A week into the release of the iPad Pro, much has been written about its use as a laptop replacement. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently said that he travels with just an iPad Pro and an iPhone. Day one iPad Pro reviewers were given two hardware keyboards to evaluate: the Apple Smart Keyboard and the Logitech Create. The media was generally positive towards the feel of the two keyboards, with most preferring the Create’s plastic keys over the Smart Keyboard’s fabric keys. They were less impressed by the extra bulk the keyboards added and the incomplete integration of external keyboards in iOS 9. For instance, there is a keyboard shortcut to initiate a Spotlight search, but there is no way (yet) to select one of the search results. As a result, one still needs to reach up and touch the screen frequently, and this can get tiring over time. When paired with the Smart Keyboard or the Create, the iPad Pro becomes larger and heavier than the 12-inch MacBook with Retina Display or the 11-inch MacBook Air it aspires to replace in the eyes of some users.
Less emphasis has been given to the iPad Pro’s software keyboard in the reviews, which is a shame because I think it’s the best software keyboard implementation I’ve used yet. Thanks to the large 12.9″ display, the Pro’s virtual keyboard is almost the same size as Apple’s Wireless Keyboard. The width of the keyboard is almost a perfect match, and the height of the soft keys is a few millimeters shorter than the physical keys.
The keyboard layout is nearly the same as the physical keyboard shown above. Instead of the Fn, Control, Option and Command keys, we have the Keyboard Layout, Alternate Key, and Dictation buttons. Also missing is the Esc key and the various function keys adorning the top row of the Apple Wireless Keyboard. The Pro’s soft keyboard even features a tab and caps lock key. It is worth noting that the number and delete keys are half the height of the alpha keys; they do take some time getting used to, as you have to be careful not to accidentally hit the Undo, Redo, Paste, Predictive suggestions or Editing buttons above them.
All this makes typing on the iPad Pro familiar and satisfying compared with the software keyboards on previous iPads. And, with a few tweaks, I was able to make the Pro’s soft keyboard function nearly identically to a physical QWERTY keyboard.
Inputing HTML on the iPad Pro
Anyone who has ever tried inputting HTML1 on iOS devices knows how maddening and time-consuming that task can be. For instance, entering the left angled bracket character takes three taps on the iOS software keyboard: 123 button, #+= button, and the < key. Editing a blog post in WordPress through Mobile Safari is an exercise in patience and not for the faint of heart2. And, while there are apps that add HTML formatting keys above the standard software keyboard (i.e. Panic’s Coda), their keyboards normally don’t transfer to other applications3.
Since the iPad Pro’s software keyboard looks like a real keyboard, how about configuring it as close as possible to a real keyboard? Turning off the Auto-Capitalization and Auto-Correction in Settings > General > Keyboards does exactly that.
- Auto-Capitalization and Auto-Correct ON: 1 minute and 20 seconds
- Auto-Capitalization and Auto-Correct OFF: 30 seconds
That’s nearly three times faster, with far fewer finger gymnastics and headaches. I’ll take it!
Don’t get me wrong, both Auto-Capitalization and Auto-Correct are great in most cases. Being able to turn these off and use the software keyboard like a regular keyboard, however, means I won’t dread using the iPad to make changes to webpages or to type longer passages of text. And, it lessens the need to have a physical keyboard with you in order to effectively use the iPad Pro. I do wish that long-pressing on the keyboard layout button would display additional options to toggle Auto-Capitalization and Auto-Correct. Switch modes from the keyboard is way faster than going into Settings > General > Keyboard to change the settings.
Update December 1, 2015: One can tell Siri to, “Open Keyboard Preferences” to quickly go to the settings page. From there, it’s a quick tap or two to turn off Auto-Capitalization and Auto-Correct for those times when you want to use the iPad Pro’s keyboard like a regular keyboard.
Swipe Up Tip
Update: November 19, 2015: On previous iPad devices, one could swipe up on two characters on the software keyboard, the period and comma keys to output the quote and double quote characters. On the iPad Pro, this feature has been extended to all of the number and symbol keys. Swiping up from the one key will output exclamation point and swiping up on semi-colon key will output the colon character. This makes even faster to input alternate characters since one doesn’t have to press (and/or hold) the shift key.
One can also press and hold on the keys to display alternate letters, but I find swiping up to be faster in practice. Pressing and holding is required for certain alpha keys since they feature more alternate letters.
On the flipside, I recognize that typing on the iPad Pro’s keyboard in slate orientation with the Smart Cover comes with some downsides in the ergonomics department. In this setup, my neck is angled down and my back is hunched over the iPad. Prolonged typing sessions like these will make those muscles very uncomfortable.
Thus, is the best way to use an iPad Pro at the desk similar to what we do today with laptops? Hook up the iPad Pro to an external display or elevate the iPad Pro so it’s more in line with our eyes? In the first scenario, one could touch type on the iPad Pro’s while looking at the external display, looking down only to tap or swipe. Alternatively, one could use an external Bluetooth keyboard while looking at the elevated iPad or the monitor.
These two scenarios are illustrated below with the iPad Pro’s screen mirrored on an Apple Thunderbolt Display. How this is possible, one might ask, given that the iPad doesn’t have a Lightning-to-Thunderbolt adapter. It turns out that one can use Quicktime Player’s Movie Recording feature to mirror an iOS device connected via a regular USB-to-Lightning cable.
One can also use OS X El Capitan’s Split Screen feature to have both iOS and OS X operating side-by-side in fullscreen mode! I admit to some confusion when using this setup; I half expected the cursor on the iPad to move when I used the mouse to click in the iOS window on my Mac! Microsoft would beg to differ with its Windows 10 operating system and device lineup, but I agree with Cook that in the case of OS X and iOS, the two operating systems shouldn’t be merged into one.
For me, an external keyboard has always been faster at inputting data than the iPad’s software keyboard. The iPad Pro’s, however, comes closest to emulating a physical keyboard. If Apple adds the Taptic Engine and 3D Touch hardware to the iPad Pro, the software keyboard could get even better. One could imagine being able to tune the amount of force needed to signal a keypress. I’d imagine it would be a power hog, so maybe it would only work when plugged into the mains. And, it’s at least one or two generations away, but I am excited about the prospects!
27-inch iPad Ultra Pro?
I’ll end this article on a fun note. Here’s a photo of my iPad Pro’s home screen displayed on my 27-inch Thunderbolt Display in fullscreen mode. Can you imagine this is what a 27-inch iPad Ultra Pro might look like?
1 Old habits die hard. I’m not ashamed to admit that I normally eschew the visual, WYSIWYG editors and prefer to edit webpages in HTML.
2 The WordPress app hasn’t been optimized for the iPad Pro’s software keyboard. The app works better for stock WordPress sites, but is not optimal for those who run heavily customized WordPress installations.
3 Is there a Custom Keyboard for HTML editing on iOS? A quick search on the iOS App Store didn’t reveal much.