The TextBlade keyboard is superb, but you'll have to be patient

in General Discussion edited April 2019
It's innovative, its test users are all vocal fans, and the TextBlade portable keyboard has officially been on sale since 2015 -- yet you still can't order it today, and get it quickly. AppleInsider visited the company to see what's happened, and whether it's worth waiting for.

Using a TextBlade keyboard with an iPhone XS Max on the provided stand
Using a TextBlade keyboard with an iPhone XS Max on the provided stand

If this were a Kickstarter or any other crowdfunding campaign, you'd assume that it had died. Launched in 2015, the TextBlade is a portable Bluetooth keyboard with remarkable features that are genuinely unique and truly desirable. Yet four years on, it's still not on general sale. You can order a TextBlade and you will get it, but you won't get it quickly and it's more like being a limited beta tester than a customer.

The makers WayTools won't discuss figures but do say that they've had millions of dollars in pre-orders from all over the world. They also say that money from these orders is not what's funding the company. The founders of WayTools previously started a firm that produces 3D scanning tools including the one used by Lucasfilm to recreate Peter Cushing's face in Rogue One. It's investments from the founders and friends which are funding the development of the TextBlade.

Rather than being a crowdfunding operation, WayTools and TextBlade are following the Tesla model. You can order a keyboard and you can pay for it, but you're going to wait for the release -- and you can get your money back at any time.

That ability to instantly recall your money is good and the financial backing of the company appears solid as far as we can tell. The online information page about when you'll get your TextBlade is poor, though, with one line suggesting that shipping will take 4-7 days but another quoting a dispatch date in the fall.

So after four years, you have to wonder whether TextBlade is ever coming out and you've got to be puzzled about what could be delaying it. Ultimately, you also have to think about whether the TextBlade is worth waiting for -- and that's one thing AppleInsider can answer.

Excellent keyboard

We visited the offices of WayTools in California and spent several days with the owner, Mark Knighton. AppleInsider did not get to see the factories where manufacturing is being done, but we did see pallets of finished TextBlades. And, we also got to see some of the precision testing equipment that has been designed specifically for this keyboard.

Then we got to interview users in the official testing group, called TREG, and we got to speak candidly with other testers who maintain a private discussion forum to which WayTools is not allowed. We have never been able to determine just how many people have received TextBlade keyboards, but the majority of people we spoke to have been using theirs daily for at least a year and typically much longer.

What's more, we saw and got and have now used a TextBlade for some months ourselves.

This is the best keyboard we have ever used. It's unquestionably the best portable keyboard we know, to the extent that none others we've tried feel like they come close. We're still sufficiently slower typing on it than on a full-size desktop keyboard that we don't use it daily with our Macs but we could, we have, and a great many TREG users do.

Size isn't all

The first thing you notice is something that actually you never quite cease to be surprised by and that's the size. TextBlade consists of three separate parts, or blades, which snap together magnetically. The three are housed in a holder than then doubles as a stand for your phone or tablet.

Folded up, the TextBlade is miniscule. There has not been a single day since we got ours that we haven't had it in our pocket or bag. There have been few days when we haven't used it. Together with an iPhone XS Max, we've got our entire office in a pocket.

Yet if the smallness is remarkable, you have to assume that it's going to be cramped to type on. However, the two main blades connect at an angle that means typing may not be the same as a regular desktop keyboard, but it's far better than a typical mini one.

Then, too, the travel on the keys, the distance that they move when you press them, is noticeably more than on Apple's current MacBook keyboards.

There are just eight physical keys and the depth of travel is greater than that of MacBook keyboards
There are just eight physical keys and the depth of travel is greater than that of MacBook keyboards

That's mix of size and depth of travel is achieved because the TextBlade only has eight physical keys. Each one, though, has a multi-touch surface akin to an iPhone screen and the processor in each blade reasons which letter you meant to press.

TextBlade also has combinations of keystrokes, which WayTools calls chords, that make the keyboard more than something to type on. There are cursor and selection controls which we miss terribly whenever we then use any other keyboard, for instance, and there are media controls.

