My dream of using the iPad as a full computer is nearing reality. It's not fully here, but wow, is it close. I've been using the 2020 iPad Pro with its most exciting accessory, Apple's newly redesigned Magic Keyboard, for about a week. And that whole time, it's stayed on the iPad. I haven't wanted to take it off.
That's a testament to how well-done the Magic Keyboard is. With it on, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro finally starts to feel like it's melting into a Mac. Not a laptop, really, and not exactly an iMac. But something else, some sort of new hybrid. That's where the iPad is late to arrive, and it's where Apple's recent support of trackpads in iOS 13.4 points. Keyboards, trackpads, mice, a big touchscreen: This is the full-computing fusion I was waiting for. It works with the 2020 iPad Pro models as well as the 2018 version.
I've been talking for years about how the iPad could benefit from a keyboard with a trackpad. That story was published in 2012. That's a long time ago.
So, when the new iPadOS software update really, truly supported trackpads, I was excited. I was even more intrigued by Apple making its own specially designed trackpad-enabled keyboard. The Magic Keyboard might as well be called The Scott Stein Accessory. It starts at $299, or $349 for the 12.9-inch version I'm testing, with UK and Australian prices starting at £299 and AU$499.
Alas, iOS 13.4 doesn't allow for the full flexibility that I'm still looking for. But Apple's case, if you can afford it, is the best writing and editing accessory for the iPad Pro, period.
I write quickly on the case, and it feels more laptop-like by far than the mushier Smart Keyboard case. The trackpad comes in handy when editing, or zipping between apps. I like it better for my workflow. You can pick another path: Just use a different keyboard case, and a mouse or trackpad... or just a keyboard and don't use a trackpad at all. I like the trackpad, more than not having it, but it's not for everyone.
The Magic Keyboard is more compact and better designed than the few other trackpad-enabled keyboard cases I've seen. But it's also a lot more expensive.
I have no idea what the long-term durability here is, either. The soft-touch case has the same types of seams on the edge as the Smart Keyboard -- will they hold up, or eventually wear down? (The Smart Keyboard, over time, sometimes gets worn-down key caps.) Will the scissor keyboard be fine, or will dust and particles get under the keys and gum things up like on the much-hated Mac butterfly keyboard? (Unlike the Smart Keyboard, which is protected under fabric, the keys here aren't.) Will the magnets holding the iPad up like a magic trick stay strong or sag?
Maybe I worry too much, but for $300, these are questions I inevitably ask.
I don't think the iPad's been a better fusion device than with the Magic Keyboard attached. But also it becomes something precious and expensive, something I'd coddle and keep away from the kids. That's the opposite of what most affordable iPads are to families.
So, yeah, go for the Magic Keyboard if you can afford it. But that's a pretty big if.
Some other notes on features from my original hands-on follow below.
The crisp backlit scissor keys remind me of the MacBook -- the new MacBook, not the too-thin-butterfly-key MacBook. Key travel and feel is like the best of both worlds: It's crisp like recent MacBooks, but has better travel and punchiness like the older MacBooks, although not as mushy. I like it a lot. The keyboard lacks a row of extra function buttons such as volume, brightness and a home button that both Logitech and Brydge's iPad keyboard have. Those extra keys are helpful, but I still flew when writing on this thing. On my lap, it was also OK, but the design feels optimized for being on a desk.
The trackpad is smaller than the one on any MacBook -- it's more like a Netbook or a tiny Chromebook trackpad. But it works, and it's zippy for scrolling, two- or three-finger gestures or anything else Apple's enabled. It's as responsive as the Logitech Combo Touch trackpad (and similarly sized), and Apple's standalone Magic Trackpad. It's clickable, or you can set up tap-to-click in settings.
When I saw the cantilevered design and metal hinge, I had the idea that this thing would be a thick tank of a case. It's really not much thicker than the older Smart Keyboard, with a similar soft-touch surface. It's great that the keyboard and everything else nestles inside.
A pass-through charge port on the side of the case can charge the iPad Pro. But the regular USB-C port on the iPad is also available, which you could use for whatever (a monitor, for example, or dongles). A USB-C splitter dongle can handle this, too, but it's nice to have the convenience.
While the 12.9-inch iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard attached has a small profile, this is a dense package. It feels like the gravitational pull of this computer is heavier than anything else. I can carry it one-handed, but it feels like a laptop. So far it doesn't feel top-heavy or precarious or anything. I'm curious how well the magnets on the back will keep holding the iPad.
The similarly minimal Smart Keyboard magnetically snaps on and can be a cover that stays on, even when bending the keyboard part around and using the iPad for browsing. But the Magic Keyboard only opens up to a certain angle, and then part of the top cover bends back further. That cantilevered design angles the iPad to a variety of comfy viewing angles, but won't do anything more than that. To use the iPad for drawing, for example, you'll need to pull the iPad off.
Some iPad cases don't tilt upright enough to accommodate for certain situations when video conferencing. This one's pretty decent. I could stand it on some books or a riser and it would be even better. On my lap, however, it didn't feel like it angled back far enough. Of course, the iPad Pro in landscape mode has its camera on the side, which means you'll also have to remember to look at it, or accept your weird, off-angle glances in a chat with friends or colleagues.
$299 (or $349 for the 12.9-inch version I'm testing) is just about double the cost of any other similar keyboard accessory. How much does a great keyboard option matter for you? It's a super-splurge that most people can't afford, especially right now. It's the cost of a basic iPad, just for an iPad keyboard. Or, very nearly the cost of an iPhone SE.
The easy way the iPad pops off with magnets means that maybe I'd leave this as a desk tool. And maybe have another case for other situations like travel. I don't know. Is that crazy? It works on my lap, but the limited angles the case allows don't feel ideal. And it's a tiny bit top-heavy, so I'm hesitant to balance it too far back on my crossed legs.
Apple has supported some gestures in iOS 13.4 that work with the trackpad, but not all apps have been optimized. Google's office apps don't allow for things like dragging to select copy yet. And the iPad's more limited app and window layout means it's not always as easy to get to something else as on a Mac with a trackpad. Or, I need to learn shortcuts.