By Jason Snell
March 29, 2016 4:24 PM PT
Review: Smart Keyboard for 9.7-inch iPad Pro
One of the banner features of the iPad Pro line is the Smart Connector, three metal dots that allow the two-way transfer of power and data between an iPad Pro and an accessory. So far, the first two Smart Connector products—Apple’s Smart Keyboard and the Logitech Create keyboard—have been the only Smart Connector products on the market. At last, there’s a third product for the connector—the $149 Apple Smart Keyboard for the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro. After all, what’s an iPad Pro if it doesn’t have its own keyboard cover?
Since the new-model Smart Keyboard must double as a cover for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, it’s necessarily scaled down from its 12.9-inch equivalent. The larger Smart Keyboard is 12 inches wide, enough space for a full-sized set of keys. The new, smaller model is only 9.4 inches wide, and that 2.6 inches of lost space does take a toll.
Apple has done a lot to mitigate that reduction in size. In addition to losing the breathing room along the left and right edges that the larger keyboard offered, all the non-alphanumeric keys have been squashed to smaller widths. All of that work isn’t enough to prevent the entire keyboard layout from shrinking, however. Keys are reduced in size and offset by about 17.5mm, as opposed to 19mm on the 12.9-inch keyboard.
Whether this is a dealbreaker really depends on what kind of a typist you are. If you’re someone who hunts and pecks, you’re not going to care. If you’re someone who has mapped the location of every single key on a normal-sized keyboard onto your brain, you may struggle.
I’m a pretty tough critic when it comes to keyboards, and I actually found typing on the smaller Smart Keyboard to be surprisingly good. The fabric keys don’t require as much force to depress as mechanical keys. But more than that, I discovered that if I kept some of my fingers resting on the keyboard, so I could always remain oriented, I was able to touch type at a high rate of speed without ever looking at the keyboard itself. In fact, I’m typing this on the keyboard right now, at full speed.
While the reduced dimensions of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro add complications in some ways, they offer benefits in others. This new Smart Keyboard has to cover a screen that’s 60 percent of the surface area of the larger model, meaning that it’s much lighter and less bulky. On the 12.9-inch iPad Pro (which is already 9.8 ounces heavier), using the Smart Keyboard as a cover felt bulky and burdensome. The smaller Smart Keyboard, on the smaller iPad Pro, doesn’t feel that way at all.
So what can I say? I really like the new, smaller Smart Keyboard for the new, smaller iPad Pro. It’s surprisingly easy to type on, even for someone who usually freaks out when presented with a keyboard that’s not a standard size. And it’s light enough to be your iPad’s everyday screen cover when you’re out and about.
If you’re on a budget, there are better, cheaper options—as nice as the Smart Keyboard is, it’s no match for a more traditional keyboard. The $80 Logitech Easy-Switch is a good alternative for people who are used to using backlit MacBook Pro and Air keyboards. At $149 for the Smart Keyboard, you are paying for the convenience of always having a keyboard attached to your iPad as a cover. If it’s worth it to you, you won’t be disappointed.
A few other notes: I’m a little bit baffled about the lack of forward progress on the Smart Connector front. Between the introduction of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro and the 9.7-inch model, not a single Smart Connector-based accessory was announced. My understanding is that some are in the works, and I’d imagine that vendors reluctant to build a product for the (presumably small) 12.9-inch iPad Pro market will be more inclined to invest in the Smart Connector now that there’s a 9.7-inch iPad Pro that will probably sell in much greater numbers.
I’ve noticed a similar lack of motion on the issue of international keyboard layouts. Back when the 12.9-inch iPad Pro was announced, Apple indicated that the U.S. layout of the Smart Keyboard would eventually be joined by other keyboard layouts for other countries. Thus far, none has appeared—and the 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s software keyboard is similarly limited to a U.S. layout. That’s not great for a product line whose identity is so strongly associated with its keyboards.
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