Sometimes a product comes along in the Apple environment that you don’t need but you really want. This year it’s the Magic Keyboard for iPads Pro. At $300 for the 11″ and $350 for the 12.9″ iPad Pro, as Robb Dunnewood would say, “It costs a grip.” You can buy an entire brand-new 10.2″ iPad for less than that! (7th generation iPad at $329.)
I’ve been a huge fan of the Smart Keyboard Folio for iPad Pro ever since it came out. At $200 for the 12.9″ and $179 for the 11″ iPad Pro, people used to complain about the price. Well now that $200 isn’t lookin’ so bad, is it?
At this point you might be asking, “What problem are you trying to solve, Allison?” The only excuse I can make is that I wanted the new one because, well, shiny! You get that. My old Smart Folio is showing signs of wear, so I could throw that in. Plus, it was my birthday and that’s what frivolous gifts are for, right? Work with me here.
What I liked about the Smart Keyboard Folio
Before I start talking about the new Magic Keyboard for iPad, let’s review what I liked about the Smart Keyboard Folio. First of all, compared to any other attached keyboard for iPad, it is significantly lighter. The Brydge keyboard actually doubles the weight of the iPad, and the Logitech keyboards, while truly awesome typing devices, are super heavy too. The Keyboard Folio was the lightest of the bunch. Since I sport a 12.9” iPad Pro, I don’t need any extra weight added on.
Before the Smart Keyboard Folio came out, there was the original Smart Keyboard for iPad. It was kind of floopy so it would bend a lot when you had it on an uneven surface like your lap. It was also a bit of an origami project to fold and unfold it. I got pretty good at it but if I handed it to someone, they’d be baffled how to set it up.
The Smart Keyboard Folio (again which is still available) has a very sturdy flat bottom, no floopiness and is very simple to fold up and unfold. It has exactly two viewing angles but I only used one of the angles. It was great sitting on the counter in the bathroom for morning video podcast watching and also still great in my lap on the couch.
I also really liked typing on the Smart Keyboard Folio. I liked it and still do like it better than the keyboard on my 2016 MacBook Pro and even better than the new and improved keyboard on the 2019 16” MacBook Pro. I know it’s heresy to say that but remember, keyboards are opinion pieces, not facts. I’ve said it before, declaring the feel of a keyboard as categorically bad or good doesn’t make sense because it’s all about whether you like it or not.
I’ve told you all that about the Smart Keyboard Folio so you can use it as a reference for what I like and don’t like about the new Magic Keyboard for iPad. It also might help you make a decision between the two. For twice the price, the Magic Keyboard better be awesome.
Let’s start with the most important feature: typing. In my opinion, typing on the Magic Keyboard on a flat surface is an absolute delight. The surface of the keys is soft and smooth, which is very pleasing, and the travel of the keys combined with the resistance is exactly balanced for me.
The Magic Keyboard, as I’m sure you’ve seen, holds the iPad up, almost like it’s floating above the keyboard. Having it up like that is delightful. There’s a price to be paid with the floating iPad and that’s that it isn’t as stable as the Smart Folio. On a flat surface it does sit flat, but on my lap in a chair it has a tendency to rock back just a bit so that when I put my hands on it, I’m pushing it back down. The farther back I’m relaxing (like reclining in an easy chair), the better it is at sitting flat. Sitting upright in a chair like you would at a conference, the tilt would bother me a little bit.
I like to sit in bed in the morning with my first cup of coffee and doodle on the Internet. I sit cross-legged (which I know is unusual for a 62-year old but I’m still pretty flexible in my dotage). I put the iPad Pro on a pillow in front of me and type to Pat and Helma and Dorothy. The new Magic Keyboard absolutely does not work sitting on a pillow. It falls back about 15 degrees. I tried pulling it way forward so it’s tilted oddly towards me and it sort of balanced but I have to say, this device isn’t made for pillows. With my legs stretched out straight, typing on it works great though. I’ll have to see if I can get used to that position.
I have noticed one unfortunate side effect of the iPad floating above the keyboard that I really didn’t expect. As I’m typing letters in the top row, the tops of my fingernails sometimes hit the bottom edge of the iPad. It’s not like they get stuck there or anything but just an annoyance I didn’t expect. I imagine over time, my fingers might automatically adjust and I’ll get used to it. I hope so. I’m writing this up on the iPad with the Magic Keyboard so maybe by the end of it I’ll let you know if it’s stopped happening!
The Magic Keyboard comes with a built-in trackpad, and I really wondered where a trackpad would fit into iPad life. It seems like we don’t need one since the iPad is basically a giant trackpad, right?
The main place the trackpad on the Magic Keyboard rocks on iPad OS is when you’re trying to finely place the cursor between two characters of text. It is so very much easier to place the cursor accurately in text with the trackpad than with your finger.
