CEO of Typo gave us a couple Typo keyboards to take home, and I’ve been putting it to use the past 36 hours on my iPhone 5s. I’m already at home on it - typing as fast and accurately on it as I do with my BlackBerry Q10. 

This shouldn’t be a surprise though. The keyboard is such a complete rip off of a BlackBerry keyboard that there was nearly ZERO adjustment needed. I’m not a lawyer, but I understand why BlackBerry has filed suit against Typo Products LLC and Ryan Seacrest. It seems completely justified given the near identical nature of the keyboard, and I’m pretty sure there’s no way Typo will get away with selling this keyboard in the current form for very long. One way or another it’s either getting shut down, or BlackBerry will get paid on it (I tweeted the other night that BlackBerry should just buy Typo and solve the problem - it can be yet another way to bring the BlackBerry experience to other platforms).

A Complete BlackBerry Rip Off

There really is no mistaking the Typo keyboard for anything but a BlackBerry keyboard. Be sure to watch the video above where we put this theory to the test. I walked around the show floor of CES showing off just the Typo keyboard to people asking what kind of phone it was. 10 / 10 people answered a BlackBerry. And everybody I have shown the Typo to since then agrees - it looks like a BlackBerry keyboard.

Comparing the keyboard portion of the Typo side by side to the BlackBerry Q10 keyboard, similarities abound. Between the rows of keys, the Typo features the same “guitar frets” as BlackBerry keyboards often do (Bold, Q10 models). The sculpted shape of the raised buttons on the keyboard is nearly identical as well. You’d think Typo tracked down the same supplier BlackBerry uses and a grabbed a box for themselves. Even the font choice and labeling of the keyboard is almost identical. It’s clear that Typo deliberately went out to make their keyboard LOOK like a BlackBerry keyboard. I’m sure Typo will try and argue this point otherwise in defending the legal action from BlackBerry, but I can’t see them winning that argument. I’d be happy to be called in as a subject matter expert and tell this story straight. 

Typo Review: Fingers on with the Typo Keyboard

Looking past the fact Typo ripped off the BlackBerry keyboard in a big way, the product itself is very usable. It’s a bluetooth keyboard built in two pieces, that connect to form a case around the iPhone. Connecting the two halves is easy, and from there all you have to do is go to Settings and bluetooth pair the Typo to the iPhone. Voila -  you now have the classic BlackBerry keyboard on your iPhone.

The installed case looks a little odd, but this is a function before fashion type of accessory, and it could look a lot worse. I actually like the feel of the iPhone better with the Typo on then without it. I find the iPhone so dang small to hold onto these days. The Typo gives it a little more length and heft, and I haven't found any issues with balance when typing on the iPhone with the Typo keyboard installed.

There are two immediate compromises to iPhone users who install the Typo. First, the home button is covered by the keyboard, so if you have an iPhone 5s you won’t be able to use Touch ID anymore. With the home button covered, the bottom right button on the keyboard now acts as the home button. This sounds like it might be a big deal, but actually it wasn’t hard to get used to at all. The second compromise is that you won’t be able to swipe up from the bottom of the display, meaning you won’t be able to pull up the shortcut screen that was added in iOS 7. Overall though, if you’re the type of person who values a physical keyboard, the benefits outweigh the compromises.

The Typo keyboard is a little narrower than the physical keyboard on the Q10 or Bold 9900, but I found it easy enough to adjust to. It’s still wide enough that I can type quick with two thumbs. The buttons are quite “clacky". It’s a loud keyboard to type on. Some people hate this, but I don’t mind it. That loud audible sound helps you get into a good rhythm while typing. The buttons don’t take too much pressure to push, and they have a relatively quick return rate (they bounce back up fast enough to keep up with you). There’s a clear and distinct click to each button as it’s pressed. The buttons have a little bit of looseness to them, especially compared to the Q10. On the Typo you can put your finger on a button and wiggle the button a little bit. The tolerances are not that tight, and the build quality comes off as feeling cheap in comparison to the Q10’s keyboard when you examine it closely. BlackBerry keyboards can really take a beating - the Typo appears like it may not have the same long lasting durability to it, but that’s one of those things you’ll find out with time.

As mentioned in the video, there are some differences on where alternative characters have been placed on the Typo compared to the BlackBerry keyboard. The % symbol is on the P and the @ and & symbols are on a button to the right of the spacebar. The ? and ! have been flipped as well. On the Q10 the ? is on the V and ! on the B. On the Typo the ! is on the V and ? is on the B. Maybe Typo thought this was enough of a visual change in the design compared to BlackBerry to get away with the rip off job. The Typo keyboard also has a button to turn on the backlighting. And a button immediately to the right of spacebar allows you to hide the touchscreen keyboard (and holding will power the keyboard off).

One thing to point out to is that the Typo won’t necessarily make you a faster typer. In an all out typing race in controlled conditions, these days you can type faster on a touchscreen keyboard than on a physical keyboard. BlackBerry’s BlackBerry 10 touchscreen keyboard is incredibly fast to type on. That said, the benefit to a physical keyboard is that you can type more accurately and likely faster in more conditions. I rarely walk and type with an iPhone, because while moving and typing I make way too many mistakes. With the Typo on the iPhone, I can walk and type as I would when using my BlackBerry keyboard. Also, physical keyboards always win when it comes to things like entering passwords or email addresses. People who have used physical keyboards know all this of course. It’s worth pointing out for those who have never used one before. 

That all said, it comes down to typing experience, and for that I’m finding the Typo performs well enough. It’s definitely not the best keyboard ever made, but I’m typing well on it. More than acceptable. For people who want a physical keyboard and have $99 to spend, it’s a viable solution. Personally, I’d rather use the iPhone with the Typo on than off. I think that actually says a lot for the Typo.

As for what the future of Typo looks like, I don't know. BlackBerry is suing, and rightfully so in my opinion. Typo is going to fight it. In the meantime, they are still available for pre-order at typokeyboards.com.