I think the tablet market is such an interesting one—and it has come so far since Apple really got people interested back in 2010. Back then, the idea was that this market for a device that wasn’t a phone, but also wasn’t a computer, was an entirely new one and seemingly distinct from either of the former. But, as we’ve seen in recent years, the latest push is to unify our devices, and maybe most specifically our laptops and tablets into a single device that can play in both worlds. And I think this is a noble endeavor, if for no other reason than it gives us one fewer device, one fewer charging brick and cable, and all-in-all slightly less bulk to haul around.
Of course, for the gadget nuts out there, one less device isn’t always appealing. And while I fit into that camp in most cases, I also am not particularly fond of the idea of the “unitasker,” a device that only meets one need. Take graphing calculators, for instance—we can do so much better on our smart phones or iPods, yet some high schools still require the purchase. Consider also eReaders (the devices, not the apps)…they are at their core designed for one thing and one thing only—which makes them at their core the true “extra bulk” that we are trying to shave off as we look to unify our devices.
But back to tablets. I liked the idea of a device that is distinct from my phone and my laptop, and I still do—provided that the communication between those 3 devices was easily achieved. Regardless, history is history and now the likes of the Surface Pro, the iPad Pro, the Samsung Galaxy Book—all work to convince us that we can leave our laptop behind for a single device approach to our daily tasks. And in order to accomplish that goal, we need good, solid keyboards that attach to these devices to make it worthwhile—since the primary input device for any tablet (aside from touchscreen) in “laptop mode” is going to be the keyboard (and touchpad, if available). And, how you use that device—dealing with all of its benefits and shortcomings—has a big impact on your decision about whether or not that device is a good laptop replacement for you.
It’s ironic: leaving behind our archaic laptop, with its archaic design, we pick up a tablet (powerful as it may be), then try to force it into our daily lives by adapting its form factor to the thing that we ultimately left behind because it was archaic. And yes, I’m sure some of you are yelling at your screen right now indicating that laptops aren’t tablets, can’t be used in true tablet fashion (even the 2-in-1 models), yadda yadda. I get it. But I think you see where I’m coming from.
Leaving behind the irony of the thing, suppose you want to turn your Surface Pro 3 or 4 into a laptop again, but the likes of Microsoft’s specially designed keyboards isn’t meeting your needs. There are plenty of options out there, but as far as this review is concerned, we will take a deeper dive into the Brydge 12.3 Wireless Keyboard for the Surface Pro 3.
I want to get right into the product experience: for starters, a brief couple of comments about the unboxing. The packaging was simple, elegant and light; the box opens with a small magnetic closure and the keyboard is inside at very easy access. At first glance—everything about this product screams “premium.”
The device came to me with no charge—but after a short time connected to a USB charger using the provided Micro-USB cable, all was right again in the world and I was ready to get started with pairing and attaching it to my SP3. The pairing process was smooth and simple, a standard 6-digit entry code provided by my Surface and we were off to the races. The physical connection, though, was a bit more involved.
The Byrdge 12.3 uses a pair of independently hinged channels that hug (very snugly) the edge of the Surface. Out of the box, the keyboard comes with extra-thick rubber padding installed on the channels to accommodate the thinner body of the SP4—but included in the box is an alternate pair of rubber pads that can be swapped out with the pre-installed ones. It took a little bit of concentration to ensure the pads were properly seated—but once installed I was able to slide my Surface right into the channels and start it up. Annoyingly—upon startup, there was a small light-bleed effect on the edge of the screen near where the channels were obviously pinching too tight on the device. Now, I’ll admit, the dbrand skin installed on the back of my Surface could have impacted the thickness of the whole device in a way to cause said pinching—but I had to manually “stretch” the channels to accommodate a little more thickness while preventing the light-bleed effect. A minor setback, and one that you only have to tolerate once—but still it would be nice if the included feet accounted for an appropriately sized device. dbrand skins are pretty thin so I wouldn’t think that the change would be that impactful.
A few more comments about form factor. If you’re a Surface user, you know these things aren’t all that light—I mean sure, they’re compact and easy to carry in a bag, but turning it into a true laptop would require a base that offsets the weight of the “screen” component, in order to prevent tipping when using the touchscreen. And, in order to do that effectively, the weight of the base (if it occupies the same overall footprint) would have to be slightly greater than the weight of the Surface without it. The net effect here is a doubling of your current device’s weight, which is something to consider if you already carry around a bunch of stuff. I’d guess that the hinge design of the channels that hold the Surface is partly to credit for the execution of a base that isn’t overtly heavy—pushing some of the weight shift to the bottom of the keyboard, and raising the back level slightly in order for a minimally more ergonomic feel. It’s a very nice design overall, albeit a bit of a heavy one.
And finally, to cover the hinge itself—from a durability standpoint I have no immediate concerns, as it seems these hinges are strong enough to take some abuse from opening/closing frequently and also capturing additional impacts from using the touch screen while in this “laptop” form factor. I think it’s an interesting design choice to make the hinges independent from one another—which may or may not be a decision around durability. In either case, the hinge is solid-feeling and while opening the “laptop” requires two hands, very few manufacturers have mastered that to begin with.
On to the feel of the keyboard and the corresponding trackpad. In general I like the “clackiness” of the keys, in their chiclet style, and the spacing is perfect for my hands. One of the biggest downfalls to tablet keyboards is often in the size arena, and I’m happy to report that this keyboard has good key spacing, enough to make it comfortable for long periods of typing (writing reviews, perhaps…). I will admit, during my initial use I was a bit turned off from the keyboard because of how hard I found I had to press on the keys—but this is largely in part due to regularly using and typing on the new MacBook Pro keyboards with the second-gen butterfly hinges. The Brydge 12.3 is certainly not in the same category, but key travel is still reasonable and comfortable once you spend some time with it.
