One thing I love about 9to5Mac readers is how engaged they are in the comments. My review of the ClamCase Pro iPad keyboard case last month led to a lively discussion about the relative merits of that vs the Brydge keyboard, so I decided to give that a try for a retrospective shoot-out.

The Brydge Air is a slightly different beast to the ClamCase, being just a keyboard and not a full case. It still hinges shut in a laptop-like clamshell fashion, but there’s no rear protection on this one. That, as we’ll see, has both pros and cons … 

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Looks & portability

Looks are, let’s be honest, important. You don’t spend this kind of money on an iPad keyboard just to get decent typing performance: there are plenty of cheaper options for that.

The Brydge Air has a unibody aluminum construction–there’s no plastic at all, unless you count the rubber shims used to adjust the hinges that grip the iPad. You get two sets of these, one for the iPad Air, the other for the iPad Air 2–I have the latter.

The Brydge also gives you a choice of colors: silver, space gray or gold. Despite the fact that I have a Space Gray iPad, I prefer a classic plain aluminum look for keyboards, so opted for silver.

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The Brydge thus wins the first round. Where the ClamCase has plastic on the outer casing, and also in the keyboard inset, the Brydge is all-metal. From the typing position, it looks gorgeous, and has a real feel of quality to it.

The difference in appearance in the keyboard itself is pretty minimal. Here you can see my 11-inch MacBook Air on the left, Brydge in the center, and ClamCase on the right. The plastic inset on the ClamCase doesn’t stand out that much.

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The other plus point of the Brydge is footprint. The angle of the photo doesn’t show it, but to be completely fair I aligned the rear edge of the ClamCase with the hinges of the Brydge to show the difference in size. You can see that the lack of any casing makes the Brydge a little narrower and noticeably less deep.

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However, I have to say the rear/underside view of the iPad with Brydge attached is rather clunky in appearance. The ClamCase may have a plastic exterior, but looks neater in this view.

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Thickness wise, there’s very little in it:

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And neither product is going to win any aesthetic awards when viewed from the hinge side:

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With the keyboards closed, then, I’m going to call the beauty contest a draw. However, for protection, it’s a clear win for the ClamCase, offering all-round protection against scratches and dings when carrying the iPad in a bag.

Setup

Bluetooth pairing is Bluetooth pairing: quick and easy. Both products also have a physical on/off switch, making it simple to disconnect/reconnect after the initial pairing.

The Brydge also has built-in speakers. I’ll get to those later, but for now just note that you need to do a second Bluetooth pairing if you want to use them. Both input and sound pairings can be used simultaneously.

The keyboard comes with the shims installed for the original iPad Air, so I needed to replace these for the slimmer fit of my iPad Air 2. The adhesive makes this a slightly fiddly process, so the ClamCase wins by a nose for the setup.

Insertion/removal of the iPad

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Inserting and removing the iPad is easy with both products. The ClamCase requires a little courage, as it feels like you’re at risk of breaking it, but works well once you’re used to it. With the Brydge, you just slide the iPad in and out of the hinges. The presence of rubber shims means it slides easily in and out, and is very securely held.

Opening and closing each keyboard is similar. The ClamCase has a cutout to help the process, while the Brydge doesn’t, but both devices really require you to pick them up off the desk to open them. I’m going to call this one a draw.

In use

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So finally we get to the important part: using the keyboard.

Both products have stiff hinges that allow you to position the iPad screen at any angle, and both are rock solid once positioned. The ClamCase is more flexible, with its 360-degree fold allowing you to use it in tablet mode without removing it from the case, but this makes for a very thick device, so I always ended up removing it and putting away the keyboard anyway, so no practical difference here.

You’d think a review of a keyboard would spend most of its time talking about the typing experience, but in truth there’s very little to say: both the Brydge and ClamCase keyboard are absolutely superb. I give a slight edge to a MacBook keyboard over both, but there’s very little in it.

The Brydge keyboard is slightly stiffer in use, but it’s a very marginal difference, and I couldn’t honestly say that one is better than the other.

A draw so far, then, but the Brydge does pull ahead in one respect: it offers backlit keys. I use these in exactly one situation–in a taxi at night–but it is useful then, so a slight win for the Brydge. The brightness of the backlighting is also variable, though I found I wanted full brightness anyway.

Speakers

The Brydge Air has one extra (one not available in an earlier model): built-in speakers. These are built into the rear of the keyboard.

In theory, this is a useful idea. With previous iPad models, I have sometimes found the speakers a bit weedy when watching a movie. But with the excellent iPad Air 2 speakers, it seems completely pointless: the speakers are lower-volume than the iPad ones, and pointed out back, they are less usefully positioned too.

I really can’t understand why the company bothered with this, other than to create a bullet-point for marketing purposes.

Pricing & conclusions

As with the ClamCase review, pricing needs to make it onto a heading as it requires the same sharp intake of breath: the price is identical, at $169. Or even more expensive, if you want the gold version: that, for some reason, carries a $20 premium.

As I said before, only you can decide whether any keyboard can justify adding at least 20% to the price of your iPad. There are much, much cheaper options out there, including the $40 Anker model that Jeremy considered a perfectly viable option in his review yesterday.

With either the ClamCase Pro or the Brydge Air, you’re getting a MacBook-quality keyboard with looks to match; whether that justifies the price premium is a decision only you can make.

If you do think it’s worth spending this kind of money, choosing between the ClamCase and the Brydge is not easy. The ClamCase offers all-round protection, and a neater look when closed–but has a plastic outer and is white. The Brydge looks a little more sophisticated in use, but clunkier from behind and when closed–and offers no protection to the back of the iPad. The Brydge has a slightly smaller footprint.

I’d say it’s very much a personal choice, and may depend on how likely you think it is your iPad could get scratched when carried. In the shoulder bag I use when walking, there’s very little risk of damage in the padded tablet pocket, so the smaller footprint of the Brydge wins out. In my cycling bag, where there’s more chance of my iPad bouncing around a little on London’s less-than-smooth roads, the ClamCase is more reassuring.

Yer pays yer money and makes yer choice.

The Brydge Air keyboard is compatible with iPad Air and iPad Air 2. It is available direct from Brydge for $169 (silver and white) or $189 (gold). The older (speakerless) model for iPad 2/3/4 cost $129 when launched, but can now be found on Amazon from $110 new, $80 used.

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