Smart Keyboard

The other half of what makes the iPad Pro worth talking about is the Smart Keyboard. For those that are unfamiliar with how this keyboard works, in essence it’s really a flip cover that happens to hide a keyboard inside of it. This is yet another thing I mentioned that the iPad really needed to improve its potential as a productivity tool.

I’m going to go ahead and spoil this section by saying that while the Smart Keyboard is worthwhile if you’re typing out more than a paragraph, this feels like one of the clunkier aspects of the iPad Pro.

However, the important question is how I got to that conclusion. Going over the user experience of the keyboard is a pretty simple matter. Attaching the cover to the tablet works the same way it always does, which is accomplished by placing the edge of the cover onto the edge of the tablet which also contains the Smart Connector. There are some strong magnets that help with alignment here, and provide the positive pressure needed to ensure that the data and power pins of the Smart Connector are firmly connected to the keyboard.

Once the cover is connected, setting up the keyboard is done by folding it out and doing some origami until the tablet is docked into the right place on the keyboard, which has a noticeable notch to it. Aligning this despite the strong magnets does take some work, as it seems that unless the cover is setup correctly the keyboard isn’t enabled at all.

If you’re trying for precision, I would say that there’s roughly a 4-5 second time delay from the moment that you decide that you need to use the keyboard to actually using it. In addition to this time delay, the keyboard is rather precarious and is basically only stable when you’re using it on a table. While gravity can keep the whole setup somewhat stable on your lap when the display is leaning backwards, if the display starts leaning forwards there’s really nothing stopping it from collapsing and detaching from the cover, as while the magnets are strong enough to hold the tablet in a static state, they aren’t strong enough to hold the tablet if there’s the additional force of decelerating the tablet as it falls. As a result, the angles that the keyboard and tablet can hold relative to each other is fixed.

To be fair, once the keyboard is set up and it’s in a stable position, typing on the tablet is a great experience. The Surface Pro 3 was decent in my experience, but the touchpad with its lack of strong palm rejection made for some frustrating experiences. In this respect, the iPad Pro does a lot better, to the extent that I didn’t have any trouble doing things like typing up long forum posts or various sections of this review. Key travel is short, but there’s good haptic feedback and the layout of the keyboard doesn’t have any strange issues that seem to happen so often to so many tablet keyboards. Something like the Pixel C just doesn’t even compare here, especially because due to the use of Bluetooth it’s absolutely useless in an apartment or any remotely dense environment where the 2.4 GHz spectrum is crowded to the point that it approaches being unusable.

However, despite this significant setup time for the keyboard cover, pretty much the only value for the keyboard cover is text input. Due to the ergonomics of a near-vertical touch screen it’s really not something that can be used for extended periods of time as once you’re done with text input to comfortably use the touch screen you really need to break down the keyboard and revert it back to a simple tablet.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the conundrum of the keyboard when it comes to these tablets, and honestly I don’t think anyone has figured out the right way of doing things yet. I think the Pixel C in form is a step in the right direction, but the execution is unfortunate to say the least. The iPad Pro touchscreen keyboard has the size to allow for touch typing, but the utter lack of position feedback makes it difficult to know where to keep your hands and because touching the display means inputting a character it’s necessary to awkwardly keep your hands right above the glass of the display. The heart of the issue here is that it’s necessary to have an input method where it’s easy to keep your fingers resting on the home row of the keyboard, with clear haptic feedback for input and some indication of where the keys are. It’s also necessary to make sure that this keyboard is easily accessible when it’s needed but quickly stowed away when it isn’t.

I can’t help but wonder whether the better solution here would be something like Lenovo’s Yoga Pro design, but with a different method of execution. Instead of making the two halves a single unit, the keyboard portion should be easily and quickly detached with the smart connector held within the hinge. Rather than a traditional laptop keyboard, something more like the current Smart Keyboard would make a lot of sense. However, I suspect that in doing this a traditional flip cover would no longer make sense as the keyboard would really become an integral part of the user experience once properly integrated. We can talk about how touch-only is a faster and more convenient experience, but this really only applies to navigation as while I can type at about 40 words per minute without issue on a phone or tablet trying to reach 100 words per minute is hard to say the least.

Overall, I should make it clear that the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard is not a bad keyboard by any means. When I’m able to just focus on typing, the user experience far exceeds pretty much anything else I’ve tried in the industry. The problem is that as the Smart Keyboard starts to approach the point where I can actually use it, I start to really notice all of the flaws that the implementation has. In this case, the two major issues that really need to be solved here are speed to deploy/stow and lap stability. While a lot has been made of the iPad Pro’s inability to have adjustable viewing angles realistically it only needs two viewing angles, similar to how the Smart Cover only has two viewing angles. If the Smart Keyboard can feel like it appears and disappears almost instantly and can be used without a table effectively, it would probably be the ideal solution to the keyboard problem that tablets face.

