by Brandon Butler
iPad Pro (2020) and Magic Keyboard Review 5/5/2020

iPad Pro, Magic Keyboard, and Hummingbird

Turning Up the Volume

With the iPad Pro sitting in landscape orientation on my desk, the volume keys are on the top left. The “Volume Up” key is on the left, and the “Volume Down” key is on the right.

On iPad OS, the volume indicator displays the volume increasing by filling a bar from left to right along the center top of the screen. This makes sense, as most Western UIs read left to right and showing progression is indicated by left to right visuals. (See car speedometers, computer loading bars, video game health bars, etc.)

However, on iPad, when pressing the left Volume key, the indicator fills to the right. When pressing the right Volume key, the indicator decreases to the left.

Now, in Portrait mode, the volume keys make sense. Up is up and Down is down. But in Landscape mode, the left volume key should switch and become Volume Up, and the right volume key should become Down. The keys aren’t physically labeled and the UI knows when it’s in landscape or portrait. (This is also the behavior the always-in-landscape mode Nintendo Switch follows, so the same keys, in almost the same location on similar devices do the exact opposite.)

And that is my review of the iPad Pro 2020. Because the iPad Pro’s volume-in-landscape perfectly exemplifies everything great and everything wrong with the iPad Pro, where you have hardware and software literally fighting each other, totally unnecessarily. It reminds me, dare I say it, of Windows installed on a MacBook with Bootcamp, but Bootcamp was better. With Bootcamp, when booted into Windows, if you pressed the F-12 key for Volume Up, the volume went up — it even made the little volume up sound and displayed the Mac’s native volume UI graphic. This worked so well because Bootcamp took the time to install the drivers to make these features work on Windows just like on the Mac. The same with remapping the Command key to function as the Windows key, and all the way down to the drivers for the graphics card.

Remapping the volume keys on the iPad Pro was not a feature that was cut for time or delayed until iOS 23 because Apple has too many other great features that they’re working on. This is either something every single person at Apple, from Tim Cook and Craig Federighi down to the iPadOS student intern, either didn’t notice or didn’t care enough to spend ten minutes adding a few lines of code to change the button mapping. Or, it was deeply considered at all levels and the decision to leave it the way it is won out, but my money is on the shrug emoji.

The 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a big touch screen with the A12Z, a nearly identical SoC to the previous model (with an additional unlocked graphics core) that Apple routinely touts as outperforming “most laptops” yet it routinely does less than my 5-year-old MacBook. Currently, my iPad Pro is running Ulysses, a fancy word processor. And that’s it. That’s all I’m allowed to have open, one app at a time. (Unless you can figure out Apple’s multitasking touch controls, but they’re so convoluted and unintuitive that I rarely bother with it.)

And yes, even though you can have two apps open side-by-side on the iPad Pro, you can’t have three. A device that outperforms most laptops, but it can’t run a browser, a Twitter client, and a notepad app all at the same time. It also lacks Final Cut Pro, Motion, After Effects, and Xcode, to name just a few professional apps. So how does having all this performance and all these unlocked graphics cores help me?

The obvious place to point the finger is iPadOS, which is too much of a mobile-first OS, even after ten years of powering the iPad, and eighteen months powering the iPad Pro. iPadOS was born from iOS, Apple’s iPhone operating system. Having one app open at a time on a 4-inch phone screen made a lot of sense when we were collectively learning how to type with our thumbs, but I’ve mastered thumb typing. I’ve got a full sized keyboard and trackpad now, to boot! I’m ready for an iPad with proper multi-window and multi-app support. I’m ready for professional apps. I’m ready for iPadOS to step out from the iPhone OS shadow and become its own operating system, but Apple holds it all back with a single app paradigm that this pseudo-laptop still clings to.

The plan a month ago was to do as much work as possible on an iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard, and to form some opinions on the viability of an iPad Pro being a full time replacement for a traditional laptop. Volume keys aside, here’s my take.

