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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  • MathieuLF - Monday, January 25, 2016 - link

    Obviously you don't actually work in a real office where they require lots of specialized software. What's the point of having one device to complement another? That's a waste of resources. Reply
  • LostAlone - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    Totally agree. For a device to really be useful on a professional level then it needs to be something that is useful all the time, not just when it suits it. If you already wanted a tablet for professional stuff to begin with (a pretty shaky assumption since pro users tend to be working in one place where proper keyboard and mouse are usable) then you need a tablet that can be the only device you need to work on. You need something that you can put in your bag and know that whenever you arrive somewhere you are going to have every single tool you need. And that is not the iPad Pro. It's not even close to replacing an existing laptop. It's certainly very sexy and shiny and the big screen makes it great for reading comics and watching videos on the train but it's not a work device. It's simply not. Even in the only field where it might have claim to being 'pro' (drawing) it's not. It's FAR worse than a proper Wacom tablet because the software is so hugely lacking.

    It's an iPad dressed up like a grown up device laying in the shadow of actual professional grade devices like the Surface Pro. You get a Surface then you can use it 24/7 for work. You can buy a dock for it and use it as your primary computer. You can get every single piece of software on your desktop plus anything your employer needs and it's easy for your work sysadmins to include it in their network because it's just another Windows PC. Just dumb stuff like iPads refusing to print on networked printers (which happens ALL the time by the way) exclude it from consideration in a professional space. It's a great device for traditional tablet fare but it's not a pro device.
    Reply
  • Constructor - Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - link

    Your straw man scenarios are just that. In reality most users don't need every last exotic niche feature of any given dinosaur desktop software as a praeconditio sine qua non.

    Which you also might be able to deduce from the fact that most of those features had not been present on these desktop applications either when "everybody" nevertheless used them professionally even so.

    In real life the physical flexibility and mobility of an iPad will often trump exotic software features (most bread-and-butter stuff is very much supported on iOS anyway) where the circumstances simply call for it.

    Actual professionals have always made the difference notably by finding pragmatic ways to make the best use of the actual tools at hand instead of just whining about theoretical scenarios from their parents' basements for sheer lack of competence and imagination.
    Reply
  • kunalnanda - Wednesday, January 27, 2016 - link

    Just saying, but most office workers use a LOT more than simply notetaking, email, wordprocessor and calendar. Reply
  • Demigod79 - Friday, January 22, 2016 - link

    Software companies only create crippled, lesser versions of their software because of the mobile interface. Products like the iPad are primarily touch-based devices so apps must be simplified for touch. Although the iPad supports keyboard input (and have for years) you cannot navigate around the OS using the keys, keyboard shortcuts are few and far between and and it still has touch features like autocorrect (and of course the iPad does not support a trackpad or mouse so you must necessarily touch the screen). The iPad Pro does not change this at all so there's no reason why software companies should bring their full productivity suite to this device. By comparison, PC software developers can rely on users having a keyboard and mouse (and now touchscreens as well for laptops and hybrids) so they can create complex, full-featured software. This is the primary difference between mobile and desktop apps. Just like FPS games must be watered down and simplified to make them playable with a touchscreen, productivity apps must also be watered down to be usable. No amount of processing power will change this, and unless the iPad Pro supports additional input devices (at the very least a mouse or trackpad) it will remain largely a consumption device. Reply
  • gistya - Sunday, January 24, 2016 - link

    This is just wrong. There are many fully-fledged applications available on iPad. It comes with a decent office suite, plus Google's is free for it as well. I haven't touched MS Word in a couple of years, and when I do it seems like a step backwards in time to a former, crappier era of bloatware.

    Sure, I still use Photoshop and Maya and Pro Tools on my Mac, but guess what? iPad has been part of my professional workflow for four years now, and I would not go back.

    Ask yourself: is a secondary monitor a "professional tool"? Heck yes. What about a third or fourth? What if it fits in your hand, runs on batteries, and has its own OS? Now you cannot find a professional use?

    Give me a break. People who are not closed-minded, negative dolts already bought millions of iPads and will keep buying them because of how freaking useful they are, professionally and non-professionally. They will only keep getting more useful as time goes on.

    The main legit critique I've heard is a lack of availability for accessories but that's a production issue, not a product issue. iOS 9 has been out for only a few months and the iPad Pro much less than that... companies have to actually have the device in-hand before they can test and develop on it. Check back in another year or two if it's not up to speed for you yet though.

    That's what I did, waited for iPad 3, iPhone 3gs before I felt they were ready enough. 3gs for its day was by far the best thing out, so was the 4s. I don't think the iPad Pro is nearly as far back as the iPad 1 or iPhone 1 were when they launched but give it time...
    Reply
  • xthetenth - Monday, January 25, 2016 - link

    If you consider features to be bloat, I guess you could say that the iPad has full-fledged applications. It's not true, but you could say it. Actually trying to do even reasonably basic tasks in google sheets is horrifying next to desktop Excel. Things like straightforward conditional formatting, pivot tables, the ability to dynamically order the contents of a table and so on might strike you as bloat but they're the foundation of the workflows of people who make the program the cornerstone of their job. An extra monitor is a much better professional tool if it doesn't have its own special snowflake OS with different limitations and way of moving data. Reply
  • Relic74 - Saturday, February 27, 2016 - link

    The fffice suits available aren't fully fledged applications, they are still just mobile apps. I can't open 80% of my Excel sheets on the iPad Pro simply because it doesn't support Macros. Visual Basic and Databases. Stop trying to convince everyone that the iPad Pro is a laptop replacement, it's not. It's just a bigger iPad, that's all. Which is fine and has it's uses, but the only people who would use the iPad Pro as an actual computer are the same ones who could get by using a ChromeBook. A professional person could use the iPad Pro, yes but they would have a focused purpose, which means only a few specific apps, the rest of time would be spent on a desktop or laptop computer. It's a secondary device. Reply
  • Relic74 - Saturday, February 27, 2016 - link

    Their not crippled, just mobile versions and they have their uses. The problem I have with these comments is when someone says that the iPad Pro is immensely better than the Surface Pro 4. These are completely different devices intended for completely different tasks. These comparisons honestly need to stop, one doesn't buy a Surface Pro 4 to use as a tablet and vice versa. The iPad Pro is a content consumption device first and foremost. Yes there are some productivity apps and certain professions like a musician or an artist could take advantage of the iPad Pro's capabilities however it is not and I cannot stress this enough, is not a laptop replacement . Those that can use the iPad Pro as a laptop are the same types of people who can just as easily get by using a ChromeBook. The iPad Pro is a secondary device where as the Surface Pro is a primary device.

    IOS is just to limited in it's capabilities to be even considered as a standalone professional device. No, an Architect would not use the iPad Pro to design an house with, the Architect might use one to show off the plans to a client, mark down corrections with the Pencil. No, a programmer would not use the iPad Pro to develope on, he however might use one to create an outline of what needs to be done or even as a second monitor for his laptop. No, a musician would not use one to create his album with, he might use one as the brain for one of his synthesizer, a recording device, instrument, etc. it's a companion device, it's an iPad, nothing wrong with that but stop trying to convince everyone that it's some super computer with fantasy powers. Just the file system issue alone should be enough to tell you that the iPad Pro isn't really meant for connect creation.
    Reply
  • FunBunny2 - Friday, January 22, 2016 - link

    -- Modern software is very bloated memory consumption wise, especially software relying on managed languages, the latter are also significantly slower in terms of performance than languages like C or C++.

    well, that was true back in the days of DOS. since windoze, 80% (or thereabouts) of programs just call windoze syscalls, which is largely C++.
    Reply

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