Three months ago, alongside the 2020 iPad Pro and cursor support for iPadOS, Apple announced the Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro.
Two months ago, Apple began shipping it and early reviews were mostly positive. Mostly.
For some it was… transformative, bringing them closer to the traditional computer and laptop experience they’ve always wanted from the iPad. For others, it just re-ignited the whole existential crises over what even is a laptop or computer. For me… well…
Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro: Design
There was no March Apple event this year. Instead, Apple launched the new iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard online. Maybe that’s why there was some confusion about what exactly the Magic Keyboard is and what it’s meant to be.
How much does it weigh? Can you fold it back? Does it have an easel mode?
For me, Apple’s press video answered all those questions on day one, when senior Vice President of software engineering, Craig Federighi, walked over, slapped his iPad Pro down on the Magic Keyboard, and got to work.
He wasn’t already carrying it under his arm. He didn’t unfold it using some awesome smack transformation like in the 2018 video. He’s carrying the iPad around like a tablet, then walks over to a table and docks it so he can use it like a laptop.
Yes, you can fold it up to make it easier to transport with your iPad Pro. But no, you can’t fold it back or put it into an easel mode.
Because, in that moment, Craig shows that it’s not really meant to be a triple-changer like the original origami Smart Keyboard, or even an always-on convertible like the current Smart Keyboard.
When you dock the iPad Pro onto the Magic Keyboard it’s not fully, conveniently usable as a tablet any more because that’s exactly what the Magic Keyboard really is — a dock.
It sits on the table, plugged in to pass-through power if you need it, ready to turn your iPad into something much closer akin to a laptop when you need it. Heavy, substantial, all keyboard and cursor.
When you don’t, you just peel the iPad Pro back off and go back to using it the way nature and Steve Jobs intended — as an iPad. A light, thin, touch-first iPad.
And if you need to travel — if you remember travel — you just bundle them up, the Magic Keyboard protects your iPad Pro, and off you go.
Now, there are some things I really like about the implementation. Because, while the iPad is a computer — of course it’s a computer — it isn’t and should never become a traditional computer. The world is already chocked full of those for anyone who wants one.
The Magic Keyboard lets the iPad stay true to itself — it lets the iPad be the iPad and doesn’t strip that away from anyone who actually wants an iPad. It just lets people who need traditional computer input methods use them whenever they need them.
See, unlike a MacBook where all the computer parts are beneath the keyboard and the display is just this super light, blade-thin screen hinged up on top of it, the iPad Pro has all its computer parts behind the screen and the Magic Keyboard is just this blade-thin typing service, weighted down so it’s not so ultralight the iPad just topples over at every angle.
Only at some angles.
Unlike the Smart Keyboard, which offers only two positions for the iPad when open, the Magic Keyboard hinge lets you adjust it any way you like along its usable range. That range just doesn’t extend too far backwards, or the iPad would take it over its center of gravity and the whole thing would just fall back.
That also constrains how you can use it. On a flat table, the entire usable range is... usable. If you put it on your lap though, you have to try to keep your thighs super level, or you have to use your palms to hold it down if you really want to for maximum... no, I’m not saying it. Writer Rene can script it but he can’t make host Rene say it.
Dammit, editor Rene always wins. Fine. Whatever.
Because a traditional laptop’s center of gravity is so low, you don’t even have to think about any of that.
You also can’t dock the iPad in portrait orientation, which was the only way you could dock the original iPad with the original iPad Keyboard Dock back in 2010.
Most of the time, that doesn’t bother me at all, though I know some people really want to use it that way. The only time it does really bother me is when I FaceTime or Zoom or use the front-facing camera at all. Because, when placed on the Magic Keyboard, it’s not really front facing any more. It’s front offset. It’s front adjacent. And that makes it just so awkward.
Even though Apple’s filled the landscape top with the magnetic inductive charging coils for the Pencil, given every modern Keyboard case and now Dock prioritized landscape more, it would just make far more sense to position the same for that mode. You know, like every single MacBook ever.
