The iPad Pro 12.9 is Apple’s first tablet created specifically for business users. As part of this, the company did something else it also hasn’t done before: designed a keyboard to turn this computer into a 2-in-1 laptop.
The Apple Smart Keyboard for iPad Pro does double duty both an input device as well as protection for this tablet’s 12.9-inch display. It’s available now for $169.
Update: Apple also offers a version of this accessory for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro.
Build and Design
Apple goal was clearly to make an accessory with large, well spaced keys that’s also very light and thin. The result is less than a third of an inch thick when acting as a cover for the iPad Pro, and just under 12 ounces, which makes it one of the slimmest add-on keyboards available. It’s not particularly light when compared to keyboards designed for the iPad Air 2, but then it also provides a much larger typing area than those do.
The Smart Keyboard doesn’t use Bluetooth. Instead it employs the new Smart Connector that Apple added to the right edge of its latest tablet. This means that users of this accessory don’t ever have to think about recharging it, and unlike Bluetooth keyboards there’s never a delay while Apple’s offering wakes up.
The downside is that this accessory must be touching the iPad Pro in order to work, but this is true of many keyboard covers as well, like the Surface Type and Touch Covers.
The Smart Keyboard doers three jobs: it protects the tablet’s display, it acts as a stand for the mobile device when typing or when watching video, and it enables keyboard input.
This accessory folds up to cling to the front of the iPad Pro with magnets, and the two hold together fairly firmly. As mentioned before, when acting as cover it’s relatively slim, though not a svelte as the basic Smart Cover.
It is capable of protecting the display from scratches and maybe or bump or two, but this is not rugged protection in any sense of the word. The iPad Pro should still be in a case for long trips.
When the Smart Keyboard unfolds to expose its keys, a portion also forms a stand to hold the tablet. This stand maintains its shape quite well, so that there’s no question of it collapsing when the iPad Pro’s screen is tapped.
It can be used in the lap, but the iPad Pro does tend to move during typing. This is because the tablet weighs much more than the keyboard stand does, so the center of gravity is high. The only way to fix this would be to use a heavier stand.
The issue with Apple’s design is that the iPad can be held at only one angle. There’s no flexibility at all, and laptops have made everyone accustomed to choosing from a wide array possibilities. The angle chosen — about 70º — is decent, but there will certainly be those who prefer a steeper one.
This accessory has another trick: The stand can be reconfigured so that the keyboard is behind the iPad Pro, which is held up at an angle that’s about 80º. This puts the tablet’s display in a good configuration to be used to watch a TV or movie, which is something Apple’s 12.9-inch device can do very well.
The iPad Pro is a large tablet, and that means there’s plenty of room for typing. The key area on the Smart Keyboard is 10.75-inches wide, making it almost the same size as a desktop keyboard. And these are “island” keys, so there’s plenty of separation between each one.
The U.S. version has the standard QWERTY layout, and there are no reduced-size keys.
As part of our tests, we had several people try this accessory and all pronounced themselves satisfied with their ability to type on it. This included someone with large hands who always uses a full-size keyboard and in the past has found reduced-size ones designed for smaller tablets too cramped.
The designers of the Smart Keyboard used an innovative design covered in fabric that’s laser ablated to form the shape of each key. Rather than using some form of spring under each key, it’s this fabric that causes the key to spring back up after it is pressed. This design is lightweight, and there’s no need to worry that spilling coffee on the keyboard will ruin it and it’s even stain resistant, but the keys feel just a bit mushy. They have a decent amount of travel, but the crispness that comes with scissor key mechanisms is missing.
Virtually all Bluetooth keyboards for iPad have a row of function keys that can control audio volume, the backlight, and more. Disappointingly, Apple did not include these in the Smart Keyboard. There are some work-arounds built into OS 9 and later versions — command-shift-h functions as Home key, for example, and command-tab switches between running applications — and perhaps Apple felt these were enough.
The keys are not backlit, which would have been a nice touch for an accessory in this price range. There’s also no LED on the caps lock key.
As the Apple Smart Keyboard becomes an extension of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro when the two are connected, there’s no software to install in order to use this accessory.
There’s also no delay when typing, as each input is registered the instant the key is pressed. As there’s a physical connection between the keyboard and the tablet, there’s no question of them losing communication as long as the accessory is hooked to the Smart Connector on the Pro.
The Smart Keyboard doesn’t have a battery; instead it draws directly on the one built into the iPad Pro to function. As keyboards generally use vanishingly small amounts of power, it’s not likely this will have a deleterious effect on the battery life of the tablet.
Actually, as most people type much faster on a physical keyboard than they do on a screen — that’s certainly the result in our tests — the net effect of this accessory will be to increase the battery life of the Pro.
The Apple Smart Keyboard for iPad Pro 12.9 is quite a good offering… for a first try. It’s very slim, and about as lightweight as could be expected, while offering a nearly full-size keyboard that’s easy to touch type on.
However, many potential buyers are going to want the built-in stand to offer more than one angle, and this accessory lacks the set of function keys common on rival keyboards. Also, the keys don’t feel quite as crisp as they should.
As it is, this is a fine choice for someone who wants an iPad Pro keyboard for light duty, but it’s not the best option for really turning Apple’s latest tablet into a 2-in-1 laptop.
Apple’s price for this version of the Smart Keyboard is $169, which puts it near the top end of such items. For comparison, the Microsoft Type Cover, a similar device created for the Surface Pro 4, sells for $130.
iPad Pro users looking for alternatives can consider the Logitech CREATE which costs $149.99, or the ZAGG Messenger Universal which comes in at $69.99, although this isn’t nearly as sleek.