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Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro review: the best way to turn an iPad into a laptop

It’s what we’ve all been asking for — for better or worse

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At first glance, Apple’s new Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro looks like it’s exactly what so many people have been asking for: a well-made keyboard case with a trackpad that finally lets you use the iPad as a kind of laptop. 

After testing it over the weekend, I will tell you that it does that exact thing admirably. It’s a well-made, beautiful keyboard case that’s nice to type on and makes lots of work on the iPad much more convenient — or at least familiar. It’s also expensive, starting at $299 for the 11-inch version and $349 for the 12.9-inch version. (An entry-level iPad — yes, a complete iPad — will run you $329 before any discounts, for reference.)

So yes, finally, the Magic Keyboard lets you use your iPad Pro like a traditional clamshell laptop. It does exactly what it was designed to do, and it does it very well. I’m just not sure that it’s the right design in the first place.

The Magic Keyboard has comfortable, backlit keys and a trackpad that supports all of the gestures in iPadOS.
The Magic Keyboard has comfortable, backlit keys and a trackpad that supports all of the gestures in iPadOS.

The Keyboard

The most important part of any keyboard case is the keyboard, and I am happy to report that it is good. Apple calls this the Magic Keyboard, which, in part, is meant to let you know that it uses the same scissor-switch mechanism you’ll find on its other Magic Keyboards for the iMac and 16-inch MacBook Pro. This isn’t the dreaded butterfly switch keyboard from older MacBook Pros, nor is it the fabric-covered keyboard still found on the Smart Keyboard Folio for the iPad Pro. 

There’s good key travel and a relatively satisfying thunk. In fact, I think Apple may have explicitly decided to give up on the cult of thinness on this product in order to improve the keyboard’s feel. 

This isn’t identical to the new Magic Keyboard on the 16-inch MacBook Pro, however. The keys do have just an itty-bitty bit of wobble to them, but not enough to be a concern. I only note it here if you were thinking the branding meant it matched that MacBook Pro exactly.

The keyboard’s feel is great, but it lacks a function row

In the first of several “finallys” for the iPad, the keys are also backlit. They adjust automatically based on the ambient lighting conditions, and they were exactly the right brightness most of the time. However, if you just want to turn them off if you’re watching a movie in the dark or something, then you’re in for a hassle.

To fix that, you have to go to the iPad’s Settings app, then dig into General, then Hardware Keyboard, and only then will you be able to adjust the brightness using a slider. While you’re there, you may want to also remap one of your keys to Esc (I use Caps Lock) because there is no Esc key here.

Both of these hassles could have been immediately and instantly solved if Apple had simply put a function row of keys above the number row. There are plenty of system-wide buttons that would be useful there! Music controls, volume, screen and keyboard brightness, home, multitasking, search: all things for which it would be convenient to have dedicated buttons. 

After giving in and providing a clamshell design and a trackpad, leaving both the Esc key and a function row out seems obstinate. You will still be reaching (or swiping) up to the Control Center to manage essential functions all the time.

The trackpad on the Magic Keyboard is small by Apple standards, but it works very well.
The trackpad on the Magic Keyboard is small by Apple standards, but it works very well.

The Trackpad

The trackpad is good. That’s really the TL;DR of it. It is fairly small, of course, and if you’re used to the capacious trackpads on MacBooks, it will probably feel absolutely tiny. On the 12.9-inch unit I am reviewing, it’s almost exactly the same size as the trackpad on my Surface Pro — so it felt familiar to me, at least.

But the Magic Keyboard’s trackpad is better than the Surface’s because it lets you click anywhere on the trackpad, not just in the middle or at the bottom. It’s also smooth, accurate, and there’s zero lag on iPadOS.

Trackpad support on iPadOS is great, by the way. The cursor is a little dot most of the time, but it quickly changes to a traditional text cursor when appropriate. It also expands out to become the size of UI elements like buttons or icons, sort of snapping to them when you get close. That sounds annoying (and you can turn it off), but I quickly came to love it. 

Beyond clicking, scrolling, and highlighting text, you can use the trackpad for navigating the system. You use three fingers to swipe up to home and multitasking — or left and right to switch between recent apps.

Trackpad support in iPadOS is excellent, but it has a long way to go in third-party apps

The only place where it feels a bit off is when you drag the cursor to the edge of the screen. You kind of drag “beyond” that edge to slide in various things like the dock, Notification Center, Control Center, or your Slide Over apps. You get used to it, but it’s the one time when the stuff on-screen moves in the opposite direction of your fingers. 

Now, trackpad support on iPadOS and within Apple’s apps is great, but trackpad support on a bunch of third-party apps is absolutely not. Any app that doesn’t use Apple’s standard APIs for creating buttons or text views feels off-kilter with the trackpad. Stuff you can swipe with your finger can’t be swiped with the trackpad, text selection can be a fiasco, and the cursor doesn’t always do its neat shape-shifting tricks. Google’s apps are particularly guilty here, but they’re far from the only ones.

When attached to the Magic Keyboard, the iPad Pro floats above the keys, bringing the screen closer to your face and your fingers.
When attached to the Magic Keyboard, the iPad Pro floats above the keys, bringing the screen closer to your face and your fingers.

Build quality and design

The Magic Keyboard is built like a tank. That is both a blessing and a curse, however. There is nearly zero flex to the keyboard deck. The whole thing is stable on your lap and very well-balanced. It’s not tippy at all.

That balance probably comes partly from the Magic Keyboard’s most unique design element: the floating screen. The iPad doesn’t just angle up from the back of the keyboard deck like your laptop; it floats a little. It’s quite pretty. 