As someone who draws with the Apple Pencil a ton, it would be great if there was a easel mode as well. You can flip the Magic Keyboard upside down to try and simulate one but it’s super goofy. And, honestly, i don’t see how the geometry would work out for a proper one anyway. Sometimes it’s just better to have a great keyboard dock than a middling multi-mode.
Also, recognizing the limitations of the hinge doesn’t mean I don’t otherwise love the hinge. Because I do. Within its operating angles it works really well, although it’s far easier to tilt down than tilt up, again just because of the weight distribution.
It’s the floating, cantilever aspect of the design that really works for me, though. It lets the iPad Pro display just hang right over the number keys, which is much closer than a traditional laptop screen would be, and not only does that look cool, it keeps the touch screen just like right there, immediately available for whenever you still need to touch it.
It also keeps the footprint minimal, which doesn’t matter so much here at home, but I imagine will come in handy at coffee shops and especially on tray tables on airplanes. Not that I’ve been able to test any of that at all recently.
The polyurethane material of the case looks great but picks up a lot of smudges and fingerprints. So far, I’ve been able to wipe them off with exactly zero problems, which I guess is better than a material that smudges less but cleans worse? I’d love to see a material or even a finish that keeps its looks better. Like the bead blasted aluminum on the MacBooks. Though obviously not bead blasted aluminum.
Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro: Keyboard
The keyboard part of the Magic Keyboard looks like… a Magic Keyboard. Also kinda. It’s glossy black on matte black instead of glossy black on silver or space gray aluminum like on the most recent MacBooks. Which I really like. My kingdom, such as it is, for a jet black MacBook... or iPad Pro, frankly.
The Magic Keyboard has inverted T arrow keys, like all good natured keyboards should. But, there’s no function or media or Touch Bar row above the numbers, like there is on those MacBooks. Which means no Escape key, physical or virtual.
I say that as someone who barely ever uses the Escape key but still has immense empathy for everyone that does, including those who need to use it routinely for development or are just used to using it to get out of whatever it is they’re doing at the moment.
You can remap escape functionality to the caps lock or emoji key, because of course there’s an emoji key, but it feels needlessly janky.
I’m sure some miss the function keys and many miss the media keys as well. I’d be just fine with a simpler version of Tab C for Control Center, which you currently have to turn on in Settings > Accessibility > Keyboards > Full Keyboard Access.
Just let me three finger swipe down to quickly get my controls, and put everything I may need right there, playback, brightness, everything. It wouldn’t be as fast as an individual key for all the major things but it’d be more flexible and encompassing for all the things.
Speaking for brightness, the backlighting is good. Crisp, clean, and mostly uniform except around the edges of the longer labels.
Getting the backlight means giving up the water resistance of the Smart Keyboard keys, because all design is compromise. But I type enough at night and spill drinks nowhere nearly enough, that it’s a great trade off for me.
I know some people have complained about the back light staying on too long and causing excessive battery drain.
The Magic Keyboard is powered by the iPad, so it will drain faster when you have it attached, and the backlight will stay lit for a minute or so even after you stop typing, unless you put the iPad Pro to sleep.
And, yeah, capabilities have a cost and with mobile devices, that cost is almost always paid in battery life.
But it’s worth it for me because, as a keyboard, it’s just flat out terrific. The feel is just like the Magic Keyboard on the MacBooks for me, only different. It’s hard to explain. The keys seem the same but more like they’re mounted on something than in something, which keeps making me think they’re taller and pluckier.
It has the same, new scissor switches as the Magic Keyboards just introduced on the Macs, with a steady, stable key caps and a millimeter of travel, and this nice, punchy feeling.
I can and have typed on this thing for hours and hours, days and days, weeks and weeks now and it’s legit the only thing that’s made me sad about not traveling these last couple of months because I’d be using it even more on the road, at coffee shops, at airports, and in hotels than I am at home.
Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro: Trackpad
This is a bunch of nonsense I’m typing do that I can’t show that I can
The big revelation of the Magic Keyboard isn’t actually the keyboard at all. It’s the trackpad.
There’s this amazing history of features starting out with the Accessibility team at Apple and then being pickup up by the UIKit or SpringBoard team and becoming just ubiquitous parts of the system, and that’s exactly what happened with the minimal cursor support from iOS 12 becoming the maximal cursor support now in iOS 13.