Not a Laptop, But Laptop-like

I’ve owned a few iPads over the years, but this is my first time with an iPad Pro, and the first iPad I’ve owned since the big multitasking launch a few years ago. I have always been a Mac user, but I’ve also worked with and owned a number of Windows and Linux-based PCs over the years. This is all to say: I’m pretty damn comfortable on a traditional desktop OS.

Moving to an iPad Pro full time, I knew right away that there’s a lot about the Mac I’d miss. BBEdit, Acorn, Amphetamine, Automator, Final Cut Pro/Adobe Premier, and the Finder were all at the top of my list. I tried iMovie as a replacement for Final Cut, and boy was that an uncomfortable experience. Files for iPadOS is not a Finder replacement, either, and there are simply some things you can’t do on iPadOS without a Mac, like unzip a file or add a custom alert sound to the device (like a New Mail sound). 

The most jarring adjustment is the way iPadOS handles files. Unlike with the Finder, you can’t just save an often used file on your Desktop (or Home Screen, as there is no Desktop). If you want to open a file on iPadOS, you need to open the app where the file is stored, then open the file from within the app. If you want to open the file with another app, you can do so through the share sheet system, but even on the iPhone I still find the share sheets difficult and clunky and time consuming. When sharing text from Ulysses, for example, the share sheet shows Zoom and Brave and Scriptable as sharing options. Scriptable at least says the file (text) is not supported. Brave tries loading it as a webpage but just hangs there until I get bored of waiting. Zoom is the best: it just totally ignores that I shared a file with it. Why is the share sheet cluttered with apps that can’t open a text document, and why do the order of the share sheet options keep changing? And why do I have to open every app and remove Zoom from every share sheet?

iPadOS makes a lot of attempts to simplify and organize a traditional Desktop, especially for those people (you know who you are) with hundreds of PDFs, Word documents, photos, folders, and the occasional .exe file creating a nightmare desktop. But by completely removing the desktop, Apple has had to make compromises and Files app-like crutches to make up for the total lack of a user-accessible file system. I’m not arguing the Desktop or the file system is good design, but I am arguing that for a Pro device with a Pro workflow, the share sheet is bad design.

Some apps, like Amphetamine, don’t and likely won’t ever have iPad alternatives, and it’s baffling to me that the iPad doesn’t have a way to distinguish sleep settings and screen brightness between plugged into power and running on battery. Isn’t this Power Management 101?

But then there are apps and experiences, like Procreate with the Apple Pencil, that I could never have on the Mac. I’ve always been able to draw with a #2 pencil or a cheap office pen, but the iPad and Pencil have reignited the artistic spark in me that I thought I’d lost back in high school. There are moments (more on this in a minute) where I’ve doubted my decision to buy this iPad and the $500 in additional accessories. I could have waited a year and bought an ARM based Mac in 2021 and probably been very happy. When I have these doubts I pull the iPad Pro off the magnetic keyboard and do something that the MacBook could never do: draw on the screen, or lay in bed and read comics, or sit on the floor and play games, or go to the park and browse the web with my iPad’s cellular connection. You don’t need the Magic Keyboard or even an iPad Pro to enjoy these experiences, because this is where iPadOS shines, when it does Just One Thing.

But then I snap the iPad back to my Magic Keyboard and I try to do Real Work and find myself doing Just One Thing again and I sort of wish I was using my MacBook.

Say Hello to Keyboard

The Magic Keyboard is almost certainly the most expensive keyboard you’ll ever buy. As a PC gamer with a love of mechanical keyboards, I’ve bought some expensive keyboards, but the Magic Keyboard is significantly more expensive. But as a keyboard, you do get a little more, and a little less, with your purchase.

For this review, I have the iPad Pro 12.9-inch and the corresponding $350 12.9-inch Magic Keyboard.

The Magic Keyboard is only an additive to the iPad Pro. It does not remove any functionality, nor is it required. It’s very much an Apple Pencil-type of accessory, in that it provides you with another way to interact with the device. If you don’t add the Magic Keyboard to your setup, the iPad Pro is still the same iPad Pro you’ve always had.

