The King of iPad Keyboard Mountain

First impressions on the (11 inch) Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro — it does not contain literal magic, but it's a damn fine portable keyboard

 

The trackpad is tiny. After all these many years of gargantuan trackpads, this one feels ever so small. Like a trackpad for ants, measuring 10cm x 4cm. For comparison the trackpad on a 2018 13" MacBook Pro is 13.5cm x 8.5cm. Apple’s so-called Magic Trackpad 2 is 16cm x 11.5cm, which is 50% of the size of this new Magic Keyboard’s entire surface area.1

This new iPad Magic Keyboard trackpad doesn’t employ the taptic engine of Apple’s other trackpads, it’s just a good ’ole mechanical click that works evenly across the entire surface (there is no perceivable difference between clicking at the top or bottom, center, far left or far right). That said, delicate taps on the trackpad surface register just fine as taps in iPadOS. So even if the clicking mechanism were to break (a valid concern), you’d still (in theory) be able to tap, although you wouldn’t be able to long press or tap and drag.

The trackpad registers gestures flawlessly. iPadOS responds as instantaneously as performing the same gestures on the surface of the screen. And with iPad Pro’s 120hz screen refresh rate, it feels remotely tactile in a pleasing way — as if the trackpad and on-screen events were tethered by some organic link above and beyond electric blips.

Still: The trackpad is small, by necessity of the laws of physics and space, and pinching or pulling feels cramped (e.g., for zooming into or out of a map).


Weight & Keys

The Magic Keyboard is incredibly dense. It is nearly double the weight of the previous “Smart Keyboard Folio,” coming in at 600g, a non-trivial increase. For comparison: The iPad itself is just a tad under 500g. Together: 1.1kg, only 127g less than a MacBook Air, and only about 200g less than a 13” MacBook Pro. This is both good and bad.

With the additional weight comes additional sturdiness. The new keyboard feels great in the lap, as solid and easy to type on as a laptop. Weight distribution can be an issue — on an uneven surface, it can get top heavy at certain inclines, so you have to be careful not to tip the unit backwards; it will happily flip over onto the floor in a way a laptop never will.

The keys on this new iPad Magic Keyboard feel haptically close to Apple’s bluetooth Magic Keyboard. They are precise and satisfying with a tactile bottoming out. On paper they have the same 1mm travel distance as the latest butterfly mechanism found on the 13” MacBook Pro. But perceptual travel distance feels about 50% farther (in a good way).2

Keyboard size is approximately 80% of the full-size Magic Keyboard. Letter keys are actually the same size: 1.5cm square. Keys that suffer from the 20% cut: Shift, Return, Cmd, Ctrl, Delete, et cetera — these have all been neutered. Tilde is especially minuscule, as are the hyphens and + and =. There is, of course, no Esc key, but you can — as has always been the case — use Cmd-. to do the same thing. Actuation pressure for the keys is on par with the full-size Bluetooth Magic Keyboard, or perhaps slightly lower (key presses happen more easily on the iPad Magic Keyboard).

I’m typing this essay on the device, and after a few hours the shrunken keys are no longer an issue. It’s a satisfying thing, this keyboard. It’s also backlit; one of the biggest issues of the Smart Keyboard Folio is that it’s difficult to use in a dark room. The light leakage from behind / between the keys is not not-existent, but is minimal and not bothersome.


Passthrough

The passthrough USB Type C charging port works as advertised. It doesn’t work for data or, in reverse, for output (the iPad is only communicating with the case through its “smart connector,” not an actual “wired” connection).

The passthrough port also seems to charge more slowly than directly plugging power into the iPad’s USB Type C port. In my (mega, super) informal test, I charged via both ports for ten minutes each. The passthrough port increased the battery percentage by 6%. The direct connection: 11%.

So it seems the iPad charges at approximately 1/2 speed via the passthrough port.


Moving Parts & Hinges

The weakest point of this new keyboard is that it has many, many, many moving parts. So many moving part. The keys themselves — now no longer protected by a membrane like on the Smart Keyboard Folio3— being the most obvious. One can only assume (hope? pray?) that Apple has learned to make their keyboards more robust, and so while these switches feel solid, I certainly won’t be eating potato chips near this thing any time soon.4

It’s worth reiterating — the trackpad is also a movable part now that it doesn’t use the taptic engine.

