Using international hardware and software keyboards on the iPad

When I got my first iPad, I also acquired a hardware keyboard with which to use it. Because I write a lot in French and have got used to the French AZERTY keyboard which I’ve actually used since childhood, I got two French keyboards from my local Parisian Apple franchisee: an Apple wireless keyboard and a dedicated iPad keyboard dock that also doubles up as a charger, and uses less power than the wireless version.

The dock version I found myself never really using, because its shape makes it too cumbersome to carry in either my briefcase or my Timbuk2 iPad case. And when I’m at home, I do tend to use my Mac for any serious writing. The wireless version, on the other hand, fits neatly in both and is exactly the same size as a standard laptop keyboard [i].

It took a little experimenting, though, to discover exactly how to use my AZERTY hardware keyboards in both the languages I write in. Out of necessity, this is handled differently on mobile devices from the way it works in current versions of Mac OSX, where if you type some text in any language and with any keyboard of your choice, OSX will automatically recognize which language you are using and mark spelling mistakes and typos accordingly [ii].

The iPad, like the iPhone, has a setting to activate any number of software international keyboards: the way they work is that an international keyboard is, by default, associated with its original language, the US keyboard being associated with US English, the AZERTY keyboard with French, the QWERTZ keyboard with German, etc. This means any iPad or iPhone device you buy anywhere in the world can be instantly customized to make it work in any language. You then toggle between your chosen set of languages by pressing the globe button on the bottom left of the iPhone or iPad keyboard.

iPad with wireless keyboard
An iPad, propped up by an Apple iPad dock, associated with a wireless keyboard

Until today, however, I had used three software keyboards (QWERTY/US English, AZERTY/French and QWERZ/German), which required me to switch to a new layout each time I typed in a different language. I hadn’t found a way of associating a foreign-language hardware keyboard (such as AZERTY) with English, so the only way I found of using my hardware keyboard was deactivating autocorrect entirely.

Autocorrect activated on iPad
Autocorrect activated on iPad: this will autocorrect typos and spelling mistakes and underline unrecognised words in the active language. It won't work properly unless the keyboard language and localisation settings are correctly set as described below.

I was unhappy doing this because over the years, I’d got used to relying on autocorrect to remove quite a lot of typos (such as the eponymous ‘teh’) and found doing without it was a major disincentive to do any serious writing on my iPad. Getting a separate QWERTY keyboard for English and getting used to typing on differently laid-out keyboards—something akin to driving on the right and left-hand sides of the road, something I have never quite got used to—seemed like overkill to solve the issue so, since getting my iPad, I’d been using it mainly for reading RSS in my feed reader and very little else.

Then yesterday my busy schedule finally gave me time to look under the iPad’s bonnet and discover—something not really properly documented by Apple—that you can associate a language with a different hardware keyboard as well. In other words, you can use a hardware AZERTY keyboard, which is the one I’m used to typing in because it has all the necessary French accented characters on it, and associate it with any of the languages that you write in [iii].

Keyboard settings for English using AZERTY keyboard
Keyboard preferences set to US English, but using a French AZERTY keyboard instead of a QWERTY one. Settings need to be chosen for both software and hardware keyboards.

All of this works on the iPhone as well, although the iPad takes up so little place in a bag that one hardly sees the point of carrying a wireless keyboard around just for use with an iPhone rather than an iPad:

The iPad keyboard settings screen
The iPad keyboard settings screen: you can set any number of keyboards and choose a language; These settings are independent of your regional format, so you can write in French and use an AZERTY keyboard while using the US regional format for dates, numbers, etc.

One irritating limitation of this system, however, is that you can’t toggle between languages on a hardware keyboard without first deactivating Bluetooth and switching to your desired language using the software keyboard, and then reactivating the hardware keyboard:

iPhone software keyboard
iPhone software keyboard (the iPad's is similar), set to an AZERTY French keybaord and US English as language. The wording on the spacebar and return button shows which language is associated with the keyboard. Clicking the globe icon toggles between your activated languages.

In situations where the convenience of a hardware keyboard isn’t required, you can just switch it off by deactivating Bluetooth in general settings for your device. Obviously, any one keyboard can’t be associated with more than one device for obvious reasons.

This has removed the last stumbling block that was hindering me from doing serious writing on the iPad: I now find myself drafting nearly all my blog posts and other documents on the iPad, using Markdown of course. I’ve found myself using Jesse Grosjean’s newly-released PlainText, in preference to the also very good iA Writer for iPad which I recently reviewed. I especially like the way Plaintext syncs with Dropbox in the background, but the killer advantage it has over iA Writer is Textexpander compatibility, which means it will automatically correct all of my most frequent typos and accept keyboard shortcuts for code snippets I routinely insert into blog posts.

All I’m missing now is an iPad version of Daniel Jalkut’s excellent MarsEdit, which is the only decent desktop blogging client available, to be able to dispense with my Mac altogether. I hope Daniel takes the hint!

  1. I’m told plugging unordinary USB keyboard into the iPad via the iPad camera connection kit does the trick as well.
  2. OS X includes a system-wide spell-checker, which is accessible from any Cocoa program via the Edit/Spelling menu (Inspector > Text > More > Language in Pages). Also Snow Leopard has new item System Prefrences/Language & Text/Text to let you set spellchecking system wide without changing the OS language. In addition to US English, 10.6 has dictionaries for Australian, British, and Canadian English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Swedish, Danish, Polish and Russian.
  3. According to the iPad’s technical specifications, Language support for English, French, German, Japanese, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Simplified Chinese and Russian. Keyboard support is available for English (US), English (UK), French (France, Canada), German, Japanese (QWERTY), Dutch, Flemish, Spanish, Italian, Simplified Chinese (Handwriting and Pinyin) and Russian. Dictionary support is provided for English (US), English (UK), French, French (Canadian), French (Swiss), German, Japanese, Dutch, Flemish, Spanish, Italian, Simplified Chinese (Handwriting, Pinyin) and Russian The iPhone additionally covers Arabic, Hebrew, Thai, Greek, Portuguese, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, Korean, Polish, Turkish, Ukrainian, Estonian, Hungarian, Icelandic, Lithuanian, Latvian, Czech, Indonesian, Malay, Romanian, Slovak, Croatian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Japanese Kana, Traditional Chinese, which aren’t currently provided on the iPad.