iPad Magic Keyboard vs. Smart Keyboard Folio
Watch the full video above or read the transcript below. If you buy through some of the links, I may earn a small share of the profits. Prices and availability are subject to change. Learn more on my Disclosures page.
I’ll be comparing these two keyboard cases based on 5 factors:
- Typing Experience
Then I’ll offer some overall final thoughts to help you decide! The iPad I tested them with is the 11 inch iPad Pro 2018. Ok let’s get started!
The iPad Smart Keyboard Folio
First, some basic info on each model. The Apple iPad Smart Keyboard Folio debuted in November of 2018 to much fanfare. Finally, Apple had created its own integrated keyboard case to compete with the host of third-party options. The Apple world rejoiced! But while there was a lot to love, especially in the larger 12.9” version, the Folio certainly had its detractors. While sporting a full keyboard, 2 viewing angles and a completely seamless and integrated experience with the iPad Pro, drawing power and instantly connecting when attached, other than that it’s pretty basic, especially when compared to some third-party options that were also available. At $180 retail price, the argument could certainly be made that there were better options out there that had more functionality at even slightly less cost.
The iPad Magic Keyboard
Then the Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro was announced in March, 2020 and has been making big waves since. Finally a backlit keyboard, and – wait, WHAT! A trackpad?? What sort of wizardry is this! Not to mention a super cool magnetic floating cantilever design with adjustable viewing angles and an extra USB-C Port – and you’ve got yourself a serious laptop replacement scenario on your hands. But at nearly double the cost of Smart Keyboard Folio, do those extra features really justify that big jump up in price? We’ll look at all those questions and more. Let’s dive in!
iPad Magic Keyboard vs. Smart Keyboard Folio: Case Comparison
First and foremost, whatever else these things do, at the end of the day, they are both cases – designed to protect your iPad, particularly the screen, which is the most vulnerable to impact. How does each measure up?
Here I give the advantage to the Magic Keyboard, if just for the fact that both the front and back of the case are thicker than the Keyboard Folio. However, I think both offer more than adequate screen protection especially, since on both the keyboard itself is between whatever the source of impact might be and the screen. I would say neither offers great side protection. Other cases might offer better protection here, but that might come at the cost of more cumbersome clipping in and out instead of the seamless way you can just pull the iPad off the magnets of either Apple cases.
Winner: Magic Keyboard
iPad Magic Keyboard vs. Smart Keyboard Folio: Usability
Due to coronavirus I haven’t been able to travel much with either case. My original use case for the iPad Pro was to have a highly capable device that I could bring along on international business trips, so I could do personal laptop type things without bringing two laptops. All that being said, when I think of portability, I’m mainly thinking of how easy is it to carry around with you and manage on the go.
In terms of weight, the Magic Keyboard is heavier – all those extra electronics making up the lighted keyboard and stronger magnets to achieve the cantilever design result in extra weight. Personally though, I actually like that. Yes, it will make the bag I’m carrying it around in heavier, but it feels so much more substantial and balanced, especially when I have it propped on my lap.
In terms of overall footprint, the Magic Keyboard is bigger – looking at them stacked on top of one another, you can see how the beefed up folding mechanism / USB-C electronics create a bump out that adds a little real estate, but not that much in terms of space in a bag.
Overall I give this to the Smart Keyboard Folio – if you’re looking for the lightest weight, smallest and most minimal case and keyboard experience for your iPad, this is the one for you.
Winner: Smart Keyboard Folio
iPad Magic Keyboard vs. Smart Keyboard Folio: Usability
When I think of usability, I think not only about actual features and functionality, but also – how fun is it to use? Do I enjoy using it? Does it enhance my experience of the iPad?
Here’s where the additional features, and price, of the Magic Keyboard really create a huge delta between the two. So in a sense it’s not quite fair to compare the two here, but that’s the whole point of this video, so here we go!
A huge game changer (and reason to select the Magic Keyboard) is that Trackpad. Ever since cursor support was added in iPad OS 13.4, the laptop replacement argument for the iPad has gotten stronger. The iPad was never going to feel like a laptop if you always had to touch the screen to do anything. But cursor support is only as good as the hardware you have driving it, and until the Magic Keyboard, Apple didn’t have their own integrated case trackpad to complete the experience. Sure, you can use any bluetooth keyboard, mouse, and trackpad, and in some scenarios like just working from home, that might provide an even better experience. But for traveling or just going to a coffee shop to work, that would mean hauling each of those items around separately.
