The iPad Magic Keyboard

Greatly anticipating its arrival, I unboxed the iPad Pro Magic Keyboard as soon as it appeared at my door, and before I even attached my iPad Pro, I was put off. It felt too stiff to open. Then I did attach my iPad Pro (immediate thought: “Man, these magnets are strong”), closed and opened the iPad-as-laptop configuration a few times, and formed a crushingly disappointing first impression. I didn’t like it.

The hinge was way stiffer than I expected. I mean like “What the hell is going on here?” stiff, “Is there some sort of packaging attached that I neglected to remove?” stiff — which, needless to say, was not what I was expecting at all. And I knew the iPad-as-laptop was going to be top-heavy, but not this top-heavy. But where I say expecting I really mean hoping for. What I was hoping for was something approximating the feel and experience of a MacBook — a little more top heavy, a little stiffer at the hinge to accommodate that extra top-heaviness — but basically I wanted an iPad-as-laptop that feels like a MacBook Air.

It doesn’t feel like that at all. Not even close. Totally different. Going in with a set of expectations even loosely based on a hope like mine — for something that feels even vaguely MacBook-y — is like expecting a sip of piping hot coffee and it turns out your mug is filled with cold water. You instinctively reject it.

But water isn’t bad. Water, of course, is actually great.1 You just need to be expecting it.

Same with the iPad Magic Keyboard. Once I let go of my preconceptions, I fell in love. This took all of 15 minutes. I went from that “I don’t like the way this thing feels at all” first impression to “I can’t wait to start raving about how great this thing is” in 15 minutes. The iPad Magic Keyboard is to iPad-as-laptop accessories what AirPods were to earbuds: a game changer.

Physicality: Hinges and Magnets

Here’s why an iPad Magic Keyboard feels nothing like a MacBook: because it’s not actually magic. I mean that. It’s clever in several ways, but it cannot defy the laws of physics. An iPad Pro is so much heavier than a MacBook top case that of course the Magic Keyboard hinge system has to be not just a little stiffer than a MacBook hinge, but way stiffer. Your first impression, like mine, is likely to be off-base just because it’s so different. But once you start using it, just for a few minutes, you can feel why it has to be so different. It’s just an entirely different allocation of weight and center of gravity, by necessity.

You know how with a regular laptop, when you want to open it, you just set it down where you want it, closed, and you open the lid just by lifting it with one of your thumbs? Yeah, you cannot do that with this. Opening the iPad Magic Keyboard is a two-handed operation. Part of this is that the combination of the magnets and stiff primary hinge forms a strong seal. But mainly it’s because the iPad with Magic Keyboard is so top-heavy.

Illustrative Exercise: Turn a MacBook Air upside down and try opening it one-handed. Even if you give yourself a little bit of an opening to break the initial magnetic seal, you can’t really open an upside down MacBook one-handed because as you try to raise the heavy part (which is now on top), the bottom part rises with it, because the hinge is stiffer than the bottom (the display half) is heavy.2 But that’s the weight distribution of the iPad with Magic Keyboard right-side up. One-handed opening of a laptop is predicated on the base being not just heavier, but significantly heavier, than the top.

Apple’s iPad Smart Keyboards are top-heavy too, but you can open them one-handed because the Smart Keyboard hinges have no tension at all. The Smart Keyboard “hinges” are just floppy strips of silicone (or fluoroelastomer or whatever that rubbery material is), so you can set an iPad with Smart Keyboard on its spine, pry it apart with your thumb, and let the keyboard flop to the table surface. Gravity won’t help you like that with the Magic Keyboard because the hinge has so much resistance. Closed, the Magic Keyboard and Smart Keyboard look a lot like. But they don’t work alike mechanically at all — the Magic Keyboard main hinge has a lot of tension and the Smart Keyboard “hinge” has no tension at all. If you really do find yourself needing to open the iPad Magic Keyboard one-handed, it can be done with some contortions, but practically speaking it’s like opening a jar — there’s no way to do it one-handed that’s more convenient than two-handed.3

Another thing to understand about the iPad Magic Keyboard is that it has two hinges, which serve entirely different purposes. The main hinge is the metallic (aluminum, I presume) cylinder connecting the top and bottom panels. The secondary hinge is the crease in the top panel. The main hinge only has two positions: open and closed. When you open the iPad Magic Keyboard and the main hinge gets to its fully open position, it firmly snaps into place. At this point, with the iPad itself still flush against the entire top panel, the iPad is more closed than open — it’s not yet a usable viewing angle. You then need to exert a bit of additional force to magnetically separate the bottom of the iPad display from the bottom fold of the top panel — once separated, you’re now adjusting the secondary hinge, which is how you adjust the viewing angle. This secondary hinge has a bit more tension than a regular laptop, but not much. To tilt the viewing angle further back, you’ll want to keep a counterweight — your other hand, generally — on the palm rest area of the keyboard panel. Otherwise, instead of tilting the display back, the keyboard will lift off the table.

