iPad's mid-life crisis: Two weeks with the Magic Keyboard

Apple’s $300 accessory is a big upgrade for its tablets, but clunky software and Frankenstein hardware breaks the spell.

We’re living in unprecedented times. 2020 has truly been a weird year. An unexpected coronavirus has ravaged the world, the OnePlus 8 Pro has a flagship-worthy camera, and the iPad now supports mice and trackpads.

More specifically, Apple is selling a Magic Keyboard that’s part case, stand, keyboard, and trackpad. At first glance, the accessory for the iPad Pro (works with 2018 and 2020 models), which starts at $299 for the 11-inch version and $349 for the 12.9-inch model, gives off Microsoft Surface Pro vibes. At last: the iPad can replace a laptop! Not quite.

I’ve been using the Magic Keyboard with a 2020 iPad Pro for the last two weeks to really get a feel for it beyond my initial knee-jerk excitement and it’s beautifully chaotic. The MacBook-like keyboard with scissor-switches is heavenly to type on, but I’m not sold on Apple shoehorning a trackpad (and cursor) on the iPad. It feels half-baked and incomplete with the current version of iPadOS. It feels wrong.

As a longtime iPad user who’s spent years accepting the tablet as a different kind of computer designed with touch at the core — one that’s not a laptop or trying to be one — I found myself rejecting the trackpad more than I thought I would. The Magic Keyboard’s trackpad allows for more precision for certain tasks, but it’s hardly essential. There’s nothing that I can’t do with the trackpad that I can’t do with my finger or the Apple Pencil. An iPad is made to be touched, begs to be touched, and is better because you just reach up and touch things on the display.

Typing bliss

Easily the best part of the Magic Keyboard is the typing experience. The 12.9-inch version I’ve been testing has the same full-size keys as my 2019 work 13-inch MacBook Pro. The only difference is that it has five rows of keys instead of six (the Touch Bar for function keys).

Hands down, this is one of the best portable keyboards I’ve used and the keys are nearly as good as my beloved pre-butterfly keyboard 13-inch MacBook Pro and nearly as solid as the scissor keys on the entire lineup of MacBook Pros now. Each key has a good amount of resistance and travel. They’re tactile without feeling hollow like the covered butterfly keys on Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio, which it still sells. The keyboard is backlit, too — something I missed greatly whenever I used the Smart Keyboard Folio in the dark. Super underrated: the inverted-T arrow keys are sublime.

Three things I don’t like about the keyboard: the lack of an Escape key, the lack of function keys, and my fingers keep bumping up against the iPad Pro when I press the top row of numbers/symbols.

The keyboard is very comfortable to type on.Raymond Wong / Input

I’m used to hitting the Escape key on my MacBook Pro to do things like exit a fullscreen video or photo; I can’t do this with the Magic Keyboard. There’s a workaround: you can remap one of the modifier keys (Command, Option, Control, Caps Lock, or Globe) to replicate an Escape function, but it’s not quite the same. For instance, I re-mapped my Option key as an Escape key and it works for exiting fullscreen YouTube videos in Safari, but not in the YouTube app, and not when I fullscreen photos in the Photos app. Remapping keys is also not something you’d easily figure out on your own (Settings > General > Keyboard > Hardware Keyboard > Modifier Keys). It’s really inconsistent and confusing to my muscle memory to switch between hitting Esc on my MacBook and desktop PC and Option on my iPad.

The keys are tactile without feeling hollow.

Why are there no function keys? I suspect there are two reasons. The first is that adding another row of buttons above the number keys would have made it harder to reach underneath the screen. Not good when it’s already easy to rub bone to the iPad. The second is necessity. Do you need buttons to control brightness when you can mouse up to the Control Center to adjust brightness, volume, Wi-Fi, etc? No, but it sure would have been great if I didn’t have to drag a cursor all the way to the upper right corner of the screen to do so. You know, so I can keep my fingers on the keyboard… like on a laptop.

Even my Logitech Ultrathin Magnetic Clip-On Keyboard for my old iPad Air 2 has function keys. There’s even a home button for returning you to the home screen. Other third-party iPad keyboards from brands like Brydge also come with a function row, which makes Apple’s omission all the more baffling.

