By calling it the Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro, Apple is saying this keyboard is as good as the one it ships with the iMac. By pairing it with the iPad Pro and making it a laptop with a trackpad and full mouse support, the company is proposing that this is a viable MacBook replacement.
The first is true, the second is highly subjective. Yes, the keyboard here has very similar travel to Apple’s standalone Magic Keyboard, but I can’t say that it will definitely make the iPad Pro the right laptop setup for you.
Design first, ask questions later
The floating cantilever is a lovely Apple flourish from a company that almost forgot it used to have fun with its product design. Not only does it look cool, it helps elegantly solve the weight distribution issue while letting you adjust the screen angle on a hinge.
But it’s not the most practical or flexible decision.
You’re not stuck with the two fixed angles of the Smart Keyboard Folio, but there still isn’t much room for manoeuvre. You also can’t fold the Magic Keyboard back on itself when not in use. Instead, you have to detach the iPad off the keyboard completely when you want to do something with just the tablet.
This, coupled with the narrow angles to adjust the screen, indicate that the Magic Keyboard was designed for desk use. On my lap, with the iPad tilted right back, the weight meant it kept tipping backwards away from me. On a laptop, all the weight is in the base, whereas here the base is only heavy because it’s supporting the full weight of an enormous floating iPad.
There is zero flex in the keyboard. Its weight and sturdiness mean when typing or tapping the screen at a desk, the iPad itself barely wobbles. This is a different tale on the lap, where the narrow dimensions make for a more precarious typing experience. You have to keep your legs fairly close together, and the design feels very top-heavy, like a metallic palm tree in the wind.
These trade-offs are balanced by the excellent inclusion of passthrough USB-C charging in the left end of the main hinge. It charges your iPad Pro when docked (though more slowly than if plugged directly into the iPad), keeping the iPad’s own USB-C port free for peripherals. The power in the iPad itself powers the keyboard and its backlight.
Give me some space
Even though the keys here are much more comfortable to type on than the iPad Pro’s existing Smart Keyboard Folio (by virtue of the fact they are real, moving, traditional scissor-switch keys), they feel slightly cramped compared to the keys found on the latest MacBook Air.
I reviewed the 12.9in version, so I can’t speak to the 11in, but some of that version’s keys are half-size to fit in the full-size keyboard. Both sizes are compatible with the 2020 iPad Pros, as well as the older 2018 models.
Once I got over the adjustment period, which was several days longer than I anticipated, I found words flowing at the speed I can maintain at my laptop or desktop keyboards. It felt like it was the process of retraining my brain to the workflow needed for iPad that slowed me down, rather than the Magic Keyboard itself.
The Magic Keyboard’s design is flat and low, so it can be hard to make the adjustment from a laptop: there’s very little room for resting your wrists. The absence of a function row and media keys is just as irritating as it is with the Smart Keyboard Folio, and at some angles I found my fingernails hitting the underside of the iPad when typing.
The keys are backlit, although the backlight setting is buried under several settings menus. You either live with Apple’s auto brightness settings, which I found good, or learn where to go and adjust it regularly.
The Magic Keyboard is the first official iPad accessory to have a built-in trackpad and is part of Apple’s somewhat reluctant move to add mouse support to iPadOS. As a writer, it’s this hardware feature that made the keyboard and iPad setup easier to use. Selecting text is much more accurate with a cursor and means I didn’t have to reach up and select text using the touchscreen.
The cursor is a small circular blob that cleverly morphs to select whole UI elements and encourages you to learn where and when it can be used. It’s excellent, though some third-party apps have not caught up yet – such as Microsoft Word, where it doesn’t turn into a cursor to select text, meaning I still had to use touch input. Hopefully developers will catch up.
The trackpad’s gesture controls are just as important as cursor support as they further allow you to whizz around iPadOS without reaching up to touch the iPad’s display. Three-finger swipes between apps or to enter the app switcher are fully realised, as are pinch to zoom, Slider Over and Control Centre, the latter reached by flinging the cursor into the top right corner and then pushing a little more.
Just like all the best Apple software design, it’s playful, intuitive, and expertly integrated with the hardware.
Wait, how much?
Then again, the iPad Pro is already very expensive, and the Magic Keyboard shouldn’t be this expensive. If you’re balking at the maths, you’re probably going to stick with a MacBook.
But you can’t detach the MacBook’s display and chuck it in a bag. The MacBook doesn’t have a touchscreen that integrates with a trackpad, and you can’t draw on its display with the Apple Pencil.
On its own, the Magic Keyboard is undoubtedly expensive. But it’s the latest piece of Apple’s modular iPad Pro puzzle, and if that appeals to you and your workflow, then it’s going to make the MacBook look stunted. For others, it’s an expensive curiosity.
If you’re interested in cheaper alternatives, read our guide to the best iPad keyboards.
Verdict: What’s a computer (to you)?
The Magic Keyboard is undoubtedly the best keyboard you can get for the iPad Pro, and I think that whether or not it can work for you as a laptop is not down to the keyboard itself. It’s down to your relationship with computing and how reluctant you are to switch to iPadOS from macOS (or Windows – we’ll admit it exists just this once).
I am someone who personally aspires to use an iPad Pro as my main daily computer. As a writer, I find that its form factor, modularity, 4G SIM slot, great battery life and killer performance all chime with me. But for all these positives, the combination of it and the Magic Keyboard still can’t completely win me over yet.
I think it’s because I’m a writer with a love of file systems who needs a laptop to deal with the quirks of publishers’ bespoke content management systems while multitasking on a larger display. This isn’t to say I won’t change my mind; it just depends if I can persevere with retraining my ingrained desktop sensibilities.
I find this very frustrating given that the Magic Keyboard is so pleasant to type on and a massive upgrade on the Smart Keyboard Folio. The iPad is a very chameleon-like device, and we all use it differently. The Magic Keyboard insists you use it one way or not at all, and that’s a little jarring.
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