Note: This review was first published on 20 April 2020.
Let’s address the elephant in the room first. The Magic Keyboard is one expensive keyboard. S$439 for the 11-inch model and S$519 for the 12.9-inch model are prices that will cause even the most fervent keyboard enthusiasts to do a double-take. For that kind of money, these keyboards had better be magical. So are they?
For a keyboard that costs so much, it’s a bit disheartening to see that it's made out of the same soft-touch rubber material asthe Smart Keyboard Folio. Like the Smart Keyboard Folio, the Magic Keyboard is clad in a rather drab-looking grey soft-touch rubber, that, though pleasing to touch, is a bit of a concern for long-term longevity. I’m sceptical of soft-touch rubber because I have had many bad experiences with other devices with similar housings and they have degraded and become sticky over time. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened to any of my older Smart Keyboard Folios but I think it’s worth pointing out considering its cost.
There are, however, some upsides to this. Compared to an all-steel construction, the use of soft-touch rubber adds lesser thickness and weight to the iPad Pro, which is absolutely crucial considering how Apple has gone to great lengths to make its flagship tablet so thin and light. According to my measurements, the Magic Keyboard adds about 6mm and 700g, bringing it to about 12mm and 1.34kg. I reckon it also provides superior cushioning if it were to suffer a fall. And while it may be clad in rubber, the Magic Keyboard still feels sturdy mainly because it clearly has metal components within. It certainly feels more solid than the Smart Keyboard Folio. Also worth mentioning at this point is that the camera cutout at the back is also large enough to the last generation iPad Pros.
The iPad Pro docks magnetically to Magic Keyboard via the Smart Connector so there’s no need for any pairing, charging, or fussing about. Just attach it in place and you’re ready to rock and roll. Unlike the Smart Keyboard Folio, the Magic Keyboard has what Apple calls a “floating cantilever” design, which consists of two hinges, that a) keeps the iPad Pro floating above the keyboard and b) enables the user to adjust the tilt of the iPad Pro.
This is incredibly useful as it addresses the Smart Keyboard Folio’s lack of adjustability. The angle of adjustment isn’t actually too great – I reckon it’s around 30 to 40 degrees – but it provides more flexibility. Plus, it has the benefit of bringing the display closer to your face and making things easier to see. What impressed me most was how well the Magic Keyboard was put together. Not only is there no flopping around, the angle of tilt didn’t budge even if I shook the keyboard around. And the magnets holding the iPad Pro in place were so strong you can adjust the tilt angle simply by tilting the iPad Pro.
There is however one downside to such a design and it’s that the Magic Keyboard cannot fold flat onto itself. This means you can’t use the iPad Pro as a tablet when it’s attached to the Magic Keyboard. You have to remove it first. Now, if you are already typing away, this isn’t a big deal since the iPad Pro attaches magnetically and can be swiftly uncoupled when required. However, it can be bothersome if the iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard were stowed away in your bag. You’ll have to open the Magic Keyboard up first before you can detach the iPad Pro.
Incorporated within the left side of the hinge is a USB-C port for pass-through charging. For heavy iPad Pro users, this frees up the USB-C port on the iPad Pro itself for other things like an external display or a USB-C hub. The right side of the hinge is bare and looks like it could have been the perfect spot to incorporate some sort of storage for the Apple Pencil.
What gives the Magic Keyboard its name is the keyboard itself. Unlike the Smart Keyboard Folio, the keys on the Magic Keyboard uses a scissors-switch mechanism just like on the keyboard in the new 16-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. It even has 1mm of travel. It doesn’t end there, the keys also have backlight to help you see them in the dark, and it has a trackpad to take advantage of the new trackpad and mouse support that iPadOS 13.4. adds.
The problem with most keyboard accessories for tablets is that they are often compromised in some way. It could be that the keycaps are small, the key pitch is constrained, or it could be that the entire keyboard feels somewhat flimsy. The Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro exhibits none of these problems. And as far as typing experiences on keyboard accessories for tablet go, it’s one of the best.
The best thing I can say about the Magic Keyboard is that typing on it feels like typing on 16-inch MacBook Pro or the just-announced MacBook Air. There’s no compromise. The keycaps are black and are genuinely full-sized. And the legends use the same clean San Francisco font that the MacBook Magic Keyboard uses and it allows the backlight to shine through (backlight brightness can be adjusted in the Settings app). The keycaps are also made to tight tolerances so there’s no backlight bleed either. The layout of the keys is identical to the one on the MacBooks too. Every key is where you’d expect them to be so there’s no nasty surprises or learning curve here. Even the inverted T layout for the arrow keys have been carried over. The only thing to note insofar as the layout is concerned is that there isn’t a function row, so there’s no function keys, no shortcut keys, and no Esc key.
But most importantly, the Magic Keyboard is considerably more tactile than the keyboard on the Smart Keyboard Folio and is simply pleasant to type on. It may not be mechanical but there's just about the right amount of resistance to each stroke and each switch feels smooth and consistent. The amount of travel is also well-judged considering the package of the entire keyboard. On the whole, it's a thoughtful balance between typing feel and portability.
The trackpad measures 10cm by 5cm, which isn’t quite as large as the ones you’ll find on MacBooks, but it’s generous enough considering the size constraints. Crucially, it works just as well as the trackpads on MacBooks. It’s accurate and responsive, and multi-finger gestures work as they should. This shouldn’t be overlooked as iPadOS 13.4 adds mouse and trackpad support and this has a profound effect on the way you use the iPad. The precision of a mouse and trackpad means the iPad is now much more versatile.
The Magic Keyboard mostly lives up to its name. The floating design is cool and functional, the USB-C pass-through port is a thoughtful addition, the trackpad is great, and as far as typing experiences on keyboard accessories for tablets go, this is one of the very best. The keys are large, have backlights, are wonderfully tactile, and just feels great to type on. Furthermore, it doesn’t add too much heft to the iPad Pro. Rivals like the Brydge Pro+ and Logitech Slim Folio Pro offer comparable typing experiences but they also add a lot more bulkiness and weight.
But it does have some shortcomings. The inability to fold flat and use the iPad Pro as a tablet when it’s attached to the keyboard in a glaring one. After all, the iPad Pro is, first and foremost, a tablet, and a flagship one at that, so having to open the keyboard up and remove it every time you want to use it the way it was intended is vexing. It also seems like a missed opportunity to me that Apple didn’t make better use of the hinge to build in some kind of storage space for the Apple Pencil. I like that the second-generation Apple Pencil attaches magnetically to the side of the iPad Pro but it’s never stays put when you put the two of them into a bag.
And then there’s the price. There’s no way to sugar-coat this. As cool as the floating design is and as marvellous as the typing experience is, the Magic Keyboard is frightfully expensive. It’s a great deal more expensive than the Smart Keyboard Folio and any of its rivals and I’m not convinced its eye-watering price tag is entirely justified. If it was maybe a hundred more, I’d probably say, sure, because the typing experience and the trackpad are top-notch. But at S$439 for the 11-inch model and S$519 for the 12.9-inch model, I’m struggling.
Buy the Magic Keyboard only if you have deep pockets and if you type a lot on your iPad Pro. It has a cool floating mechanism, but more importantly, the keyboard and trackpad are top-notch. It's a worthy accessory for Apple's flagship tablet. But I wonder, must it be this expensive?