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The new Magic Keyboard is an interesting product - it has a high price point and promises a lot for the iPad Pro user wanting a little more modularity out of their device. Rather than rush first impressions out the gate, I’ve spent just a little over a week with it now and have some thoughts and discoveries.
Things I won’t be covering:
- It’s not a laptop or a laptop replacement. Stop.
- No, there aren’t any media keys. See previous instruction re: stopping.
I’ve tried to go ‘all in’ on iPad, with some success in the past, but never enough to completely replace my need for a computer. More often than not though when I am out and about, I’ll have the Pro on me, with the option to remote back to my desktop should the need arise over Screens VNC. Mine is a 2018 12.9” iPad Pro Wifi+Cellular with 512GB storage on board. When lockdown started, I picked up a SIM from Voxi that gives me 60GB data for £20 a month, which I use for tethering, the occasional Zoom neighbourhood quiz and from working out in the shed, away from the home network (and the rest of the family).
The iPad Pro complements all of my workflows, primarily with GoodNotes, OmniFocus, Office 365 as well as a creative space for doodling in Procreate or Paper. I do some photo editing in Affinity Photo, and a whole range of the usual lineup of entertainment apps. Long form writing is done in Ulysses, and regular notes are done in Drafts across all my Mac devices throughout the course of the day.
Since beginning this post, I’ve also been tinkering around using Sidecar, attempting to match the setup first seen by Chris at DailyTekk where my 4K monitor is above and behind my iPad setup, linked to the MacBook Pro - the iPad Pro is set as an external display beneath the primary monitor. The current drawback with this approach is the need for a mouse alongside the iPad Pro to capture input on the Mac, but that’s really insignificant for an edge case use.
I also sketch in ProCreate, Paper and take notes in GoodNotes - but let’s be honest, the typical use cases of using the Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil are not related. So you won’t find me complaining about that nor trying to find a obscure positional angle to justify using both together. Stop.
The soft clicks of the keyboard switch have a nice muffled rumble to them, and it is by far a more pleasant typing experience than when using the Smart Keyboard Folio. I don’t often take a device to bed, but a couple of nights this week I’ve brought it with me to work on this review. With her earplugs in, my partner can still hear me thunking around on the keys, so it’s not that quiet. A common thing I’m seeing in other reviews is I find the tops of my fingers blundering into the lower edge of the screen when I reach for the number row.
Maybe it’s the thinness between the keys and the base of the keyboard, but they feel a bit deeper than typing on the MacBook Pro 16”, Apple’s flagship device that was the first to sport the return of the scissor switch. When I’m going to be sat at my desk for a few hours working on my Mac, I prefer my the K2 Keychron with blue switches. It’s loud and clacky and comfortable. But the depth of the Magic Keyboard will do in a pinch. One thing that’s become even more apparent however, is the severe lack of formality in the way I touchtype.
The angle is perfect for Face ID. My iPad Pro 12.9” is the first Apple device I’ve had Face ID on - I do find it kind of irritating as when i pick it up in landscape mode, I’m often covering the camera with my thumb and so then I can’t authenticate. This is sometimes the case with the Smart Keyboard Folio as well - at its two adjusted angles, neither seems to be in a good location for my face. Not the case with the Magic Keyboard - it appears to be at the perfect angle to scan my face as well.
There’s a nice touch - whether intentional or not - to do with the icons over the background feature - introduced in iOS 7.1, (perspective zoom) where the iPad wallpaper moves ever so slightly to give the perception that the icons are floating above it, rather than sticking to it - when you adjust the cantilever to its least and most angles, it really shows that effect off.
The USB-C passthrough is a nice touch - and if I had to guess it’s a feature half borne from necessity and half of convenience. I’m certain that Apple could have left this feature out and let us rely on using the built-in USB-C port instead - but can you imagine the usability experience of having to unplug the port every time you wanted to lift the floating iPad off of the Magic Keyboard stand? Gross.
One thing that bugs me about the USB-C passthrough is that it’s on the left side of the iPad, whereas the iPad’s own USB-C port is on the right, when it’s in the Magic Keyboard. Maybe I’m in a niche, but I have my desk and kitchen island set up with cables in a certain place so that they don’t get too untidy, and they better support charging from the right, as opposed to the left. Not a dealbreaker, but it just seems weird - kind of the same as Apple’s decision to put headphone jacks on the right side of their MacBooks, but the jack on the left side of their Beats headphones - forcing the wire to cross your workspace if you want to be plugged in.
What it isn’t is a case - it’s a Magic Keyboard. And as others have noted, this thing is pretty heavy - it needs to be. But a case implies drop-ability (is that a word?). This is something that is heavy enough to drop - if you do you’re probably going to break a toe and part of the screen. Even the Smart Keyboard Folio is not a case. I’ve given it to Tanooki to use for his eschool for 20 minutes a day, and sharing the occasional game of Angry Birds Star Wars and he’s taken to it with no trouble, loving the trackpad where he wants to use it (usually navigating around the Home Screen), and using the iPad screen for other things that are geared towards touch. It makes it easier on some sites he uses that are relatively internet-ancient and (supposedly) require to be run from a computer.