In the model we tested, pressing the correct chords would make the TextBlade connect over Bluetooth to any of up to six different devices. We're told that the shipping version will connect to at least double that many.

Each key is a multi-touch surface and also doubles, triples and quadruples up with extra functions
Each key is a multi-touch surface and also doubles, triples and quadruples up with extra functions


In the version we have, that switching between devices feels faster than we're used to from other keyboards. WayTools claims that it is significantly faster and also that current testers have tended to use TextBlade with very many devices. We've got ours set to type on our iPhone, iPad, Mac and even Apple TV, but reportedly there are many users who need more.

One of the delays to TextBlade, then, has been in determining how it will be used in the real world and then adding features to support that.

However, a perhaps greater reason for the delay is down to technical issues such as Bluetooth. We've been shown circuit diagrams and we've had Bluetooth explained to us at length, but it boils down to how this standard is far more complex and far more unreliable than it appears.

WayTools says it has worked with both Apple and Google to improve those companies' implementation of Bluetooth, specifically in iOS and Android. We checked WayTools' claims with its users who have been following each iteration of the TextBlade -- and we also checked out iOS release notes from Apple -- and it's true. TextBlade has caused improvements in Bluetooth.

Yet you still can't get it

The Bluetooth details are seemingly just one of very many apparently small issues that have required extensive work. TREG users tell us that the current version of the TextBlade and its software are considerably better than when it was first released in 2015. So, work has been done and the keyboard is improving all the time.

It's not flawless. We do use ours a great deal now and we've found that the slim rubber-like feet on the blades and the holder come loose. WayTools has replaced these and we've had fascinating discussions about the engineering of such tiny pieces.

Yet, we still don't know a wide release date. We can say that the TextBlade is likely to ship for $120 or $130 and that people who've pre-ordered it will get theirs for the $99 they originally paid.

And we can say that we want one. We've already got one, yet still this is such a tiny keyboard that we want to buy a spare or two.

There are still some keyboard chords that our fingers keep getting wrong, but really our only exasperation with the TextBlade is that we never get use it uninterrupted. Inescapably, whenever we write on it anywhere, there will be someone across the room who calls out "Is that really a keyboard?" They want to try it, they want to buy it - and they always assume Apple made it.

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  • Reply 1 of 1615
    neilmneilm Posts: 987member
    Fascinating vaporware, but pretty much vaporware nonetheless.
  • Reply 2 of 1615
    kolepardkolepard Posts: 1unconfirmed, member
    I placed an order almost exactly 4 years ago.  Still have nothing.  The most aggravating thing isn't that I haven't been blessed as part of TREG with receiving one, it's the 4 years of lies about when it will ship.  It's never an honest, "we have no idea," it's always changed to be one season ahead of where you are.  I wouldn't recommend anyone place an order unless they actually ship.  Right now, I agree with Neilm.  It's VAPORWARE.
  • Reply 3 of 1615
    emoelleremoeller Posts: 574member
    While it might be vaporware, some folks have apparently received them and really like them.

    I just checked out the website and will wait until they have Bluetooth 5 (they only use Bluetooth 4 now) and then I'll place an order.

    Certainly looks interesting, as the keys are all programable and there is an included app to do that.
  • Reply 4 of 1615
    Four years and they can’t deliver because of Bluetooth implementation? Not sure I can buy into that explanation. During those four years there have been countless products released using that technology, so I don’t see how that can the the obstacle. I was ready to order one while reading this article and watching its video, but when I got to the part of the “reason” for the delay, I figured I’d better wait until they release it.
  • Reply 5 of 1615
    9secondkox29secondkox2 Posts: 2,727member
    Neat tinker toy. Nothing more. 

    Looks like a couple decades of progress negated. 

    Why snyone would do that to themselves is beyond me. 

    But hey, if it’s a fun toy for product reviewers, at least someone gets to enjoy it. Must be tough for the folks who review everything to actually enjoy the process sometimes.