Apple spent some programming calories making the cursor in iPadOS adapt and change shape as you move it over different kinds of targets in apps. When you’re not over any kind of target, it’s a small grey circle but if you slide over a button it takes on the shape of that target. Unfortunately, not everything that looks like the same kind of target is truly the same under the hood. As a result, sometimes the cursor stays a circle when I expect it to change to another shape as I hover over something that looks like a button. While entertaining to see the cursor change shape, I’m not sure that graphical change is much more than a parlor trick.
Beyond text editing, using the trackpad to tap a target seems incredibly inefficient to me. Maybe it’s a matter of getting into the habit of using the trackpad in order to realize the benefits, but right now it seems much faster to reach up with my entire arm to tap a target with my finger than it does to move my finger from the keyboard to the trackpad and then slide around until I get to the target. You can play with trackpad settings to speed up the movement so maybe with a faster setting I’d find it more efficient.
There’s one really super dumb thing about the trackpad. If you double-tap with your plain old finger on the screen of an iPad (or iPhone), you can select a word and when highlighted you’ll see two selection handles. If you can manage to grab one of those handles with your pudgy finger, you can drag to select more text.
Another method of selecting multiple words is to use your pudgy digit to double-tap and then drag across the words you want. Not so with the Magic Keyboard’s trackpad. If you double-tap with the trackpad on the Magic Keyboard, you don’t get the handles, you just get the one word and it doesn’t get the handles to drag for more words. If you try to push and drag on the single word that’s selected, it picks the word up and starts to move it around. I do not understand why they did it this way, and it’s so terrifically limiting that I’m certain they’ll change it in a software update.
I should note that you can select a word with a double click and then move the cursor to the end of what you want to select, hold down shift and then tap with the trackpad and that does work. Of course even as you hear how clumsy it is to describe, it’s not much less clumsy to execute.
Here’s another thing that can be fixed in software. My habit is still to use my fat finger to move the cursor in text. As soon as I do it, I realize that I can refine it with the trackpad. But for some reason, it did not occur to the developers to have the cursor start moving right where I just tapped with my finger in the text. The cursor begins to move with the trackpad but it starts in some random location on screen. It’s very disconcerting and unhelpful, and I hope they fix it.
Magic Keyboard with Sidecar
One of the greatest enhancements to macOS Catalina for me was the inclusion of Sidecar. This feature allows late-model iPads paired with late-model Macs to be used as an extra display. I know, I’m seriously spoiled with a 27” 5K display paired with my MacBook Pro, but when I’m doing the live show I need all the screen real estate I can get. You’d think I could use the display on my MacBook Pro for overflow applications but you’d be wrong.
Because of the location and angle of the laptop, and the very narrow depth of field I have with my new man-made lenses from cataract surgery, it’s just far enough away that I can’t read the laptop screen. Because of its size, the iPad can be put right at a location that’s in my focal range, so I drag the Discord chat room over there and it never gets covered up by one of the 28 other apps I run to create the live show.
I also love Sidecar for when I’m away from my desk. One of my favorite uses is to throw a macOS browser window onto the iPad and use it to display my programming project. That way I can have lots of windows open on the laptop screen but never obscure the output Safari window. I think I’m noticing a pattern here. I think I use the iPad with Sidecar as a way to combat my bad habit of sprinkling windows all over the place and constantly having to drag them around to find things. For some reason, the iPad screen becomes sacred to me and I only put one window over there.
In any case, I bring up Sidecar in the discussion of the new Magic Keyboard because I think Apple made a couple of super dumb decisions with the implementation of Sidecar. No matter what your configuration of hardware is, the first dumb thing Apple did was make it so that you cannot use your fingers on the iPad screen to select or scroll when it’s displaying a macOS window via Sidecar. Because it’s an iPad, your brain thinks it’s possible to use your fingers, but you can’t use your finger because macOS doesn’t have a touch interface. You can, oddly, use Apple Pencil to select things inside macoOS on iPad. It is as inefficient as it sounds to let go of the Mac keyboard, reach over, grab your Pencil and then tap something. I’m sure there are artistic reasons you’d want to use Pencil on screen but I wish I could use my stubby little fingers.
While you can’t use your fingers on the iPad screen to scroll, you can use the attached keyboard on an iPad when it’s in Sidecar mode. In my use case of having the chat room on the iPad as a secondary screen, it is very natural to use the iPad’s keyboard when interacting with macOS on iPad. This works perfectly with the original Keyboard Folio and the new Magic Keyboard.
However, for some totally dumb, idiotic reason, Apple does not allow you to use the trackpad on the Magic Keyboard to move around and select on the iPad’s screen in Sidecar mode. Why the stinking heck can you use the keyboard and NOT the trackpad? Makes zero sense. This is another thing they can obviously fix in an update to iPad OS, but the only polite reason I can think of for this is that it just didn’t occur to them to enable it. Maybe the iPad OS people didn’t ever talk to the Sidecar people on the macOS team?
Let’s Talk Angles
There’s a lot of chatter on the Internets about the angles of the new Magic Keyboard. Of course, I had to get out a trusty plastic protractor from the 1970s to compare the viewing angles on the Magic Keyboard to those on the Smart Folio Keyboard.
