Mac Week: Could it be magic, now? The last decade of Mac keyboard evolution


Making magic takes time, you know

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Some say Apple perfected the keyboard in 2007. We’re not one of them, which is why we’ve spent more money than we care to think about getting my supple digits accustomed to different Mac keyboards throughout the years.

The Cupertino, California-based firm pulled off a one-two sucker punch in 2015 by launching not one, but two new keyboards for the first time in eight years. Both the 12-inch MacBook and the new Magic Keyboard have proved divisive affairs with their low-slung keys, shallower than your average reality TV star.

The question is: are Apple’s keyboards getting better, or worse? Let’s look back at offerings we’ve owned in the last decade-plus, in addition to glossing over Apple’s latest Magic Keyboard.

This article is part of TechRadar’s Mac Week. This year marks not only the 10th anniversary of Apple’s unibody MacBook, but the triumphant return of macOS. So, TechRadar looks to celebrate with a week’s worth of original features delving back into the Mac’s past, predicting the Mac’s future and exploring the Mac as it is today.

Apple Wired Keyboard (2003)

Apple Magic Keyboard

You can almost imagine the 2003 version of Apple’s Wireless keyboard in a modern art exhibition next to Tracey Emin’s bed.

“Here lies a keyboard with the crumbs of a thousand lunches visible though its transparent base”, a totally plausible sign could read.

Transparent cases were the norm for Apple back in 2003, following its iMac G3 and PowerMac G3 computers of the era, and this keyboard looked pretty cool at the time. It packed the standard features you’d expect from a full-sized wired keyboard, including two USB ports and full-size number pad.

Although nowhere near as satisfying to type on as today’s mechanical keyboards, its spongey keys offered more travel and resistance than your average membrane keyboard and made for a curiously fulfilling typing experience.

  • Comfort rating (5 being most comfortable): 3.5
  • Travel rating (5 being deepest): 5

Apple Keyboard with Numeric Keypad (2007)

Apple wired keyboard

Like an accountant in a Bugatti, Apple’s wired aluminum keyboard both oozes cool and can help you do your tax returns, thanks to its numeric keypad. Flatter, lighter and generally miles better looking than its 2003 predecessor, its 40 centimeters of sturdy metal build quality also make it a formidable weapon in the wrong person’s hands.

Perhaps surprisingly, it remains Apple’s most recent wired keyboard following the company’s decision not to refresh it in 2015. Which is just as well, as its comfortable keys, handily located USB ports (one on either side) and compact nature make it a treat for the fingers and the eyes.

  • Comfort rating (5 being most comfortable): 4
  • Travel rating (5 being deepest): 3

Apple Wireless Keyboard (2007)

Apple wireless keyboard

Toting a similar design to Apple’s other 2007 aluminum keyboard (you know – the wired one), Apple’s Wireless Keyboard repositioned the arrow keys and removed the number pad to create a compact classic. So good, it was even worth raiding the bottoms of drawers for eight years to find re-chargable batteries with remaining fizz.

The Wireless Keyboard was so popular that early iPad cases literally bent over backwards to accommodate it. In 2012, this editor backed a Kickstarter-funded case called the TypeCover that transported both an iPad and wireless keyboard at the same time. It was expensive and rubbish, but it worked, and showed the lengths people were prepared to go to carry around their favorite hunk of metal.

  • Comfort rating (5 being most comfortable): 4
  • Travel rating (5 being deepest): 3

MacBook Air keyboard (2011)

Apple MacBook keyboard

Call time; we have a winner. For us, the 13-inch MacBook Air remains the king of Apple keyboards. It’s hard to put a finger – what’s that, a typing pun? – on just what makes it great.

Is it the subtle curvature of the Air’s chiclet-spaced keys, which possess a near-perfect amount of just-shallow-enough travel? Or perhaps it’s the spacious and comfortable aluminum wrist rest that aids you as you type. It could even be the way the keys wobble like an excited jelly.

Because perfection is boring, we’d like to see a new version of the 13-inch MacBook Air’s keyboard, one with larger key caps and increased stability (like the Magic Keyboard) but possessing the same amount of travel and style. Apple, if you’re listening, I have three words for you: redesigned MacBook Pro.