But having the iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard creates a pseudo-laptop type of device, with a keyboard and mini trackpad. The keyboard itself is similar to a 60% keyboard, lacking the top row of F-keys and the Esc key, but includes the inverted-T arrow keys and dual Command keys. There is also a bonus Emoji key that brings up the onscreen emoji keyboard (okay, it’s actually the Globe key that allows you to change the input language, but it’s the Emoji key to me) that replaces the pointless function (Fn) key on the MacBook keyboard — pointless, as the Control Center is just a swipe away for many of these minor functions. The real pain point is the lack of an Esc key — I cannot tell you how many times I’ve hit the backtick (or grave accent) key while trying to Escape, as many 60% keyboards replace backtick with Esc. I prefer this, however if you need to escape out of something, the Command + period hotkey will usually do the job. Usually. You can also re-map the Caps Lock key to function as an Esc, which turns out is a very popular work around for iPad and Mac users, but I’m not sold on this.

The Magic Keyboard is the same width as a 15-inch MacBook keyboard, and the keys are really nice to type on, with a small amount of travel and a nice clicky sound. The keys are backlit, with the backlighting controlled by the iPad’s ambient light sensor. (In almost every review I’ve read on the Magic Keyboard, one of the major complaints is the lack of an easily accessible backlight control, but I think this is ridiculous. I’ve never felt the need to adjust the backlighting on the keyboard, and if you stop using the keyboard for a few minutes the backlighting turns off automagically. I’m not sure this is the kind of product-breaking issue that warrants repeated complaints. I rarely change the backlighting on my MacBook keyboard and I’ve never felt the need to adjust it on my Magic Keyboard. Just let the iPad set it and forget it.)

Typing a double space with the Magic Keyboard types a period, just like with the software keyboard, and the keyboard does have auto-correct and auto-capitalization on by default. All of these can be disabled in Settings app, General, Keyboards, Hardware Keyboard. (I had to finally disable auto-cap; starting a sentence with “iPad” kept changing it to “IPad” and the auto-correct wouldn’t fix it.) The top row of the software keyboard actually appears at the bottom of the screen with the Magic Keyboard, complete with Undo and auto-correct suggestions. It’s actually a really nice addition to the writing experience.

The actual keys feel like the keys of a real keyboard, and that’s because this is a real keyboard, not that weird, squishy Smart Keyboard that costs significantly less. It comes in one color, a solid black with black keys. The soft rubbery case is a different shade of black, but I consider them both black. It’s like a black pair of jeans and a black T-shirt: both black, but different materials with a slightly different shade. It does get a bit of a glare, especially on the trackpad, from my (washed regularly) fingers and hands, but it can be cleaned easily with a dry microfiber cloth. There’s also a rubbery, chemical odor to the case. It’s not particularly strong or noticeable while using the iPad, but I left it laying on a pillow for a few hours and the pillow absorbed the unpleasant scent. Unless you enjoy strange, bitter odors while sleeping, I wouldn’t recommend leaving your Magic Keyboard on your pillow.

The Magic Keyboard is heavy, but durable, and in the few times I’ve moved around with it, it hasn’t felt significantly worse in weight than a 15-inch MacBook. The USB-C port on the hinge is for charging the iPad Pro through the Smart Connector, giving you an extra port on the opposite side to plug other devices directly into the iPad for data transfer. The cheap little white USB-C to USB-C cable from Apple was way too short for me to use with desk, so I had to buy a longer cable. It’s kind of annoying: the amount of money I spent on this setup and Apple couldn’t provide me with a USB cable longer than a couple of feet.

I also almost never close the iPad Pro like I would a laptop. I leave it up pretty much full time. It’s ridiculously easy to tap the screen and wake the iPad up; it’s ridiculously difficult to pry up the screen from the fully closed position. Look at the front edge of your laptop, there’s probably a little notch cut out to slip your finger in and lift. On my iPad Pro, there’s no such notch, it’s like a very heavy one page good, and, oh yeah, there’s a magnetically attached Pencil in the way. Also, the “top” is the entire computer/screen/battery (sans keyboard), making it very top heavy. You need two hands to open it. I mean, sure, physics, so there wasn’t much I could imagine Apple could do in this situation, so I just leave it open.