There are effectively two hinges on the Magic Keyboard, working together to create the (admittedly very impressive!) “floating cantilever design” — the screen truly does eerily hover above the keyboard. The first hinge is the “main” hinge, which has two locked positions: open and closed. “Open” clicks and stops about 80 degrees up from closed. The second hinge is the “mid” hinge to which the iPad magnetically attaches, and which allows adjusting of the iPad viewing angle from 80 degrees (which might be good on a stomach watching movies in bed?) to 130 degrees. Between 80 and 130 degrees the hinge moves smoothly with ample friction — the screen maintains its position anywhere along that continuum. As it approaches 80 degrees, the screen “snaps” into place, as would be the case with a lightly tuned force spring.

Maybe the most impressive thing about this new Magic Keyboard design is how much it entices you to handle the iPad on its own — it’s so easy to peel it off and snap it back on. And it’s in those moments when you peel it off that you realize how impressive a feat of engineering the iPad itself is — the thing is like holding a miracle wafer, so relatively light and agile in hand despite all its power.


Durability

This keyboard is so heavy because it’s lined with metal plates.5 It has almost no give — the resistance to bending is impressive and unexpected. Both the keyboard and the back portion are significantly more solid than the Smart Keyboard Folio. The hinges themselves give the impression of being maximally engineered (what does that mean? they simply feel smooth and “in control,” there is no “play” or shimmy to them whatsoever) — you’d have to apply a deliberately high amount of pressure on them for them to snap; it doesn’t feel like one could casually break either of the hinges. I look forward to seeing how they hold up over time.


Rubber

The keyboard is wrapped in the same gummy rubber of the Smart Keyboard Folio. This is somewhat of a shame since I’ve always found this tacky material to be the least satisfying part of using an Apple keyboard case on the iPad. Doubly so because Apple does leather well. I’d have loved a leather (or leather-like) option, something to patina in disgusting and interesting ways over time. I have no plans to resell this keyboard. It does not need to look new forever. The rubber presently used feels like it might be found in an asylum, engineered for resilience to body fluids and food. Useful, I suppose.


Conclusion

Overall: An incredible first iteration on a peripheral that would have been unthinkable a year ago. Now: The iPad is kind of, sort of, a laptop, maybe. As I summarized in my WIRED piece on the new iPadOS cursor:

And what’s so strange about all of this is the multiple layers of redundancy you find on an iPad. You don’t need the keyboard to type, you can type on the screen. You don’t need the trackpad to navigate, you can pick up the Pencil and do the same. And if you lose that Pencil, who cares? The OS was designed potato-first, and so your dirty digits will work just fine. A bare iPad is like Monty Python’s Black Knight; no arms, no legs, but the brain still works.

If field durability is paramount to your work, the crazy thing is you could carry a couple of Smart Keyboard Folios in your pack as backup. The hope, though, is that this dense little nugget of typing satisfaction and trackpad navigation won’t conk out. And for $300, it probably shouldn’t.


Noted:


  1. Perhaps the old trackpads are, in hindsight, simply too large? I thought this too, initially, but now am not so sure. It’s arguable that Apple’s bluetooth Magic Trackpad 2 is definitely too big — less in the sense of not needing a surface area that large, and more in the sense of it becoming a burden on the desk. It commands so much desk space! ↩︎

  2. Why do we care about such things? Because these are our tools, we interface with these damn things for hours each day, especially now, especially during Quarantine Times, and the accumulative experience of all these small variables coalesce into a little more smoothness of work, a little more delight, a little more, you know, lightness of being. You gotta believe these details matter. Plus, it’s fun to nerd out about keys. ↩︎

  3. I just want to take a second to recognize how kind of amazing the Folio Keyboard is — it’s half the weight of this new Smart Keyboard, it’s completely wrapped in a rubber sheath, feels totally impermeable to liquids or dust, and is not too outrageously expensive. In some ways, it’s the more impressive, simple piece of engineering. ↩︎

  4. Man, Apple’s going to be getting guff for keyboards for years going forward, aren’t they? ↩︎

  5. I look forward to the first teardown! ↩︎

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