Apple’s Magic Keyboard: Who asked for flatter keys, anyway?
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The new Magic Keyboard is just baffling to me.
Is it designed for mobile devices as well, like iPads? Surely not. It pairs with an iPad just fine. But there are no amenities for totability (like a snap-on cover) or convenience (such as being able to switch the pairing to other devices and back again with ease). So why on earth does this desktop keyboard make so many sacrifices in the name of thinness and lightness?
To be fair, if that was Apple’s goal in this keyboard’s design — well-done. It is indeed a very thin and very light keyboard. As a static object, the Magic Keyboard is beautiful on my desk. It photographs well. Put that keyboard on the cover of the annual report, definitely.
But would I use it to write that annual report or tackle any other big project you’d handle at your desk? No.
Sacrifices In Vain
The keys are noticeably flatter than what I’m used to. The mechanical keyswitches feel like they’re high-quality components, but it also feels as if there’s less travel and the tactile feedback is a little weird. I wrote about 12,000 words with it over the course of a week. I got used to the feel, but only grudgingly. It never felt “good,” like a desktop keyboard should.
The keyboard is so flat, and the bezel surrounding the keyfield is so…”not even there,” that moving it to another part of my desk is clumsy. Have you ever tried to pick up a quarter off a tile floor right after you trimmed your nails? The experience is only slightly like that. But it’s still way too similar.
It goes without saying that the Magic Keyboard has none of the additional keys and comforts of a wide desktop keyboard. No keypad, no dedicated page navigation buttons, and the arrow keys are all cramped into a corner.
But here’s the most surprising disappointment of all: the Magic Keyboard is so light and thin that it feels downright cheap. Especially when compared to every other Apple product I’ve tried in the past 10 years. Though it’s stable on the desktop, I can flex it in my hands with small effort. If I were foolish enough to throw it in a bag and travel with it, I’m certain that the metal frame would bend into permanent wobbliness and I’d have to throw it away.
Is the Magic Keyboard a terrible keyboard? Naw. But it suffers in comparison to pretty much every desktop keyboard with which I’m familiar. Even compact ones. Even when I compare it to the keyboard in my MacBook Pro, the phrase that comes to mind is “disappointing.” I would never guess that this keyboard costs $99 and is intended to be used with an iMac or Mac Pro.
My difficulty with the Magic Keyboard is that it demands that I make every sacrifice – size, convenience, keyfeel – associated with a notebook keyboard, without delivering so much as a single benefit in return. When I reviewed the 2015 MacBook, I certainly noted the odd feel of its unprecedented flat keys. But I gave that a pass; its keyboard makes sense for the product that Apple was designing. It types great for what it is, and people who want the thinnest MacBook ever made are expecting tradeoffs.
Whereas the Magic Keyboard flat-out makes no sense to me at all. Obviously, these are all subjective opinions, but look, friends, that’s what I get paid for. Try out a Magic Keyboard at an Apple Store before buying one. If you don’t agree with my assessment, you’ll find some nifty features.
It has an internal battery that charges off of a Lightning port discreetly mounted at the back. Apple gives you a cable in the box. Pairing it with a Mac (or even an iPad) is easy. And just plugging it into a Mac’s USB port pairs it. Apple says the battery lasts a month or more after a two-hour charge, and that plugging it in for just a couple of minutes will put enough time on the clock to get a credible amount of work done.
Better And Cheaper Alternatives
I can’t recommend the Magic Keyboard because there are so many better full-sized compact Bluetooth keyboards out there.
I’m writing this column on Logitech’s new K380 Compact Multi-Device Bluetooth Keyboard. Its keys feel a little better than the ones on the Magic Keyboard. I wish its keycaps were square instead of round, and I sure wish its Command key were larger (the Magic Keyboard got that one right). But after just a couple of thousand words, I’m already used to those quirks. It’s more than sturdy enough for travel, and I can switch between my MacBook, my Android phone, and my iPad by tapping one of three yellow keys.
