Revisiting VoiceOver on iPad With the 2019 iPad Air and a Brydge Keyboard

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

When writing last November about my short time with an 11-inch iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard Folio, I commented on being generally disappointed by the performance of VoiceOver on iPad and concluded that the iPad had little to offer for my use case and circumstances.

In the months that followed, I regularly found myself reflecting on that post and wondering whether I had been too harsh on the iPad and the performance of VoiceOver. In particular, there was a growing acceptance that the cost of the iPad Pro and the Smart Keyboard Folio had significantly skewed and prejudiced my experience and opinions.

The release of the 2019 iPad Air presented a good opportunity to find out whether a much smaller hit on my bank balance would warm me towards the iPad and the experience of VoiceOver on iPad.

I've now had an iPad Air for approaching two months, which is nearly two months longer than I had the iPad Pro, so you can already safely conclude that my experience has been quite different this time around.

Yes, there are still niggles and glitches with the performance of VoiceOver. Yes, there are still plenty of occasions when I will reach for either my iPhone or MacBook Pro because doing so will enable me to be more productive or offer a better user experience. But, the significantly lower price paid appears to have had a dramatic effect on what I am prepared to tolerate and my willingness to seek out and enjoy ways in which an iPad does in fact have something to offer.

Essentially, with the iPad Air and the Brydge keyboard which I opted for this time over a Smart Keyboard, the price paid is no longer an ever present “elephant in the room” every time I encounter a problem.

Here are the comparative prices paid:

  • 64GB 11-inch iPad Pro: £769
  • Apple Smart Keyboard Folio: £179
  • 64GB iPad Air: £479
  • Brydge keyboard: £78 (note that this was a promotional price. The MRSP is £129)

That adds up to a price difference of a couple of coffees short of £400. Or, to look at it another way, the iPad Air and Brydge keyboard cost less than 60% the price of the iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard Folio.

Whichever way you look at it, that's likely to be a notable saving for most of us.

The good news is that you still get a lot for your money - you get a significant specification bump over the entry level iPad, a lot of the functionality of the iPad Pro, and all for a price that's a lot closer to the former than the latter. If that isn't enough good news, the Brydge keyboard has greater functionality than the Smart Keyboard Folio, and offers a superior typing experience, in my opinion.

About the 2019 iPad Air

Despite its name, the 2019 iPad Air is essentially an iPad Pro, in that Apple has made a few tweaks to its 2017 iPad Pro, rebranded it, and dropped the price.

The result is a mix of new and old.

Retained are the appearance, dimensions, Home button with Touch ID sensor, headphone jack, and Lightning connector of the now discontinued 10.5-inch iPad Pro. Gone are the quad speakers, ProMotion display, and protruding camera. In comes the A12 Bionic processor that also powers the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR.

It's perhaps shallow on my part, but there's no escaping the fact that knowing I was essentially unboxing a two year old iPad took away some of the anticipation and excitement which usually accompanies the arrival of a new gadget in the house.

Fortunately, what the 2019 iPad Air lacks in terms of being “new and shiny”, it makes up for in value.

Also fortunate, is that many of the compromises made by Apple to bring the iPad Air in at a price point £290 below that of the 11-inch iPad Pro are ones that I can easily live with.

The iPad Air's screen doesn’t feature Apple’s ProMotion technology, which delivers “refresh rates of up to 120Hz for fluid scrolling, greater responsiveness, and smoother motion content”. It also has a lower 500 nit max brightness (compared to the 600 of the newest iPad Pro).

Impressive as those words and numbers may sound, the simple reality is that they all add up to something which offers no meaningful value for my use case and circumstances.

The same is true for the lower megapixel rear sensor on the iPad Air (8-megapixel compared to 12-megapixel), less generous storage options, two speakers instead of four, and a Lightning connector rather than USB-C.

