I’ve been waiting for Apple to update the 2007-vintage Apple Wireless Keyboard and 2010 Magic Trackpad since the first time OS X displayed a “low battery” notification — since then, I’ve had years of near-daily pop-up reminders that either my keyboard or my trackpad (both fueled by Apple’s official Battery Charger, no less) were supposedly running low on power. Although I preferred the minimalism of a wire-free desk, I reluctantly switched back to Apple’s old but still excellent Wired Keyboard to cut “low battery” notices in half, hoping that Apple would leverage 5+ years of Bluetooth and battery improvements to produce better wireless input accessories.

Last week, Apple finally released sequels to its three major input devices: the new Magic Keyboard ($99) replaces the $69 Wireless Keyboard, the Magic Mouse 2 ($79) updates the $59 Magic Mouse, and the Magic Trackpad 2 ($129) vaults over the $69 Magic Trackpad. The signature improvement to each is the replacement of AA batteries with integrated Lithium-Ion rechargeable cells, refueled once per month with an included Lightning cable — previously only used for iPad, iPhone, and iPod accessories. Apple also tweaked each of the accessory designs, one more significantly than the others.

Having given up mice five years ago (and radically improved a carpal tunnel-damaged wrist in the process), I opted not to test the Magic Mouse 2, but my colleague Dom Esposito discusses it and the other Magic accessories in the video below. My review is focused on the Magic Keyboard and Magic Trackpad 2, neither of which I’d call “must-have” accessories, though each has a couple of worthwhile assets, and at least one surprising Apple device compatibility limitation. Should you buy Apple’s latest accessories, or go with excellent third-party alternatives such as Logitech’s K811 Keyboard and Rechargeable Trackpad for Mac instead?… (Updated November 2015 and December 2015 with new battery testing results.)

Check out Dom’s video review here:

Key Details:

  • Long-awaited accessory updates
  • Trackpad 2 adds Force Touch
  • Typically high manufacturing quality, clean designs
  • Each is notably more expensive
  • Rechargeable batteries are late in arriving, use Lightning cables for only decent 1-month power

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjoHBX7EkJU&feature=youtu.be]

Given the growth of Bluetooth keyboards since the Wireless Keyboard debuted in 2007, Apple could have gone in a half-dozen directions with the Magic Keyboard — it could have added multi-device-compatibility and backlit keys like Logitech’s K811, stripped features to go ultra-thin and light, or kept a body as thick as the Wireless Keyboard but with far longer lasting batteries, just to name a few possibilities. Instead, the Magic Keyboard feels like more of a “shrug” of a design, doing just enough to be “better than before” without attempting to push the envelope in any particular way.

The Magic Keyboard’s biggest advance over its 2007 predecessor is a built-in battery that can be refueled using an included Lightning cable. Plug the cable into your Mac and the Magic Keyboard into the cable, and the Mac will instantly pair the two together without requiring wireless configuration — a welcome but very minor trick that turns out to be the most “magic” you’ll find with this keyboard. The same trick works with the Magic Trackpad 2 (and the Magic Mouse 2), and all three promise the same one-month battery life on a complete charge, with the ability to run for an extended work session off a two-minute charge. A month of life between charges is short by modern Bluetooth keyboard standards, but based on my early testing, Apple may be understating the Magic Keyboard’s longevity (at least for some Macs).* Update: You can expect around 2.5 months of real-world use on a single charge; long-term testing took my Magic Keyboard from October 19 to December 31 before a “Keyboard Batteries Very Low” warning appeared.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Magic Keyboard looks a lot like every Apple keyboard released over the past 8 years: silver aluminum top, matte white keys, glossy white plastic bottom and gray rubber feet. The box and Apple’s web site note that it “requires Bluetooth-enabled Mac with OS X 10.11 or later.” This requirement is fairly specific — note that the language omits “iPad,” “iPhone,” and “Apple TV” — but Apple doesn’t specify either the version of Bluetooth the Magic Keyboard is using, or a mandatory Bluetooth version required by your Mac. During testing, my Bluetooth 2.1 (late 2011) iMac and Bluetooth 4.0 2013 Retina MacBook Pro both paired without complaint; both were running OS X 10.11 El Capitan.

If you were expecting the Magic Keyboard to be a lot smaller than the Apple Wireless Keyboard, sorry: they’re very close to one another in size. Still 11″ wide with the same six rows of keys as before — all in the same locations — the Magic Keyboard is now around 4.4″ deep rather than 5.1″ deep, and a hint over 0.3″ tall rather than just over 0.7″ tall, differences attributable to two things: the removal of the prior battery tube, and a noticeable reduction in key depth. Apple has made the F-key row full-height rather than half-height, and updated one icon to match current OS X functionality, but otherwise left the F-keys unchanged from how they’ve been for years. Left and right cursor keys have become full-height as well, mimicking a change some people groaned about in the 12″ Retina MacBook. I personally don’t care much about this change, and was glad that it was the only major modification to the key layout.