He does carry it around from one room to the next without folding it up - very carefully I might add - which is probably more to do with him not having to bother me again for a Face ID unlock. But it does cause my anxiety to temporarily skyrocket.
What I do like with the trackpad is having an option to reach up and tap on something, or just move my index finger down to work it on the trackpad. This sort of sense reversal is something that many of us have done when working from iOS then going to macOS - occasionally you reach up to zoom in by spreading your fingers, or swiping something away in a particular direction. For those of us who have experienced that kind of sense reversal while working on a Mac - this time things work. When I do reach up though, the iPad kind of wobbles a bit. That feels a little jarring, but I can understand it that there needs to be a level of flexibility built in.
If you want to get the most out of using the cursor/pointer/multitouch support now offered by iOS 13.4, you need a trackpad - not a Magic Keyboard necessarily - but a mouse just isn’t going to cut it. Swiping between screens with a mouse is a non-starter and feels like the experience is half-baked.
There is no Escape
There’s still no ESC key on the keyboard. I still can’t figure out why Apple refuses to include these on their iOS accessories. But it’s possible to remap another key to the ESC function in the Settings - I have my Globe key mapped and have already found myself using it to quickly get out of modal popups and things. I hardly ever want to use a different keyboard when typing on a hardware keyboard anyway. IOS does restrict which actual buttons you can remap to - the offerings are Caps Lock, Control key, Option Key, Command Key and the aforementioned Globe key. So you have some options available to you, even if there is no ESC from Apple.
What I didn’t previously know was that this option was also available on the Smart Keyboard Folio. I’ve found that ESC functionality varies - even within iOS. I can use it to Escape out of running Quick Look on a video in the Files app, or even a Command+Space Spotlight search but I can’t use it in other places where it would map up to it’s macOS cousin. That’s the kind of experience that needs better definition in my opinion.
On macOS, I’ve been a longtime user of Alfred, an application launcher that I invoke with the CMD+A shortcut ([making use of Brett Terpstra’s Hyper Key hack]). I do the same on iOS, bringing up Spotlight search with Command+Space to quickly type in the name of an app rather than go looking for it in my folders. Tapping my remapped Globe key to ESC out of Spotlight on iOS works - so why not include it on the keyboard? Using it on Sidecar to get out of a Mac dialog box crashes out Sidecar. The mind boggles.
Changing Scrolling and Tapping
There are some things that, if you’re a long time Apple user like me, you may want to customise. Back in 2011, macOS introduced natural scrolling (move your fingers downward with two fingers on the trackpad, your window view scrolls down; push two fingers up, the view scrolls up ) and set it as default on their Macs - something that really threw old school ‘reverse Y-axis’ gamers like myself for a loop. I initially thought that natural scrolling was being forced upon Magic Keyboard users with no way to switch back, but I’m glad to find upon further inspection that there is a setting to switch it back - as is there also a way to set the trackpad as ‘tap to click’. Some people prefer the haptic feel of clicking down on a trackpad but I find the sound jars too much against the nice sound of the keypresses. Two finger tap for right-click is also great and makes my fingers feel more or less at home. There are nice little touches that make using the trackpad a little more like it is on the Mac.
I’ve found that while the usual scroll window does respect the trackpad setting to reverse natural scrolling, some UI elements, such as the volume and brightness sliders, don’t. The same can be said for swiping apps away from the home screen. These are minor inconsistencies that hopefully will get fixed in due course, although it’s likely to be noticed by many.
If I had one complaint about the software side of things, it’s that you have to go to three different places within Settings if you want to customise any behaviour. If you want to change some of the way the buttons function and the keyboard brightness, you need to go to General > Keyboards > Hardware Keyboard > Magic Keyboard . If you want to adjust the scrolling speed, and pointer colour, size etc, it’s in Accessibility > Pointer yadda yada yadda. and if you want to change the button usage and scroll direction of the trackpad, it’s in General > Trackpad. It makes sense from matching up in all the right places to meet Apple’s Accessibility controls, but in terms of trying to set preferences for single device…well, it feels a little bonkers.
It’s too early to tell how it’s going to stand the test of time as a daily driver. My biggest commute is from the home office to the front room thanks to the Covid-19 lockdown. And I still rely heavily on my MacBook Pro 16” for parallel tasks, post-production and light video editing - tasks that I’m not confident I can do 100% on the iPad Pro without performance and time tradeoffs - neither of which I can afford with the work I can do, but the Sidecar experiment is helping. Plus we’re still waiting on apps to offer 100% buy-in on cursor support on iOS. I also feel that Split View is really janky in terms of ‘which window gets the keyboard focus ?’. But these are software limitations that can be solved through iteration.
The Magic Keyboard - it’s a premium accessory for a premium product. I can’t say I ever really enjoyed using the Smart Keyboard Folio - it served as a functional bit of kit and not much more - I’m really digging this new, floaty, magnet-y iteration over every other accessory or keyboard I’ve ever tried on my iPads.
This is an example of Apple doing what it does best: creating an experience that perfectly complements the modularity and ‘Swiss Army-like’ versatility of using an iPad. There's room for improvement on the software side, but otherwise nicely done. It beats the Smart Folio hands down and is, in my opinion, well worth the cost if you rely heavily on your iPad Pro for daily productivity and writing.