  • Comfort rating (5 being most comfortable): 5
  • Travel rating (5 being deepest): 3

Retina MacBook Pro keyboard (2013)

Apple MacBook Pro

Like a parent loving both children but having an unconscious preference for one over the other, this editor in particular has always preferred the Air’s keyboard over the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro.

Despite offering a similar amount of travel and having the same sized keycaps, there’s a subtle, but noticeable rigidity in the Pro’s keys that makes typing slightly less fluid than on the Air. It’s likely down to the Retina’s chunkier profile under the keyboard and overall weightier feel.

Don’t get me wrong, the experience isn’t a bad one: it’s just the Pepsi to the Air’s Coke; the McDonalds to its Burger King – the Van Damme to its Schwarzenegger. Likeable and popular, but no classic.

  • Comfort rating (5 being most comfortable): 3.5
  • Travel rating (5 being deepest): 2

12-inch MacBook keyboard (2015)

12 inch MacBook

So this is, er, where things get a bit awkward. As we noted in our review of the 12-inch MacBook, you’ll have no trouble typing on it for short-ish periods of time.

Silly (and wrong) people sometimes mock Macs for being “expensive Facebook machines,” but in the case of the new MacBook, it’s only somewhat justified. This is one of the ultimate laptops for browsing the web and doing social media stuff, bashing out short quips to friends and typing out invites to UV bangle-littered foam parties.

But not so much for serious productivity – the 1mm of travel afforded by the keyboard’s Butterfly mechanism is simply too low for comfort when it comes to bashing out long documents. Wrist cramp sets in, inaccuracies creep into work and you’ll have a miserable time finding a USB-C keyboard –mainly because few, if any, exist yet.

  • Comfort rating (5 being most comfortable): 2
  • Travel rating (5 being deepest): 1

Apple Magic Keyboard (2015)

Apple magic keyboard

Six keyboards in and we’ve arrived in the present, as illustrated by Apple’s new Magic Keyboard hiding in a plant pot.

What do you mean “why?” Leaf me alone.

It was with some nervousness that we read the release detailing the new accessory, which on the plus side doesn’t house Apple’s Butterfly mechanisms under its keys. At the same time, its “low-profile scissor mechanism” sounded ominous – would it be as unsuitable as the 12-inch MacBook for blistering typing sessions?

Spoiler: we used the Magic Keyboard to type this very article, and it was a mighty pleasurable (and pain-free) experience. However, Apple’s 2007 Wireless Keyboard this is not. The keys are much shallower (around 1mm versus 2007’s 2mm), and typing feels somewhere in-between that keyboard and the 12-inch MacBook’s. You really have to try it for yourself.

A nice touch over the 2007 Wireless model is its flatter profile. In the absence of a battery compartment, your wrists sit at a lower and more natural angle, which allows them to rest more comfortably on the desk – a bit like they do on the MacBook Air’s keyboard.

So, that’s that. If you want to check out some foliage-free images of Apple’s Magic Keyboard, then click on ahead.

  • Comfort rating (4 being most comfortable): 4.5
  • Travel rating (5 being deepest): 2

Magic Keyboard: packaging

Magic Keyboard packaging

The Magic Keyboard comes in a typically snug packaging set-up from Apple. Would you expect anything less?

Magic Keyboard: size versus 2007 Wireless

Magic Keyboard

It fits snugly into the back of the 2007 Wireless keyboard, too. This is arguably Apple’s most portable keyboard yet.

Magic Keyboard: On switch

Power button

Pairing the Magic Keyboard to your Mac is as easy as connecting it via the supplied Lightning cable and turning it on using the button above. Within a few seconds you’ll get a message saying that you can disconnect the cable. Wizard-worthy stuff, indeed.

Magic Keyboard: side view

Magic Keyboard side view

The new Magic Keyboard is thinner, shorter and much lighter (0.5 pounds versus 0.7 pounds) than the 2007 Wireless keyboard. It truly is a portable keyboard this time around and would make a fine companion to the iPad Pro or the Mac Pro.



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