The keyboard is also a backlit one, with 3 levels of backlighting based upon your needs. Personally, I’m not a huge backlit keyboard fan in general, but I understand the appeal and the importance of providing the option—so kudos to Brydge for that. Otherwise, the key set is relatively standard, with function keys that double as multimedia keys—an option that can be toggled with a function-lock shortcut.
The trackpad seems to be glass and is extremely responsive and sensitive to the touch. I’ve been jaded over the years by the amazing trackpads that Apple puts out on its laptops—and I find this one a suitable competitor, if only a bit on the small side. It’s still totally usable, and the Windows 10 gestures are fully functional as well. And while I know this is totally a matter of personal preference, I really don’t like trackpads that have a physical click. I understand that there are certain things, like click-drag and drop, that are very hard to do without a physical click, but it’s just not my style. The physical click on this trackpad is one you really have to work for, and it seems that the right side of the trackpad is devoted to a right-click when physically pressed, although not with 100% accuracy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t; it’s probably just a matter of getting used to it. But, all the negative aside—it is a very good trackpad that requires very little adjustment to make it truly great.
So in general, the input experience—both with the keyboard and the trackpad—is very good. The build quality is good, the keys are responsive and clacky with the right amount of travel. But what about the “laptop” experience? Too often, add-on keyboards for tablets make for a not-so-great design that sits awkward in the lap, if it even can. Take for instance the Surface Type covers—or the Surface Pro in general—it is just not ideal for use in your lap. The same can be said for the iPad Pro keyboard covers which make for an acceptable, certainly not ideal, lap experience; and in general, if you don’t have a table or desk to work on, it’s not a great time.
The same cannot be said for the Brydge 12.3, at least not initially. Due to the keyboard’s heft, it makes lap use reasonably comfortable. The size of the keyboard makes it usable for someone with larger legs (if that sentence doesn’t make sense to you—move on; the people who understand will appreciate the sentiment). On the surface (**wink**), it’s a relatively good experience. Where that experience starts to break down, though, is on extended use: the hinged channels protrude downward from the bottom of the keyboard, which has two results: First, on a flat surface, it slightly raises the back of the keyboard for a more ergonomic experience (mentioned that before); but second, during lap use, the protrusion digs into your legs a little bit and can get uncomfortable over time. This is easily remedied with a binder under the device during lap use, or if you want to get one of those fancy lap-boards, or if you’re like me you can use your MacBook Pro. It’s also worth mentioning that, since the computer component of the laptop is all in the screen, there is zero temperature impact to your legs while using this on your lap, something that can’t be said for most laptops.
The only other complaint—and I’m fishing here—is the inclusion of two rubber feet on the top of the keyboard surface, in the lower left and right corners, that serve as a cushion for the Surface’s screen when the device is in the closed position. It’s a minor thing, but recognizing that including them is more good than bad, sometimes when typing your wrists slide across the feet and can be a little bit uncomfortable. Again, not a huge deal, but still worth mentioning.
Based upon my recent experience with just how good a machine the Surface Pro 3 is, even a few years old, even refurbished, I think the ideal user is someone who already has one of these tablets that really wants that true laptop experience. No, when closed it doesn’t sit completely flat—but it does a good enough job transforming your tablet into a laptop screen.
And as I’ve mentioned, Microsoft’s Type Covers don’t always help you in all scenarios—specifically, during lap use. They are a little bit cheaper than the Brydge 12.3, but not enough to justify the loss in adaptability. And from a durability perspective, I wouldn’t expect them to outlast Brydge’s product. Other than that, there aren’t a ton of competitors that offer a similar product. Brydge also offers an upgraded model with an SSD, which you can consider if you went after the base model Surface like I did.
If you already have a keyboard for your surface, and you’re relatively satisfied with it—this may not be the route you go for now. At the price point it delivers, and you might consider it to upgrade it and give it a new look—or even to provide some additional performance while on a business trip, or any other time you’d lean more toward long stretches of keyboard or mouse use with your Surface.
If you’re in the market for a tablet and have limited funds—I’d encourage you again to see my previous review on the refurb SP3 unit and consider that as an entry-level option; adding the Brydge 12.3 keeps your investment under $500, and the addition of a Surface Pen truly becomes an option at that point.
As a reminder—the Brydge 12.3 is only meant for Surface Pro 3 or Surface Pro 4 tablets—so don’t think you’re going to pick one up for your iPad. That said, Brydge has some other keyboard products that you may want to consider; if the build is anything like the 12.3 I think you’ll be pleased. And, remember that there is a fair bit of bulk that comes with this keyboard, especially when paired with your Surface; if ultimate portability is your goal you may consider passing this or having it as an accessory to be used on a limited basis.
Overall, the best indicator of a great Bluetooth keyboard, for any tablet—is whether or not you realize, after some use, that it is a Bluetooth keyboard, and not something that instead belongs with the device to which you’ve paired it. Throughout the course of testing this and writing this review, I on multiple occasions found myself surprised at how seamlessly the two devices (my Surface and the Brydge 12.3) go together. The Brydge 12.3 is a great complement to the existing Surface design, and offers a good alternative to those who want a great tablet—but also a great keyboard that gives you a full laptop experience. There are few devices that I’ve reviewed that I like this much…which is a testament to the product that Brydge has put together.