The older generation Smart Folio Keyboard has two angles and two angles only. Your choices are 27° or 42° back from vertical. I never used it at the 27° angle. The only time I ever tried it at that 27° angle was when I was utterly exhausted and tried to watch or read something lying flat in bed with my iPad on my belly. I still couldn’t see the screen because it wasn’t straight up enough.
In contrast, the Magic Keyboard has continuous rotation which got people super excited, but in usage has frustrated some. The range of motion is from 20° forward of vertical to 35° back. While the new keyboard has a much larger range of rotation (55° range on the new keyboard vs. a 15° change on the old keyboard), it can’t go back quite as far as the old keyboard. In fact, it’s shy by 7°.
Just as I don’t think it’s fair to declare a keyboard bad or good, I don’t think we can say that people bellyaching about that lost 7° are necessarily wrong. If I’d never had the other keyboard, I don’t think I’d ever have said I wish it went back farther. Their opinion is completely valid of course, but it seems that 35° back is enough for me.
You might be wondering why they don’t let it go back farther than 35°. It’s a problem with the center of gravity of the tablet itself. If you rotate it back much farther, it would start to fall backward in more situations. Physics is a harsh mistress, my friend.
But here’s the good news. Remember that it can actually rotate forward towards you by 20°. This means you can now lie down in bed and read or watch video on the new Smart Keyboard and have a great viewing angle! And here’s a pro tip. The measurements I made (and had Steve double-check) with our trusty protractor were with the case open in its full upright position. But the hinge is so tight that you can actually open it to much shallower angles and still view the screen. So if the locked positions aren’t enough range forward for you, try collapsing the hinge a bit more.
I mentioned the hinge on the Magic Keyboard. It’s a round, metal cylinder and on the left side, it has a USB-C charging port. No, you can’t plug in a mouse or a disk drive. Well, that’s not entirely true. You can plug in a mouse or a disk drive but they won’t do anything. This port is strictly for charging the iPad.
Its main value is that you now have a port on the left and the right, which is awesome, but it has the extra advantage of putting the cable down low instead of hanging halfway up the side of the iPad. That’s a very bad thing though, because my brain is trained to look for this ludicrous cable hanging off of it. The first morning after I charged via the hinge port, I simply dragged my iPad off the counter and nearly ripped the charger off the wall because I simply didn’t see it. Maybe I can be trained. We’ll see.
But speaking of charging, my experience in about 1.5 days of usage is that this keyboard is making my battery drop like a stone! Normally I never charge during the day because the 12.9” iPad Pro has a wicked good battery. Imagine my surprise when at 9 pm on my first day with the Magic Keyboard and I got a battery warning that said I was at 1%! A little more warning would have been lovely. I only had the new keyboard for half a day, so it really was an extraordinary drop in battery.
As I’m writing this I’ve been typing for a long time so the usage is much more than on the first day. At 3pm I had to plug it in because it had dropped to 13%. I had been watching it drop and I lost 12% of my battery in only 45 minutes. That just ain’t right. I did a search on Twitter and found only a smattering of people chatting about it. Perhaps the number of people with them is probably fairly small right now, or perhaps it’s not widespread. If it is a widespread problem, Apple will fix it. Here’s to life on the bleeding edge!
Remember early on when I mocked the Brydge keyboard because it doubled the weight of the iPad? Yeah, about that. The 12.9″ iPad Pro weighs 645g and the Magic Keyboard weighs 701g. More than doubles the weight. In comparison the Smart Keyboard Folio only weighs 401g so the Magic Keyboard is 57% heavier than that. I think the trick to living with the weight is to not buy a 12.9″ iPad Pro and a MacBook Air. Then the iPad Pro feels like a boat anchor with the Magic Keyboard. Instead buy the hefty 16″ MacBook Pro which weighs in at just under 2000g (1958 to be exact) and now the iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard feels pretty acceptable. I’m here for you with solutions!
When I started writing this article using the Magic Keyboard on the iPad Pro this morning, I wasn’t sold on the device. I actually thought I might send it back. But then about halfway through writing the article, I switched back to the Smart Keyboard Folio. That’s when I realized that I truly love typing on the Magic Keyboard. The Smart Keyboard Folio feels harder to push down the keys and it’s far less satisfying to type on … for me. I don’t have metrics to back this up, but it also feels like my accuracy is higher on the new Magic Keyboard.
And guess what else? Remember how the tops of my fingernails were hitting the underside of the floating iPad when I started writing the article? Well, I got used to it evidently because I don’t notice it at all anymore.
So here’s the deal. If you have a 2018 or later iPad Pro with the Smart Keyboard Folio and you have $300 to $350 to light on fire, run out and get the new Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro. It’s pretty awesome.
But if you only have that half that much money to light on fire and you don’t have any keyboard at all for your 2018 or later iPad Pro, the Smart Keyboard Folio is amazing too. And remember you’ll be saving 300g of weight too.
Having a keyboard on an iPad of any kind, in my opinion, makes it a much more useful device and one I can’t live without. Ok, I could live without it, but you know what I mean!