Hands-on with the iPad Pro's Smart Keyboard

This $169 add-on won't be everyone's cup of tea.

ipad pro smart keyboard closeup
Credit: Jason Snell

Which is more surprising–that on Wednesday Apple introduced the $169 Smart Keyboard for iPad Pro, or that it took until 2015 for Apple to make its own iPad keyboard-cover combo in the style of Microsoft’s Surface Type Cover?

With the exception of the brief, unsuccessful life of the iPad Keyboard Dock back in 2010, Apple has kept its distance from joining physical keyboards to the iPad. Sure, the iPad supports Bluetooth keyboards, including Apple’s own, but until now Apple has refrained from revisiting the purpose-built iPad keyboard.

Turns out that with the iPad Pro, the siren song of combining iPad with keyboard became too strong for Apple to resist. And so come November, when the iPad Pro arrives in stores, a keyboard will arrive with it. I got to spend a few minutes typing on a Smart Keyboard after Apple’s event. Here are my first impressions.

The look and feel

The Smart Keyboard looks like an oversized iPad Smart Cover. The outside is polyurethane, and the lining is microfiber. But rather than ending with three foldable panels, the Smart Keyboard continues with a fourth panel that’s a full keyboard. This configuration means that depending on how you fold it, you can use the Smart Keyboard as a stand without a visible keyboard, as a stand with the keyboard laid out in front of you, or folded up and appearing like a somewhat thicker Smart Cover.

ipad pro smart keyboard Jason Snell

The Smart Keyboard folds back like a Smart Cover, letting the keyboard part stick out. 

Once you fold the Smart Keyboard out, there’s an obvious strip (with three metal contacts) to drop the iPad Pro onto. It attaches magnetically, making contact with its own three corresponding metal contacts, also known as the Smart Connector port. (The Smart Keyboard’s not the only device that will use that port, by the way–Logitech has something called the Create that will also use it.)

The Smart Connector supplies power to the keyboard, so it contains no batteries, and provides a data connection, so it doesn’t need to be paired via Bluetooth. I hope to see this connector extended to other iOS devices in the future–I’m sure accessory developers would embrace it.

Like the Surface’s type cover, this appears to be a device that’s designed for tabletops, not laps. The Smart Keyboard doesn’t seem to offer the stability or weight to keep the iPad Pro upright in your lap.

The typing itself

So now to the keys themselves. On stage Wednesday, Apple highlighted that it’s using the same stainless steel dome switches that it used in the ultra-thin retina MacBook. That’s true, but this is a very different keyboard. Rather than using the butterfly mechanism of the MacBook, this keyboard is covered in taut fabric. The fabric itself provides the tension for the keys.

The keyboard itself feels pretty good, given how thin it is and how little movement there is when you press a key. I was able to type a few sample paragraphs without much trouble. The keyboard’s got five rows, including arrow keys and all the modifier keys you’d expect on a full keyboard. iOS 9 includes a bunch of features that make it easier to discover and use keyboard shortcuts–and now we know one big reason why.

In any event, it’s a miracle that keyboards this thin can even exist. It’s hard to quibble about a keyboard that’s thin enough to double as a screen protector. Of course it’s not going to move like a real, physical keyboard. But when I travel with my iPad, I need to remember to tuck a Bluetooth keyboard into the bag; the Smart Keyboard will always be with you.

And if you’re using the iPad Pro without the Smart Keyboard? Turns out, even then you’ll have a pretty good keyboard with you. Because the iPad Pro’s screen is so large, the on-screen keyboard is a startling approximation of a full-sized keyboard, complete with a number/symbol row and even a tab key. And of course, unlike the Smart Keyboard, the software keyboard doubles as a trackpad for moving a text-insertion keyboard around on the screen. Pretty nifty.

Would I want to write a novel on the Smart Keyboard or the iPad Pro’s touchscreen keyboard? No, I suppose I wouldn’t. But I’m pretty sure that I could absolutely do so with the Smart Keyboard–and I’d certainly benefit from having a physical keyboard with me all the time, not just when I had the time and inclination to tote along an external Bluetooth keyboard.

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