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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  • Valantar - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    I have to say I'm a bit confused by the large portion of this review comparing the iPad Pro to the Pixel C, all the while nearly neglecting the Surface Pro 4. You have a long section praising the pen experience with the Pencil, without a single comparison to the (included) Surface Pen? That's just weird. Sure, the SP4 runs a full desktop OS, but it's a far more natural comparison in terms of size, weight, power and compatible accessories. I get that not all of your reviewers can get access to every product, but for the sake of that part of the review, acces to a SP4 would have been essential. Reply
  • Constructor - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    I'm not defending this review necessarily, which is a bit odd and lacking in some regards, but there are various interesting Youtube demonstrations and reviews which make exactly that comparison.

    This is an interesting comparison of tracking accuracy and latency: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=niD1N1d4nTc

    This is from a designer's perspective:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaO_ucAZ4dQ

    And comparing iPad Pro, Surface Pro 3 and Wacom Cintiq:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlspvcF-DKs
    Reply
  • glenn.tx - Wednesday, January 27, 2016 - link

    I agree completely. It's quite disappointing. The comparisons seem to be cherry picked. Reply
  • bebby - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    What I miss in the discussion and review so far is the fact that google obviously does not yet support the higher resolution of the ipad pro for their apps. I wonder if there is intent behind that. It is very annoying as a user.
    Google is getting more and more important as a software/app provider but so far they have not been successfull with any of their hardware ventures (motorola, google glass, tablets, etc.).
    ipad pro would be perfect with working google apps.
    Reply
  • Constructor - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    Looks like Google doesn't want to be seen boosting the competition's platform even though that's where they make most of their money on mobile, ironically.

    (Can't say I'd miss any of their software, though. Apart from an occasional picture search I'm not using any of it.)

    Not that Apple is falling all over themselves in making software for other platforms either (even if they sporadically do, for their own purposes).
    Reply
  • Zingam - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    A Chargeable Pen? Apple's sense of humor never fails to amaze me! Reply
  • Constructor - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    Which other pen with the same capabilities (zero-calbration pixel-precise resolution + pressure + tilt + orientation, near-zero latency, near-zero parallax) a) even exists and then b) does not need its own power supply? Reply
  • phexac - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    The only way I would call this device "Pro" is if I could actually use it at work. I drive a bulldozer and, though I've tried, digging ditches with iPad Pro is terribly inefficient, and that's a problem that I don't see software makers fixing any time soon for a touch only device. Furthermore, the charging port has compatibility issues and would not accept the hose I use to refuel the bulldozer. To add insult to injury, you cannot sit on the iPad while using it! I couldn't help chuckling at the expectation that Apple apparently has for its consumers to either stand or kneel while SUPPORTING THE IPAD'S weight and trying to use it to move a mound of gravel at the same time.

    Finally, I have found in my experiments that even adding a keyboard to this device does not solve the problem. I have tried both the Apple iPad Pro keyboard and a Bluetooth one I could use wirelessly while sitting on a stack of cement bags. iPad lacks the basic ability to self-propel around the construction site and requires me to carry it from one task to another.

    Better luck next time, Apple! I will stick with my Caterpillar earthmover!
    Reply
  • Constructor - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    Yep. The exact same argumentation as above in many cases! B-) Reply
  • althaz - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    What I don't understand is the constant comparisons to the Surface Pro 3 - particularly in terms of the keyboard which changed quite significantly with the Surface Pro 4 (the pen also changed significantly). Reply

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