Apple’s iPad devices are feeling more and more like laptop alternatives, for better or for worse they are now overloaded with features that let them multitask and confuse people who just want to use them without learning about hidden functionality that allows that multitasking.
All of the multi-tasking functionality is hidden behind swipes and gestures that are so obtuse Apple has to explain in a series of videos:
If only they had just had some kind of interface around apps that let you handle these things, like, I don’t know, window borders…
Still, it must be hard to go from an approachable app-based interface to one that adds multitasking when your apps didn’t really have room for multitasking functionality to start.
Which brings us to Apple’s addition of mouse functionality to the iPad last year.
Mouse support was hit or miss for a little while, but newer bluetooth mice work well, and the mouse cursor even adjusts to take over certain UI elements, a genuinely nifty trick that hasn’t been done before and improves the experience of mousing. Especially when so many apps end up using standard interface controls. The only downside is that many apps do not really support the new mousing modes, this is especially apparent if you use remote desktop software like VNC Viewer which expects a touch and so you have to click on the trackpad while you move the cursor or the mouse cursor won’t move at all. There is probably some VNC software that works better, but that’s just how some apps are setup. There is no “hover” state with touch like there is with a mouse cursor, so apps won’t work right away and this keyboard accessory has been out for almost an entire year.
The first iPad shipped eleven years ago alongside an optional keyboard dock, an odd device that made ergonomic sense for a workstation but couldn’t really be picked up and carried around. It also had a portrait layout instead of the wider landscape view that people have come to expect. Portrait mode can be preferable for writing since you can see more of your document, but it might not work as well if you’re going to watch a show or movie or something else you’re writing about in a picture-in-picture window.
Since 2015 Apple has sold a series of Smart Keyboards and Smart Keyboard Folio devices for the iPad line that just included a keyboard but also were handy and wrapped around the iPad to provide some protection and could be positioned with the keyboard tucked away behind the iPad while still holding the tablet upright or below it for typing. Handy, but also expensive keyboards. They’re still available, and bluetooth keyboards, including Apple’s own have worked for years, but Apple finally made a keyboard that includes one of their fantastic trackpads in the superfluously named Magic Keyboard for iPad.
The Magic Keyboard for iPad is an exceedingly silly name, but it’s nice to see Apple being a little bit whimsical when they’ve altogether attempted to eliminate the easter egg and other nice things under the watchful gaze of Jony Ive before he disappeared into the white void. Sadly there is only one color available, and it is black.
All that to say, the new keyboard is pretty good. For a company that fucked up their laptop keyboards for a great deal of time, the Magic Keyboard for iPad seems great.
Typing on the blessedly-not-butterfly switch mechanisms is pleasant and makes a cute thocky noise that might sound a little bit like a cartoonish idea of popcorn popping. The arrow keys are spaced out well with enough distance from the rest of the modifiers and alpha cluster that your hands can find them easily. The keys are by default backlit and because this is Apple the illumination is very even behind the legends. Only on the larger keycaps (return, caps lock) show any variance in the backlight.
The keyboard attaches to the iPad through a series of magnets on the back, it feels very secure in that sense but because the iPad is heavier than the keyboard the whole contraption can feel a little unstable on a lap when you’re sitting on the couch.
Despite not being coated in some kind of fabric like the Smart Keyboard was, the Magic Keyboard for iPad still has a very odd, very prominent, seam that extends over every edge. Someone I know has used that Smart Keyboard for years and the fabric has peeled off and it looks terrible at this point. The seam presumably indicates that is what is holding the soft-touch plastic part on, but it isn’t exactly reassuring in terms of longevity for a keyboard that you would hope you could keep using even when there is a newer iPad.
Since I have switched my desktop usage to mechanical keyboards I haven’t used a thin keyboard switch like this in a while, and even a traditional layout is kind of unusual. I’m a pretty big person so having my hands typing so close together isn’t as comfortable as I would like without an ergonomic split. I should say that I’m trying the keyboard for the 12.9” iPad Pro, I imagine that the 11” iPad Pro or 4th generation iPad Air and its smaller Magic Keyboard for iPad would be less comfortable.
While the layout of this keyboard is pretty impressive for a small space, especially to fit the amazing trackpad, there are a few other quirks.
