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.

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  • lilmoe - Friday, January 22, 2016 - link

    ok...... Reply
  • Sc0rp - Friday, January 22, 2016 - link

    Well, I have to disagree with you on one thing here. I don't think Apple has any blame here when it comes to software. iOS9 is faaaaaaaar more powerful and capable than Mac OS 8 and 9 that I used to run on my power PC's back in the late 90's. Those computers were certainly productive. There's nothing on a software level that's really stopping developers from making productive software for the iPad Pro or even the Air. There is an interface challenge, much as there was an interface challenge when GUI's first came out. As I recall, people lambasted GUI's and mouses as being toys and not for serious work back then. The endless whining over the iPad Pro is just a reverberation of that. People don't like change and they don't like things that rub against their doctrine. But, consider this... While many adults actually have some difficulty adapting to this new computing paradigm, youngsters adapt to it like a fish to water.

    I think it is a wild boast to call an iPad Pro a 'useless toy'. I certainly have made a ton of use of mine. Of course, I'm an artist so there's that. Not to mention that my iPads have been my primary communication hub for the last five years.
    Reply
  • Jumangi - Friday, January 22, 2016 - link

    iOS blows as an actual productivity system. It is made for smartphones first(Apple's cash cow) and everything else second. Put a version of Mac OSX on this and you have something. Right now this is an expensive artists toy. Reply
  • strangis - Friday, January 22, 2016 - link

    > While many adults actually have some difficulty adapting to this new computing paradigm, youngsters adapt to it like a fish to water.

    That's why I, as someone of the Commodore Vic 20 era, has to show relatives and clients 25 years younger than me how to use their phones, tablets and computers every week. Regardless of age, some people get it, some don't.

    Similarly, I've never seen the value of an iPad Pro when, as an artist), I need to finish in Photoshop or After Effects. The creative tools available on the iPad Pro are limiting for those of us used to more, and considering its price, better to buy something that will get the job done.
    Reply
  • Murloc - Saturday, January 23, 2016 - link

    I have no doubt people will only use tablets once they'll be able to interact with the interface with their brains. Reply
  • Relic74 - Saturday, February 27, 2016 - link

    Yea but at least Mac OS had a proper file-system, allowed it's users to select their own default apps, appsdidn't require API's in order to talk to the system, all applications used the same resolution, when a new feature was added to the system every app was able to utilize it immediately and didn't require it's developer to update their apps, the user was ablue to customize their desktop and even the UI, supported widgets, applications were windowed and ran desktop software. Actually, I take it back, Mac OS's UI was a lot more powerful, the system not so much, which is reversed in iOS, the UI isn't very powerful, it's actually pretty vanilla, though it's BSD underpinnings are extremely powerful. If I was able to access the BSD system, I would dump iOS's UI in a heart beat and install a X desktop environment like Gnome 3, which actually works fairly well as a tablet OS. Than maybe the iPad Pro would actually be a Pro device. I'm running Arch Linux on a Xiaomi MiPad 2, love it. Reply
  • NEDM64 - Friday, January 22, 2016 - link

    Dude!

    If you were in the 80's, you'll be advocating text user interfaces instead of graphical user interfaces.

    If you were in the 70's, you'll be advocating separate terminals connected to computers, as opposed to "all-in-ones" or "intelligent terminals" like the Apple II, Commodore PET, TRS-80.

    Opinions like yours, with due respect, don't matter, because people like you, already have their rigs in place, and aren't in the market.

    Apple's market position is for people that want the next thing, not the same ol' thing…
    Reply
  • RafaelHerschel - Saturday, January 23, 2016 - link

    Apparently the next thing is a larger iPad. I'm going to be bold and predict the next next thing. It's going to be a slightly thinner version of the larger iPad. Awesome. Reply
  • Murloc - Saturday, January 23, 2016 - link

    you aren't understanding tilmoe's posts.

    You can spend millions developing software for a superpowerful tablet.

    You will still never be able to fit Photoshop's whole interface and abundance of options and menus into the tablet in a way that the user is easily able to reach them, without scrolling through pages of big buttons.

    At the end of the day, you'll get a crippled version of photoshop and the user will have to get on a traditional computer (a WORKstation, not because it's more powerful, not because software houses invest more in it, but because it has human interaction devices and a big screen that enable humans to get work done faster) to get stuff done.

    Tablets are mostly content consumption products exactly because of the limited interfaces. They have the advantage of portability and ease of use, you just open apps while on the couch, and that's why they master content consumptions better than say laptops.
    Reply
  • Constructor - Saturday, January 23, 2016 - link

    It's by now become a quasi-religious belief system for some that "mobile devices cannot ever be used for any professional purposes whatsoever!".

    At the same time more and more people (and businesses!) don't care about such beliefs in the slightest and simple use those devices very much professionally and in many cases with more success and higher productivity than they'd had with conventional computers.

    Part of the reason is that agility and flexibility often beats feature count, all the more so since professional workflows very often just can't afford to even consider most of the myriad theoretical options some desktop programs offer. Heck, most professional uses actually don't need much more than a browser interface anyway!

    Yes, there are some uses for which desktop or mainframe computers will be the only really viable option. But what you and many others didn't seem to have noticed is that those domains have been shrinking rapidly over the last decade(s).
    Reply

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