    But the vast majority of regular users would throw it out the window in 10?minutes. 
  • Reply 6 of 1615
    I’m one of the lucky folks that has been included in the TREG group. I’ve been using the TextBlade for a couple of years, and it is definitely not a toy. It’s been weeks since I’ve used a different keyboard.

    It’s a more pleasurable typing experience when at my desk, and the portability is incredible. I’m attending a conference this week and didn’t even bother to bring my computer because I’m just as productive with the TextBlade and my iPhone.

    Once they start shipping, I would not hesitate to recommend a TextBlade to anyone who spends a significant portion of their day on a keyboard.
  • Reply 7 of 1615
    I have had a several test units over the past few years. By now it has become the only keyboard I use. I have just written a book (which is in final editing) using only the TextBlade and an iPad and it’s by far the most comfortable and versatile keyboard I have ever owned. Don’t be fooled by its diminutive appearance and slightly ‘tech-toy’ looks: this is a professional, ergonomically brilliant and super portable keyboard all rolled into one tiny package.
  • Reply 8 of 1615
    DAalsethDAalseth Posts: 2,783member
    I've seen lots of "revolutionary" keyboards come and go. They all share one thing in common. Reviewers love them. A small subset of people use them and love them. Most people go back to the regular keyboard. If I ever get a chance to try this I might. But I sure as heck ain't shelling out ~$120 based on a video.
    However, a perhaps greater reason for the delay is down to technical issues such as Bluetooth. We've been shown circuit diagrams and we've had Bluetooth explained to us at length, but it boils down to how this standard is far more complex and far more unreliable than it appears.
    Boy that's the truth. Every rev of BT promises to be more stable and reliable. And every rev is still mediocre at best. I finally gave up on the Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse that came with my iMac and replaced them with a wired pair that hasn't missed a beat. My BT headphones and speaker work okay, but for keyboards and mice, I just have had no luck.
  • Reply 9 of 1615
    Having had a TextBlade for the past two years and posted videos of my own on YouTube, I can certainly assure that this is real. 

    TextBlade goes with me everywhere and I use it on every device. Such a better feel to typing than any other keyboard I’ve used. 

    TextBlade has a very low cognitive load for use. I have a consistent interface with all my devices and don’t have to remember shortcut differences between operating systems. TextBlade translates that all for me regardless of when I am on Windows or iOS or Android and others. 

    Mobile computing with items I keep in my pockets is now real for me. Travelling for work I don’t even have to take a bag. 

    The customisability is amazing. I can map any keystroke to any key. I can adjust the sensitivity to certain letters to my own needs. The built in layers are so intuitive to use my acclimation period was only a few days. 

    The community of TextBlade owners has been very supportive and even assisted WayTools to develop a pre-paired Bluetooth dongle to use with devices that may have USB but not native Bluetooth support. To the computer it looks like a USB keyboard but is actually Bluetooth!

    Very excited that many others are soon going to be able to experience this.
  • Reply 10 of 1615
    Must also be said that if anything ever goes wrong with TextBlade, WayTools’ response has been exemplary. 
    Very quick to get to root causes allowing me to get back to work with a minimal of fuss. 
  • Reply 11 of 1615
    They could ship a bluetooth version right now -  or months ago - but they weren't satisfied. Thus the effort to get Apple and Google to fix some things on their end as well as doing what they could to deal with it themselves. Also, it probably isn't fair to talk about bluetooth items shipping as if it's all the same thing. The TextBlade uses bluetooth low energy and from what I've seen, that is more problematic than other bluetooth. For example, I might be fine with my Apple or Logitech keyboards that use regular bluetooth, only to have issues with the TextBlade when I began testing. But also have the same problem show up with a Microsoft portable keyboard that also used BT-LE.

    Besides, there are other things besides bluetooth. Just because something is mentioned in more detail doesn't mean it is the only thing they feel they need to make better.

