(Retro) Review: Microsoft Universal Foldable Keyboard

Now this is embarrassing. I've bought and sold and then rebought the same accessory two or three times. And it's this one, from Microsoft, designed originally around the time of Lumia's, so 2012 ish, but with a view to working across all three(!) mobile platforms (now only two, of course).

Bluetooth keyboards have gone into and out of fashion over the years, but they're definitely still relevant, thanks to the use of tablets and 'phablet'-style large-screened smartphones, where a wireless full size keyboard can turn the device into a mini-laptop. Microsoft's offering is still ultra-premium, has a few unique features and is worth looking out for, not least having full size keys and yet folding to pocket size without needing hinges and any moving parts. (Well, so there must be a ribbon cable of some kind embedded in the tough textured body, but that's about it...)

I'm aware that revisiting this accessory so long after first release means that availability 'new' isn't guaranteed. But whenever I've looked on the usual places (eBay, Amazon) there have almost always been units for sale. My latest one was brand new and cost around £50 in the UK.

The key thing to be aware of (pun intended) is that the keys are split into two distinct halves. Some other folding keyboards try to mesh the halves together mechanically, but here things are kept simple and - as a result - hopefully robust, with almost nothing to break.

Arriving in a premium box, with magnetic flap opening, a sticker pronounces that this is the UK version - one of the banes of the keyboard designer's life is, of course, all the different character sets and layouts in each country around the world.

Happily there's not much to do in light of getting started, exemplified by a few diagrams inside the box's cover. There's a paper booklet underneath, but it's full of legal small print and no use whatsoever day to day.

The Universal Foldable Keyboard itself is constructed from a fold of heavy duty material, which is nicely textured and smells like leather, though I'm no expert here - the blurb on the Microsoft web site does emphasise that it's water-repellent, as indeed are the key mechanisms, so an accidental beer spill may not be the end of the world. The edges are very strong and formed sharply, making for a good grip and protecting the edges of the main material. The sole port is microUSB in, for charging, at the top right of the keyboard. Reflecting the design's age - no USB Type C here, but a microUSB cable comes in the box so you don't have to raid your drawers.

Battery life isn't quoted anywhere, but from my tests it's in the region of eight hours of use on a charge, which should be more than enough for anyone, plus it's trivial to recharge it (though with no external charging light, you have to open the keyboard up to actually see a flashing LED).

Opened out for use, the premium feel continues, with well made keys arranged in two panels, as shown. Key travel is only a couple of millimetres, but the feel is terrific, akin to that on a MacBook or high end Surface Pro. As you'd expect for the original selling price of £100, a number which is thankfully irrelevant in 2022.

In addition to the usual alphanumeric and control keys, there's a 'Home' key, plus volume and media controls, lock and search controls. These work with all modern (read Bluetooth 4 and above-compatible) operating systems and add to the 'laptop' feel when using this with a tablet or large-screened phone.

Also present, top right, is an OS selector, intended to kick in the appropriate minor compatibility settings for Windows, Android and iOS - mainly for the 'Home' and 'Search' keys. Happily this is backlit, so you can see at a glance what's currently selected. You'd have thought that modern accessories would be smart enough to detect the device being connected to and adjust automatically, but not in this case, you still have to select the OS settings needed if you want to use all the keys.

Connection is done by long pressing one of the two Bluetooth buttons, top left. The Universal Foldable Keyboard can handle pairings to two separate devices (e.g. an iPad and an Android phone), potentially of different OS/type, and then you can toggle between them by pressing the appropriate button. In my most recent testing I had an iPhone 14 Pro Max and Surface Duo 2 both connected at once, switching between them at will.

And so to the split layout. It's... quirky, to say the least. Touch typists may be OK, since the keys relative to each hands start position are familiar. I'm not quite 'there' yet and do tend to look at the keyboard while typing with up to six fingers - hey, it works for me. Looking at the Universal Foldable Keyboard is obviously a good idea, since the keys aren't quite where they are usually on a static, continuous keyboard.

Although I hated it at first, back in 2015 (partly explaining why I kept selling it - and then rebuying!), I've grown to live with it and accept the layout as a quirk that's acceptable in order to gain all the other benefits of the design.

PS. There are dozens of folding designs (e.g. look on your local eBay or Amazon site) that end up with a contiguous key layout, but they're of either lower quality or dubious longevity - or both. I really should buckle down and do a group test of some kind!

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