August 3, 2016: Apple has just updated both the 9.7 and 12.9-inch Smart Keyboards to include versions localized for British English, French, German, Spanish, Korean, Italian, Arabic, Thai and others. Check your local Apple Store now!
Apple's Smart Keyboard is meant to fold out when you want a real, tactile keyboard experience to pound out text and boost productivity, and then fold up out of your way when you want to go back to full-on tablet viewing or playing. It uses the Smart Connector, so it attaches magnetically to both draw power and transfer data, which makes it more reliable than typical Bluetooth keyboards.
Composed of a single piece of laser ablated fabric, and using the same butterfly mechanisms as the MacBook, the Smart Keyboard does sacrifice that traditional, single-key clickety-clack feeling, but gains liquid resistance and maximum mobility.
I took a look at both the 12.9-inch and 9.7-inch versions, and here's what I found!
12.9-inch iPad Pro Smart Keyboard
The 12.9-inch Smart Keyboard was Apple's first iPad-specific keyboard since the original in 2010, which was little more than a Mac keyboard with a 30-pin Dock connector fused on top. It worked, if you didn't mind having your iPad stuck in portrait mode, but it wasn't flexible or portable. The Smart Keyboard is both.
It's made from a single piece of custom woven fabric—taffeta isn't just for weddings any more!—and then laser ablated to form each key. While it uses the same domes inside the keys as the new MacBook, instead of butterfly switches, the structure of the fabric itself acts as part of the mechanism.
The fabric is treated with a durable water-resistant (DWR) coating to protect against spills and stains. Because there's no space between the keys, there's also nowhere for food or dirt particles to collect, and nowhere for liquids to get in.
I've been using the Smart Keyboard at airports, coffee shops, hotels, and on airplanes, and that feature is terrific. I'm super careful with my keyboards anyway, because I travel so much, but not having to be paranoid about the Smart Keyboard is a huge stress-reducer.
Folding the Smart Keyboard into place can be awkward, though, even after you've become familiar with the process, and there's no way to control the angle. It's got one position and one position only. I'd love to have two or three options, so I could adjust for lighting, for example.
The Smart Keyboard does hold its position well, whether on a table or on your lap. The connector's magnet is stronger than the keyboard's magnet as well. So, when you want to fold it back up, the connector comes off the keyboard easily, but the iPad stays stuck to the connector.
Whether it always recognizes it's connected is another story. I often find the software keyboard fails to go away when I attach the Smart Keyboard. You can't just swipe it away either, because the minute you go to enter text, it comes back. Reseating the Smart Keyboard a few times usually gets it to go away, but it's one of those things that just needs to work.
As with the MacBook keyboard, it took me about an hour to get used to typing on the Smart Keyboard. Since then I've been using it without even thinking about it, for hours at a time. Because it doesn't feel like a traditional keyboard, though, it won't appeal tor everyone—It'll likely be even more divisive than the new MacBook keyboard.
For something with this much portability, and with this low a profile, however, it's about as good as it can be. Personally, I'm fine with the compromise. If you're not, though, there's already a Logitech keyboard for the Smart Connector that has far more MacBook-like, backlit keys, and more on the way.
9.7-inch iPad Pro Smart Keyboard
Before the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, the smallest Apple keyboard I'd ever used was the 11-inch MacBook Air. Or 12-inch New MacBook. Or maybe Smart Keyboard on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. I'm not fussy about keyboards, so they've all been great for me. It takes about 5 minutes for me to acclimatize and then I'm flying.
I've used plenty of third-party iPad Air and even iPad mini keyboards over the years, some less than stellar, but others surprisingly good.
That's how I'd classify Apple's Smart Keyboard for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. The laser ablated fabric Apple uses, which along with MacBook-style domes forms the structure of the keys, holds up really well, even at the smaller scale. I've been typing on it for a few days now and while I feel like I make a few more errors than I otherwise would, autocorrect fixes most of those without me having to slow down — or be slowed down.
For those who dislike the Smart Keyboard regardless of size, there's the exact same Smart Connector as the bigger Pro, which means third-party keyboards will be available as well.
Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.