    It certainly isn't a toy and it is unlikely any but those most unwilling to take some time to adapt will throw it out in 10 minutes. If they do, hopefully they'll throw it my way! I think only one Treg member has reported not using it much. Might be a special use case where either the TextBlade isn't ideal or it could be he didn't take the time to adjust and customize it to better suit his needs. But lots of testers have reported ditching their other keyboards. I can see some not giving themselves time to adjust and I suspect that is one reason WayTools wants to minimize other possible issues so they don't add to the challenge.

    Sure, it is perfectly understandable to not order before it ships. Every time someone asks me about mine, I always tell them two basic things - that it is a great keyboard (best I've ever used) AND that it has been delayed since Spring of 2015 over and over again so it is their risk to decide whether to order (and get some extras thrown in for free) or wait.

    Since someone mentioned not wanting to pay $120 when it isn't shipping yet, I should point out that it is still $99 for pre-orders with the extra stuff. Most likely if the price goes up, it will be when it ships so those two go hand in hand.

    For William Gallagher, you mention you aren't nearly as fast with the TextBlade yet, but give no comparisons. That would be useful. For example, on a regular keyboard before the TextBlade, I could do about 55 wpm at 97% accuracy. For me, it took a few weeks, I think, to get past that (I did work hard at it and also didn't switch back and forth between keyboards). I presently run in the mid-60s at 98% or better.

    But since usually I'm typing things like this post, thinking about what I want to say as I type it, my speed is more like 45 wpm. So it wouldn't really matter if my test speed didn't match my old speed (though I'm happy it got better).

    Then there are the other advantages that can offset any temporary reduction in speed. Like how easy it is to edit, without reaching for the mouse. This greatly increases other areas of computer use that a typing test doesn't measure.

    Maybe the best point I can make is that even after a few days with the TextBlade, and while I was still awkward and couldn't type at my old speed, nor had gotten used to many of the extra advantages the TextBlade has, I still didn't want to go back to my old keyboard. It is just such a good typing feel, no stretching for keys, that it was still better to use.
  • Reply 12 of 1615
    The story fails to point out that this was not always a Tesla-like project in which you knew there would be an undetermined wait. 

    In the beginning, it was shipping in 2-3 weeks. Then six more weeks. Then next quarter. It was only after they got to be a year late that they created the idea that if you didn’t wait anymore, you could have your money back. 

    You also missed the best part of the story: the inane explanations of how they’re just days away from shipping only to put up a new post 90 days later that details the several hundred more minute challenges they overcame and they’re now just days away....repeat the loop ... repeat

    There's no getting around the fact that the first people in were lied to. 
  • Reply 13 of 1615

    The TextBlade is a truly transformational device.  I don’t mean this in a small way, in the sense that it is a remarkable and incredible innovation in the technology.  I mean this in a big way: TextBlade has the ability to transform how you interact with technology.   

    I ordered the TextBlade thinking it would be something to take with me to occasionally type on my phone, and was lucky enough to receive a test unit.  This is not just a small, elegant, portable keyboard.  It is a smart device in its own right, a small elegant gadget that you can use to communicate in a textual way with all of your other devices, and which miraculously folds into a compact thin unit that can go along with you everywhere.   

    The TextBlade knows intent.  There are key combinations (chords) that “mean” certain things, and it will send the proper characters to your device based on which operating system you are connected to.  After decades of constantly reaching out from my typing for a trackpad or mouse because of my refusal to learn arcane key combinations and shortcuts that are unique to each device I now gladly stay on my home keys while typing, editing, and commanding.   Want to page up, select a word or sentence, copy, paste, increase volume, change apps?  It’s the same whatever device you are on.  Want to have 3 or 4 devices on your desk — just hit a jump chord and work or respond on each device as you look at it.   Want to set up your own macros or keyboard mappings?  You can do that too, and the key mappings can be specific to each device you are jumping to in order for the intent to be the same on each device (or different, depending on your desires).