Keys now hover around 1mm above the aluminum top frame, versus the Wireless Keyboard’s 2mm, a difference in travel that can be felt with every tap of input. If you love the decided “click” of a DAS Keyboard or Apple’s prior classics, Magic Keyboard takes another step away from that sort of pronounced “plunk” in the service of becoming slimmer and quieter. However, the new keys aren’t as soft or low-travel as the controversial ones in the 12″ Retina MacBook, making for a much faster adjustment period and — in my case — typo-free typing within a very short period of adjustment.

So far, nothing I’ve mentioned qualifies as “magic,” and unless you think of a rechargeable battery in that way, you’ll struggle to find a justification for either the keyboard’s name or its price. Apple touts the keys, which now use the San Francisco font, as more precise than before, though the average user may well take a few days to reach the same conclusion. I agree with the claim, and have enjoyed typing on the Magic Keyboard 2, though it’s not a night-and-day difference relative to the other Apple and top third-party keyboards I’ve tested.

There is one unusual and potentially show-stopping limitation of the Magic Keyboard: its compatibility with devices other than the Mac. How do you pair the Magic Keyboard with an Apple TV? An iPad? Maybe you don’t. The back of the Magic Keyboard has an on-off switch, a Lightning port in the center, and an antenna bar, but there’s no Bluetooth pairing button. Previously, the Wireless Keyboard’s power button could be held down to initiate pairing, but that’s no longer possible. And Apple’s instructions offer no guidance for iPad or Apple TV use: Magic Keyboard’s manual, packaging, and marketing are solely focused on the Mac. (Note: A reader points out that if you don’t pair the Magic Keyboard to a Mac, it will silently sit in a waiting to pair mode that can be seen by the old Apple TV and iOS devices. Apple does not appear to acknowledge this functionality on its own web site.)

Logitech’s K811 topped my list of the best Mac and iPad keyboards earlier this year by offering great features such as great backlit keys, the ability to switch instantly between three different Bluetooth devices (say, Mac, iPad, and Apple TV), and a rechargeable cell with up to 1 year of power between charges. The only knock against it was its $100 price, which represented a $31 premium over Apple’s Wireless Keyboard — but with at least three functional advantages that earned that premium. Now that the K811 and Magic Keyboard are peer-priced, there’s little reason save a slightly smaller footprint to prefer Apple’s option. If I was shopping today, I’d almost certainly pick the K811 given its superior features and device compatibility.

Magic Trackpad 2

With the Magic Keyboard (and Magic Mouse 2), what you see is what you get — there are no subtle frills or happy surprises to match or better options that have been available for years. But the Magic Trackpad 2 is a very different beast. It’s the starkest-looking Apple accessory design to date, taking the prize from the famously button-compromised third-generation iPod shuffle, and yet it’s also the most sophisticated standalone input device Apple has ever designed. I’m not going to tell you that I think it’s a must-have for trackpad fans — yet — but unlike the me-too Magic Keyboard, the Magic Trackpad 2 has a lot to admire under the hood.

The biggest visual change from the Magic Trackpad to the Magic Trackpad 2 is the color of its top surface. Apple shifted from the clean all-silver glass and aluminum top of the Magic Trackpad to an edge-to-edge uninterrupted white glass surface for the Magic Trackpad 2. I strongly preferred the prior color, which was mimicked (and improved upon) by the full-glass top of Logitech’s Rechargeable Trackpad for Mac, as white looks increasingly foreign alongside black-and-silver Macs and MacBooks. But given the typical longevity of Apple’s wireless accessories, perhaps the Magic Trackpad 2 is signaling an upcoming trend in Apple industrial design.

Measuring 6.3″ long by 4.5″ deep by just over 0.3″ tall, the Magic Trackpad 2 precisely matches the height and depth of the Magic Keyboard, and when they’re put right next to each other, the two Magic accessories are less than an inch wider than the Apple Wired Keyboard without anything else on its side. Like the Magic Keyboard, the Magic Trackpad 2 drops the rear AA battery tube to achieve a shallower profile, instead hiding its rechargeable cell in a glossy white plastic bottom compartment. But it’s actually 1.2″ wider than the original Magic Trackpad, which was already larger than the trackpad surface on any MacBook computer Apple has sold.

My first reaction to the Magic Trackpad 2’s gigantic touch surface was that I didn’t need something so big — bigger than the iPhone 6 Plus — for cursor movement or gestures. Several days later, I still feel like it’s unnecessarily large, enough that my whole hand tends to rest on it rather than only the fingers needed for movement and gestures. But “unnecessary” doesn’t mean “unreasonably,” nor “uncomfortably,” as OS X’s touch recognition is sophisticated enough to recognize that a thumb or pinky now lingering on the trackpad’s edge is not there for pinch or other gestures. There’s a lot more going on with the Magic Trackpad 2 than meets the eye.