Touch Me Like Your Laptops

The built-in trackpad on the Magic Keyboard is nice, if not a bit small, and it works exactly as it would on a MacBook. The trackpad physically clicks, but you can click it from anywhere on the pad. The pointer for iPadOS has been completely redesigned, and I really thought I was going to hate how it morphs into buttons and gets absorbed by icons, but it’s actually a nice, subtle effect. Although it doesn’t get absorbed by every icon and UI element, and when it doesn’t it’s a little jarring. This is mostly noticeable in Google’s YouTube app, which doesn’t feel like a designed-for-iPad kind of app in the first place. But open Ulysses or Fantastical and it functions as you’d expect. It also morphs onto the Safari close tab button, which is just tiny enough that I really dislike jabbing my fat finger into. Apps with custom UI buttons, like Overcast, need some updates to properly absorb the cursor and give it that little bit of pizzaz.

One weird aspect of the trackpad is the ratio between it and the actual screen. The iPad Pro screen is 4:3, but the trackpad is an ultrawide 16:9 (while the MacBook’s screen and trackpad ratios are the exact opposite). I think this was Apple’s attempt to make the trackpad look bigger, but while it helps with side-to-side scrolling, up and down still requires a few swipes with the fingertip. Unless you can TARDIS the size of the keyboard and trackpad (it’s bigger when its open?) there’s really nothing to be done about this. The alternative is to have the case overhand the iPad Pro when closed, and that would be… actually, that might be okay. With the Apple Pencil on top, and the slightly wider case closed, it could cover the Pencil too, preventing it from getting knocked off. I wonder if Apple experimented with that in the prototyping phase and found it didn’t work for some reason.

Display Me Something Good

The iPad is a giant screen. Ripping it off the Magic Keyboard is fun, but it’s also a unique transformation of the device that I don’t think anything else is able to similarly do today. I suspect when you hear people say, “I prefer working on an iPad,” they aren’t saying “I hate the Finder,” but instead enjoy this transformative experience.

And this is where I go when I feel I’m not getting the value I wanted or expected out of this iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil. I transform it into a comic book reader that can display comics at full size, just like their print counter-parts, or I lay it flat and draw something, or I sync my PS4 controller and play a game like What the Golf? on that nearly edgeless display. My aging MacBook Pro is still about as powerful as a $999 MacBook Air, but the iPad’s fanless operation and solid state internals make it feel so much faster. I’m giving my Apple Arcade subscription a run for it’s money.

One aspect of the iPad Pro that you sort of lose with the Magic Keyboard is orientation. You can only magnetically attach the keyboard in Landscape, which I find really disappointing. As a writer, I would love to be able to twist this screen 90 degrees and get a lot more writing space. This was an easy opportunity to one-up the MacBook writers, but Apple completely whiffed on it. With Ulysses, for example, the default is to show you the set of Library folders, the files in the Library, and the page you’re typing on, so a three-way split. About half the screen is just static space at best, a distraction at worst. You can tap the full screen view, but now about one quarter of the screen on either side is just dead space. I appreciate a good margin, but so much is wasted in Landscape. This is the biggest shortcoming of the Magic Keyboard. I would have happily spent another $50 for a Magic Keyboard that can mount the iPad in both Landscape and Portrait orientation.

Otherwise, it’s a great display. It easily wipes clean with a microfiber cloth, which oddly Apple doesn’t include in the box, but they include microfibers with MacBooks. Or they used to — do they still provide the little black microfiber cloths? I’m also really happy with the 12.9-inch size. I was concerned it would be too big, but I think this almost-13-inch screen is a great compromise between reading, writing, and watching movies while still being highly portable.