    When I think of the incredible power, and then look down and realize that I’m typing on a simple 8-key device rather than a 101+ key monstrosity, I feel like things are right with technology.  I look forward to a moment when this is widely available (and when all those I’ve shown it to during my encounters can finally get one too).

    edited April 2019 colinngStrangeDayswatto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 1615
    prokipprokip Posts: 178member
    OK,  Chris Taylor (1 Post ??), TokkiTheGreat (1 post ??), Gmadden (2 posts), Dabigkahuna (1 post ??), Mcmetzger (1 post ??), Idea2go_twitter (1post ??),

    I'm in !!.

    Where do I sign up ?

    But if you guys (and gals ?) are feeding me a line, a curse on the *&%&&*....  OK
  • Reply 15 of 1615
    A number of us with TREG units have not been active commenters on this site, but you can see our consistent activity on the WayTools forums. Said another way: these are just fake accounts created by one person to shill a product.

    The WayTools forum is at forumDOTwaytoolsDOTcom
  • Reply 16 of 1615
    mcmetzger said:
    It was only after they got to be a year late that they created the idea that if you didn’t wait anymore, you could have your money back. 

    Uh, I don't think so. Their deal was that you could even cancel 30 days after receiving it.
  • Reply 17 of 1615
    prokip said:
    But if you guys (and gals ?) are feeding me a line, a curse on the *&%&&*....  OK
    First, I suspect most of us only have one post for the same reason I did - I wasn't a regular appleinsider reader (thus not a poster) until the article came up which I and the others knew a lot about.

    Second, no one is feeding you a line. None of us can guarantee that it WILL ship (though we expect it will). None of us will tell you to preorder. We may point out the benefits of preordering AND the potential risks. For me, even though I'm risk adverse, this one item I did preorder back in 2015 because I thought it just might be great. I have never preordered anything else. But now that I have it, I will say it is great.

    That doesn't mean everyone will like it. Some may have special situations where it isn't the best choice. For example, if you want to be able to stop your car and type on your lap, it isn't going to work unless you put something flat and rigid under it. Which just happens to be how I type virtually 100% of the time. I never have it sitting on my desk when typing. It's always on my lap. OTOH, you could stick the TextBlade to a vertical surface if it is made of steel (because the TextBlade is magnetic).

    I think the group that may have the biggest issues are those who write code, because of the key combos to get oft-used symbols. But we have TREG members who code. I don't so I can't address it as much as I'd like. From what I've read from others, it may depend on what kind of coding. I also know some have worked out customized layouts to deal with the problems. YMMV.

    But even if coding is a problem, most people aren't coders.

    I have always felt the bigger "problem" is just getting people to give it the time and effort to adjust. There are multiple levels to this.

    First, just for alpha characters and basic punctuation that is all on the main layer, thus no special combos needed, they still have to adjust to the particular angle of the keys as well as the different reach. But the reach is EASIER! Still have to adjust to it. This is the kind of stuff you may have to do with any given regular keyboard.

    But the second thing is a bit more complicated as you access numbers and many symbols on the "green layer". This is where you hold down the space bar and hit the appropriate key. It's easy - certainly easier than the shift key once you get used to it because your thumb is typically right above the space bar anyway. It's also easy because you are no longer needing to reach for the symbols (or numbers). They are at or immediately above or below the home row. However, you still have to adapt to it and I have no doubt that some simply won't make even a minimal effort.

    Third, there is user error - which the ordinary user may blame on the TextBlade. When you hit the wrong key on a regular keyboard, it is generally very obvious. But with multiple characters (3-6) on one key cap, it is naturally less obvious and people will tend to think they did it right even when they didn't.

    To give you an idea of how this can go, in early testing, sometimes I'd get the wrong character. Now, sometimes it was the TextBlade's fault (those problems have been solved), but there were times I get an error thinking I was right, but catch myself right when the error occurred. I then, without looking down, moved my finger closer to the part of the key for the character I wanted (just in case I was out of position). I'd still get the wrong character! So I'd do it again, with the same result. And then again - so 3 times with the same error, even though I had moved in the right direction. Surely the TextBlade messed up! Nope. I'd look down where my finger was and, surprise, it would still, even after those adjustments, be solidly on the wrong character! I suspect some people wouldn't realize they goofed and get frustrated early on.