It also has the added benefit of moving the screen that much closer to your face when you’re working and also to your fingers when you want to reach up to use the touchscreen. Neither is something I would have told you I wanted, but it turns out, I really did. 

The whole action of opening it up and angling it in its floating position is one smooth motion. You definitely need two hands to do it — but making a one-finger lift was probably never in the cards in the first place. One thing you can do one-handed is pull the iPad off the Magic Keyboard when it’s open, which makes it easy to take advantage of the versatility that an iPad has over a laptop.

You can tilt the screen from 90 to 130 degrees, which sounds fine on paper. But in practice, 130 degrees is not nearly enough. It can feel cramped, especially if you’re used to pushing a laptop’s screen back when it’s on your lap.

The Magic Keyboard can only tilt back 130 degrees, which is fine on a table but cramped on your lap.
The Magic Keyboard can only tilt back 130 degrees, which is fine on a table but cramped on your lap.

There is a USB-C port on the side of the hinge, but it only does passthrough charging, not data transfer. That means if you plan to use an external display or USB hub with the iPad, you’re still stuck with dangling adapters off the side of the tablet. But it doesn’t seem to charge much slower than just plugging directly into the USB-C port on the iPad itself, and — more importantly — it’s much nicer to have a cable back and out of the way if you’re just charging.

But back to that tank analogy: I don’t make it (excuse the pun) lightly. The Magic Keyboard is heavy — so heavy that when I asked Apple for the official weight for both sizes, the company declined to share.

According to my kitchen scale, then, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard weighs just shy of three pounds, about 25 percent heavier than the iPad Pro with the older Smart Keyboard. Three pounds is the same weight as the 13-inch MacBook Pro and heavier than the new MacBook Air.

As I mentioned above, the Magic Keyboard is also fairly thick. For the typing experience, that’s great. For my bag, it’s not. The whole kit is thicker than my 13-inch MacBook Pro when closed. Of course, neither the MacBook Pro nor MacBook Air can shrink to half their thicknesses or weights when I just want to sit back on the couch and watch YouTube, but the iPad Pro can just ditch the Magic Keyboard and be an iPad.

The USB-C port on the case allows for passthrough charging of the iPad, but it doesn’t transfer video or data.
The USB-C port on the case allows for passthrough charging of the iPad, but it doesn’t transfer video or data.

Look, I’m just going to make a comparison here that I know is going to annoy a bunch of people, but I think it’s instructive. I have Microsoft’s Surface Pro X, which has a 13-inch screen, LTE, and runs Windows on ARM. Depending on your configurations, the price of the Surface Pro X and its keyboard is roughly comparable to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro with a Magic Keyboard. There are 5,000 words I could write comparing their software ecosystem differences, but let’s just talk hardware here.

The screens are about the same size. The trackpads are also about the same size. The Surface keyboard has a function row, and it also lets you tilt it up a bit. But it’s slightly more awkward on your lap. However, the Surface lets you tilt the screen to virtually any angle, even almost fully flat. The Surface also lets you flip the keyboard underneath so you can prop the tablet up to watch movies. When closed with the keyboard attached, the Surface is thinner. The Surface with its keyboard is lighter than the iPad with its keyboard. The Surface’s webcam is placed in the top center of the screen instead of off to the side.

I point all of this out not to say the Surface Pro X is better. (That’s more of a software and ecosystem question.) The Surface hardware is better suited to a wide array of laptop and tablet tasks, but its software is really best at being a laptop. The iPad software is great at a wide array of tablet and laptop tasks, but the Magic Keyboard hardware is really best at being a laptop.

What I’m trying to say is that hardware design isn’t inevitable. Apple made choices with the iPad Pro. It chose where to put the smart connector. It chose where to put the webcam. It chose not to put a kickstand on it. It chose to design the Magic Keyboard the way that it did. 

All of these are rational choices, but they have real-world consequences on ergonomics. The Magic Keyboard turns the iPad into a great laptop, though one that’s a little heavier and thicker than you might expect. But to me, the whole point of the iPad is that it isn’t a laptop.

For the past few years, there’s been an ongoing argument about whether the iPad is a computer — at least about what kind of computer it should be. So it’s natural to ask if the Magic Keyboard makes the iPad a better computer. That’s the wrong question. 

The right question is whether the Magic Keyboard makes the iPad a better iPad

The iPad Pro is by far the most versatile screen that I own. It’s incredibly portable. I use it like a laptop when I’m sitting at my desk or lounging in a chair. I watch movies on it. I read books. I use it as a second monitor for my MacBook via Sidecar. I use it just sitting there as a second computer for little things when my MacBook is overloaded. And though I’m not a heavy stylus user, propping the iPad up at a shallow angle for drawing is yet another thing that a MacBook can’t do. Hell — now that there’s trackpad support, you could plug it into an external monitor and use it as a literal desktop machine, like a Mac mini but running iPadOS.

The Magic Keyboard improves the iPad experience in only a handful of ways

The Magic Keyboard only improves a handful of those situations. It is an incredibly good, albeit expensive and heavy, way to use your iPad Pro like a laptop. If that’s what you want, this is a huge upgrade over what was available before, and you’ll love it. But what makes the iPad great is that it’s more than a laptop.

For all the other things I want to do with my iPad, the ergonomics of the Magic Keyboard are noticeably worse, which is why it’s nice that it’s so easy to remove the iPad and use it without a case at all. It makes the iPad a better iPad by its absence.

For all its faults, the Microsoft Surface feels like it was designed from the start to have a detachable keyboard. The iPad does not — and not even the very good Magic Keyboard can change that.

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