So yes, both hinges are quite stiff. But this is good. They need to be stiff because the iPad is — relative to a normal laptop top panel — quite heavy. The stiffness of these hinges means that when you adjust the viewing angle just so, to the exact angle you want, the entire unit stays in that position even as you detach and reattach the iPad. Snap the iPad off, snap it back on, and it will be at the exact same viewing angle. The primary hinge snaps into place and stays there; the secondary hinge is not something you merely fold open but rather something you bend into position. But because it has such tension you can bend it to the exact angle you want and it will stay there. It’s reminiscent of using a GorillaPod tripod. This is good.

With the Smart Keyboards, you can fold the keyboard all the way around to the back, like you would with a regular non-keyboard iPad cover. (The iPad is smart enough to ignore key presses when a Smart Keyboard is folded back like this.) The Magic Keyboard doesn’t even come close to this. Look at any of Apple’s marketing photos for the Magic Keyboard — they all show the main hinge at its fully-open position, which is a decidedly acute angle. That’s as far back as it goes. That’s not clear just from looking at it, but when you feel it, it makes sense immediately.

The Smart Keyboards are iPad covers you can type on. The Magic Keyboard is a portable keyboard stand, not a cover — when you want to use your iPad as a tablet, not a laptop, you must detach it.

Apple advertises the iPad Magic Keyboard as supporting viewing angles from 90 to 130 degrees. Using a simple protractor (hooray for having a high-schooler in the house), fully open, it appears to be exactly 130 degrees. It feels like it should open at least a little bit more, but that’s wishful thinking. At 130 degrees the iPad Magic Keyboard is not tippy at all; if it opened even a little further, it would be.

For comparison, a new MacBook Air opens to about 135 degrees, and an iPad with Smart Keyboard in the more open of its two positions opens only to 125 degrees. (The Smart Keyboard’s more upright slot = 110 degrees.) 5 degrees doesn’t sound like much, but in practice it is quite noticeable. At their widest viewing angles, the Magic Keyboard feels noticeably more open than the Smart Keyboard, and the MacBook Air feels noticeably more open than the Magic Keyboard.

It’s hard to convey just how strong the iPad Magic Keyboard‘s hinges and magnets are. I know there was a lot of skepticism when Apple’s promotional video introducing the new iPad Pros showed people using the Magic Keyboard on their laps, laying in bed, sitting on a park bench, etc. Wouldn’t that risk tipping over or detaching magnetically or flopping at a hinge? Nope. The hinges are so stiff and magnets so strong that you can pick it up by the keyboard palm rest and give the whole thing a vigorous shake and it not only will remain attached magnetically, the viewing angle will not change. You can turn the whole thing upside down, holding it by the keyboard, and it will not detach. It feels like it can’t possibly separate accidentally. You can use this as a literal laptop with utter confidence.

The Magic Keyboard’s magnets are much stronger than those of the Smart Keyboard — I would never try to hold an iPad in a Smart Keyboard upside down or give it a shake while open. The iPad Magic Keyboard and Smart Keyboard look quite similar and serve the same general purpose, but in practice they are as different as a surgical scalpel is from a butter knife.

Regarding compatibility with 2018 iPad Pros, there seems to be no difference at all. I’ve been testing a 12.9-inch Magic Keyboard with my 2020 iPad Pro review unit, but I also attached my wife’s 12.9-inch 2018 iPad Pro. Magnetically and functionally, I could detect no difference.

Apple erred on the side of making the hinges and magnets too strong, not too weak, and once you grok that it’s a folding stand, not a folding cover, it is obvious that this is the correct design.

