KB Large Type Keyboard Cover

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Backlit, schmacklit.

The Long Version: When I first considered my 11" MacBook Air, the one thing that stood out as a significant omission was the lack of a backlit keyboard. The standard keyboard simply isn't particularly visible in low-light. Apple happened to agree, and has come out with a new backlit model, but upgrading doesn't make much sense when there's the Large Type Keyboard Cover in the world. It's made by the aptly named KB Covers, which suggests a certain expertise in this kind of thing. I ordered mine directly from them, and it shipped promptly in full retail packaging.

The cover is a thin silicone overlay that fits the 11" non-backlit Air keyboard. The newer backlit Air has a very slightly different layout, so make sure you pick the right one; naturally other models are available. It fits over the existing keys well, but the shallow 'chiclet' keyboard design means that there's not that much for the cover to hold on to. Turning the open laptop up-side-down will make the keyboard cover fall off, so don't do that.

As for function, the thin material adds just a hint of springyness to the keyboard action. It does change the feel as well, being slightly gripper than the plastic keys. It's not objectionable, just different – in a few days it becomes second nature. The biggest difference is actually to the sound from the laptop, since the Air's speakers play from beneath the keyboard. The form-fitting silicone sheet naturally doesn't do it any favours, both muting and muffling the sound, but really the Air isn't exactly an acoustical powerhouse in the first place. Web videos that might have been intelligible will now need headphones, but that's always been the case for music.

The large type cover is awesome; it's hard to look at it for the first time and not laugh. I have to admit that the really big letters did freak me out for a while – I don't touch-type, but can hunt-and-peck with only the occasional glances at the keyboard. I'd catch these big bright letters in the corner of my vision and startle myself with them. Since then I suspect that my typing speed has actually improved; going to the non-siliconed keyboard on my iMac feels odd and I make a lot more mistakes than usual.

In the interest of proper product testing I had some cookies. The ones that I buy from the sandwich shop are usually a little greasy, and I can always tell which keys are my favourite when I eat them while typing. (Yes, even with prompt use of a serviette.) I'm pleased to say that the keyboard cover actually didn't show any grease marks from the experience, so it not only protects but it also conceals.

The letters are bold and take up nearly the entire key, but with a good balance of black to provide a high-contrast field. The command keys in particular benefit from the large type cover, as they add the symbol that's used in the menus for the prevalent keyboard shortcuts. It's a neat trick to make the original marking larger as well as adding additional and useful information. Apple should be a little embarrassed that someone else's washable accessory does it better.

There are a couple of other nice touches on the keyboard cover. One is that there's a clear window for the light on the caps lock key to shine through, so that indicator is retained. Another is that the button markings on the up and down cursor buttons are drawn as properly spaced keys that are the same size as the left and right arrows, even though the keys themselves are oversized and sloped on the keyboard below. The fit remains perfect, but by not blacking out the space in between they become visually distinct and easier to use. Finally, for the touch-typists out there, the KB Cover makes the landmarks on the "F" and "J" keys even more prominent than on the original keyboard.

Nobody ever got fired for choosing Helvetica. It's a classic font that's familiar and easy to interpret, and a Mac-appropriate choice since PCs use an ugly cut-rate knockoff font to keep the price of their Windows operating system down. It also has the advantage of square letters that fit the keys very well. But there are other typefaces that are specifically designed for increased legibility for people with low vision, and others designed for signage or screens and other challenging conditions. Still, I suppose if something is going to be so visually bold then it's more acceptable if it's conservative. If KB had chosen Monaco or Comic Sans then I just wouldn't have been able to buy it, and that would have been a pity.

last updated 17 oct 2011


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