Home Life Hands-on: Apple’s $300+ Magic Keyboards turn iPad Pros into business laptops
Hands-on: Apple’s $300+ Magic Keyboards turn iPad Pros into business laptops

Hands-on: Apple’s $300+ Magic Keyboards turn iPad Pros into business laptops

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When the iPad launched 10 years ago, no one was sure whether tablets would replace laptops — a legitimate business concern for Apple, since cheap iPads might cannibalize and cut into profits from its expensive Macs. Over the years, Apple addressed the issue by releasing “professional” $799 and $999 models, using overpriced accessories to ensure that iPad Pro tablets would deliver MacBook Pro-level profits.

Apple currently sells roughly 3 times as many iPads as Macs, but despite their greater popularity, the tablets have struggled to hold their own as business computers due to missing software and hardware support. Last month, Apple addressed the software side by adding more Mac-like features to iPadOS 13.4, including trackpad and mouse support that will let iPads run enterprise- and small business-class productivity applications. Now it’s tackling the hardware side with the Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro, available in 11-inch and 12.9-inch sizes. (I purchased and tested the 12.9-inch version.)

Thanks to Microsoft’s Surface lineup, the appeal of a tablet that can switch hit as a laptop is as obvious to C-suite executives as to frontline workers. A single device can serve as your business PC during the day and bedside video player at night, and you can add a trackpad and keyboard whenever necessary. Apple may be late to this party, but it’s finally ready to cater to the large group of customers who wanted the iPad to be more Mac-like for work.

Unfortunately, the iPad Pro versions of the Magic Keyboard don’t come cheap. The 11-inch version sells for $299, with the 12.9-inch model priced at $349, which means you’ll pay either $1,098 or $1,348 for a 64GB iPad Pro with Apple’s trackpad-keyboard solution. In other words, Apple wants you to really think about whether you value a tablet’s versatility over a 128GB $999 MacBook Air or $1,299 MacBook Pro, and if so, pay a premium for it.

If you’re considering turning an iPad into a laptop, here are the seven key things you need to know.

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1. Magic Keyboard looks sort of cheap for its price

Microsoft chose a premium automotive fabric called alcantara to give its Type Covers a suede-like texture and greater durability, but Apple has largely leaned on vinyl for its portable keyboard accessories. Just like Apple’s trackpad-less Smart Keyboard, the Magic Keyboard has a vinyl body rather than metal (or Apple’s other iPad accessory material option, leather), so it’s highly likely to show signs of wear after a year or so of typical use. My unit’s exterior showed smudges within seconds of sitting on my dining room table.

It looked nice straight out of the box, though. Matching the black vinyl, the keys are jet black and internally backlit, automatically illuminating to a level based on ambient room brightness. You can further adjust that level (and a few other settings) in the iPad’s Settings app under Keyboard > Hardware Keyboard.

Apple only uses metal in one obvious place: the hinge system located behind the iPad. On a positive note, both the top and bottom of the case appear to be reinforced internally with sturdy metal plates, However, the parts of the Magic Keyboard that are exposed to air will likely wear like plastic, including the entirely plastic palmrest area, which will probably become shiny over time as it rubs against your hands.

Bear in mind that Apple originally sold an iPad Keyboard Dock framed in thick aluminum for only $69. It’s not like the company couldn’t have done better here for $299 or $349.

2. It gives the iPad a second USB-C port

One somewhat underappreciated element of the Magic Keyboard is hidden in the new hinge: an additional USB-C port. Initial testing suggests that this port delivers power (at a reduced speed) to both the iPad Pro and keyboard, but Apple makes no guarantees about its data performance. In other words, the iPad Pro’s own USB-C port is now free for any type of accessory you might want to connect, while the keyboard port can be reliably used for charging.

Apple enables this port by tapping into the iPad’s Smart Connector — the three metal dots on the Pro’s back, which connect to the Magic Keyboard to provide seamless, low-latency trackpad and keyboard input. This means that there’s no battery inside the Magic Keyboard and no need for a Bluetooth connection between the accessory and iPad.

3. The keyboard is mechanically sound but lacks keys

Several years ago, Apple laptops adopted “butterfly” keyboard mechanisms that were easily damaged — a huge problem for lots of users, particularly workers and students who couldn’t give their machines up for multi-day keyboard repairs. This was an unforced error: Apple already offered a wholly viable alternative in its Magic Keyboard Mac accessories, which were superior to both butterfly keys and the squishier rubber dome keys it used in iPad Smart Keyboards.

