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By Jason Snell

Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro review: Living the dream

My iPad use has grown over the years. In 2014 I was frustrated by its limitations, but had started experimenting with writing on an iPad with Bluetooth keyboard. The arrival of the iPad Pro in 2015 crossed a threshold, and the iPad rapidly replaced all the places where I once used my MacBook Air.

As much as the Smart Keyboard made it clear that Apple endorsed the idea of writing on an iPad, and as good as the Smart Keyboard is, it still couldn’t quite match the experience of using a laptop. The Smart Keyboard was less stable when you used it on your lap, and while the membrane keys were surprisingly usable, they still weren’t a match for the real, physical keys you’d find on a laptop.

A few companies, most notably Brydge, offered accessories with a more laptop-like experience. When I considered the physical challenges of converting an iPad into a laptop screen—Brydge’s design requires you to slide an iPad into a couple of padded metal clips, and it has to be heavy enough to counterbalance the weight of the iPad—I became more convinced that Apple was never going to bother building anything that would just turn its thin and light tablet into a heavy laptop.

Less than five years after the iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard appeared on the scene, however, Apple has decided that it’s time for the full laptop experience on iPadOS. The new Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro isn’t just a physical keyboard that adds laptop-style weight and stability, though. It’s also got that trademark Apple fusion of software and hardware, thanks to a multi-touch trackpad and the full cursor support of iPadOS 13.4.

This is basically my iPad dream, fulfilled. But dreams are amorphous things, and they fall apart if you begin to interrogate them logically. The Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro isn’t a dream, it’s a real product, one that’s sitting in my lap right now. It’s one thing for Apple to decide that it’s time to offer a full laptop experience on the iPad—and an altogether different thing to execute that vision.

As I scrutinize the Magic Keyboard, it doesn’t fall apart as if it were a dream—it holds together, solidly. This is a product that isn’t for everyone, to be sure… but it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.

Solve for laptop

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro is that it’s not designed like a laptop. Instead, it’s designed to provide a laptop-like experience. When the product was announced, so many of us focused on that clever cantilevered design, in which the iPad floats above the keyboard, magnetically attached to a hinged backplate.

It’s a clever design, one that pushes the center of gravity of the combined unit forward, making it more stable (and requiring less weight to counterbalance it). But the result isn’t some new, weird floating-screen category of computer. The result is a laptop.

This is a good thing. You could argue that the design of the modern laptop is the result of four decades of evolution, pushing the PC ever closer toward its ideal form. Most computers are laptops.

So don’t get too hung up on the fact that the Magic Keyboard has two separate hinges, one at the back of the keyboard plane and one a third of the way up the other plane. In everyday use, you don’t need to think of it that way, because it works as a single mechanism. Like a laptop, you open it up in one motion, and both hinges extend as far as they can and then stop. Same deal with closing the iPad—it’s one motion, as you grab the top of the screen and push down until the whole thing closes. It’s smooth and laptop-like.

Yes, technically you can pivot the top hinge to reduce the iPad’s angle to perpendicular and, in fact, beyond that into the acute zone. It’s great that there’s some flexibility here, but truth be told, the maximum angle is the best angle. It would actually be nice if it opened a bit wider, but the iPad is already floating slightly above the top row of the keyboard. Any more tilt and the iPad would get in the way.

For my money, Apple has made the perfect set of trade-offs here. The screen angle, at least on the 12.9-inch model (I didn’t test the 11-inch keyboard), is quite comfortable. The balance on my lap seems almost perfect. And because of the double-hinge design, the screen is actually much closer to you than a laptop screen would be. This makes it easier to reach up and touch the display, which I found I still do a lot.

Just as when I used a touchscreen Chromebook, I found that sometimes you just want to reach up with a finger and scroll a webpage or document—and other times, you want to two-finger scroll on the trackpad. One gesture that I’ve found myself doing all the time is holding the bottom corner of the iPad in my hand, with several fingers pressed against its back, and then scrolling by flicking with my thumb.

When you close the whole thing up, it feels like a laptop. It’s solid and, yes, weighty. But instead of being sheathed in aluminum, like all the MacBooks, the Magic Keyboard is covered in the same rubbery gray material as the Smart Keyboard Folio and Smart Folio.

