ClamCase Pro vs. Zagg Folio Keyboard for iPad Air

My iPad goes with me everywhere (well, almost everywhere.) But I often found myself dragging along my MacBook Air as well, because I couldn’t do any writing on the on-screen keyboard. Email or texting, sure, but not real writing.

I’d seen lots of the keyboard solutions out there, primarily the latch on covers that come off and provide a built in stand for your tablet. I’m thinking of the Logitech and Zagg covers, here. Those are great if you’re going to type on a desk or table, but not a lap solution, which, honestly, is where a shocking amount of my typing occurs.

Then I found the Zagg Folio Keyboard and the ClamCase Pro Keyboard. I ended up having access to both keyboards and spent quite a bit of time with them.


Zagg Folio Keyboard

Zagg Folio Keyboard

Both solutions have you snap your iPad into a protective case that is attached to the keyboard itself by a hinge. With the iPad in place, the experience is a LOT like having an iPad laptop. Opening the iPad case uses the same tech trick as the smart cover to automatically turn on your ipad (or put it to sleep when you close it.) Both cases give you full access to the charging port and the power, volume and lock buttons. The build quality of both cases is excellent, although the ClamCase is significantly sturdier.

Both keyboards connect via Bluetooth and syncing them was very easy. They also have a micro USB port for charging. The batteries in both keyboards are good enough that I’m not really sure how long they last, but the respective packaging claims a month or more. I believe it.

One downside to both keyboard cases, though, is the snap it design makes extracting your tablet for keyboard free use a bit of a pain. With the Zagg, I’m a bit fearful that one of these types I’m going to crack the plastic case because of the way it full wraps the edges of the iPad. The Zagg design is slightly different, giving you a better purchase on the case/iPad for removal. But the difference is negligible.


ClamCase Pro

ClamCase Pro

As similar as the two keyboard cases are in concept, the differences are pretty dramatic. The most obvious difference is price – $100 for the Zagg, $160 for the ClamCase Pro. Realistically, however, you can get either case for about $20 less by doing a little comparison shopping for the Zagg or hunting down discount codes for the ClamCase.

The Zagg’s best feature is the backlit keyboard. You can cycle through a number of brightness levels, or simply turn it off. I type a lot and night and absolutely love this feature. They keyboard layout is pretty good, although not quite standard. The keys themselves are fairly firm, but not at all like typing on a real laptop keyboard. Also, there is about an inch of headroom above the keyboard, giving you less palm area below. The hinge on the Zagg Folio Keyboard opens to what looks like about 120 degrees, which gives you reasonably good viewing options. I always feel like I’m going to break the hinge when I open it, because it requires a good amount of pressure, but the hinge actually seems to be very sturdy.

The ClamCase’s best feature is it’s hinge, which opens up a full 360 degrees, allowing you to turn it into a tablet, or place it keyboard down for a better movie view. The second best feature is the keyboard itself. The Zagg is all plastic, case and keyboard. The ClamCase Pro has an aluminum keyboard body that is a spiritual cousin to a MacBook body. The keys also feel great, with enough travel to give you good responsiveness while you type. My WPM on the ClamCase was probably about 80% of what I can do on my MacBook Air, compared to maybe 60% on the Zagg. I’d liken the keyboard to an average PC laptop. Also, the keys begin at the top of the case (again, like a laptop) giving you plenty of palm room. But no backlighting, which really saddens me.

Both keyboard cases are excellent buys – You really can’t go wrong with either of them. The Zagg costs less and has backlit keys. The ClamCase costs more, but buys you the very sturdy build quality, an excellent keyboard, and a lot more case versatility. My advice is get the Zagg if you’re primarily planning to use the keyboard for light typing and/or at night. If you want to use your iPad as a true writing tool, invest in the ClamCase Pro, it’s the closest to a laptop feeling and you are definitely getting your money’s worth. For what it’s worthy, the one that earned a permanent place on my iPad was the ClamCase Pro.

Military Simulations at I/ITSEC

I just spent the last several days at a training and simulation conference where companies try to sell (mostly) the military a variety of things to help them train their soldiers. It was the first time I’d ever been to an event like this and, to be honest, I was pretty blown away.

The types of training equipment ranges from simulators that replicate full aircraft cockpits and injured bodies to software that teaches fire fighting techniques and detail accurate “dummy” weapons and mines made of plastic.

