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How-To Geek

The HTG Guide to Using a Bluetooth Keyboard with Your Android Device

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Android devices aren’t usually associated with physical keyboards. But, since Google is now bundling their QuickOffice app with the newly-released Kit-Kat, it appears inevitable that at least some Android tablets (particularly 10-inch models) will take on more productivity roles.

In recent years, physical keyboards have been rendered obsolete by swipe-style input methods such as Swype and Google Keyboard. Physical keyboards tend to make phones thicker, and that won’t fly today when thin (and even flexible and curved) is in vogue. So, you’ll be hard-pressed to find smartphone manufacturers launching new models with physical keyboards, thus rendering sliders to a past chapter in mobile phone evolution.

It makes sense to ditch the clunky keyboard phone in favor of a lighter, thinner model. You’re going to carry it around in your pocket or purse all day, why have that extra bulk and weight? That said, there is sound logic behind pairing tablets with keyboards. Microsoft continues to plod forward with its Surface models, and while critics continue to lavish praise on the iPad, its functionality is obviously enhanced and extended when you add a physical keyboard. Apple even has an entire page devoted specifically to iPad-compatible keyboards.

But an Android tablet and a keyboard? Does such a thing even exist? They do actually. There are docking keyboards and keyboard/case combinations and the Asus Transformer family. Logitech markets a Windows 8 keyboard that speaks “Android”, and these are just a few examples.

So we know that keyboard products that are designed to work with Android exist, but what about an everyday Bluetooth keyboard you might use with Windows or OS X? How-To Geek wanted look at how viable it is to use such a keyboard with Android. We conducted some research and examined some lists of Android keyboard shortcuts. Most of what we found was long outdated. Many of the shortcuts don’t even apply anymore, while others just didn’t work. Regardless, after a little experimentation and a dash of customization, it turns out using a keyboard with Android is kind of fun, and who knows, maybe it will catch on.

Setting things up

Setting up a Bluetooth keyboard with Android is very easy. First, you’ll need a Bluetooth keyboard and, of course, an Android device, preferably running version 4.1 (Jelly Bean) or higher. For our test, we paired a second-generation Google Nexus 7 running Android 4.3 with a Samsung Series 7 keyboard.

In Android, enable Bluetooth if it isn’t already on. We’d like to note that if you don’t normally use Bluetooth accessories and peripherals with your Android device (or any device really), it’s best practice to leave Bluetooth off because, like GPS, it drains the device’s battery more quickly.

To enable Bluetooth, simply go to “Settings” -> “Bluetooth” and tap the slider button to “On”. To set up the keyboard, make sure it is on and then tap “Bluetooth” in the Android settings.

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On the resulting screen, your Android device should automatically search for and find your keyboard. If you don’t get it right the first time, simply turn the keyboard on again and then tap “Search for Devices” to try again. If it still doesn’t work, make sure you have fresh batteries and the keyboard isn’t paired to another device. If it is, you will need to unpair it before it will work with your Android device (consult your keyboard manufacturer’s documentation or Google if you don’t know how to do this).

When Android finds your keyboard, select it under “Available Devices” …

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… and you should be prompted to type in a code:

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If successful, you will see that device is now “Connected” and you’re ready to go.

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If you want to test things out, try pressing the “Windows” key (“Apple” or “Command”) + ESC, and you will be whisked to your Home screen.

So, what can you do?

Traditional Mac and Windows users know there’s usually a keyboard shortcut for just about everything (and if there isn’t, there’s all kinds of ways to remap keys to do a variety of commands, tasks, and functions). So where does Android fall in terms of baked-in keyboard commands?

The answer to that is kind of enough, but not too much. There are definitely established combos you can use to get around, but they aren’t clear and there doesn’t appear to be any one authority on what they are. Still, there is enough keyboard functionality in Android to make it a viable option, if only for those times when you need to get something done (long e-mail or important document) and an on-screen keyboard simply won’t do.

It’s important to remember that Android is, and likely always will be, a touch-first interface. That said, it does make some concessions to physical keyboards. In other words, you can get around Android fairly well without having to lift your hands off the keys, but you will still have to tap the screen regularly unless you add a mouse. For example, you can wake your device by tapping a key rather than pressing its power button. However, if your device is slide or pattern-locked, then you’ll have to use the touchscreen to unlock it – a password or PIN however, works seamlessly with a keyboard – other things like widgets and app controls and features, have to be tapped. You get the idea.

Keyboard shortcuts and navigation

As we said, baked-in keyboard shortcut combos aren’t necessarily abundant nor apparent. The one thing you can always do is search. Any time you want to Google something, start typing from the Home screen and the search screen will automatically open and begin displaying results.