Smile for the LiDAR

The Magic Keyboard has a little cutout in the back of the case for the iPad Pro 2020 camera system. I’m sure this is more about accommodating the unnecessarily large camera bump and less about really expecting people to take a photo while holding the Magic Keyboard with iPad Pro attached to it in the air. But that’s exactly what I did.

The camera does not have night mode. I’m not sure what the camera generation is, but I’d wager around the iPhone XS based on the quality of the night shot I took. Which is to say, extremely disappointing. “But why are you trying to take a photo with your iPad, anyways?” you may be asking. Well, I’ve been asking that for a decade. The iPad should have a forward facing camera. And that’s it.

There’s also a LiDAR system on here but, just, why? I know, the rumor is the iPhone is going to have it in the Fall, so this gives Apple a way to put the LiDAR system in their developers’ hands for app creation without spoiling the fact the iPhone will have LiDAR in the fall. Well, if the whole reason is to give devs something to play with before the iPhone gets it, aren’t we basically spoiling the iPhone?

This is all to say, the iPad Pro camera system is bad, unnecessary, and I will probably never again launch the camera app for the rest of this iPad’s life.

The iPad Pro front facing camera is the real story. The front facing camera is great, but when attached to the Magic Keyboard (or placed anytime in Landscape mode) the camera ends up off to the side. Despite actually looking at the screen, the camera angle makes it appear you’re looking way off to the side and not participating in the conversation.

This is another situation, like the volume keys, where Apple could have made a choice to place the front facing camera on the edge of the iPad Pro that would usually be on top when in Landscape. Instead, they chose Portrait. The issue with Portrait is that Apple has positioned the iPad Pro as a competitor to traditional laptops, all of which have front facing cameras that frame their users in Landscape. If you set the iPad Pro to Portrait, you are framed noticeably different than everyone else on their landscape laptop webcams. If you set the iPad Pro onto your Smart/Magic Keyboard, you’re looking way off to the side.

Inside and Out

The 2020 iPad Pro has the A12Z SoC and 6 GB of RAM. It’s available with up to 1 TB of storage, and a giant battery. Also, I have the LTE version.

The design of the screen, the edges, the buttons, is outstanding, just as you’d expect for an Apple product. Even the volume buttons are nicely designed. The iPad Pro uses USB-C, and while I’ve said for a long time that Apple is not going to switch the iPhone to USB-C anytime soon, now that I’m starting to build a collection of USB-C devices, I definitely understand the passion of Team Make-the-iPhone-USB-C-Already,-Apple, but remain firmly on Team It’s-Just-Not-Gonna-Happen,-You-Guys. But here’s hoping.

And that’s all I really have to say on the iPad Pro specs.

We Need to Talk, iPadOS

iPadOS still has too much iOS in it. 

The one app at a time paradigm is not suitable for a professional computer. Case in point: Video conferencing. If I’m using Zoom on my MacBook, I can easily click to check my email, then click to my notes, then open a browser window to reference something, then back to my notes, all with Zoom still running uninterrupted. You cannot do that on an iPad. As soon as you swipe away from Zoom, the camera and mic cut out, as iPadOS doesn’t allow background apps access to the camera and mic.

Little things, like the App Switcher (Command + Tab) has a max of 9 apps that it can show and allow you to switch between, and the Home Screen has a max of 30 apps it can display on a single screen. There’s a lot of empty space left over on both the App Switcher and Home Screen. Sure, the spacing feels nice, but do what Gmail does, and give users the option of cramming more information into these spaces.

As I’ve discussed, a lack of professional apps and a lack of real multi-tasking/multi-window support don’t just impede a workflow, but can outright break it. Multitasking needs to be re-thought if Apple wants to push the iPad Pro as a pro-device, because the way it works (you can only multitask with apps in the dock, you can’t have, say, Tweetbot paired with Safari and Mail, etc.) make multitasking frustrating and difficult. I would love to have Messages open next to every app I’m using, but I’m not going to manually drag it up every time I switch to a new app.