By far, the coolest stuff was the physical simulators, many of which cost as much as 1.5 million each.Here you have a few of the medical mannequins with simulated wounds. They look a bit like the NPCs from a Call of Duty game.This is a hang gliding simulator for cowards like me. It even has little fans to blow wind in your face.Climb into this Mork from Ork like egg device and you find yourself in a fully immersive cocoon of flight simulating awesomeness.This was one of the most clever environmental units. A projector inside this “cone of silence” like enclosure is pointed at a mirror in the back, which then reflects the image into the enclosure itself. It works really well and is one of the cheapest systems I saw at just $15k-ish.Not every simulator was a flight one. This rig is all set up for training ground based vehicles. Next time I play Halo, I want one of these for manning a Warthog.Some of these simulators were truly MASSIVE in size, like this one. I don’t know what plane it was simulating, but it was easily the size of 747 cockpit.The Flyte simulator was my favorite. It looks a bit like one giant half of a capsule. The inside of the capsule is the “screen” and it extends above, below AND around you completely filling your vision. Behind the pilot are SIX projectors that fill the space with the environment around you. If I were Bill Gates rich I would have this in my fun room.Not everything was a simulator though. This company basically made a military grade version of laser tag. There were quite a few products like that.

One booth was demonstrating a special attachment for real weapons. It prevents them from firing real bullets, but you’re still holding a real automatic pistol that ejects it’s brass, just like a real weapon would. It’s a close quarters training tool. They demonstrated it by having a role player accost you in a scenario. The encounter eventually escalates to the point that he or you is going to shoot. They let me try it out. He got the draw on me, but I managed to fire off several shots as well. If they were real bullets, we’d both be pushing daisies. The tech makes the ethical decision of when to shoot very real in an otherwise contrived encounter. It was both fun and kind of scary. I’m not really a gun person, to be honest. I don’t really buy into the idea that people need lots of guns for self protection, and I really don’t think peope should be able to open or concealed carry weapons in residential or city areas. My role playing scenario challenged those ideas a bit, although didn’t ultimately change them. In light of all the police shootings we’ve experienced recently, I almost wonder if an experience like this could help both law enforcement and civilians better understand the other party’s experience. There were a lot of other pretty amazing bits of tech. Machine gun and bazooka simulators. More Occulus Rifts than you can shake a hobbit at. A system that enabled you to WALK around in VR. With your feet. That was pretty cool.
It was, to say the least, an interesting few days. I walked away with a new perspective on both the government and the military. In some ways, it raised my regard for how we train our military and civil law enforcement members. It also sort of depressed me a bit that we go to such extreme lengths, and spend SO much money preparing for things that probably won’t happen, while spening little to fix things that are happening today (children without food, overcrowded schools, crumbling infrastructure.) But on the way out the door, this little crab shuffled up to me, gave me a look, jumped in fright, then skittered off. It was pretty funny. Life is funny.

Story plotting and writing poetry with Microsoft Excel

Microsoft Excel is not the first app you would associate with creative writing, but it has become my go to app for thinking through story structure, composing poetry, and doing story outlining.

This is how it started. I was working on a proposal that had four major characters, most of whom were not in the same place at the same time, and all four stories were progressing simultaneously. I needed a way to track everything that was happening with each major character, on or off the page, and I wanted to be able to visualize each character’s story in connection to the other stories. Even that sentence is complex. I tried every software tool I could think of, from timeline apps like Beedocs Timeline 3D to cork board apps, but none of them was quite what I needed. By accident, I was staring at a spreadsheet at work, with several columns of data, and I was struck by the notion that my plot points were just data.
That night, I took all my notes and plugged them into Excel and it was like someone just took blinders off my eyes. I could visualize my story from start to finish AND I could cut across story lines at any point in my story. I very quickly saw where I had gaps, where timing didn’t line up quite right, and even where best to switch from one character to the next to advance the story. It was like magic. The more I fiddled around with Excel, the more revealing it was. I was able to block off areas by day, or color code which scenes I wanted to include in the actual story.

