If you really, really want your iPad Pro to be a laptop, a new keyboard in crowdfunding called the Libra may be of interest. It’s a keyboard case with a laptop-style design, similar to the Brydge model I tested a while back, but there’s a big difference: this one has a trackpad.
In case you weren’t aware, iPadOS has rudimentary mouse support. It’s not very refined and it’s buried deep in accessibility settings, but it’s there. Until now, though, making using of it has required either an external mouse or this weird touch-sensitive keyboard I tried a few months ago. The Libra is the first solution I’m aware of that gives you a laptop-style trackpad.
I do a lot of writing on my iPad Pro, and the constant need to reach up to the screen when editing text is probably my biggest complaint about the device. It feels much more natural to be able to keep your hands in the same position when typing and editing. What Steve Jobs said about touchscreen laptops is actually more true of the iPad Pro than any Windows alternative, because at least those let you use a trackpad as well.
So, how good a job does the Libra do? Actually, better than I expected. The trackpad isn’t anywhere near as good as what you’d get on a MacBook, of course. It’s smaller, for one thing, and doesn’t let you click from everywhere on its surface. But its performance is surprisingly solid. I’ve used many, many worse trackpads on computers running operating systems that are designed for them.
The Libra trackpad has limited gesture support. You can swipe down with two fingers to scroll, while a three-finger swipe returns you to the home screen, which I found pretty useful. The Libra’s makers, Sentis, say they’re working on more gestures like pinch to zoom, but it doesn’t work right now and it’s unclear how it would be supported in iPadOS.
For me, what matters most is that the trackpad works well for pointing the cursor and dragging to select text — and it does. The Libra does take a little getting used to, to be sure, and it’s clear that iPadOS isn’t intended to be used this way all the time. The cursor returns to the center of the display whenever you go back to the home screen, for example, while the slightest brush of the trackpad counts as a tap, which can cause some unexpected inputs. But within the narrow context of writing and text editing, I do enjoy using the Libra. It certainly beats reaching up to touch the screen.
The keyboard itself isn’t spectacular, and the keys are a little small — the width is fine, but I feel like the caps could’ve used an extra millimeter or two in vertical height. The RGB backlighting is also dim and uneven. It’s not a bad experience, though, and I imagine most people would prefer the keyfeel to that of Apple’s current MacBook lineup. The metal body feels reasonably sturdy, with a MacBook Air-style wedge-shaped design and “space gray” finish that’s a good match for Apple’s.
A note on crowdfunding:
Crowdfunding is a chaotic field by nature: companies looking for funding tend to make big promises. According to a study run by Kickstarter in 2015, roughly 1 in 10 “successful” products that reach their funding goals fail to actually deliver rewards. Of the ones that do deliver, delays, missed deadlines, or overpromised ideas mean that there’s often disappointment in store for those products that do get done.
The best defense is to use your best judgment. Ask yourself: does the product look legitimate? Is the company making outlandish claims? Is there a working prototype? Does the company mention existing plans to manufacture and ship finished products? Has it completed a Kickstarter before? And remember: you’re not necessarily buying a product when you back it on a crowdfunding site.
My favorite unexpected feature of the Libra is that it has not one but two USB-C ports — one for charging the keyboard and another for charging other devices. The 4,000mAh battery should be good for up to 200 days of battery life, so you can plug your phone in for a charge in a pinch. You can also do that from the iPad itself, of course, but it’s a nice option to have if you’re trying to conserve power on the tablet.
There are a couple of problems with the Libra that I’d hope to see fixed before it goes to final manufacturing. The keyboard uses similar hinges to the Brydge, but they’re not as good — they don’t grip the iPad tightly enough, so it can slide out pretty easily. I wouldn’t feel comfortable tossing the combination in a bag like I would a laptop.
I also don’t think the 120-degree opening angle is wide enough — it’s hard for me to see the Libra screen when using the Libra on my lap. The situation is better with a desk, and I’m 6-feet 4-inches tall so it’s probably less of a problem for most people, but you’d expect a laptop-style keyboard to be better suited for lap use. Again, it’s not a problem with the Brydge, which opens up to 180 degrees.
The Libra does have a unique selling point, though, and it’s one that works better than I thought it would. If you’re a writer, the trackpad makes a big difference to iPad productivity, and I hope to see a more polished version of this product — from Sentis, Brydge, or whoever — down the line. In the meantime, the Libra is currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter and is available from $109, with shipping expected to begin in January.