My last complaint: my fingers occasionally hit the bottom of the floating iPad. Maybe I have long phalanges or I key in a lot of numbers (I do enter a lot of codes for 2FA), but I wish this wasn’t a problem when the Magic Keyboard’s two hinges are open at their widest angle.

Small, cramped trackpad

Perfect for Trump's baby hands.Raymond Wong / Input

Let me first say the Magic Keyboard’s trackpad is very responsive… for mousing. It’s never laggy like many trackpads on Windows laptops and Chromebooks.

I just hate how small it is. Its surface area is tiny: about 47 percent the size compared to the trackpad on my 13-inch MacBook Pro. (Yes, I took a ruler out to take some measurements.) This small trackpad negatively impacted my ability to use gestures. It’s nowhere near as comfortable to use a three-finger swipe up gesture to open the multitasker or return to the home screen, or two fingers to pinch and zoom.

And while I have no real issues swiping left and right with three fingers to bounce between open apps, I can’t say I love it. My hand feels really cramped using gestures on the trackpad. I think I know why: there’s nowhere to rest most of my palm like there is on a MacBook trackpad. Instead, I feel like I’ve got T-Rex hands whenever I claw at the trackpad with three fingers.

I feel like I’ve got T-Rex hands whenever I claw at the trackpad with three fingers.

Gestures are also hard to remember. Despite weeks of trying to train my brain to the trackpad’s gestures, I still end up forgetting half of them and wind up just touching the iPad screen. I know iPadOS isn’t macOS, but how come some operations like search (Command+space bar) are identical and others like view notifications (two-finger swipe in from the right of the trackpad on macOS and mouse up to the time and date on iPadOS because there’s no gesture) aren’t?

Apple hides many of the trackpad’s settings just like the keyboard. Typing in “trackpad” in search inside of the Settings app brings up a bunch of Accessibility features, but not important settings like adjusting tracking speed or tap-to-click or natural scrolling. For some reason, these settings are in General > Trackpad (shoutout to the homie Brian Tong for clueing me in on this!).

Awkward stand and case

The Magic Keyboard’s design is interesting. I’ll give Apple that much credit. It’s thick and heavy and for good reason: it needs to support the weight of the iPad Pro. This means it needed to be structurally stronger and bottom-heavy enough so that it doesn’t topple over.

The result is an iPad Pro that “floats” above the keyboard. This design makes it easier to grab the iPad off the case when it’s already open, but aside from that, it’s too cumbersome in my opinion. Opening the iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard requires two-hands. There’s no way to do it with one hand. The magnets holding the iPad Pro into the case are too strong and there’s no indent in the “lid” of the case or tablet to pry it open with one finger like you can with a laptop.

You also can’t use the iPad Pro by itself without first opening up both hinges on the Magic Keyboard case. You need to open the first hinge to its widest point, then tilt the iPad forward with the single hinge, and then you can pull the iPad Pro off it. This doesn’t seem smart if you always have your iPad Pro connected to the Magic Keyboard for typing and protection. This is where I prefer the Smart Keyboard Folio, which folds a full 360 degrees backward for tablet use; the Surface Pro keyboard also works like this, too.

The hinge is strong, but you can't take the iPad out without full opening it and popping out the hinge.Raymond Wong / Input

Plus, it can be wobbly. On a flat surface like a desk, the Magic Keyboard is surprisingly sturdy. It never falls backward. On my lap, it’s also quite stable. However, in my lap with my feet crossed — no dice. The top part keeps falling back; my MacBook Pro has no such problem. This obviously isn’t going to be a problem for most people, but I strangely sit with my feet crossed and laptop in my lap a lot.

And I can’t end this review without talking about the passthrough USB-C port. It’s convenient, but comes with a few caveats. It only works for charging and it’s slower than plugging in a cable directly into the iPad Pro’s USB-C port. That means it doesn’t do data and you still need to dangle a dongle off the right side of the iPad Pro and it doesn’t support video out so you can’t plug it into a monitor.

The USB-C port only works for charging, not data or video.Raymond Wong / Input

Incomplete software

The Magic Keyboard’s usefulness really comes down to software support. iPadOS is a marked improvement for doing real work compared to previous versions of iOS for iPad, but it still needs more refinement. Why does Command+Tab work for cycling between apps and Command+Shift+3 for taking screenshots, but Command+Q (quit an app on macOS) not work?