For instance: the Magic Trackpad’s clickable buttons, hidden in the bottom two rubber feet, are gone. Instead, the “click” is mimicked perfectly using basic haptic feedback. Turn off the Magic Trackpad 2 and you cannot click it at all; turn it on and you can not only “click” normally with the anticipated feedback, but press harder to Force Click to a more pronounced level with deeper feedback. The mind-blowing moment is when you open System Preferences > Trackpad > Point & Click and choose “Silent Clicking.” Treble disappears from the click, leaving you with nothing more than the bass and a subtle vibration or two to signal input. After a not-too-extended period of time with the Magic Keyboard and Magic Trackpad 2, you’ll notice that your Mac is now even quieter than it was before (a goal of mine, as noted in my recent Make Your Mac Run Silent article). The Magic Trackpad 2 will be great for people who enjoy working quietly.

I’ll be the first person to admit that paying $129 for a quieter, bigger version of the Magic Trackpad doesn’t make a lot of financial sense, as the last one wasn’t super loud or too small. Similarly, the current state of Force Touch/Force Click on the Mac is pretty underwhelming: deeply pressing the trackpad on a web link lets you open a preview version of the page in a floating window; selecting a word lets you check its definition in the dictionary; in some cases, hitting it on a fast forward/reverse button changes the rate from 2x to 60x based on the pressure you’re applying. OS X Preview’s signature feature can sense differences and using them to make ‘ink’ look thick or thin, as shown here, but like most of the Force features, this is a hidden trick that you need to hunt to discover. Even as someone who has looked forward to using Force Click features on the Mac, I can only describe them as forgettable at this point.

One other oddity with the Magic Trackpad 2 is its Mac support. Unlike the Magic Keyboard, which one would reasonably have expected to use on non-Mac devices (only to be disappointed), the Magic Trackpad 2’s stated Mac-only compatibility isn’t a huge shock. But here, the requirement is for a “Bluetooth 4.0-enabled Mac with OS X 10.11 or later,” seemingly denying compatibility to most Macs sold before late 2012, even if they’re running OS X 10.11 El Capitan. I’m honestly not sure why Apple says this, as I was actually able to get a Magic Trackpad 2 to pair with my late 2011 Bluetooth 2.1 iMac without complaint, though I’m not sure whether battery life or pressure sensitivity data transmission work the same on older and newer Macs. Apple promises only a month of battery life between Trackpad 2 charges, but it’s already clear from the battery percentage indicators on my iMac that the Keyboard will last longer than the Trackpad 2 on a charge.*

Updated November 2, 2015: After two full weeks of use with my mid-2011, non-Bluetooth 4 iMac, the Magic Keyboard shows 76% remaining battery, while the Magic Trackpad 2 shows 21%. I expect the Trackpad 2 will be out of juice after only three weeks, versus well over the promised month for the Magic Keyboard. Second Update: On November 5, the Magic Trackpad 2’s battery died mid-day, while the Magic Keyboard was at 71%. In other words, expect less than three weeks of Trackpad 2 battery life when not using Bluetooth 4, and easily two months of Keyboard run time. Third Update: On December 31, the Magic Keyboard displayed its first-ever “Keyboard Batteries Very Low” notification, hitting 2%. That’s nearly 2.5 months of battery life on a single charge.

Who is the Magic Trackpad 2 really made for? The answer, as I discovered during testing and discussions with Dom Esposito, is “anyone looking for greater input precision.” Unlike the Magic Trackpad, where top-of-surface clicks rarely registered properly, every input from edge to edge registers properly on the Magic Trackpad 2. Having a larger surface can really help during video editing today, and there will unquestionably come a point (say, OS X 10.12) where many apps will take advantage of the added depth and pressure sensitivity of a surface like this. Calling the Magic Trackpad 2 a solution in search of problems isn’t quite right, but it’s certainly a tool that isn’t being properly exploited quite yet.

The Magic Trackpad’s $129 price point isn’t really mainstream for an input device, and the Force Click/Force Touch hardware functionality it offers really needs more software support to be truly worthwhile. But unlike the Magic Keyboard, which could easily be replaced with (and bettered by) Logitech’s K811, the Magic Trackpad 2’s technology and design give it additional value — particularly the prospect of greater future value — that I wouldn’t write off. Even if you don’t want to buy it for yourself because of the price, consider putting it on your holiday wish list, because over time, you’re probably going to want to have access to the next generation of Mac input devices, and if history’s any indication, this may be the only accessory to offer it for the next 5 years.

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