It’s barely thicker than the Magic Keyboard, including wide rubber feet that grip the desktop better than the Apple keyboard’s tiny nubbins. It’s a lot heavier (423 grams versus 231) but the Logitech delivers nine metaphorical pounds of features for that extra two-fifths of a pound of actual weight. It runs on two AAA batteries for (let me do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation here) …”roughly forever.” In exchange for helping him kill the planet with disposable cells, Satan’s design lets you put a full charge into your keyboard in 10 seconds instead of two hours.
And it’s just $39. Too expensive? How about Anker’s Ultra Compact Bluetooth Keyboard (A7721)? It only pairs with one device, but it has a rechargeable battery that lasts at least as long as Apple’s. I’ve had one for months and, despite its $26 price on Amazon, I find its deeper keys more comfortable than the Magic Keyboard’s.
I don’t own the Logitech Bluetooth Easy-Switch Keyboard K810 (the Mac version is the K811) but I’ve used it. It costs as much as the $99 Magic Keyboard, but gives you way more: backlit keys, three-device pairing, and (as I recall) better keyfeel. It’s Wirecutter’s recommendation among Bluetooth keyboards. I just went back to the site for the URL of the review, and discovered that they also like the same two K380 and Anker keyboards that I just told you about.
(For the record, the sentence “… and in general, Wirecutter picks should command your full attention” was in my mental typing buffer before I even alt-tabbed over to my web browser. Now it just seems like cheap self-aggrandizement. Well, surely you people are used to that from me by now.)
Apple still makes their excellent extended USB keyboard, replete with a numeric keypad and other niceties. It’s a snip at $49. Other companies make desktop keyboards that are even more aggressively comfortable and convenient.
Hitting The Wall
I know, I’ve been ragging on the Magic Keyboard pretty hard. I don’t believe its designers are idiots. It’s a very careful and thoughtful design, optimized toward goals that I happen to disagree with, and it’s focused on the desires of a kind of user whom I don’t recognize among the general population.
(I also appreciate that most people are more used to the feel of a flat notebook keyboard than the sort of beasts we did battle with in the Eighties and Nineties. I’m too lazy to look up how big a giraffe’s molars are but if asked, I plan to say “Each is about the size of an individual keyswitch from the keyboard that came with the IBM PC/AT.” I can’t possibly be far off.)
I think I understand Apple’s attitude here. Lots of companies make keyboards that work with Macs. So Apple chooses to make the sort of keyboard that only Apple can make: stylish, sexy … like I said, the Magic Keyboard is a lovely design, when regarded as a static object.
Nonetheless, Apple’s attitude toward the mechanical human/Mac interface, as demonstrated by the keyboards they’re shipping (and don’t get me started on Apple’s history with mouses), is still frustrating. This is the keyboard they include with the new iMacs, and it’s mediocre at best.
Apple’s one of those companies that can do anything. More than that, it’s in that uppermost echelon of companies that are capable of making the very best version of something that’s ever existed. This is why, when I looked at my long-in-the-tooth Apple Wireless Keyboard a few months ago, it was exciting to imagine how Apple could improve a compact Bluetooth keyboard. Particularly for a world that would soon have an iPad Pro in it.
But when I think Apple’s laid an egg, it’s almost always because their brakes locked up and they skid straight through Thoughtful, Valuable, User-Focused Design and crashed into the wall of mere Design Woo-Woo. The same purple cloud of violent absurdity that drifted onto the Apple campus a few years ago and convinced everyone to put the iMac’s SD card slot in a spot where the user can’t possibly reach it returned to One Infinite Loop, and it planted the thought “Our users are begging us for a flatter desktop keyboard” in their heads.
Yes, I know that the Magic Keyboard’s designers are way smarter than I am about these things, and they put way way way more research and thought into it than I have. I can only tell you what I sincerely think about the device in front of me after using it for a week. And I think the Magic Keyboard is a big disappointment. An example of Design Woo-Woo.
I know that Apple could blow my socks off with the greatest wireless keyboard ever made. I hope they do.