Weight

Again, I’ve been using a 12.9-inch Magic Keyboard review unit. I’ve ordered an 11-inch model for my personal 2018 iPad Pro, but I don’t yet have one to test, so the weight for the 11-inch model below is speculative. But given how accurate Dr. Drang’s speculation was for the weight of the 12.9-inch model  — a mere 3 percent low, according to my scale — it’s safe to assume it’s close enough. Update 22 April 2020: My 11-inch Magic Keyboard arrived today, and it’s actually quite a bit heavier than Drang’s guesstimate (actual: 597g, guess: 483g). I’ve updated the table below accordingly.

Weight (kg) Δ vs. 13″ MBA
12″ MacBook (2017) 0.92 72%
11″ MacBook Air (2015) 1.08 84%
13″ MacBook Air (2020) 1.28
 
11″ iPad Pro (naked) 0.47 37%
11″ iPad Pro (w/ Smart Kbd) 0.77 60%
11″ iPad Pro (w/ Magic Kbd) 1.07 84%
 
13″ iPad Pro (naked) 0.64 50%
13″ iPad Pro (w/ Smart Kbd) 1.06 83%
13″ iPad Pro (w/ Magic Kbd) 1.35 105%

Comparing laptop to laptop, a 12.9-inch iPad with a Smart Cover is 15 percent lighter than a 13-inch MacBook Air. With a Magic Keyboard, it’s about 8 percent heavier. That seems like a win — if you choose to carry a 12.9-inch iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard instead of a MacBook Air as your 13-inch-ish laptop device, you don’t pay any practical price in weight for it being a convertible.

The real win, in terms of weight, is the 11-inch configuration. Now that the 12-inch MacBook is discontinued (joining the late great 11-inch Air in the retirement home for ultra-lightweight Mac notebooks), Apple doesn’t make a Mac laptop in this size/weight class.

Keyboard and Trackpad

The keyboard is excellent. The keys have an outstanding feel and sound. It’s not exactly the same as the MacBook Air keyboard — the key caps are more rounded at the corners, and there’s just a slightly different feel and sound to it. But they definitely feel similar enough to justify sharing the “Magic Keyboard” name. If anything, I like typing on the iPad Magic Keyboard more than typing on the 16-inch MacBook Pro or 13-inch MacBook Air — the keys either have slightly more travel or they just feel like they do to me — but all three are so fundamentally similar that the differences come down to nitpicking. Apple’s portable keyboard game is back.

Backlighting is excellent. You can adjust the brightness in Settings → General → Keyboard → Hardware Keyboard, but the default is perfect for my taste. There’s a wee bit of light leakage around the outside of the keys, but it’s so subtle and looks so nice that I suspect it might be deliberate, and if not deliberate, it’s a Bob Ross-esque happy little accident. In the dark, it just subtly outlines the shape of the keys.

As on Apple’s Smart Keyboards, the iPad Magic Keyboard has no Escape key. If you miss the Escape key, there are a couple workarounds. First, in most situations, ⌘-period works as a synonym for Escape. This is a standard Mac shortcut that dates back to classic Mac OS decades ago. (In my opinion, any context where ⌘-period doesn’t work as a synonym for the Escape key ought to be considered a bug.) The other option is to go to Settings → General → Keyboard → Hardware Keyboard, and remap one of the modifier keys to Escape. I suggest either Caps Lock or the Globe key. If you do remap Globe to Escape (which I did), you can still bring up the Emoji keyboard with the system-wide Control-Space shortcut — a good shortcut to remember if you use any third-party keyboard that doesn’t have a built-in Globe key.

I went back to the Smart Keyboard cover to type just this single paragraph. It’s like comparing a meal at your favorite restaurant to a meal on an airplane. iPad Smart Keyboards are dead to me.

There are no F-keys (nor, obviously, a Touch Bar). I think this is partly philosophical, in that Apple intends iPad keyboards for typing only, not for controlling stuff in the system like display brightness or audio volume. But also this is practical — there’s really no room for a row of F-keys. The iPad doesn’t really “float” the way Apple’s exquisite product photography or new ad campaign suggests.4 In practice you barely notice that the bottom of the iPad is suspended at all, and where it is suspended actually overhangs the top of the number key row when fully open to the 130 degree viewing angle. You could reach a hypothetical row of F-keys if they were there, but it’d be like reaching into a slot to get to them. Awkward.

While the keyboard is very comparable in size and feel to that of the MacBook Air, the trackpad is entirely different. The MacBook Air trackpad is about 120 x 80 mm. The 12.9-inch Magic Keyboard trackpad is just 100 x 50 mm — by area it’s just a hair over half the size. (The 16-inch MacBook Pro keyboard is the size of a small studio apartment in comparison — 160 x 100 mm — as tall as the iPad Magic Keyboard trackpad is wide and over 3× the area.)