    These things are unavoidable so I figure WayTools wants to minimize any possible issues they can control at a pretty high level (though not perfection).

    I could tell within one day, in spite of the significantly greater issues early on than now, that I didn't want to use any other keyboard. No, I couldn't type on it as well instantly, but things were just easier that it wasn't hard to see the benefits. Speed was "good enough" in short order and was back at full speed within 3 weeks. And now, while I could touch type before, that didn't include numbers and symbols - too far away for me to do without looking and I didn't need them enough to practice them. But I easily do them with the TextBlade.

    There are a lot of things the Treg members will be able to help newbies with when it does ship, because we've gone through them ourselves and have learned how various customization options (not just basic keyboard layouts) can help.
  • Reply 18 of 1615
    colinngcolinng Posts: 116member
    neilm said:
    Fascinating vaporware, but pretty much vaporware nonetheless.
    It's not vaporware. I'm typing on one right now. It is amazing, but the firmware is *very* difficult to perfect, because the TextBlade does so much. 
  • Reply 19 of 1615
    colinngcolinng Posts: 116member
    Four years and they can’t deliver because of Bluetooth implementation? 
    John Gruber of Daring Fireball says it best“Next year it will work great” should be the motto of Bluetooth. 

    Early on in the testing process, fellow testers and myself encountered bugs in *every* vendors' implementation of Bluetooth Low Energy. I reproduced a crasher in Apple's BLE stack. There's lots of non-trivial aspects to doing a Bluetooth keyboard correctly. 
    Not sure I can buy into that explanation. During those four years there have been countless products released using that technology, so I don’t see how that can the the obstacle.
    For sure, there's a lot of crap shipping out there. All Apple had to do to take the crown for the wireless earphone market, was make the very first pair of wireless earphones that was *reliable* and wouldn't cut out and disconnect at random times, and would pair up and work immediately without having to power cycle, reset the earphones, reset the phone, etc. Sounds easy? Only Apple was able to do it. And they had to make their own W1 silicon to launch AirPods. 
    I was ready to order one while reading this article and watching its video, but when I got to the part of the “reason” for the delay, I figured I’d better wait until they release it.
    There's no pressure at all, and if you need the $99 now, you can wait until it has shipped. But then you'll have to fight for availability. The keyboard is that good. 
  • Reply 20 of 1615
    mimsmims Posts: 24member
    I am extremely disappointed in this article - primarily because it doesn't provide an honest look at how WayTools has handled its pre-orders. I saw an article in January 2015 about the TextBlade, and I ordered it. At the time, the release date was end of February 2015. For the next couple years, WayTools would quietly change the shipping date by a month. Then, they started changing it by a quarter. Each time, it looked like launch was imminent. Even their blog posts are about getting the TextBlade into everyone's hands. Sure, there are TREGs. I was one of the first to order, and I have hardware beta testing experience. The day they announced TREG, I signed up. Instead, they seem to choose outspoken people on their forums in hopes to string the rest of us along. That's not a slight against the TREG people. Most seem to really enjoy the product. What it does show is a company that wants to string along a purchase base. So, they are going with the Tesla model? It would have been helpful to tell those ordering the device that they are going to wait 4+ years. Also, they are not emailing their customers. I have received exactly one email about my order - the one confirming my order and that my credit card had been charged. The only other times I hear from them is when I send an email asking about an order. According to FCC rules, they are required to contact customers when delays exceed 30 days to confirm that they customers still wants the product. They have not done that. They do, however, allow you to get your money back at any time. Eventually I did (after 4 years and 3 months) WayTools is not a company that you want to do business with. If they eventually ship the product, buy it from Amazon. AppleInsider, this is your opportunity to be a voice for "millions?" who are being scammed. I have filed a complaint with the FCC, and I have heard rumblings that there is talk of a class action lawsuit.
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