That project ended up not being greenlit, but when I started work on my sequel to Elvis Sightings, I used Excel both to plot it out and write the treatment. In my story, there are several mysteries being investigated simultaneously, so with three columns in my spreadsheet, I could visualize which mystery was getting too much time, or needed to be re-sequenced to work better narratively. When it came to write the treatment, I used each row as a beat in a scene, then used formatting to delineate rows into scenes, chapters and days. I sent the combination of plot outline and treatment to my editor, and she was able to make beat by beat notes in a second column. When I rewrote my treatment, I was able to keep the original in one column, the notes in a second, and my changes in a third. I could see exactly how my story was evolving.

Excel Poetry

From a forthcoming Zombie poetry project

But what about poetry, you say? How could a spreadsheet help with something so artistic? Well, I was working on some poetry where I needed to think in syllables and rhyme pattern. I color coded each line for the a-b-b-a-c rhyming sequence. Then as I wrote, I used each cell as a syllable. It took a while for my brain to stop trying to write a few letters at a time before hitting the tab key, but once I got used to it, I was able to very quickly figure out the right words to fit my syllable counts. I’d start with the words I wanted to try to rhyme, plug them in at the end of each line, then work backwards in syllables to the start of each line. It worked really, really well, and it’s not something I could have easily done in a traditional writing app like Byword (which I’m using now and  love, btw.)

It’s totally counter intuitive, but every writer I’ve discussed this with who’s tried it has been  pleasantly surprised how useful a spreadsheet can be. Obviously, you don’t have to use Excel – any spreadsheet app will do. If you find yourself trying to figure out  some complex plotting or want to try your hand at sonnet, give this technique a try then tell me how you used it. I’d love to hear other creative ways to employ a spreadsheet.

Scrivener and the iPad

Scrivener on Mac

Scrivener on Mac

Like a lot of writers, Scrivener is my go to app for writing. There simply is no better way to write and manage a long project like a novel. Unlike traditional text editors like Word or Pages, Scrivener is a binder of individual text documents. The way I use it, each scene in a chapter is a unique file. It’s an approach I first encountered back with the first version of Ulysses, which is now in it’s third version, but was perfected (for me at least) by Scrivener. Although I have to admit I haven’t played with Ulysses III yet. But the problem with Scrivener is that I have been waiting for YEARS for an iPad version of the app. “It’s coming,” they say, and I believe them, but I have a novel to write, right now.

For the sequel to Elvis Sightings, I considered switching to Storyist. It has a Mac and iPad version that can sync files back and forth to each other, so it makes cross platform writing pretty easy. I played with the Mac version of the software, and while it approximates maybe 70% of the writing experience of Scrivener, that missing 30% was too much for me, so I was back to no iPad solution. Sort of.


Scrivener’s Sync Options

Since Scrivener 2.0 was released, it’s had the ability to sync with Simplenote, a plain text editor that works across platforms and is free, thanks to the people at Automatic, the same people who create the software this site runs on. The sync process is pretty easy, but because Scrivener has this funky file format, what you get in Simplenote is a jumble of files with messed up names – and you have to ingest the whole Scrivener project which could be hundreds of files in my case, making using the app for anything else pretty painful.

Scrivener also has the ability to sync it’s text files to an external folder. Another long time feature. I’d been resisting it until now, but once I finally used it, I discovered it wasn’t nearly as awful as using Simplenote, even if it wasn’t as clean as I’d like. The way it works, you pick an external folder in your Dropbox, and Scrivener dumps all your designated text files into the folder. You can then use a Dropbox text editor, like Byword or iA Writer, to open the files on your iPad. Much cleaner than using Simplenote, as you only open the specific file you want to work on.

Byword writing app on Mac

Byword writing app on Mac

Both Byword and Writer have iPad/Mac native apps. I ultimately ended up choosing Byword for my iPad writing app. The two apps are pretty similar, but I liked the way Byword does file management and I was interested in Byword’s ability to publish to WordPress. It’s an extra fee, but I’d been looking for a better blog writing environment than the somewhat buggy WordPress app and the web interface. The feature is somewhat spartan at the moment, but it’s a good way to get a draft onto the server, that you can finish up using the native interface.

I’m late to the party in discussing how to move Scrivener projects to the iPad and back, but the upside for me is this process is already pretty well baked and bug free. My recommendation if you want to write on iPad and Mac, and be able to use Scrivener, is to use Byword via Dropbox. It’s not perfect, but it will do until the iPad version of Scrivener comes out.