This small trackpad takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s fine. I increased the speed of the pointer to the fastest setting,5 which helps.

One basic task that wasn’t obvious to me, and I’ll admit took me surprisingly long to figure out on my own, is how you show the Dock: you swipe down with one finger past the bottom of the screen. If I had read Apple’s instructions rather than stubbornly insisting upon figuring it out myself, I’d have saved a good five minutes.

Tracking precision and multi-finger gestures are excellent. Mac users will feel right at home.

A significant difference, though, is that the trackpad is not “magic” — it is a physically-clicking button, not an inert piece of glass with haptics to simulate clicks. It clicks for real. It feels great, and it’s equally clicky at the top and bottom, unlike older MacBook trackpads which had a diving-board-like mechanism that made them far clickier at the bottom than at the top. The only downside to this trackpad is that it’s pretty loud when it clicks — way louder than any MacBook trackpad or a standalone Magic Trackpad.

Miscellany

This is a great-looking keyboard. The key caps and trackpad are black; the surrounding area is near-black. I wish the dark MacBooks were this dark instead of “space gray”, which is just slightly darker than regular aluminum. If you’re going to go dark, go dark.

When you charge the iPad through the Smart Connector (by plugging your charging cable into the Magic Keyboard), it charges slowly: about 0.4 percent per minute, 25 percent per hour. If you want to charge your iPad quickly, plug the cable into the iPad. Charging via the Smart Connector is the iPad equivalent of using an inductive Qi charger with an iPhone — convenient but slow. [Update: Take this whole paragraph with a large grain of salt for the moment — my charging-over-Smart-Connector-is-slow numbers don’t match what others have been reporting, so I’m retesting. Stand by for updated numbers, but the good news is I think charging via the Smart Connector isn’t slow.]

The Bottom Line

At $350 for the 12.9-inch model and $300 for the 11-inch, the iPad Magic Keyboard is not cheap, but it feels like a premium product. I think it unlikely we’ll find a peripheral with comparable quality at a lower price.

As per my usual habit when reviewing iPads and iPad peripherals, I wrote this entire review using the Magic Keyboard. In the past, this has felt like a chore. The lack of trackpad support for precision editing felt like trying to write with a pen while wearing mittens. Now it’s an outright pleasure — a combination I might choose for long-form writing simply because it’s great.

As a physical contraption the iPad Magic Keyboard is utterly brilliant. As a practical device for work, it feels seamlessly natural. The combination of excellent hardware — truly exquisite, from the hinges and magnets to the keyboard and trackpad themselves — and outstanding pointer and gesture support in iPadOS 13.4 make it hard to believe we haven’t been able to convert an iPad into a great laptop for years. This is an altogether new experience with an iPad, but it’s so natural it feels longstanding.


  1. As longtime DF followers well know, this is even more true if the water is preposterously, bordering on dangerously, over-carbonated. Unless of course you’re using the water to fussily brew coffee. ↩︎︎

  2. When you consider it, it has to be this way — a MacBook hinge must be stronger than the display is heavy, otherwise the display wouldn’t stay in position when open. It would droop. ↩︎︎︎

  3. You can, of course, close the Magic Keyboard one-handed, no problem, because you’re exerting force against the resistance of the desk / table / lap it’s sitting upon. ↩︎︎︎

  4. Apple’s new commercial, promoting the iPad Magic Keyboard specifically, is particularly problematic in this regard. The ad is titled “Float”, and shows a hummingbird hovering around an iPad Magic Keyboard tilting to and fro, seemingly ever so effortlessly. As I expound upon at great length in this very review, it’s not at all effortless to tilt the display backward — an entire swarm of hummingbirds couldn’t do it — and this ad is going to set the wrong expectation for how it feels and works. ↩︎︎︎

  5. You have to love the explicit homage to Susan Kare’s brilliant 1984 Macintosh Control Panel design with the tortoise and hare icons on the iPad’s new tracking speed slider. The new iPad slider flips the direction of the hare, which at first I objected to on general principle. Kare’s original 1984 Control Panel is quite arguably the single best graphical user interface ever designed. It had no text labels (!), which made it both literally and figuratively iconic. But upon reflection flipping the hare actually makes more sense: it puts slow to fast in one direction. A subtle improvement to a 36-year-old masterpiece of UI design. ↩︎︎︎