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How to pick the best iPad keyboard trackpad case

Trackpad support is here, as are new cases from Apple, Logitech and Brydge.

ipad-keyboard-trackpad-cases

Trackpads and keyboards, they're good together.

Scott Stein/CNET

Yes, the iPad is a computer. But is it a computer that can really replace your laptop or desktop? That depends on whether you can deal with the opportunities and restraints of iOS (or as it's now called for iPads, iPadOS). Seriously, iPads can do a heck of a lot. Your iPad can supplement your Mac or PC to the point where you may never look back... except for some things.

That calculation has changed recently with the addition of trackpad and mouse support for iPads. It makes the iPad feel even more like a computer. Making a touchscreen slate into a computer is a years-old idea. But Apple still hasn't fully connected the dots between MacOS and iOS, instead choosing a gentle evolution of the iPad.

Apple's new Magic Keyboard is the type of nearly Mac-like peripheral that I've wanted on an iPad for years. Or, almost. I've tested it on an iPad Pro, along with a Brydge Pro Plus for iPad Pro, and the Logitech Combo Touch for the 10.2-inch iPad and 10.5-inch iPad Air (or 2017 10.5-inch iPad Pro). All have their strengths and weaknesses, and for such similar-looking devices, prices are all over the place. 

Here's what you need to know.

Scott Stein/CNET

Apple's finessed new keyboard case feels like a luxury vehicle for your already expensive 2018 or 2020 iPad Pro (the ones that have Face ID and USB-C ports). 

Unlike the floppier (and less expensive) Smart Keyboard case, this one has a crisp laptop-like backlit keyboard with a scissor mechanism that feels stellar. But it lacks an extra row of function buttons for volume, playback controls and screen brightness, which other keyboard cases have.

It also has a small but effective trackpad that also does two and three-finger gestures in some parts of iOS, and some apps. There's an extra USB-C charging port, so you can still use the built-in USB-C port, too.

The case is compact, but it's heavy. And it opens up at set angles, with the iPad hovering above it on a magnetic hinge. It's great on a desk and decent on a lap, but you can't open it up as a case for your iPad Pro when reading or drawing. It's more of a writing tool.

Starting at $300, the price is far higher than any other iPad case. It's closer to the price of an entry-level iPad, in fact.

I love the feel, but it's not going to be for everyone.

Read our Apple Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro review.

 

Scott Stein/CNET

Logitech's case might be the most versatile, and it's the most affordable. It's an evolution of Microsoft Surface-like cases Logitech has made before, with a keyboard base that snaps onto the bottom of the iPad, while a protective kickstand cover protects the tablet on top. It's a thick case, but a nicely designed one that offers the most protection. The adjustable kickstand is great for propping up and watching movies, and you can leave the keyboard part behind.

Snap on the keyboard, and you get a responsive but slightly narrower full backlit set of keys with an extra row of function controls (volume, brightness and so on) that works well. So does the trackpad, which is as well-designed as Apple's.

This isn't a lap-friendly case, unless you prop it up carefully. it's meant to stay on a flat surface. But it's the best way to take advantage of a trackpad without paying to trade up to Apple's expensive iPad Pro ecosystem.

Read our Logitech Combo Touch review.

 

Scott Stein/CNET

Brydge's Bluetooth-paired keyboard is like many other Brydge accessories before: It looks like the lower half of a laptop. The metal keyboard base has rubberized grips that the iPad Pro has to slide into, then the whole thing opens and shuts like a laptop. The price, $200 or $230, is less than Apple's case. It's easy to put on a lap, because it literally feels weighted like a laptop.

But it doesn't protect the iPad Pro as much, and I don't like the way I have to pull the iPad in and out of those gripping clips. The backlit keyboard, which has greater travel than Apple's, feels great, and there's a helpful extra row of function keys on top that control iPad features like volume and brightness.

The trackpad is the weak link, with weird unoptimized glitchy behavior. Brydge is apparently updating the firmware on the Pro Plus, and I'd wait to see that update before buying this.

Read our Brydge Pro Plus hands-on.

 

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Logitech's Combo Touch (left) next to Apple's Magic Keyboard case (right).

Scott Stein/CNET

Do you even need a trackpad, though?

Trackpad support is something you'll either see a need for or simply shrug off. I love the way a trackpad makes writing and editing feel more like it would on a laptop. It also helps me navigate without reaching up to touch the screen.

There aren't many apps that are optimized for the trackpad, but all support it as a basic mode of control with varying degrees of success. Dragging to select text doesn't work intuitively on Google Docs, for instance, but it does on Apple's Pages.

You can also use a separate device, like Apple's Magic Trackpad or any Bluetooth mouse, along with a keyboard. Adding these devices could help you get the computer-type feel from your iOS 13.4-ready iPad, too.

I think a trackpad is a great accessory if you want to turn your iPad into a more versatile home machine for work. And if you're intrigued but don't want to break the bank, remember that trackpad support works on less-expensive iPad models, not just the high-end iPad Pro.