The iPad Pro Magic Keyboard finally brings that caliber of keyboard back to iPad accessories for the first time since Apple’s aforementioned iPad Keyboard Dock. Individual keys have a satisfying level of travel from normal to fully depressed states, plus enough size and spacing that even big adult fingers won’t accidentally hit the wrong keys.

Above: Apple’s Magic Keyboard has fewer keys than Logitech’s Combo Touch keyboard, shown at left.

Image Credit: Jeremy Horwitz/VentureBeat

On the other hand, you don’t get the same number of keys found on a standard Mac Magic Keyboard. While the iPad Pro version includes a full set of number, symbol, letter, and arrow keys, it doesn’t have the top row of either full- or half-height function keys found on Mac keyboards. It also doesn’t have an escape key, which might be an issue for some programmers.

It’s been claimed, wrongly, that omitting function keys on the iPad was an intentional choice for “philosophical” reasons. But the original iPad Keyboard Dock (personally overseen by Steve Jobs) included a complete row of half-height function keys. They strike me as a particularly sad omission for such an expensive keyboard accessory, and unlike other options, limit the Magic Keyboard’s ability to quickly change brightness, volume, music, or other settings without using the trackpad.

4. The multi-touch trackpad is small but solid

When Apple picked the name “Magic Trackpad” for its $99 Mac wireless trackpad, it underscored both the abnormally large multi-touch surface and the hidden buttons underneath: How could a big silver piece of glass eclipse a laptop trackpad without obvious buttons? Then the $129 Magic Trackpad 2 went even further, expanding the touch surface beyond the size of a full adult hand, hiding a full rechargeable battery underneath, and eliminating buttons entirely in favor of a haptic system. It doesn’t actually move when you click it; you just think it does because of haptic vibrations.

The iPad Pro’s Magic Keyboard is not as impressive as either the Mac’s Magic Trackpad 2 or Magic Trackpad. It’s much smaller — almost identical to the size of a business card, just a little wider — and it’s fully mechanical rather than haptic, so you actually press it down rather than just feeling click vibrations. Apple’s only remaining “magic” here is its thinness, which is aided by this Magic Keyboard’s lack of any internal battery.

Above: The trackpad on the 12.9-inch Magic Keyboard is only a little wider than a standard business card.

Image Credit: Jeremy Horwitz/VentureBeat

That said, the presence of a bona fide Apple trackpad is a major step forward for the iPad Pro. Thanks to iPadOS 13.4, you can swipe with three fingers to switch Safari tabs. With two fingers, you can pull down the Spotlight search menu in iPadOS, and pinch to zoom in or out in apps. You can also use a single finger to move the iPad’s new circular cursor around, pressing down for a left click, or use two fingers for a right-click.

As always, Apple’s glass tracking surface feels smooth, with just a hint of matte resistance on your fingers. I found the trackpad surface just big enough for four adult fingers to rest comfortably — almost the same dimensions as a business card, but a pinky finger wider. Cursor responsiveness from iPadOS was zippy, and you can calibrate it to your personal liking.

5. The case offers weak edge protection and limited but decent angle adjustability

I’ve never been a fan of Apple’s approach to “folio” case design. In the name of simplicity, Apple’s latest cases cover the iPad’s back, front, and left sides but expose the top, right, and bottom edges. If you accidentally drop the iPad on the ground, expect a dent or shattered glass, perhaps both.

At Apple’s $79-$99 folio prices, this was a nonstarter for me, but after trying $20 clones on Amazon, I’ve come to appreciate the originals’ elegance — while handling them gingerly to avoid damage. With the Magic Keyboard, which reuses the same basic design, you have to decide whether to assume the even greater risk of damaging both a $799+ tablet and a $299+ trackpad-keyboard case.

That said, the Magic Keyboard feels a lot more solid than Apple’s folios. It weighs more than the iPad Pro on its own, coming together for a weight that’s roughly comparable to an all-in-one MacBook Pro laptop. The 12.9-inch Pro can still be held in one hand, and the case is capable of holding your chosen position rigidly as you move it around. It just doesn’t do anything around the iPad’s edges.