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Other than that, here is what we were able to figure out:

  • ESC = go back
  • CTRL + ESC = menu
  • CTRL + ALT + DEL = restart (no questions asked)
  • ALT + SPACE = search page (say “OK Google” to voice search)
  • ALT + TAB (ALT + SHIFT + TAB) = switch tasks

Also, if you have designated volume function keys, those will probably work too. There’s also some dedicated app shortcuts like calculator, Gmail, and a few others:

  • CMD + A = calculator
  • CMD + C = contacts
  • CMD + E = e-mail
  • CMD + G = Gmail
  • CMD + L = Calendar
  • CMD + P = Play Music
  • CMD + Y = YouTube

Overall, it’s not a comprehensive list and there are no dedicated keyboard combos for the full array of Google’s products. Granted, it’s hard to imagine getting a lot of mileage out of a keyboard with Maps, but with something like Keep, you could type out long, detailed lists on your tablet and then view them on your smartphone when you go out shopping.

You can also use the arrow keys to navigate your Home screen shortcuts and open the app drawer. When something on the screen is selected, it will be highlighted in blue. Press “Enter” to open your selection.

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Additionally, if an app has its own set of shortcuts, e.g. Gmail has quite a few unique shortcuts to it, as does Chrome, some – though not many – will work in Android (not YouTube, for instance). Also, many “universal” shortcuts such as Copy (CTRL + C), Cut (CTRL + X), Paste (CTRL + V), and Select All (CTRL + A) work where needed – such as in instant messaging, e-mail, social media apps, etc.

Creating custom application shortcuts

What about custom shortcuts? When we were researching this article, we were under the impression that it was possible to assign keyboard combinations to specific apps, such as you could do on older Android versions such as Gingerbread. This no long seems to be the case, and nowhere in “Settings” could we find a way to assign hotkey combos to any of our favorite, oft-used apps or functions.

If you do want custom keyboard shortcuts, what can you do? Luckily, there’s an app on Google Play that allows you to, among other things, create custom app shortcuts.

It is called External Keyboard Helper (EKH), and while there is a free demo version, the pay version is only a few bucks. We decided to give EKH a whirl and through a little experimentation and finally reading the developer’s how-to, we found we could map custom keyboard combos to just about anything.

To do this, first open the application and you’ll see the main app screen. Don’t worry about choosing a custom layout or anything like that, you want to go straight to the “Advanced settings”:

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In the “Advanced settings” select “Application shortcuts” to continue:

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You can have up to 16 custom application shortcuts. We are going to create a custom shortcut to the Facebook app. We choose “A0”, and from the resulting list, Facebook. You can do this for any number of apps, services, and settings. As you can now see, the Facebook app has now been linked to application-zero (A0):

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Go back to the “Advanced settings” and choose “Customize keyboard mappings”:

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You will be prompted to create a custom keyboard layout, so we chose “Custom 1”:

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When you choose to create a custom layout, you can do a great many more things with your keyboard. For example, many keyboards have predefined function (Fn) keys, which you can map to your tablet’s brightness controls, toggle WiFi on/off, and much more.

A word of advice: the application automatically remaps certain keys when you create a custom layout. This might mess up some existing keyboard combos. If you simply want to add some functionality to your keyboard, you can go ahead and delete EKH’s default changes and start your custom layout from scratch.

To create a new combo, select “Add new key mapping”:

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For our new shortcut, we are going to assign the Facebook app to open when we key in “ALT + F”. To do this, we press the “F” key while in the “Scancode” field and we see it returns a value of “33”. If we wanted to use a different key, we can press “Change” and scan another key’s numerical value.

We now want to assign the “ALT” key to application “A0”, previously designated as the Facebook app. In the “AltGr” field, we enter “A0” and then “Save” our custom combo.

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And now we see our new application shortcut. Now, as long as we’re using our custom layout, every time we press “ALT + F”, the Facebook app will launch:

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External Keyboard Helper extends far beyond simple application shortcuts, and if you are looking for deeper keyboard customization options, you should definitely check it out. Among other things, EKH also supports dozens of languages, and allows you to quickly switch between layouts using a key or combo, add up to 16 custom text shortcuts, and much more!

It can be had on Google Play for $2.53 for the full version, but you can try the demo version for free. More extensive documentation on how to use the app is also available.

Android? Keyboard? Sure, why not?

Unlike traditional desktop operating systems, you don’t need a physical keyboard and mouse to use a mobile operating system. You can buy an iPad or Nexus 10 or Galaxy Note and never need another accessory or peripheral – they work as intended right out of the box. It’s even possible you can write the next great American novel on one these devices, though that might require a lot of practice and patience.

That said, using a keyboard with Android is kind of fun. It’s not revelatory, but it does elevate the experience. You don’t even need to add customizations (though they are nice), because there are enough existing keyboard shortcuts in Android to make it usable. Plus, when it comes to inputting text such as in an editor or terminal application, we fully advocate big, physical keyboards. Bottom line, if you’re looking for a way to enhance your Android tablet, give a keyboard a chance.

Do you use your Android device for productivity? Is a physical keyboard an important part of your setup? Do you have any shortcuts that we missed? Sound off in the comments and let us know what you think.

Born and brainwashed an Ohio State Buckeye, Matt now lives a warm, snow-free life just north of the Texas/Mexico border. He fancies himself a modern-day jack-of-all-trades; favorite conversation starters include operating systems, Android, BBQ, quantum physics, and roller skating.

  • Published 11/10/13

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