The Magic Keyboard trackpad really is amazing. Yes, it’s not as much real estate as a MacBook Pro, but for the size, it’s highly functional. I imagine myself (someday) in a coach seat on a flight using my iPad with the trackpad, and still being productive in spite of the minimal amount of space I have to work with overall. It’s definitely putting some pressure on app development teams to accommodate cursor support, but as what usually happens, the ones who really care will implement this quickly, and it will become the “new normal”.
I also really like the swipe gestures, which further enhance the usability.
Next, the lighted keyboard is another huge point in the Magic Keyboard’s favor, especially if you’re using it in low-light settings (i.e. the aforementioned airplane with the dim lights). Most of the time when I used the Keyboard Folio, I didn’t sit around all the time thinking, man, I really wish this had backlit keys! But now that I have it, I can’t imagine going back.
Third, the extra USB-C port. This again pushes the iPad Pro further into laptop replacement territory. Essentially, you now have the ability to use that extra port for charging while you continue to work and use the main port on the iPad itself for things like running external hard drives or memory card readers off it, which is something I do pretty regularly. With the Keyboard Folio, you’d have to stop working to charge it, if you were trying to use the port for something else at the same time.
Finally, the Magic Keyboard’s floating design means that you can fine tune the screen angle more to your liking, versus the 2 fixed points offered by the Keyboard Folio.
In this category, the Magic Keyboard completely dominates the Keyboard Folio. But remember, you’re paying almost twice as much for all that additional functionality, which some might decide they don’t really need.
Winner: Magic Keyboard
iPad Magic Keyboard vs. Smart Keyboard Folio: Typing Experience
I wrote this review switching off between the two keyboards, and according to my testing and personal preferences, the Magic Keyboard offers a vastly superior typing experience. To me, it’s not even close. In terms of quantitative measurements, the speed and accuracy achievable with the Magic Keyboard is light years beyond the Keyboard Folio. Overall my typing is slower and less accurate on the Keyboard folio – with a higher “miss rate” – sometimes my keystrokes aren’t even registered, especially with the space key, arguably the most important key on the board. Qualitatively, though, the experience is night and day. The Keyboard Folio feels like I’m typing on gummy bears, or stale English Muffins. It’s mushy. Overall not a very pleasurable experience. Of course, it’s better than nothing, and I’ve heard that some people have gotten used to it, but I never have. I still find the experience off-putting. But the full measure of my dissatisfaction didn’t come into sharp focus until I started using the Magic Keyboard.
The keys on the magic keyboard much more closely resemble those on the new 16 inch MacBook Pro. They are precise and highly responsive, allowing for fast and accurate typing. Even on the 11 inch iPad Pro, I really don’t feel cramped at all while typing. Sure, they made a few compromises around some of the lesser used keys, but everything that matters is there. The true testament to how good the keyboard is is that I don’t feel like I’m typing on an iPad case at all – it doesn’t draw attention to itself like the Keyboard Folio does, and I’m left feeling like I’m typing on my MacBook Pro itself or the regular bluetooth Magic Keyboard that I use for most of my workday.
Any drawbacks to the Magic Keyboard? Some reviewers have noted that depending on the angle of the iPad and how it suspends over the top row of keys, it’s possible for it to crowd you up there. I don’t really hang out on the number keys all day, and I’m assuming that if you do, you probably want to invest in a standard full size keyboard with number pad or just a standalone number pad. So at any rate, I haven’t found that to be an issue.
I guess the only other potential drawback would be shorter battery life on the Magic Keyboard vs. the Folio due to the lighted keys / trackpad interactions. I have no scientific data to back this up, but so far in my experience, I haven’t noticed any significant decrease in battery life when using the Magic Keyboard.
Winner: Magic Keyboard
iPad Magic Keyboard vs. Smart Keyboard Folio: Design
When I look at design, I’m looking at two interrelated areas – physical design and experience design. Of course, the physical design has a direct impact on the experience, which is why good product design is so important. It’s also the reason you’d look at Apple-branded iPad cases and keyboards in the first place – you’re looking for that seamless experience that just gets out of the way and lets you focus on whatever you want to use the device for.
Let’s start with the Smart Keyboard Folio. As with most Apple products, the design principles of simplicity and minimalism are the organizing principles around which all the other design decisions were made. And if you judge it by those factors, it is a success. The iPad easily attaches and detaches using magnets and immediately connects to the keyboard – there’s no pairing. And by drawing power from the device, there’s no batteries, saving weight, space and replacement hassle. By offering only two positions that lock in very securely and that cover the basic viewing angles you might want pretty well, it eliminates further complexity and failure points that might be introduced with more adjustment options.