But you don’t need to carry it around like a laptop if you don’t want to. This is one of the things about the iPad that makes it so attractive—it’s truly a flexible, modular device that can be used in all sorts of different contexts. Since it’s only affixed to the Magic Keyboard via magnets, it’s easy to just pull the iPad off and leave the rest behind. That three-pound laptop turns into a 1.4-pound tablet. The real magic of this keyboard is in that transformation.

Keys to success

Since keyboard is in the name of the product, it’s probably worth talking about its actual keys. The 12.9-inch model I used to write this review is a full-sized Apple keyboard, a pretty close match to the exact width of the keyboard on my old 11-inch MacBook Air. The travel may be a little less, but overall this feels like a classic Apple laptop keyboard.

What my MacBook Air had that this one lacks is a row of (fractional-height) function keys, useful for making quick adjustments to brightness and controlling media playback. I can see why Apple left this row off, since the iPad already floats right above the number row. But if Apple’s not going to offer a function row, it needs to come up with another way to give keyboard users quick access to those other functions. It could allow users to redefine a modifier key as a function key, or maybe just let them assign global keyboard shortcuts to a handful of important functions, including brightness and media control.

But it needs to do something. To adjust the brightness of the backlighting—and yes, this keyboard is delightfully backlit—you need to open the Settings app, tap on General, tap on Keyboard, tap on Hardware Keyboard, and then use a slider to adjust the brightness. That’s ridiculous. (There’s no Escape key, either, but there’s a more-or-less global shortcut for that one—Command-period.)

The existence of the Magic Keyboard for the 11-inch iPad Pro has made me think about how much I loved my old 11-inch MacBook Air and wonder if perhaps I’d be happier with an 11-inch iPad Pro rather than the 12.9-inch model I currently favor. But I don’t think so.

The 11-inch model has to narrow several modifier keys in order to fit in the much narrower space of that device. As I wrote earlier, the 12.9-inch iPad is actually narrower than the 11-inch MacBook Air was, though its screen is taller (and of course, it’s heavier when paired with the Magic Keyboard).

I can’t be sure until I try it, but my gut feeling is that I’d prefer the full-sized keys and the greater screen size of the 12.9-inch model. That said, I am thinking that the 11-inch iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard is going to be a pretty awesome portable writing rig—and it’ll weigh the same as the 11-inch Air, too.

The trackpad makes its debut

The Magic Keyboard’s accompanying trackpad is small by modern Apple laptop standards, but it gets the job done just fine. Though it physically clicks (rather than sensing pressure and vibrating to fake a click, as Apple’s modern trackpads do), you can click anywhere on the surface. That beats my old MacBook Air, which got harder to click the further up the trackpad you went.

It’s a full-on multitouch trackpad, too, with support for all the two- and three-fingered gestures that are now a part of iPadOS. Two-finger scrolling is nice, yes, but three-finger swiping between apps is even nicer. The only gesture that has suffered a bit is pinching to zoom, mostly because I’ve gotten used to being able to pinch at a diagonal on the large Magic Trackpad 2 at my desk. This trackpad, which is wide but not tall, requires me to rotate my hand a little and do that pinch in the wider dimension. Or—imagine this—just pick my hand up off the keyboard and pinch on the screen instead.

I’ve already written about iPadOS 13.4’s pointing-device support, so suffice it to say that Apple has done a very good job, and navigating apps with a pointing device feels far more natural than you might expect for an operating system that was built with touch as its primary input. Beyond two-finger scrolling and three-finger multitasking, my favorite feature is the addition of a proper text-editing cursor.

I’ve always been reluctant to do heavy text-editing tasks on the iPad Pro, mostly because editing requires a lot of precision text selection—and my Mac was the best tool for that task. In apps that display the new text-editing cursor, I can move the insertion point and select text just as easily as I can on macOS.

A hubless charging option

Like the Smart Keyboard, the Magic Keyboard connects to the iPad Pro via the Smart Connector on the back. This makes the keyboard’s connection to the iPad more reliable, since it’s direct and doesn’t require Bluetooth. And it supplies the keyboard with power, so as long as your iPad is working, your keyboard is sure to work too.

