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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Typing test: The 12.9-inch iPad Pro advantage

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

The 9.7-inch iPad keyboard overlaid on the 12.9-inch iPad keyboard.

Anyone who writes as a part of their profession—whether it’s technology articles, novels, business documents, you name it—cares about typing. Typing is how we put one word after another, and computer keyboards are the best tool yet devised to allow us to do that1.

The importance of typing has always been one of the problems with using an iPad as a device to get work done. Typing on glass offers limited tactile feedback compared to physical keys, and the iPad’s 9.7-inch screen is too small to fit a full keyboard. You can attach a Bluetooth keyboard (or with the advent of the iPad Pro models, a Smart Keyboard) and improve your typing speeds dramatically, but the ergonomics of using a keyboard with an iPad counteract the iPad’s small size and ability to be used just about anywhere.

When I first began using the original, 12.9-inch iPad Pro, I was skeptical of its software keyboard. Years spent with the original-sized iPad had trained me that while I could write long documents on the software keyboard, I could save a lot of time and effort by attaching an external keyboard. But over the time, as I use the 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s keyboard more, I started to appreciate it.

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s software keyboard is full sized. Which is to say, the main keys are the same size and location as a standard physical keyboard—a feat possible on the 12.9-inch model because its display is 10.4 inches wide. The display on 9.7-inch models only have 7.8 inches of width to work with, and as a result, the keys are slightly smaller and crammed more closely together. More importantly, there’s very little room left over for modifier keys, forcing the layout into three layers (regular text input, a number-and-symbol keyboard, and another keyboard for less common symbols).

The 12.9-inch keyboard offers tab and caps lock keys and a wide shift key, plus six additional symbol keys on the main key layout. And, most importantly, the big keyboard provides an entire extra row of 14 keys at the top of the screen, including numbers, more symbols, and the ability to generate 14 more symbols by holding down the shift key.

Now, this larger keyboard isn’t without its flaws. The top row of keys is only half the height of the other rows, and as a result, I find myself missing the delete key all the time. It might also be nice if it offered a Command key, so that I could use iOS 9’s expanded set of keyboard shortcuts from the software keyboard.

Once I started using the large software keyboard, I began to appreciate just how much better it was than the one on the smaller model. When I reviewed the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, one of the reasons I found myself preferring my large iPad Pro was its superior software keyboard. And while I praised the 9.7-inch Smart Keyboard as being less bulky and more convenient than the larger model, there’s no denying that its shrunken-down keyboard slows me down.

Last week I was writing a story on a warm, summery day—rare for early April, even in sunny California—and I was despairing about being inside rather than in my backyard. I ended up sitting out in the backyard and writing the story on my iPad Pro’s software keyboard, sitting under a redwood tree in a hammock. I kept the iPad flat in my lap and typed as I would on a laptop keyboard2. And I was shocked at how fast my typing speed was when I really focused on the large software keyboard—not hardware keyboard speeds, but noticeably faster than my experience with the smaller iPad software keyboards.

To quantify this experience, I decided to take a typing test with TapTyping, an app recommended by Fraser Speirs on the typing episode of the Canvas podcast. I took the test, which involves three different sessions of typing a few random sentences, on both iPad Pro models, using their software keyboards as well as their Smart Keyboards. I also took the test on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro with Apple’s Magic Keyboard attached via Bluetooth.

typing test results

The results were pretty much as I expected. I was slowest on the 9.7-inch iPad’s software keyboard, at 80 words per minute. The 9.7-inch Smart Keyboard didn’t fare as well as I thought—once I was forced away from the letter keys for punctuation I lost track of the geography of the keyboard and made a bunch of mistakes. The software keyboard on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro clocked in at 96 words per minute, and I once would never have believed that I could type nearly 100 words per minute on a software keyboard. Attaching the 12.9-inch Smart Keyboard boosted my score to 104 words per minute. And typing full speed on the Magic Keyboard, I managed 116 words per minute.

Or to look at it another way, by foregoing a physical keyboard and typing with the smaller iPad’s software keyboard, I gain the benefit of portability and flexibility at the cost of 31 percent of my typing speed. On the 12.9-inch model, it’s only a 17 percent sacrifice.

  1. I know that dictation technology has come a long way, and I use it on my iPhone, but I just can’t write via speech. 
  2. I can’t endorse the long-term ergonomics of this approach, but it was pleasant enough for a half-hour writing session. 

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