Review: How great are Apple’s new keyboards?

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About 18 months ago, I had the good fortune to attend Apple’s new product event in New York City to see first hand the updated MacBook Air laptop and iPad Pro tablet with its keyboard cover. Both devices were fantastic in nearly every respect but had a critical, unavoidable flaw: the keyboards were awful. I even titled my review “Typing in Hell.”

This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are no Apple events to attend, but that hasn’t stopped the company from releasing new products. Lately, that’s included an updated 13-inch MacBook Pro unveiled on May 4 and an iPad Pro with a brand new keyboard attachment, which debuted in March. And I’m glad to report that the keyboards on the newest Apple devices are great. Typing in hell has become typing in heaven.

The essential problem with the old keyboards was that they were too thin to allow a satisfying amount of travel when you pressed down on each key. On Apple laptops, that resulted in a brittle and unpleasant typing experience, not to mention serious reliability problems from dust or crumbs getting under the keys and rendering them completely useless. On the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard Folio, the keys also had little travel and too much resistance pushing back each time you hit a key.

That’s all changed on the new models.

Review of the MacBook Pro

On the MacBook Pro, the new keyboard uses an older mechanism under each key known as a scissor switch to allow a satisfying amount of travel downwards with each press. Apple first introduced this revision last fall on the 16-inch MacBook Pro, added it to the MacBook Air in March, and now offers it across its entire laptop line up. Typing on a brand new 13-inch MacBook Pro, I had no problems typing accurately, feeling each keystroke register on the keyboard, and hearing a satisfying click.

Otherwise, the newest Apple laptop has few improvements from earlier models. The screen is the same. The limited selection of ports (hope you like USB-C) is the same. And the processor options range from the same aging Intel chips available several years ago to some of Intel’s newest chips for laptops that aren’t actually much faster except for graphics in video games.

But the lack of changes shouldn’t obscure the fact that now, with the improved keyboard, the MacBook Pro is one of the best laptops you can buy.

Review of the iPad Pro Magic Keyboard

On the iPad side, the keyboard changes are dramatic and go beyond just the hardware. The new Magic Keyboard attachment acts sort of like the older keyboard covers Apple sold, which folded around the device to provide protection from scratches while in transit. But the new keyboard device does much more—it’s almost a docking station for the iPad, as well.

The iPad Pro attaches by magnets and stays securely in the Magic Keyboard. Thanks to Apple’s proprietary smart connector, the iPad provides power to the keyboard for back lighting the keys and does away with the need to connect the two devices via Bluetooth.

Once inside the Magic Keyboard, the iPad Pro can be positioned to sit on a table or in your lap and bend to a variety of comfortable viewing angles. The Magic Keyboard is much heavier and more substantial than any other tablet keyboard attachment I’ve tried, which helps it remain stable even when balanced on your lap. The keyboard also has a convenient pass-through USB-C port in its base that can be used to recharge the iPad.

The typing experience is just about as good as on the new Apple laptop keyboard. Keys depress nicely, offering a satisfying click.

There’s also a trackpad, a first for the iPad line. Apple rewrote the software on the iPad recently to support the use of mice and trackpads, and that makes the Magic Keyboard even more useful. In apps that support the new feature, using the trackpad puts a light grey cursor on the iPad screen that helpfully changes shape depending on what it is hovering over. Move the cursor over a line of text, and it turns into a familiar I-bar shape. Slide it over an app’s button controls, and it takes on the shape of the button. All in all, the trackpad is super useful for keeping your hands on the keyboard while typing instead of having to reach up and tap the screen occasionally.

That’s not to say that the Magic Keyboard doesn’t have few quirks and omissions, particularly in the smaller model for the 11-inch iPad Pro. Neither that size or the keyboard for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro has a row of useful function keys above the numbers row, so there’s no shortcut key for adjusting the volume or the screen brightness, for instance. Given the angle of the iPad Pro in the keyboard case, there probably wasn’t room to squeeze in such a row, but it’s definitely missed every time I want to mute the volume in a hurry.

And on the smaller keyboard model, there are some odd key size decisions. The return and shift keys are somewhat undersized, and the dash and tilde are half-sized. Weirdest of all, while the left bracket key is the same size as all the letter keys, the right bracket key is half-sized. It took a few hours to get used to the smaller keys, and I’d probably have preferred some other solution for the 11-inch keyboard that made all of the keys a bit smaller.

Then there is the question of value. Apple’s iPad Pro line is a lot more expensive than its basic iPads, starting at $800 instead of $329. The new Magic Keyboard costs $300 for an 11-inch iPad Pro and $350 for the 12.9-inch model, about double the cost of Apple’s basic Smart Keyboard for regular iPads. Given the usefulness, quality and flexibility, I’d say it’s well worth the price.

And all Apple customers should probably give thanks that the era of keyboards from hell is now finally over.

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