The iPad’s Smart Connector port (in both of its iterations) can also pass power into the iPad. I think maybe the Logitech Base was the only product that ever provided external charge capabilities via a Smart Connector, and it was a very slow charger indeed.

The new Smart Connector introduced on the 2018 iPad Pro models seems to have a much faster charging capability than the previous generation, because the Magic Keyboard comes with a USB-C charging port on its left hinge. Depending on how you use your iPad, it’s either a great addition or an irrelevant one.

The USB-C port on the Magic Keyboard won’t charge your iPad as quickly as a USB-C fast charging plug will. If you need to charge your iPad quickly, plugging directly into the iPad will generally be preferable. And if you’re not using the USB-C port on the iPad, why not use it?

If, however, you do use the iPad’s USB-C port to connect accessories—I use it to attach wired headphones so I can edit podcasts with zero latency, or to attach a USB microphone so I can record podcasts, or to attach a USB storage device so I can copy files—then you might find yourself in certain circumstances where you’d like to charge your iPad while you’re also using one of those accessories. What happens if you need to record a podcast on your iPad but you’ll run out of battery if you don’t keep it charged?

In the past, the only solution to this problem was to carry an external USB hub with you. But the Magic Keyboard’s charging port lets you do both at once, and it means that a lot of iPad Pro travelers can now leave that extra USB hub at home.

The other use case I can see is someone who tends to leave the Magic Keyboard open on a desk or table, and brings the iPad Pro over to get some work done. You could keep the Magic Keyboard plugged in via the USB-C port and whenever you magnetically attached your iPad Pro to do some work, it would also top up the battery.

What would be nicer, of course, would be a USB-C port that was also capable of transferring data, so you you turn the Magic Keyboard into a full-fledged docking station. That way, if you attached your iPad Pro, it could automatically attach to networking, an external display, and other devices—plus power. Maybe that’s somewhere Apple can take the Smart Connector in a future generation of iPads. But for now, the USB-C charging port is a nice addition, especially for people who get antsy at the idea that they must unplug from power in order to attach a peripheral to their iPad.

One option among many

The Magic Keyboard (left) lacks the function keys of the Brydge Pro (right), but it brings the screen closer to your face—and your fingers.

The iPad Pro is a modular computer system, and you can choose to equip it to serve your needs. The Magic Keyboard gives the iPad Pro the ability to transform into a full-fledged laptop, complete with backlit laptop-style keys and trackpad.

Some people—and I am definitely in this group—have dreamed about a product like this for a long time. I couldn’t be happier that it exists. I haven’t traveled with a laptop regularly for years now. The Magic Keyboard lets my iPad Pro be a laptop when I need it to be—and the rest of the time, I can pull the iPad out of the Magic Keyboard and use it in tablet form.

It comes at a price, however. Not a metaphorical price—a real one. $299 for the 11-inch model and $349 for the 12.9-inch. That’s a lot of dough, but if you use your iPad Pro frequently as a laptop (or have been dreaming of doing so), it’s not unreasonable. What makes the high price a bit more palatable is that the Magic Keyboard is compatible with the 2018 models of iPad Pro as well as the 2020 updates, so users of the 2018 model won’t have to make an even more expensive purchase just to have the right to buy a keyboard.

Still, not everyone needs this product. The Smart Keyboard Folio is a better choice if you want to carry around a iPad with a keyboard, but don’t want it to feel like you’re lugging a laptop. If you only want to work on an iPad at a desk or table, you might be better off buying an inexpensive iPad stand (to get the iPad’s screen at an ergonomic height), a USB or Bluetooth keyboard of your choice, and a Magic Trackpad 2.

There are also plenty of other iPads out there, many of which support Apple’s original Smart Keyboard, and all of which work with pretty much any Bluetooth or USB keyboard. You can buy a 10.2-inch iPad for $329 and pair it with a $159 Smart Keyboard. Or buy an iPad mini and pair it with a cheap Bluetooth keyboard. There are a lot of options.

But if you want an iPad that can also be a full-fledged laptop, the Magic Keyboard is the answer. Apple now sells two more laptops, an 11-inch model that starts at $1098 and a 12.9-inch model that starts at $1348. Those are pro laptop prices, but guess what? The iPad Pro is a pro laptop now. If and when you want it to be.

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