I know some will praise Apple for not just porting over the pointer model from macOS but making something closer akin to an adaptive touch model where the little cursor circle transforms into a button shape or text insertion bar in this gorgeously liquid and fluid way.
Others will grouch that Apple had to do this because they stripped out all the button shapes with iOS 7 and still haven’t replaced them with anything nearly as usable or considerate.
Both those things can be true, and this trackpad handles the system as is really, really well.
It’s nowhere nearly as big as a modern MacBook trackpad. Those could easily sleep four of these.
The Mac trackpads are absurdly large because they don’t have multitouch screens so the trackpad is the only gesture area you get. The iPad Pro, even when docked, is still all touch screen. So I’m fine with the trackpad being smaller.
That said, it is a little cramped for gestures like pinch to zoom and actions like drag and drop, but not that it’s stopped me from getting anything done.
It’s also a real, physical trackpad and not a virtual, Taptic trackpad like on the Mac — unmoving glass and metal when off, total proprioceptive mind-frak when on.
But it feels like the Mac trackpad in that you can click it from any point, any corner, top or bottom, left or right, and they all click equally, satisfyingly great.
Not at all like the common, hinged trackpads that click great on the bottom but not so much at all near the top.
The bottom line for me, though, is that because gestures on the iPad Magic Keyboard trackpad are so similar to the ones on the Mac trackpad, it just feels completely natural and intuitive to use, and I don’t have to even really think about using it at all.
And that was the exact job it had to solve — save me from having to take my hands off the keyboard touch touch the screen to do most navigation tasks. Save me having to change contexts, lose my flow, and deal with my dumb, poorly-transitional human brain, and just let me keep my hands on the keyboard and keep working.
And even in version 1, that’s exactly what it does.
Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro: USB-C
There’s a USB-C port on the left side of the Magic Keyboard hinge that can be used to plug the keyboard into power and pass that power through to the iPad.
I’m guessing Apple put it there because the Magic Keyboard draws power from the iPad Pro, and enough power that it takes the iPad Pro below the 10-hour iPad battery life that Apple has held inviolable since the original. So, adding a USB-C power pass through to the hinge is the sacrifice Apple had to make to the power gods in order to let this keyboard ship.
And I’m fine with that. In fact, I’d prefer to have USB-C power pass-through on both sides so I can plug in from either side. Especially considering how grotesquely short the USB-C cables are that Apple ships with almost everything these days.
I don’t know if the Smart Connector, which is the power, data, and ground relay between the Magic Keyboard and the iPad Pro has the bandwidth and speed to actually support accessories as well as power, or if handling a keyboard is pretty much where it taps out. But it would be great if we could plug in accessories as well. Especially if there were dual ports and one could be for power and the other for a microphone or external storage or anything at all.
That would make the Magic Keyboard dock a far more useful dock and the iPad Pro truly, truly Pro.
Even if, yeah, it would also make an already very expensive keyboard dock one extra data port and better connector more expensive.
Speaking of which...
Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro: Pricing
The magic keyboard starts at US$229 for the 11-inch and a whopping $349 for the 12.9-inch model. And that’s a lot. That’s a 10.2-inch iPad lot.
You can still get the Smart Keyboard, absent trackpad, for less, but if you want everything Apple currently has to offer, it’s going to cost you.
Add it to the price of an iPad Pro, and it’s going to kick you well up into MacBook levels. MacBook Pro levels even.
And that’s a lot. But you also gain a lot in terms of capabilities, so, end of the day, you have to decide if it’s worth it to you or not.
For some pros, it’ll be a no brained. It’ll get charged straight to a client or the company, and paid off in a single gig or two.
But if it’s just you and just your wallet, like me and mine these days, is are you enough of a traditional computer user, a laptop user, that being able to dock your iPad Pro and make it more of a laptop, would that be a big enough productivity boost to you to be worth your hard earned money.
If you’re using your iPad Pro primarily as a multitouch tablet or with the Apple Pencil, the answer might well be no.
But if you’re typing a ton and doing a lot of productivity work, I suspect it will be oh hell yes.