Apple Pencil Software UX
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  • ddriver - Sunday, January 24, 2016 - link

    Bing is a professional application for every professional lamer. To the latter, the ipad "pro" is a professional product too. Reply
  • ddriver - Sunday, January 24, 2016 - link

    LOL At most 2 or 3 of those could qualify for "professional" if one is inclined to be generous with the labels.

    Professional applications - photoshop, 3d max, maya, solidworks, coreldraw, indesign, visual studio, cubase, pro tools, after effects, fusion, z-brush, and so on.
    Reply
  • 10101010 - Friday, January 22, 2016 - link

    Yeah, I'm sure that's why the combined "hammer + screwdriver" tool market is just booming. Reply
  • ddriver - Friday, January 22, 2016 - link

    Yeah, I am sure making good analogies is not your strong point.

    A more appropriate analogy would be those screwdriver kits with a single handle and interchangeable tips, saving you the effort to carry around 20 different screwdrivers, and those kits are GREAT ;)

    But we aren't talking just any hardware here, we are talking computers, and general purpose at that, this is not the case of some special purpose hardware. This is a general purpose computer, and what it does is defined entirely by its software. Absent any software, it is just a paper weight, or a serving tray, absent professional software it is just a toy, intended to milk people out of their money.
    Reply
  • lmcd - Tuesday, February 9, 2016 - link

    I mean, a lot of the times they are bought in bundles ;) Reply
  • abazigal - Friday, January 22, 2016 - link

    Possibly because there isn't a hybrid that is as good as a dedicated laptop and a dedicated tablet. You are essentially trading one set of compromises for another, and people's mileage will vary. Reply
  • ddriver - Friday, January 22, 2016 - link

    So a "hybrid" being 10% heavier and 10% thicker than a tablet, and 10% slower than a laptop justifies buying and carrying a tablet and a laptop instead of a hybrid?

    Obviously, a hybrid will be a little slower than a laptop and a little heavier than a tablet, but in many cases that is not detrimental. People should have the option to use their devices to the full extent of their capabilities, and whoever needs the extra horsepower will buy a laptop or even a desktop system instead.

    I really don't understand how come people have such a big problem with maximizing a device capability and productivity? IN what way will the availability of professional software for iOS hurt you?
    Reply
  • 10101010 - Saturday, January 23, 2016 - link

    I just don't see a "hybrid" being defined primarily by size, weight, or speed. If we look at a hybrid such as the "Surface Pro", it is defined mostly by its Windows 10 operating system. This is an insecure loaded-with-spyware-at-the-factory desktop OS that pretends to be a tablet OS, laptop OS, server OS, phone OS, etc. There are really no great Windows apps made specifically for a tablet (although a few work nicely with a pen/stylus). So at the end of the day what is a Surface Pro "hybrid" really? It is a desktop OS and a keyboardless laptop. It's marketed as "best of both" but really it is a Frankenstein computer made of parts that Microsoft sawed off other products.

    Contrast Microsoft's Frankenstein with the iPad Pro -- a tablet built to be a tablet that runs what is widely regarded as the most stable, secure, and highest quality mobile OS. And delivers the closest thing yet to "paper and pencil" functionality to the market. Your point about the professional software is right on. As the apps evolve for the iPad Pro and more professional apps become available, it will only expand what an iPad Pro can be used for, opening the tablet up to being useful for more customers.
    Reply
  • ddriver - Saturday, January 23, 2016 - link

    I am sure iOS is spying on users as much as Windows 10, after all, M$ was largely inspired by Apple in this regard. And unlike W10, you can't really disable it in iOS.

    Unfortunately, the lack of professional applications, whose UI is usable on a tablet is true, be those windows, android or ios tablets. I do acknowledge that the only reason windows tablets have the upper hand is they can run the good old legacy professional software, which is a pain in the ass to use without a mouse and keyboard.

    It would seem that the industry is rather unimaginative, they keep releasing new versions of their professional products, but don't adopt a better paradigm for user interaction, one that would work equally well on a traditional desktop PC and a tablet. Software giants are just as lazy and unimaginative as hardware giants.

    And it is not like it is impossible, it is well within the realm of possibility to adapt the UI for wider device usage without impairing productivity, if anything, a more clever design will make application interaction easier, a lot of the professional app UIs are a pain to work with, even with a mouse, and practically impossible to use with a touch device.

    One of the projects I am currently working on is a graphical programming language / IDE, capable of producing commercial grade software, and it is equally useful on a desktop with mouse and keyboard and on a tablet or even on a phone with touch. It is 2-3 months away from public release, unfortunately due to apple's policies, I will not be publishing to their store, since they don't really allow the degree of freedom an application development tool requires. It will still be available for jail broken apple hardware.
    Reply
  • Constructor - Saturday, January 23, 2016 - link

    I am sure iOS is spying on users as much as Windows 10, after all, M$ was largely inspired by Apple in this regard. And unlike W10, you can't really disable it in iOS.

    That is just nonsense. Apple is very careful about looking at user data, and in fact they credibly follow the tenet "the less of your information we look at, the better!".

    That is not how Microsoft is proceeding with Windows 10 – there they seem to go more the Google route.
    Reply

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