The Magic Keyboard is the first iPad Pro keyboard that I’ve been happy with. It’s astronomically priced at $450 CAD (with tax), even in a time where $230 CAD Smart Keyboards have been normalized. Prices got stupid in 2015, and they’ve been stupid ever since.
But, damn it, I do like this keyboard—and the reason I like it so much is because I’ve taken the scenic route to get here.
iPad keyboards of yore
The iPad used to have a pretty healthy ecosystem of keyboard makers. I particularly liked the Adonit Writer 2, Belkin’s QODE Ultimate Pro, and Logitech’s Ultrathin. These all brought something a little different to the table: adjustable angles, vertical stands, or clever covers that functioned as keyboards. They were all clever in different ways, and far more creative than Apple’s original keyboard dock.
Unfortunately the latest generation of third-party keyboards has been lacklustre. Logitech’s Slim Folio Pro has a great keyboard, but a very clunky and rubbery case that’s very difficult to remove. Razer and ZAGG made keyboards with adjustable kickstands, but many reviews called them out on the durability front. They were also clunky cases that stripped the iPad of its lightness and elegance.
Brydge looked like they were pretty close. Their current Brydge Pro keyboards offer adjustable angles and a great typing experience with a design that closely matches the iPad. Ugh, but those hinges. They clamp onto the corners of the iPad and I was wary of reviews citing cracked screens. Many more reviews claimed the rubber coating on the hinges comes loose after only a few weeks or months, and you’ll have to pay for anything past the first replacement set.
Today’s third-party keyboards are just too heavy, too inflexible, or too unreliable.
I’ll gladly trade Smart for Magic
Since 2015 I’ve chosen Apple’s Smart Keyboards over any third-party options. They stick to the iPad with magnets, they detach easily, and they’re slim enough to slip into most bag’s tablet sleeves. Everyone makes a big deal about the Smart Connector, but it hasn’t blown me away. “Smart” is too generous an adjective. Until recently, it has simply functioned as a set of hi-tech keyboard nipples.
Every design has tradeoffs, and Apple’s two Smart Keyboard designs have chosen to sit on a very awkward spot: right on the fence. In each instance, I think Apple took the wrong features out.
The original 2015 Smart Keyboard was an enhanced Smart Cover, complete with low viewing angle. Durability was poor though: both mine and my friend Marius’ keyboards suffered from connection issues and I went through two replacements. It was a decent protective cover and stand, but a poor keyboard.
In 2018 they launched Smart Keyboard Folio alongside a new iPad Pro chassis. They improved upon the folding and typing experience: no more weird keyboard origami, just a simple bi-fold. But the low viewing angle was lost in the change. The folio design also made it more difficult to remove the iPad Pro. It wasn’t just a quick tug to pull the cover off, but more of a fingernail-and-pry motion, after which the Smart Keyboard Folio would fall to the desk like dead skin. It was a decent keyboard, but an inferior cover.
The Magic Keyboard hops off the fence and takes a more decisive step in one direction. I see it as Apple selling their own laptop conversion kit for the iPad Pro. As with many things Apple, it’s all about that marriage of hardware and software. iOS 13.4 added trackpad support about a month ago, and it’s already great. The combination of the new pointer, flexible and stable typing angles, and improved keyboard make for a very compelling transformation.
Laptop like you mean it
Previous cases created a laptop silhouette: a keyboard in front of an iPad. The Magic Keyboard and iOS 13.4 fill in the details and provide a more complete picture of iPad as laptop. My 2018 11-inch iPad Pro now feels like a 2020 iPad laptop. It like the cantilever design for looking futuristic and badass, but I love it for the adjustable angles. A few months ago I was this close to buying a Surface Pro just because it had a kickstand and could change angles. Now I don’t have to.
The 11-inch is still a pretty small screen so I don’t want to work all day on it, but it’s fun to do for a few hours at a time. I find the maximum angle of 130 degrees to be just enough, and it’s useful being able to tilt the screen by one or two degrees to eliminate glare.
The trackpad reduces the fatigue I feel from constantly reaching up to tap the screen, although its diminutive size means that I keep the pointer sensitivity at maximum. It isn’t all trackpad all the time though. Sometimes it’s just easier to reach up and tap a text field than it is to move the pointer all the way there.
Trackpad gestures are genuinely delightful. I can swipe back to the list view in iMessage, swipe to archive email, or pinch to zoom out to tabs while in Safari. I’m not sure if I’m necessarily more productive, but the interaction feels great. It preserves the tactile nature of iOS and translates it well to off-screen gestures.
Having right click come on iOS is also wonderful. It makes little interactions like queuing the next song in Music easier. Right clicking is much faster than tapping and holding.
The extra USB-C port on the rear is an interesting addition. It’s only for power, but it supplies that power through the Smart Connector. That means that Apple is finally using that connector something more than passing keystrokes. It’s not amazing, but it’s Smarter.
I can no longer pick the iPad up and fold the cover back and use it while standing, but I’m not annoyed by that so far. I’m not annoyed with any laptop for being difficult to use while standing. That’s not what they were designed for. The Magic Keyboard reduces the immediacy of the iPad as a tablet by taking a stronger stance on iPad as laptop. I’m happier with this tradeoff.
One thing that’s interesting is that I still find the touchscreen easier for couch usage. The trackpad just feels too close to comfortably use on my lap, unless I’m using a lap desk. It’s a credit to how well Apple rolled out iOS 13.4 that the pointer and touch feel almost like equals. Touch is still more reliable in more apps, but I have hope for trackpad support on iOS. It took years for the Files app to feel like it was usable, but trackpad support has been out for only a month and it’s already great right now.
That iOS 14 wishlist
The two major software changes that the Magic Keyboard really make you want are global shortcuts and real monitor support.
Because the Magic Keyboard lacks a function row, you need to initiate Control Center for basic tasks like pausing music, or adjusting brightness or volume. These are trivial one-click tasks when you have dedicated keys for them. I think iOS 14 should add some global shortcuts so that we can map key combos to compensate for the missing function keys. We’ll see.
The other thing that’s missing is decent external display support. If you try to hook an iPad up to a monitor today, you’ll see black bars on both sides because iOS doesn’t know what to do with all of the extra space. It’s so bad that I don’t think Apple should really call this a feature, it’s more of an embarrassment. If the tables were turned and the Surface Pro displayed black bars on external monitors, you know Apple would make fun of them for it in an ultra-slick ad.
Real magic is making $450 CAD feel reasonable
So that’s what I think of the Magic Keyboard. The price is really up there. But I’m more willing to pay for this design because it makes more sense to me. The Magic Keyboard isn’t a case, but rather a form factor change. It significantly enhances how I can use the tablet that I bought in 2018.
I now have a great little 11-inch laptop thanks to hardware and surprisingly great trackpad support. I like the key travel a lot more than the fabric keys on the Smart Keyboards. The extra port for charging is nice to have.
Cosmetics are are still a slight concern, but we’ll see how that goes. The 2018 Smart Keyboard Folio worked well (and still works today), but it was marred with weird sweat marks where you could literally see fingerprints on the material. I do have sweaty hands, but it also happened to my good friend, Dry Hands Marius. I do wish that Apple had used a more premium material for this price point, but it is what it is. If it starts to look weird, I’ll search for a vinyl sticker from Slickwraps or dbrand.
I’ve owned iPads for a long time now, but they’ve always felt a little frustrating to use. Apple’s ads are so aspirational and so slick, but they haven’t matched my reality with the device…until now. For the first time, I think the expectations that Apple is setting in their media are being fulfilled by their design. I’m pretty happy about that.
Or maybe I’m just dizzy from spending so much money.