For one, just like the Smart Keyboards that came before, there is no function row on the Magic Keyboard for iPad. This means no media keys, so no control over the keyboard backlight or media playback that you’ve come to expect from decades of Apple keyboards that included media controls. The backlight can be manually configured in Settings as can the touchpad. No escape key, either. However the good news is that you can reconfigure the modifier keys to serve other functions:
You may also note the “Globe key” that is similar to the globe key on the software keyboard in iPadOS and iOS. This key lets you type emoji or in my case I use it to switch between different languages.
On my mechanical keyboards I usually program the caps-lock key to be a modifier that unlocks additional functionality. Caps-lock and the 1 key gives me F1 and you can do all kinds of other wild stuff Apple would never include but I truly miss.
Other reviewers have pointed out that this keyboard is a bit heavy, but I previously had a bulky protective case on this iPad so for me it is lighter than before.
The substantial hinge mechanism adds to that bulk, and also adds another USB-C port to the left side of the iPad which conveniently lets you charge the iPad from desk-level instead of having a cable hanging out mid-air. Very thoughtful, but I believe it charges a bit slower through that C port. (Update: an earlier version of this article said there was no metal-to-metal contact for charging, closer inspect revealed the following) The back of the Magic Keyboard’s folio portion connects to the iPad through three pins that make contact with three contacts on the back of the iPad. That USB-C port also can’t be used for data, so an external mouse or thumb drive can’t be used with the port at the hinge. That port must transmit just enough data for the keyboard signals and power for the backlight, so the good news is that you don’t have to charge the keyboard separately.
Sadly, the hinge also just isn’t as flexible as the Smart Keyboard. So you can’t leave the Magic Keyboard for iPad attached and use it like a stand but with the keyboard hidden behind the iPad.
There also just isn’t enough protection built into this case. While it is very easy to intentionally detach an iPad from the Magic Keyboard for iPad using the magnetic mechanism, you’re left with no protection at all but that is the only way I’ve found to keep using my iPad to watch a show while doing something messy like washing dishes. The Apple Store sells another case for the iPads that are compatible with the Magic Keyboard for iPad but with the MSRP for the keyboard case at an eye-watering $350 I’m not sure adding another $70 for that case on top is reasonable. You can even buy some iPads brand new for $300!
A basic M1 equipped MacBook Air is around a thousand dollars and is practically the most powerful computer you can buy right now, even more powerful than many of the “Pro” intel computers Apple still sells and it also has a keyboard built-in and runs macOS.
The iPad Pro 12.9” is the same thousand-dollar-ish price, but doesn’t include a keyboard or trackpad and is less flexible in some ways but more portable in others and has a processor that for all real purposes hasn’t been updated since 2018. Granted, the A12X still feels plenty fast but that is only because iPadOS is so aggressive about memory management and processing management. Applications on iPadOS just can’t hog resources like macOS programs can. Adding on the Magic Keyboard for iPad makes the iPad Pro Keyboard and Trackpad chimera about $1350.
The advantage the Magic Keyboard for iPad has is that it also works with iPad Pro devices from 2018 and the lesser-priced ($600) iPad Air. The iPad Air also has a newer processor (A14, non-X), but no FaceID and is only available in one size, 10.9 inches. The Magic Keyboard for the iPad Air and iPad Pro also starts cheaper, it’s $250. That is the iPad I’d probably recommend to someone who is desperate for one today unless you need the larger physical size (12.9”) and higher capacity of the 512 or 1TB storage on the iPad Pro. In which case the rumor sites are all imploring you to wait.
Wait for what? An updated iPad Pro. Ah, but will it work with the same Magic Keyboard for iPad? I have no idea, but you hope so.
Overall, I really enjoy the Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro more than I thought I would. I can be very productive with a bluetooth mouse and keyboard and the iPad, but bluetooth devices just aren’t as easy to set up and use as the Magic Keyboard for iPad.
However, in a desktop scenario the iPad can’t really be separated more from the Magic Keyboard which just isn’t as good ergonomically and that is disappointing, your display should be at or slightly below eye level but this is just how laptop-ish devices are. There are other quirks, the biggest of which is the ridiculous price, and that is why this amazing Magic Keyboard for iPad and trackpad only gets 3 out of 5 stars. It is magic, but wow do you pay for it.
Now, if I could dream, I’d have a real programmable mechanical keyboard attachment for the iPad, and could download an emulator or other software outside of Apple’s App Store without having to reauthorize the installation every few days.