At the same time, there is such a thing as too simple – too minimal. As I mentioned previously, sometimes a little weight is a good thing from an experience standpoint. And the simplicity of the keyboard itself was taken so far that it’s not really enjoyable to use. Again – you may have this and love it, and if so, my advice to you is to never try the Magic Keyboard so you don’t get FOMO. It’s really by comparison and contrast that the flaws of the Smart Keyboard Folio come into sharp relief.
The Magic Keyboard’s design is truly what makes it special. Yes, they could have made a standard clamshell mechanism and locked the screen in place, but that would have been a bit boring and basic. The floating cantilever design is so cool and really draws you in to the device in a – yes – magical way. The ability to get the angle “just right” instead of choosing between two fixed positions is a huge step forward. I also like the additional vertical height this design achieves – something you don’t really think about but actually adds a lot of value to the experience.
And as I’ve said several times already, to design the case so the keyboard and trackpad feel great to use, especially in tight quarters on the 11 inch, is a great accomplishment. Because of the design, I’m excited to use my iPad for more and more laptopy things. Like all of Apple’s best products, “it just works”. And that’s one of the greatest product design compliments you can give.
Winner: Magic Keyboard
Which one should you get?
So, if you’re trying to decide between these two, or have the Smart Keyboard Folio and are trying to decide if it’s worth it to upgrade, here’s the most important questions you should ask yourself:
- What do I need my iPad to do and how do I use it normally?
If your iPad is just a fun content consumption device that you occasionally type an email on, it would be difficult to justify the cost of the Magic Keyboard, and is probably even a bit of a stretch to consider the Smart Keyboard Folio, although you need a case regardless. So I would subtract the cost of a “dumb” case without a keyboard (for example, the Smart Folio retails for $79 at the time of this video, so you’d be looking at a $100 upgrade fee to add the Keyboard). However, as a long term investment (if you plan on hanging on to your iPad for several years) I think it’s worth investing in some sort of keyboard case, just to make your life easier for when you do want to type an email or take a few notes when out and about. I also appreciate the really stable way you’re able to prop the iPad up for reading (in landscape) – it’s a great built-in stand.
On the other end, if you want your iPad to truly replace your laptop 90% of the time, I can only recommend the Magic Keyboard. Yes, the cost is steep, but if you’re serious about using your iPad Pro as a productivity tool, the investment is easily worth it. You will regret settling for the Smart Keyboard Folio just to save $120 (in the case of the 11 inch). It also depends on how much you travel or really value the flexibility of being able to be highly productive with your iPad anywhere, which is kind of the point of getting an iPad vs. even a more traditional laptop – longer battery life, lower profile.
If you’re frequently hooking up devices like hard drives or memory card readers directly into the iPad, you may also benefit from having that extra USB-C port to play with from a charging perspective.
- Should I consider a third-party case instead?
I haven’t tested any third-party cases, so I’m not going to make any specific recommendations here, only remind you why you might want to only consider Apple cases. If you value seamless integrated design that just works, you’ll probably want to decide between these two options. It’s not to say that third-party cases can’t be great or offer comparable functionality and experience, there will just be a different set of trade offs you should carefully consider.
- Are there any other alternatives to consider?
If you don’t travel much or don’t mind packing extra accessories or you already have a case you really love, you could hook up any Bluetooth keyboard and mouse and away you go! The most seamless and Apple-esque experience would be to get the non-iPad desktop Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse, which depending on the configuration you choose could end up costing more than the Smart Keyboard Folio (but the iPad Magic Keyboard is still more than the most expensive configuration of standalone Apple mouse and keyboard).
On the budget side you can find a set of Bluetooth keyboard and mouse for less than $30, but know that there’s a risk of hardware and software conflicts and pairing issues.
So, overall, if I had to pick one to recommend for new buyers, or offer advice to those looking to upgrade, I would have to enthusiastically recommend the Magic Keyboard. Yes, it’s really expensive – there’s no getting around it. But chances are, if you bought an iPad Pro in the first place, you’re already prepared to spend for enhanced functionality – there’s a reason you bought the Pro over other highly capable iPad models that are out there. The Magic Keyboard is really the only true “Pro” keyboard case you should consider to maximize the extra investment you’ve already made in the iPad hardware itself.
That being said, if you have the Smart Keyboard Folio and already love it and don’t mind the typing experience, literally just forget everything I just said about how amazing the Magic Keyboard is. It might be overkill for you and not worth the upgrade.
So that’s it – I hope this was helpful for you to think through what’s right for you. If you have any additional questions or comments to help add to the discussion, leave them in the comments below and I’ll get back to you! Links to everything I mentioned can be found in the description. Thank you for watching, stay safe and stay well!