It’s also impossible to know which app is in focus (in front) when apps are side-by-side when doing this split-view multi-tasking approach. I’ve tried to start typing in one app so many times only to realize the other app was in focus.

And arguing for deeper Shortcuts integration is fine. Shortcuts are a great addition to the OS, but they’re a band-aid to a bigger issue of usability and design (determining which app is in focus is not solved by more powerful Shortcuts).

Nothing about iPadOS feels designed for a power user. There are too many animations and transition effects making the iPad Pro feel slower than it is (run a Shortcut that calls actions from two or three apps, then do the same with macOS’s Automator, and you’ll understand my point). All of this can be improved, but Apple has got to allow iPadOS to grow up and be it’s own OS.

Size Matters

There are some significant differences between Magic Keyboard sizes for the iPad Pro. All keys on the 12.9-inch keyboard feel full size and nearly identical to their placement on a MacBook. The 11-inch keyboard has many of the none-alphanumeric keys, like punctuation and Command, Option, Control modifier keys, reduced in size by varying degrees. It also appears, based on what I’ve heard and read, the screen overhang is more pronounced on the 11-inch, causing more finger bumping when trying to type numbers or Delete. If you’ve got an 11-inch iPad Pro, or haven’t decided between the 12.9-inch and 11-inch sizes, the Sweet Setup has a detailed review of the 11-inch model. I’d recommend checking this review before placing any orders, although the Apple Store (both online and in person) make returns very easy.

Lastly

The iPad Pro is an extremely powerful, beautiful, multifunctional device hindered only by its operating system.

iPadOS is both elegant and frustrating in its simplicity of design.

iPadOS is a great OS, don’t get me wrong. It’s a great OS for a $329 iPad purchased for a kid, or a 20-something looking for a simple social media device, or a grandparent. It’s reliable, secure, sometimes intuitive, inviting, fun, and really difficult to break. (Remember back on System 7, how you could just drag the System file to the Trash and then restart to get the Flashing Question Mark Folder? Good times.)

iPadOS is a great OS, don’t get me wrong. It’s a great OS for a $329 iPad purchased for a kid, or a 20-something looking for a simple social media device, or a grandparent. It’s reliable, secure, sometimes intuitive, inviting, fun, and really difficult to break.8

But as a professional desktop replacement, the iPad Pro lacks so much. Pro apps, to start with. A file system. Real multi-tasking. Apple sold me a real keyboard and a real trackpad and a beautiful screen all powered by an OS designed 13 years ago for a very different type of device, and for a very different type of audience, an audience that ohh’ed and ahh’ed as Steve Jobs demonstrated touch scrolling on the iPhone for the very first time. Sure, Apple added (and then kinda broke) text selection and copy and paste, and my Home Screen can now display the weather and my calendar, and now there’s a cursor for my trackpad, but we’re so far away from the power of a terminal.

Not that I bought my iPad Pro expecting to find a built-in terminal. But someday I would like to have, maybe, two windows open and be able to visually identify which window is in focus. The ability to have multiple windows on screen ups the complexity, but it doesn’t diminish security, and it doesn’t make the iPad less fun. I can still tear it away from the Magic Keyboard, lay in the grass, and sketch the large tree in the front yard with Procreate at full screen. This is the iPad’s strength, its bread and butter, its joyful experience. But when I get back inside, and re-attach it to my Magic Keyboard, I need it to cut the whimsey and let me get back to work.

And unlike the iPhone, there’s no Up or Down on the iPad Pro. Regardless of how you hold it, any edge can be Up. But if you hold the iPad Pro with the front-facing camera on the bottom, and the USB-C port at the top (effectively “upside-down”), even though iOS correctly rotates the screen for you, the volume buttons remain hard-coded, and now the volume key on top turns the volume down.

The iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard is all about fun, which is why I’m finishing my iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard review on my MacBook Pro. iPadOS is just not quite ready to take the workday seriously, but that’s okay: I have a lot of comic books saved up that I need to read.