Tech

Apple's new Magic Keyboard is expensive but will change how you work on your iPad Pro

Key Points
  • Apple's new Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro can change the way you work on an iPad with a really excellent keyboard and trackpad.
  • But it's heavy and expensive, and many iPad apps are not optimized to work with its trackpad.
  • It costs $299.99 for the 11-inch iPad Pro and $349.99 for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro.
Apple Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro
Todd Haselton | CNBC

For years, I've wanted the iPad to serve as my primary computer. But, with no real mouse support and poor keyboard options, it was usually a secondary device.

That changes with the new Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro. It lets recent versions of Apple's high-end tablet function much more like a traditional laptop, with a screen you can pull off.

Microsoft won the argument over form factors here. It's been selling its Surface computers since 2012 with full keyboards, trackpads and detachable screens, and encouraging partners like Dell to do the same. Apple originally put its focus on touch, while keyboards were an afterthought -- it didn't even offer a keyboard add-on until the Smart Keyboard in 2016. Now, Apple seems to have come around to Microsoft's idea that hybrid laptop-tablets are something that people want.

The trouble with Surface and other PC hybrids is that they run a full version of Windows, which simply doesn't have the millions of apps optimized for touch that the iPad has. The iPad Pro has the opposite problem -- many of its apps aren't optimized for keyboard use, and the new keyboard doesn't solve that. But at least it's a pleasure to use.

Apple Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Previous iPad keyboards like Apple's Smart Keyboard had soft buttons instead of keys, and always felt like temporary step-in solutions -- they were fine for writing stories and sending longer emails in a pinch, but I always tried to do "real" work on a Mac or PC.

But the new Magic Keyboard has real keys that feel almost exactly like what you get on a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, and they're backlit for writing at night. Also, for the first time ever, there's a trackpad for more accurately selecting text or swiping through apps.

Here's what you need to know.

What's good

Apple Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Magic Keyboard feels really good to type on. The keys don't feel as mushy as they do on Apple's Smart Keyboard. They're plastic with real, balanced travel when you push down on them, and they have similar spacing to Apple's laptops. I tested both the 12.9-inch and 11-inch models and, while there's a bit more space and larger keys on the 12.9-inch option, the 11-inch worked just fine.

The trackpad is quite useful. I loved that I could swipe across it with three fingers to quickly switch apps. And there are lots of shortcuts (just hold down the command key in any app to see what they are) depending on the app you're using. It's smaller than you might expect on a MacBook, but there's plenty of room for moving the mouse without your finger running out of space and hitting the edges.

Apple Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There's white backlighting on the keys that adjusts depending on how bright the room is (it uses the same sensor built into the iPad that controls auto-brightness.) This, too, is an upgrade from the regular Smart Keyboard which had no such lighting, and makes it easier to see the keys in the dark. 

The combo of iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard feels rock solid, like a laptop. The iPad Pro attaches using Apple's Smart Connector, which pairs it automatically every time. The grip is good and I like that you can tilt the iPad to adjust viewing angles.

It's a little top heavy, though. It rolled off the side of my bed during testing, for example. At least the keyboard stayed attached.

Apple Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Finally, there's so-called "pass-through" charging, so you plug in your iPad into a small USB-C port on the side of the keyboard. That's more convenient than running the cable right to its normal spot on the side of the iPad (which otherwise kind of makes it look like you're charging your laptop by plugging in the screen.)

What's bad

Apple Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro
Todd Haselton | CNBC

It's important to know that the Magic Keyboard only works with the more recent 2018 and 2020 models of iPad Pro -- Apple's most expensive tablet, which starts at $799 for the 11-inch model and $999 for the 12.9-inch model. It won't do anything with more basic iPads, nor will it work with the original iPad Pros that had home buttons.

The keyboard itself isn't perfect. There isn't a row of function keys for pausing or playing music, adjusting the brightness of the screen or keyboard backlighting or changing the volume. Those would have been helpful. 

There's also inconsistency in how apps work.

Some apps work really well. Apple Notes, for example, will automatically change the mouse circle (it's not an arrow like on other products) to a cursor for selecting text when you hover over something you've written.

But it's more difficult to select text in apps like Microsoft Word, which haven't been updated to fully support the new mouse -- with Word, you just have to hover the circle over the text you want to change.

Other apps have different problems. I tested an app called Splashtop that let me control my Windows computer (it's great), for example, and kept having to tap a keyboard button so that it would recognize it. I also wish Apple Arcade games (and games in general) supported the keyboard so I could control my character with keys, like you would on a laptop.

Apple Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Also, the keyboard is really heavy. Most people buy iPads because they're light and portable, but the keyboard seems to roughly double the weight of the iPad or (anecdotally since Apple doesn't list the weight) about as heavy as a MacBook Air when you combine the 12.9-inch iPad and the Magic Keyboard. I think it's worth it, but some people might find it's too heavy.

Finally, I wish there was somewhere to store the optional $129 Apple Pencil, which is a nice add-on for drawing on the screen and taking notes. You can attach it to the top of the iPad, but it would be nice if there was a small area to tuck it away on the side so the Apple Pencil was stowed away when you close the iPad, like Microsoft has with its Surface Pro X. Otherwise, I find it just falls off a lot when I move around.

Should you buy it?

Apple Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Magic Keyboard costs $300 if you buy the model for the 11-inch iPad Pro, or $350 for the larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro. That means it costs about as much as Apple's entry-level $329 iPad. That's a hefty price to tack on to a tablet that already starts at $799.

If you just need a keyboard sometimes and don't care much about the mouse support, get Apple's Smart Keyboard, which starts at $179.

But if you've already bought into the idea that an iPad could replace your laptop and spent $800 or more on an iPad Pro, this keyboard makes that idea a reality. 

It's a tough time to recommend such an expensive keyboard when millions of people have lost their jobs. But this is also a time when millions of people are also changing how they work. And if it means the difference between spending hundreds or thousands on a new laptop, or simply turning your iPad Pro into a more efficient work computer, then you'll love it.

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