Beyond improving gesture consistency and making keyboard shortcuts more apparent, the bulk of the work is going to need to come from third-party developers. As it stands, trackpad and keyboard support is a mixed bag. It’s all over the place. Sometimes stuff works and most times it doesn’t.

Command Tab to cycle through apps just like on macOS.Raymond Wong / Input

Google apps are particularly terrible with a mouse and keyboard. The Google Photos app doesn’t recognize Command+F for find; desktop Google Docs in Safari gets tripped up by the cursor, which morphs from a circle to an I-beam, whenever there’s a button that contains text; and YouTube doesn’t support play/pause with the space bar. Now repeat this for a lot of apps and you get the idea.

You can blame this on the fact the Magic Keyboard just came out. Okay, fine. But there’s still little incentive for developers to add mouse and keyboard support for an accessory. One that many people might never buy because an iPad doesn’t need a keyboard to work properly. The difference with a Surface Pro, is that it runs Windows 10, an OS where apps are created with mouse and keyboard as the primary input not touch.

Not for everyone

Do you see the cursor? It's the circle. It turns into an I-beam for text. Raymond Wong / Input

If all you want is a fantastic keyboard for your iPad Pro, the Magic Keyboard is the best one to get. I’ve yet to find an accessory with better keys. I don’t love the small trackpad or iPadOS’s implementation of the cursor. Nor the weak mouse and keyboard support by Google apps and many third-party apps.

I am unabashedly an iPad guy. I bought the original iPad and have owned multiple since. Even when everyone was saying iPads were over, I was still pushing my iPad Pro to its limits. I can do about 90 percent of my work on an iPad Pro, but I don’t need a Magic Keyboard to do so. My Smart Keyboard Folio isn’t as lovely of a typing experience, but I am a firm believer in touch. Touch as the main input makes more sense on the iPad than a cursor. An Apple Pencil can easily replace a trackpad while offering more versatility for drawing. Anyone who says they can’t edit a video with an Apple Pencil hasn’t tried or given it enough time. These are the same people who tell you an iPhone isn’t a real camera. And as someone who has shot more interesting photos and videos with my iPhone than my Sony A6300, they couldn’t be more wrong.

The Magic Keyboard comes down to price at the end of the day. Is it expensive? Absolutely. To put the $299 and $349 pricing in perspective, I crunched some numbers to see how much Apple’s keyboards have been priced compared to their respective entry-level iPads:

  • iPad Pro / Magic Keyboard: $799 (11-inch) and $999 (12.9-inch) / $299 and $349 = 37.42 percent and 34.93 percent
  • iPad Pro/ Smart Keyboard Folio: $799 and $999 / $179 and $199 = 22.4 percent and 19.92 percent
  • 7th-gen iPad and iPad Air 3: $329 and $499 / $159 = 48.88 percent and 31.86 percent
  • 2015-2017 iPad Pro 12.9-inch: $799 / $169 = 21.15 percent
  • 10.5-inch iPad Pro: $649 / $159 = 24.54 percent
  • 9.7-inch iPad Pro: $599 / $149 = 24.87 percent
  • 2010 iPad: $499 / $69 = 13.83 percent

It’s hard to believe the original keyboard dock, which was just an iMac keyboard with a 30-pin connector, for the OG iPad was only $69 — about 14 percent the cost of an iPad. The cost of Apple’s keyboard has ballooned over the years, but looking at these numbers, it doesn’t seem completely insane since you’re getting a case (half of one technically) and a trackpad. The cost of a Magic Keyboard breaks down roughly to the same as a Smart Keyboard Folio and Magic Trackpad 2 ($149). It's just really hard to ignore that a Surface Pro Type Cover keyboard is only $129, and that includes a built-in trackpad.

The trackpad isn’t worth it to me. I’ll stick with my Smart Keyboard Folioand Apple Pencil. I think it's the better combo. If I really need a cursor I'll use a Bluetooth mouse, which iPad OS supports. The Magic Keyboard is one of those accessories that’s not for everyone. You really have to ask yourself whether or not you need it.