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Three Alternatives to the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard

Add-on physical keyboards and keyboard cases for the iPad have been around since the tablet’s inception in 2010, but the recently released iPad Pro has taken this arrangement to a new level.

The iPad Pro is much bigger than its siblings, which makes working on it more palatable for those averse to toiling on smaller screens with cramped keyboards.

Tacitly acknowledging this fact, Apple has provided a physical tablet keyboard in the form of the $169 Smart Keyboard, which is basically a Smart Cover with an integrated keypad (see “iPad Pro Shows the Promise of iOS Productivity,” 23 Dec. 2015). The Smart Keyboard is much wider, corresponding to the iPad Pro’s generous dimensions, and therefore more comfortable for lengthy work.

What’s more, the Smart Keyboard connects to the iPad Pro via a new physical Smart Connector that supplants the Bluetooth wireless connections typically employed by third-party keyboards. The Smart Keyboard also draws power from the tablet, so charging is less of a bother than with Bluetooth keyboards.

The problem? The Smart Keyboard is, for many, an acquired taste, with chiclet-like buttons that can feel clunky to use, and a lack of iPad-specific function keys typically found on third-party products. The Smart Keyboard lacks backlit keys as well, and it can feel a bit flimsy, though it actually works pretty well on a lap.

Fortunately, third-party hardware makers have stepped in with an assortment of iPad Pro-compatible keyboards and keyboard cases in a variety of shapes, sizes and configurations. Three of these have stood out in my testing.

The first, Logitech’s $149.99 Create keyboard case, also connects to the iPad Pro via its Smart Connector for it-just-works reliability and — in a recent discovery — hassle-free firmware updates via the iPad. The Create, unlike the Smart Keyboard, gives the iPad Pro the look and feel of a laptop.

Zagg’s $139.99 Slim Book also turns the iPad Pro into a laptop of sorts, but connects via Bluetooth instead of a Smart Connector.

Another Bluetooth-based Zagg product, the $69.99 Messenger Universal, is not a keyboard case but rather a standalone keyboard with a flap-like cover that folds into a sturdy tablet stand.

Logitech Create — Logitech worked behind the scenes with Apple to make the Create, which was released at the same time as the iPad Pro and its Smart Keyboard. The reasons for this are easy to figure out: the odd Smart Keyboard is not for everyone, and Apple was eager to have a decent alternative in place.

The Create is appealing in many ways. Its exterior has a rough, fabric-like texture that feels great.

Inside the case, the iPad Pro is positioned in landscape mode, with its upper half held securely by stiff plastic edging. The bottom half of the clamshell reveals a keyboard that is a dead ringer for that of a MacBook Air.

Using the Create involves opening it sort of like a laptop, and then swinging the bottom of the iPad Pro forward until it clicks into a magnetic groove that incorporates the three Smart Connector metal nubs.

That’s it. The Create is ready to use – no bothersome Bluetooth pairing.

The keyboard is extremely comfortable and pleasant to use. Typing on this setup on the sofa is great since the Create, when open, has a broad, flat base that is ideal for the lap. The subtly cupped keys, built into an aluminum base, have a soft yet firm feel, and they are backlit. There is a full set of function keys (including Home and Lock buttons), too.

You can position the iPad Pro for just touchscreen use, with the tablet pulled from its Smart Connector port and placed flat, at a slight incline, atop the keyboard. This makes for a bulky combination, but the alternative, removing the iPad Pro from the Create, takes some effort and is a hassle.

Bulk is the Create’s biggest shortcoming. The amazingly thin and light iPad Pro becomes significantly heftier in a package that is a bit bigger in all dimensions than a MacBook Pro. Many people won’t mind this, of course, but it may be a problem for others.

Zagg Slim Book — A notebook-like alternative to the Create, the Slim Book is unique in a number of ways that make it worth a close look.

Setup is different from the Create. First, you insert the iPad Pro into a thin plastic backing that adds scant bulk.

You then attach this combo to the keyboard portion of the Slim Book, which has a dock with a hinge. The iPad Pro drops into the slot, adheres magnetically and securely, and becomes the lid portion of the quasi-notebook. This opens and shuts via the hinge, much like a laptop.

The iPad Pro can be removed from the dock just as easily. That is the Slim Book’s key advantage: when you want to use the iPad on its own, you can remove it from the keyboard base, and set that aside. Even in its plastic backing, the iPad is thin and lightweight. That’s good, since the backing is a nightmare to pry off.

The Slim Book uses Bluetooth instead of a Smart Connector link. That’s fine when the wireless works, and it usually did in this case. But Apple ditched Bluetooth for a reason: the technology has a big hassle factor, with frequent fussing and troubleshooting necessary, so expect at least a little tinkering sooner or later if you buy the Slim Book.

The Slim Book’s keyboard is a bit wider than that of the Create. I did not find this made much difference in terms of typing comfort or speed. The Zagg has flat keys, unlike the Create’s sculpted buttons that I prefer, and overall, the Slim Book’s feel is a bit more plasticky. Even so, I enjoyed working on the Slim Book, which also features backlighting and a full complement of function keys. My fingers could really fly on it.

