Let’s just get this out of the way: the latest iPad Pro is still the best tablet you can buy, made even better by its improved camera and updated processor. Period. That being said, the newest addition to its list of Apple-made accessories, the $299-and-up Magic Keyboard, serves as both a sign of the iPad’s near-inexorable rise as the future of computing, as well as a bump in the otherwise fairly smooth road.
The newest accessory adds what many people have been clamoring for — a real trackpad — to the iPad Pro’s arsenal, and does a pretty good job of it. But for a tablet so versatile, its newest attachment is quite inflexible, and in so many ways. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its bright spots, but it would benefit from some much-needed design changes before it becomes a truly killer accessory.
It’s difficult to fault the refreshed iPad Pro, especially when you consider its heritage. The iPad has long established itself as a sort of platonic tablet, one that ditches cumbersome desktop software like macOS for iOS, and more recently for its tablet-specific spinoff, iPadOS.
In the new iPad Pro’s case, not much has changed. It’s still got its killer high-resolution “Liquid Retina Display,” and still eschews ports of all sorts save for a single USB-C connection. The biggest changes are actually minor: an improved A12Z processor based on the previous iPad Pro’s A12X chip, and an improved camera module that takes cues from its iPhone brethren, with both a wide-angle and ultrawide-angle lens available for you to snap away. Are you going to use the improved camera, with its integrated LiDAR rangefinder for improved portrait mode photos and better, more accurate augmented reality apps? Probably. But taking pictures with an iPad is not exactly a priority for most.
As for the new Magic Keyboard, the jury is still out.
The iPad Pro magnetically attaches to the top half of the Magic Keyboard and, when angled, gives the tablet the appearance of floating over the keyboard. Its USB-C charging port, integrated into the hinge, is useful, facing the opposite direction of the iPad Pro’s own USB-C port. It’s gorgeous to look at, but compromised in practice. The viewing angles are pretty good, but trying to adjust it for use anywhere other than a desk will leave you disappointed. And features like the option to flip the keyboard completely around are nowhere to be found, frustrating for when you want to carry the entire package while looking at the display.
Unlike Apple’s other iPad keyboard case, the Smart Keyboard Folio, the Magic Keyboard mimics the hard, plastic chiclet-style keys found on the company’s laptops and desktop keyboards, so it’ll feel instantly familiar to Mac users. It ditches the problematic “butterfly” keys used in older MacBooks, using the more reliable scissor mechanism. It’s a joy to type on and, if you also write for money, is worth the additional cost compared to the squishy keys in the Smart Keyboard Folio. The rectangular trackpad measures a little over four inches from corner to corner. There’s no doubt it’ll take some retraining when it comes to using the iPad Pro with the trackpad, but it’s a retraining many will come to appreciate.
The trackpad’s functionality on the iPad Pro is surprisingly user-friendly, and has a few tricks up its sleeve competitors should adopt on everything from Android tablets to desktop PCs. Small buttons like X icons for closing tabs are instantly selected when you move your mouse close enough, saving you the headache of hitting such a small target. When moved next to text, the faint gray orb signifying your mouse cursor transforms into a blinking editing variant, letting you highlight and copy or paste whatever you’re hovering over. The cursor itself floats around like a user-controlled sprite, lilting and melding with selectable apps, buttons to send messages, or other parts of the iPad’s software as though the cursor is magnetically attracted to them. It handles the tail end of navigating with a trackpad flawlessly, which makes it feel more refined than the cursors we’ve been using for, at this point, decades.
It also supports gesture controls, letting you swipe with multiple fingers to switch apps or return to the home screen. But its minuscule size makes getting all your fingers to play nice together in the space more trouble than it’s worth, leaving one wondering why they’re not just performing the same gesture on the generously large screen that’s right there in front of you. The Magic Keyboard is also missing an escape key (as well as function keys) — a frustration Apple has addressed in its newer MacBook laptops, but seemingly missed when developing the Magic Keyboard.
Am I being a bit nitpicky? Yes, but for good reason. Detachable keyboards have gone through a serious design renaissance, driven primarily by Microsoft jumpstarting the detachable laptop category with its Surface laptops. Microsoft’s renditions have steadily improved, with the latest version found on its (admittedly undercooked) Surface Pro X featuring a handy hidden indent for its slim Surface Pen and the ability to lay flat against the Surface device’s back.
When you compare the two, it’s clear Microsoft has the lead in the design department, with Apple’s version lending more to form than function. It’s somewhat disappointing, especially when attached to the increasingly functional iPad Pro.
Why no spot for the Apple Pencil? Why the ridiculously acute adjustment angle that forces you to live with what the company considers a “perfect viewing angle?” Why can’t you flip the keyboard like you can with its older Smart Keyboard Folio? Why does a keyboard cost as much as $299, or $349 for the 12-inch version?
Many Apple users have long wanted an iPad trackpad, myself included. Still, its addition somewhat compromises the ideals the iPad Pro was meant to convey. This tablet is supposed to be the future of computing, which is why it ditched everything from SD card slots to the headphone jack to the idea of a trackpad in the first place. But the keyboard is a welcome option nonetheless. Whether it’s worth the high price point and lack of flexibility when it comes to angle adjustment or day-to-day use depends on how much you love (or hate) touching your touch-friendly tablet.
The Magic Keyboard is certainly not perfect, but wordsmiths will grow to love the keyboard and trackpad, as well as the additional USB-C port. While it isn’t as refined as offerings from competitors, and still leaves the the Apple Pencil hanging onto the iPad like a forgotten coffee cup on the roof of a car, here’s hoping the welcome refinements are kept while the rough edges are sanded off in the next version.