For those who want to be productive, enjoy the slate-like experience of a tablet, and travel as light as possible, a really good tablet keyboard case is something of a Holy Grail. A good keyboard case gives you the ability to use a tablet like a laptop — at a fraction of the size and weight of most laptops — while still retaining the tablet form factor advantages. I’ve tried many over the years. Microsoft was an early pioneer with its Surface tables, but I’ve never liked the kickstand approach, which makes them awkward to use anywhere but on a solid surface. Brydge has built a reputation for making some of the best keyboard cases out there, including the Brydge Max+ I reviewed late last year. After I picked up an new 5th gen iPad Air, I decided to try out Apple’s own offering: the Magic Keyboard.
A Unique Design Approach
There are two approaches that most tablet keyboard accessories use. The first was popularized by Microsoft, using a kickstand to hold the tablet upright and a magnetic connector to attach a keyboard to the bottom of the tablet. The second is to build a traditional clamshell and secure the tablet to the lid so it becomes the display.
Apple uses a unique design. Called a floating screen, there are two hinges. The iPad (in this case a 5th gen iPad Air) connects to the “lid” of the case magnetically. However, there’s not just the traditional clamshell hinge, there is also a second hinge about one third of the way down the back of the iPad. So you open the case, and then tilt the iPad, which seems to “float” over the keyboard. The total adjustment range is about 90 degrees to 130 degrees.
The approach works well (and looks pretty cool as well, if you care about that), but I did run into two issues. First, it’s easy to accidentally try to angle the iPad too far back, at which point it’s not difficult to pop the iPad right off the magnetic back plate. It’s great that you can easily remove the iPad to use it as an iPad, but you do need to be aware of that hard stop. The second issue was the floating. At maximum extension, it hung closely enough over the top row of keys that my fingers were constantly banging off the bottom edge of the iPad.
Closed, the case provides front and back protection for the iPad. I wouldn’t bet on drop survival, but it will prevent an iPad from being scratched up if tossed in a bag for carrying.
The primary hinge terminates in a USB-C port, which is a passthrough charger for the iPad. The Magic Keyboard itself draws power from the iPad using the Smart Connector on the iPad’s back.
The build of the Magic Keyboard is extremely solid. I’ve been using it for a few months now and the hinges show no sign of loosening. The keyboard deck is thick. It’s not only solid enough to use on your lap — a useful option in a laptop — there is no flex.
I went with the white case to complement my iPad’s blue color. I was a little worried about how the white would fare, but so far it’s proven easy to wipe off it gets any dirt on it. If you’re rather go more conservative, Apple also offers the case in black.
Nice Keyboard, But Could Use More Keys…
The keyboard itself is a pleasure to type on. If you’ve used a recent MacBook (with scissor mechanisms, not the infamous butterfly switches), the look and feel is very similar. With 1mm of travel, I found I could type at full speed.
The keys are also backlit, with automatic level adjustment. However, that segues into my one complaint about the Magic Keyboard. It needs another row of keys at the top, specifically some function keys.
If you want to adjust the backlight, you need to do so through the iPadOS Keyboard setting. Volume, screen brightness and other common functions are also missing. I realize I mentioned that my fingers were already banging off the bottom of the iPad as is, but a row of small function keys at the top wouldn’t be a part of the typing experience. I think Apple could have easily placed them there without impacting the typing experience. Maybe in the next version…
The trackpad is a good size. It’s wide (4-inches), but noticeably narrower than on a MacBook (about 1.75-inches). It is very responsive and supports iPadOS multi-touch gestures. With the trackpad, I am able to avoid touching the iPad display at all when writing, so there are no fingerprints to distract me.
More Expensive Than Other Options
The primary downside for most potential buyers will probably be the price. The version I tested goes for $299. If you move up to the larger model for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, that goes up to $349. Considering the iPad Air itself starts at $599, having the keyboard cost half as much as the tablet might scare some buyers off.
Apple Magic Keyboard Recommendation
It’s expensive, a little on the heavy side (about 1.3 pounds), and it really could use a row of function keys. However, the Apple Magic Keyboard is solidly built and offers a first class typing experience, while adding a bit of the Apple “cool” factor with its unique floating display design.
It’s turned my iPad Air into a viable laptop alternative to use for writing and I have zero regrets about buying it. If you’re considering one, I’d suggest popping into an Apple Store if you live near one to try it out first. When you’re looking at spending $299 for a keyboard case, it’s worth taking a few minutes hands-on to see if the keyboard, tilt angles, and weight are right for you.
Apple Magic Keyboard is available for 12.9-inch and 11-inch iPad Pro, and 5th gen iPad Air.