As with the Create, bulk is the Slim Book’s potential downfall — even though the Zagg is a bit trimmer than the Create and roughly comparable to a MacBook Pro. And unlike the Create’s rough and grippy outer surface, the Slim Book’s skin feels too slick; I was always a little worried that it would slip through my fingers and crash to the floor.

Zagg Messenger Universal — Unlike the previous two accessories, which attach to the iPad Pro and turn it into a sort of laptop, Zagg’s Messenger Universal exists apart from the iPad until it’s needed. It’s a folio-like device with a cover flap that opens to reveal the keyboard.

The flap folds into the shape of a triangular prism, becoming a universal stand for use with just about any tablet or smartphone.

It works splendidly with the iPad Pro in this regard, with the tablet in either landscape or portrait mode. I expected the large iPad Pro to be a bit top-heavy in portrait positioning, and I was pleasantly surprised to find it quite stable.

Such positioning flexibility can be a crucial consideration for some people. For instance, I prefer to have the iPad Pro in portrait mode when writing, because that allows for more lines of a document. I also do a great deal of photo editing and posting to Instagram as part of my journalism day job. Doing that on the portrait-positioned iPad Pro with the Messenger Universal makes for a highly efficient workstation arrangement that works better than using portrait-only photography apps on an iPhone.

Zagg’s Messenger Universal keyboard feels even more plasticky than that of the company’s Slim Book, but that doesn’t hinder its functionality. I’m delighted with how rapidly I’m able to work on it. As a bonus, I prefer how the iPad Pro tilts farther back than it does on the Create and Slim Book. This is a matter of taste, of course.

Because the Messenger Universal isn’t attached to the iPad Pro, it’s one more thing to lug around, which may be its biggest shortcoming. Also, using the combination on a lap is awkward in landscape mode and all but impossible in portrait mode. This is a setup that’s primarily for desks and tables.

But for those who prefer keeping a keyboard completely separate from the iPad until physical input is required, the Zagg Messenger Universal is worth a close look. What’s more, it works nicely with any other iOS device; I used it with my iPhone on a number of occasions when thumb typing grew tiresome.

More Keyboards Coming — We’re sure to see a larger array of keyboards tailored to the iPad Pro in 2016.

Incipio has announced an iPad Pro version of its ClamCase series, due in the second half of 2016.

Brydge is due to ship its Brydge Pro for the iPad Pro in April 2016.

I’ve also come across iPad Pro keyboards from makers with whom I am not acquainted, which makes me cautious. Such companies include FYY, Iconic, and Peyou

A Case for the Smart Keyboard — Despite lengthy flirtations with each of the third-party products reviewed here, I ended up defaulting to Apple’s Smart keyboard.

Its portability is first-rate, bulk is kept to a minimum, there’s no Bluetooth, it works about as well on a lap as on a table, and the feel of the keys (which use a mechanism similar to the keys on the 12-inch MacBook) eventually grew on me.

But while I am unlikely to revisit either Logitech’s Create or Zagg’s Slim Book, I remain a regular user of Zagg’s Messenger Universal. For some tasks, including writing and photo editing, I prefer the iPad in portrait mode. Apple’s Smart Keyboard doesn’t allow such positioning.

All that said, even though I am a fan of iPad-based productivity, I’m not fully satisfied with any of the keyboards that have cropped up so far. I believe Apple and third-party makers can do better in order to make the iPad a true productivity alternative to Apple laptops.

In fact, my favorite add-on tablet keyboard is not for the iPad, but for the Surface Pro 4, Microsoft’s hybrid Windows machine. The Keyboard Cover connects to the Surface via a physical connector similar to the Smart Connector. It folds flat against the computer for transport and flips open for work sessions. It is quite thin yet sturdy, and feels fantastic for typing.

Microsoft needed four tries to create a Keyboard Cover this good. I therefore hold out hope that Apple, after more attempts, will achieve similar greatness.

The eventual solution could even involve Apple’s recently released Magic Keyboard for the Mac (see “Apple’s New Magic Peripherals Offer Modest Change,” 25 November 2015). Apple, or a clever third-party accessory maker, could devise a Magic Keyboard case that doubles as an iPad stand, much like the Messenger Universal but incorporating Apple’s own keyboard.

There is precedent for this. A now-discontinued Incase product called the Origami Workstation served as a protective sheath for the previous Apple Wireless Keyboard, with that device snapping into place (“Physical Keyboards for the iPhone 6,” 25 October 2014) When it was time to work, the sheath’s flap-like cover opened and folded backward to form a pyramidal stand for a tablet or phone. It was genius.

I still have an Origami Workstation lying around and I tried it with the iPad Pro. It works great, with the tablet in either landscape or portrait mode.

I’d love to see this idea resurrected, whether by Apple or some other enterprising accessory maker.

Other options, if you have a standalone keyboard you want to pair up with the iPad Pro but not permanently attach to the tablet, include stands like Twelve South’s ParcSlope and Stump’s Super Stump.

Or, if none of these tickle your fancy, perhaps you’d like to attach one of the great keyboards of yesteryear, for lots of retro coolness and geek cred.

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