I learned to touch type under the scornful eye of a ninth grade typing teacher who had as little patience for teenage boys as she did for people who hunted and pecked their way around a keyboard. Thanks to her terrifying tutelage, her unyielding scorn for the lazy positioning of my hands, and her sneering incredulity at the amount of Liquid Paper I had to dab on my typewritten pages, I can now type at very credible speeds with nary a glance at my keyboard.
And when I'm holding the TrewGrip, a mobile keyboard aimed at smartphones and smaller tablets, I can touch type backward and upside down. Have I earned your grudging respect NOW, Mrs. Lynch?
I first laid eyes on the TrewGrip at CES this past January. Even on a showfloor where many gadgets run the gamut from garish to goofy-looking, the TrewGrip stood out. My colleague Mark Hachman called the TrewGrip a "mini keyboard that vaguely resembles the unholy union of a pasta shell with an accordion," and honestly, I'm not prepared to tell him that he's wrong.
But more accurately, the TrewGrip takes a traditional QWERTY keyboard, splits it in two, and flips it around. Attach a phone or an iPad mini-sized tablet onto the front of the TrewGrip with a suction mount, connect via Bluetooth, and you've got yourself a portable keyboard for touch typing on your mobile device--albeit one in which the keys are facing away from you on the accessory's backside.
The TrewGrip stands out from a lot of other gadgets that get shown off at CES in a more significant way: It's got an impending ship date. The Ohio-based TrewGrip plans to ship its namesake mobile keyboard this fall and is already taking preorders. I got a chance to try out a prototype of the TrewGrip in advance of its fall release, spending a few days familiarizing myself with this backward approach to typing. The verdict? The TrewGrip definitely offers a creative way to make it easier to type in text on your smartphone or tablet, but it's an approach that takes some getting used to.
Who it's for
In using the TrewGrip, it becomes pretty clear who's in the target audience for this device--and who most definitely is not. If you're the kind of person who needs to constantly look down at your keyboard to make sure you're striking the right key, for example, you are not going to get much use out of a keyboard where everything's flipped around.
The people who will find the TrewGrip useful--at least, in theory--include anyone who sees their smartphone or tablet as a tool for getting things done but finds that an onscreen keyboard cramps their style. Often, I've perused the email on my iPhone, come across a message that requires a thoughtful, lengthy reply... and have held off responding until I'm in front of a laptop rather than tap out a message, letter by letter, using my iPhone. I can only imagine how mobile workers with more pressing productivity needs than mine must crave a physical keyboard--and not necessarily a portable keyboard that's either built into a case or works as a standalone input device connecting over Bluetooth. Those keyboards still require you to find a space somewhere to sit down and type; with the TrewGrip, you can move about freely, typing as you go.
How to train your TrewGrip
It's easy enough to get your TrewGrip up and running. Both the iPhone 5c and iPad mini I used in my testing attached easily enough to the TrewGrip's suction mount. Pairing your keyboard to your mobile device is a pretty straightforward affair. For my iPhone 5c, it was simply a matter of delving into the Settings app, turning on Bluetooth, and selecting the TrewGrip from the list of available devices. Pairing the keyboard with my MacBook Pro for training exercises--more on that in a moment--was similarly simple. About the only trouble I had was resuming the pairing when I went to use the TrewGrip after a day or so of inactivity. Sometimes I had to fiddle with the connection, telling my phone to forget about the TrewGrip before re-pairing. It was an annoyance, but not a deal-killer.
The bigger obstacle to overcome for most users won't be setting up the TrewGrip, but getting used to the layout of a flipped-over keyboard. TrewGrip's makers hope to ease the transition by offering an online typing tutor with exercises that gave me flashbacks to that ninth grade typing class. TrewGrip says that a couple of hours of practice will make you as proficient with its keyboard as you would be typing with your thumbs; spend eight hours or so with the typing tutor, and the company contends your typing speed will get pretty close to what you can do with a traditional QWERTY keyboard. One might question if the kind of person so hyper-focused on productivity that they're willing to pay up for something that lets them walk and type at the same time is really going to have eight hours to spare to relearn how to touch-type, but I suppose if you're that committed to the cause, you'll make the time.
As for myself, I didn't have that kind of time to devote to mastering the TrewGrip. I did some training exercises, though not enough to really become comfortable with the device, let alone proficient with it. Different people learn at different speeds, of course, but I think that estimate of a couple of hours to familiarize yourself with the TrewGrip is a generous one. I got pretty comfortable using my left hand on the keyboard--the one striking the ASDF keys--but I struggled typing with my right hand. That strikes me as odd, since I'm a righty.
If I had to type a number, I really felt myself straining to reach the numerical keys. That's true on a regular keyboard, of course, but there I can at least sneak a peek at the keyboard layout; that's a little bit harder to do on the TrewGrip, even with the layout of the keys appearing on the front side of the device to provide a little bit of a visual guide.
Another frustration for me: The Tab, Enter, Space, and Backspace keys are on the front of the TrewGrip and not on the backside where the rest of the keys reside. You're meant to strike these four keys with your thumbs, but I found that remembering to hit keys on one side of the device after I had been typing away with my fingers on the other took me out a productive flow. Perhaps, with a little more practice, switching between sides would feel a bit more natural. It's also worth noting that I was typing on a prototype; TrewGrip's makers say they're continuing to refine the device before it ships and one of those enhancements apparently involves rearranging the thumb keys to make them more accessible.
That's not to say I don't appreciate many of the design touches that the TrewGrip offers. The indicator keys on the side facing you light up whenever you strike the corresponding key on the TrewGrip's backside--a helpful visual indicator when you're just getting started using the keyboard. And the battery life--a promised 10 hours for this rechargeable keyboard--means that you're unlikely to run out of juice mid-sentence.
The real sticking point with the TrewGrip, though, isn't going to be the unconventional keyboard layout or even the training time it takes to get comfortable with the device; rather, it's the sticker price, a hefty $249.
That's a lot to pay for a mobile accessory, even for one as elaborately engineered as the TrewGrip. For the sake of comparison, my 32GB iPhone 5c would cost me $50 less than the device I was using to type on it. A more conventional wireless mobile keyboard may force you to find a place to sit down and work, but it will cost you a fraction of what the TrewGrip is slated to run for.
The device makers seem to recognize that, and they've turned to the crowd discount model offered by PreLaunch as a way to bring down the cost. If enough people pre-order the TrewGrip, the price goes down. As of this writing, the keyboard was 27 orders away from knocking off 4 percent from the price. TrewGrip hopes to generate enough orders to drive down the price to $149 for anyone who preorders the keyboard. (Credit cards won't be charged until the end of the preorder campaign.)
The bottom line
TrewGrip's to be congratulated for developing something different and for continuing to develop that product even after the bright lights of CES have faded away. I think there are mobile workers and productivity fiends who will embrace a device that helps them more easily type on their mobile devices, even if it takes a little training to get used to keyboard layout. I also know that I'm not one of them--not at that price.
It's an unconventional product, and in that sense, it's a shame that there's not an unconventional way to get it in the hands of more would-be buyers for a test drive. It's really only when you can hold the TrewGrip in your own hands that you'll know if it's the answer to your productivity prayers--and whether that price tag is worth it to you.