The single biggest differentiator between the Magic Keyboard and other alternatives is Apple’s latest elaborate hinge system. As with its folios, the Magic Keyboard case’s rear surface attaches magnetically to the iPad Pro’s backside, here bonding with the Smart Connector, enabling the keyboard and trackpad to rest on your desk or lap.

Using a cantilevered hinge system, you can independently adjust the iPad’s screen angle across a range of 40 total degrees, starting at 90 degrees relative to the typing surface and reclining to a depth of 130 degrees. That’s a 5-degree smaller recline than a MacBook laptop at its most open, but 25 degrees more than Apple’s Smart Keyboard, which only offers fixed 110- or 125-degree positions.

I found the included angles to be largely sufficient for actual lap use and desk use, and I suspect most people will feel the same way. But if you’re the sort of person who opens your laptop to the maximum extent, you’ll find the Magic Keyboard to be limiting.

6. You have other options

There are other ways to turn an iPad into a laptop, but none is exactly like the Magic Keyboard. Logitech’s $149 Combo Touch just became available for the seventh-generation iPad, iPad Air 3, and discontinued 10.5-inch iPad Pro, giving budget-conscious users a very nice all-in-one case, keyboard, and trackpad. Combo Touch looks and works much like Microsoft’s $99-$129 Type Covers for $399 Surface Go tablets, enabling iPads to compete in the sub-$500 convertible tablet space without forcing Apple to produce low-margin accessories. Critically, Combo Touch has the full row of shortcut keys Magic Keyboard lacks and may also have some multi-touch trackpad advantages, as well.

iPad Pro owners can also consider Logitech’s $179-$199 Slim Folio Pro keyboard case, which lacks the trackpad and therefore doesn’t deliver anything different in experience from what iPad Pro users had two years ago. This is a very nice accessory in terms of build quality and features, but if you’re looking to use your iPad for work, the lack of a trackpad will be a major limiting factor.

Another alternative is buying three separate accessories from Apple: A $99 Mac version of the Magic Keyboard, a $129 Mac accessory called the Magic Trackpad 2, and a $79 to $99 iPad Smart Folio. Collectively, they’ll cost roughly the same amount as the Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro — and twice the price of a Combo Touch. They’re also better and more versatile accessories individually, but many business users won’t find them as convenient for work purposes as carrying around an all-in-one solution.

7. You pay a premium for that Apple logo

The last thing the Magic Keyboard has that Logitech’s Combo Touch doesn’t is something that matters a lot to some people and little to others: Apple’s logo. Some people have made a big deal about the fact that it’s been rotated on the Magic Keyboard for the first time so that it’s right side up when the iPad is in landscape orientation, like any MacBook (and unlike the portrait orientation logo on the iPad’s own backside). On my unit, it was so subtly embossed in the casing as to be nearly invisible, as shown above.

If you’re the sort of person who cares about either that change or the implication that the Magic Keyboard is the beginning of a new convertible age for Apple’s tablets, this accessory might be right for you despite its pricing. There’s no question that it is a lot more convenient than trying to carry around an iPad Pro with separate Mac Magic Keyboard and Trackpad 2 accessories. If you plan to travel a lot with your iPad, or use it as a laptop in your lap, an all-in-one solution is almost certainly the right way to go.

As of this moment — and I still have some testing left to do — I can’t tell you that I think the Magic Keyboard is worth the sum of its individual parts. Apple has priced a trackpad-keyboard case at only $50 less than a new iPhone SE, which is almost as crazy as charging as much for four Mac Pro wheels as a set of four full-sized car tires. At least one Apple-backed reviewer who got the Magic Keyboard for free suggested that users should just suck up a $300-$350 accessory as the cost of admission to the iPad Pro. From where I stand, that’s bad advice, given that there are already really good $150 options out there, and likely more on the way.

A $300 to $350 price tag might be justifiable if the Magic Keyboard was both substantially better than rivals and close to perfect in every way, yet almost every element leaves room for improvement. If you can, I’d suggest saving your money until Logitech offers a Combo Touch-caliber trackpad-keyboard case option for the iPad Pro. At that point, both iPadOS and business apps may well have advanced over their current state, as well. But if you absolutely can’t wait to turn your iPad Pro into a business laptop, the Magic Keyboard is a solid starting point at a steep price.

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