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The Magic Keyboard Finally Turns The iPad Pro Into A Computer

The iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard. Photo: Ben Sin

Apple has been calling the iPad Pro a computer replacement since the very first model hit store shelves in 2015. The claim was ludicrous at the time, considering that the iPad, which ran iPhone’s iOS, could only open one freaking app/page/site/whatever at a time.

So I wrote an article on Forbes poking fun at the claim. That didn’t sit well with this MacWorld columnist who goes by the name of Macalope, who wrote a clapback article criticizing my piece and throwing jabs at me.

All right, Macalope of MacWorld, you’re right; I was wrong. The iPad Pro can be a computer. Shit, it took four years, but hey who’s counting?

Joking aside, Apple actually has begun making efforts to turn the iPad Pro into more of a real computer beginning in 2017 with the release of iOS 11, which offered the ability to — grasp! — run two apps/page/site/whatever at once.

Then Apple gave us a proper file system, and the ability to read and move data from external drives. So by 2019 or so, I was indeed using the iPad Pro as a work computer without much issues. But the final piece of the puzzle came with the tandem release of iPadOs 13.4 and an accessory named Magic Keyboard.

The former brought advanced trackpad controls to iPadOS, and the latter includes a trackpad. I’ve been testing the Magic Keyboard along with the new iPad Pro 2020 for a few days now and while it was weird to use an iPad without needing to touch the screen at first, it soon became second nature. I want to carry the iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard around and do work on this thing everywhere now.

But first, a caveat — the keyboard is expensive, at US$300 for the smaller 11-inch model and another fifty bucks for the 12.9-incher. You can buy a whole Android tablet and keyboard for that price if you look around enough. But for those who can afford it; for Apple fans who have no qualms paying the “Apple Tax,” I think it’s completely worth it.

The iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard. Photo: Ben Sin

Design: a bit thick and heavy

The Magic Keyboard is similar to Apple’s previous “Smart Keyboard” case, meaning it also doubles as a rubbery cover case for the iPad when not in use. But it is noticeably a bit thicker and heavier than the Smart Keyboard, which is to be expected, since the Magic Keyboard has so much more additional hardware built in.  Apple actually declined to share the official weight of the keyboard, but I weighed it with my food scale and the case itself came in at 1.5lbs, about the same as the 12.9-inch iPad Pro itself. So the whole package weighs 3lbs total. This is even heavier — by a hair — more than the entry level MacBook Air.

The keys themselves are slightly larger than the original Smart Keyboard keys, and they’re backlit. The key travel remains roughly the same as before at 1mm, but there’s a more noticeable “bounce” to the keys with each press because they’re using scissor-switch mechanism. In other words, the Magic Keyboard’s keys resemble a laptop’s keyboard much more than Apple’s previous first-party offerings.

There’s the aforementioned trackpad below the keys, and while they’re nowhere near as spacious as the trackpads found on Apple’s MacBooks, iPadOS’s software is really good at detecting touch and motion, so the smaller trackpad didn’t hinder my pointer navigation across the iPad Pro’s 12.9-inch screen.

There’s a single USB-C port sandwiched in the hinge/folded area of the cover, which is used to charge the iPad Pro. Now, of course, the iPad Pro itself already has a USB-C port. The idea of the new one is to free up the iPad’s port for accessories, a.k.a. dongles, because most professional users will need them.

Virtually every tablet keyboard case I’ve seen merely supported the back of the tablet, allowing it to stay vertical, with the machine’s base still clearly sitting on the keyboard part of the case. But Apple’s Magic Keyboard holds up the iPad Pro in such a way that it seems to defy gravity. There aren’t any secure slots or straps holding the machine up, too—it’s all done via the magnetic pogo pin connectors. 

Apple’s figured out a good balance with how “firm” to hold the iPad Pro, too: the machine stays firmly attached to the case, even as it’s suspended in mid-air with its screen being poked; but removing it is also simple with just a pull of the tablet.

If I have any nitpicks, it’s that Apple leaves auto-correct on even when the keyboard is plugged in, and the auto-correct gets in the way more than it helps when it comes to typing on physical keys. But I can turn this off.

Using the trackpad brings a very similar experience to using a MacBook. All the basic gesture shortcuts are there, like two finger swipe for scrolling webpages and documents; three finger swipe up to get back to the homescreen immediately. 

There are some iPad specific gestures, like bringing the pointer to the upper right corner edge of the screen to activate the control center.

Apple’s figured out a good balance with how “firm” to hold the iPad Pro, too: the machine stays firmly attached to the case, even as it’s suspended in mid-air with its screen being poked; but removing it is also simple with just a pull of the tablet.

The typing experience is excellent. I’m a fast touch typer and I can pound away at this keyboard as if I was using a laptop’s keyboards. More specifically, a good laptop keyboard, not that terrible butterfly MacBook keyboard from 2015 to 2019.

If I have any nitpicks, it’s that Apple leaves auto-correct on even when the keyboard is plugged in, and the auto-correct gets in the way more than it helps when it comes to typing on physical keys. But I can turn this off.

Using the trackpad brings a very similar experience to using a MacBook. All the basic gesture shortcuts are there, like two finger swipe for scrolling webpages and documents; three finger swipe up to get back to the homescreen immediately. 

There are some iPad specific gestures, like bringing the pointer to the upper right corner edge of the screen to activate the control center.

The keyboard draws power from the iPad Pro, and since it has a backlight, that means it will drain the iPad Pro’s battery life a bit faster, but the difference has been virtually impossible to detect for me. I’m getting the same battery usage as before with no real noticeable drop-off.

One way of looking at Apple’s introduction of a stylus and a keyboard to the iPad Pro is that these items run counter to Steve Jobs’s original vision, since the late Apple cofounder famously scoffed at styluses and physical keyboards, pointing out that our fingers and a responsive touchscreen is enough. 

But another way to look at it is that this new shift in direction does line up with Jobs’s vision. His ideas have always been out of the box and fundamentally alter how our digital computing experience. The iPad Pro, along with the Magic Keyboard and the Apple Pencil, is almost a new product category. This can do all the things a laptop can, but it can also be a sketch pad for artists, a large-screen augmented reality machine, and a computing machine.

What’s a computer?

A couple of years ago Apple ran a much publicized ad campaign, in which a teenage girl asked “what’s a computer?” The implication is that she has used an iPad for most of her life to the point she has never really used a computer.

The ad was mocked and parodied a bit, but I think Apple’s vision has been achieved with this latest version of the iPad with the Magic Keyboard. This is a highly versatile machine that can do most “work” things, but can also be removed from the keyboard and immediately be a great gaming or movie machine. It can be anything, really — a sketch pad for artists, a digital editing tool for creatives.

And that’s always been what Apple has been good at. Making things that just sort of work. As I said, the Magic Keyboard is expensive, but it’ll be worth it for many,