What is welcome on the iPad Air, is the A12 Bionic processor with its Neural Engine and embedded M12 coprocessor, which is a significant upgrade over the slower A10X Fusion processor in the 10.5-inch iPad Pro. While not as powerful as the A12X Bionic processor in the newest iPad Pro, much of that extra power of the A12X gives the Pro an edge in areas which don't realistically matter to me - for instance, better performance when playing graphic intensive games or performing resource-hungry tasks such as vector artwork and video editing.

Given the iPad Air's lower 60Hz refresh rate screen, which is significantly less demanding on the processor than the ProMotion display of the iPad Pro, my expectation is that the A12 Bionic processor of the iPad Air has enough headroom to ensure that it will feel snappy running future iOS releases for several years to come.

However, I would be less confident in saying the same of the 9.7-inch iPad.

According to Apple, the A12 Bionic processor of the iPad Air delivers a 70% boost in performance and twice the graphics capability compared with the A10 Fusion processor of the 9.7-inch iPad. That performance difference alone is enough to have me close to considering the higher price of the iPad Air worth paying on the basis that it should guarantee it at least a couple more years of useful life.

To help me further justify its higher price, in addition to being more powerful, the iPad Air has some display improvements over the 9.7-inch iPad, including an anti-reflective coating, True Tone technology, and a wider colour gamut.

More relevant and attractive to me, is that the iPad Air also offers a larger screen, smaller bezels that enable a higher screen-to-body ratio, a thinner and lighter body, as well as Smart Keyboard compatibility.

All of this stacks up to make the 2019 iPad Air the “Goldilocks” iPad for my particular circumstances and use case, but it doesn't mean I don't on occasions find myself missing the 11-inch iPad Pro.

In particular, having used Face ID on an iPhone for the past 18 months, reaching for the Home button to unlock the iPad Air with my fingerprint feels very much like a step backwards. I understand why Apple opted for Touch ID, but I do really miss the iPad simply knowing that it's me.

And, returning to being shallow, I miss the near bezel-less design of the iPad Pro. Each time I reach for the iPad Air's Home button, it's a reminder of the size of the bezels needed to accommodate it, and this in turn reminds me of how the iPad Air is a step back from where Apple seemed to be going with iPad design with the release of the 2018 iPad Pro. Which, of course, then reminds me of how that iPad Air isn't quite as new and shiny as Apple would want me to believe.

But, in truth, this is being harsh on the iPad Air. It's not priced at a point where I should expect the performance and all of the bells and whistles of the newest iPad Pro. Despite this, it still manages to come tantalisingly close.

About the Brydge Keyboard

I had been aware of Brydge keyboards for some time, as a number of podcasters whose opinions I respect frequently speak of them in glowing terms and how they are “the best option for people who want the full laptop typing experience on an iPad”.

A version for the newest iPad Pro models has only recently begun shipping. Had it been available when I purchased the 11-inch iPad Pro, I would almost certainly have bought one instead of Apple's Smart Keyboard Folio. It's possible that if that had been the case, I would still have that iPad Pro, as the Brydge keyboard has been a significant factor in my far more positive experience of the iPad Air.

With its patented hinge design, aluminium casing, and the same surface area as the iPad Air, attaching a Brydge keyboard to the iPad effectively turns the two in to a 10.5-inch laptop, albeit one with a touchscreen and no trackpad.

Depending upon your use case and priorities, something you may want to consider is that the Brydge keyboard weighs in at 520g. With the iPad Air coming in at 456g for the Wi-Fi only version, the Brydge is going to more than double the carrying weight.

For me, the weight was a small compromise for what I got in return.

The build quality of the keyboard is excellent, it's available in finishes to match that of your iPad, the hinged clips hold the iPad firmly in place, and the keys have the look and responsiveness of pre-2016 MacBook Pro keyboards (not the more recent problematic “butterfly” keyboard).

In addition to all of the standard keyboard keys, the Brydge has a dedicated Siri button located where the Function key sits on a MacBook Pro keyboard. Above the number keys is a row of iOS function keys which includes a Home key; lock device functionality; and keys for keyboard brightness, screen brightness, the onscreen keyboard, music playback controls, volume controls, and power/bluetooth toggling for the keyboard itself. Some of these have more value than others, and there are several which I would happily trade for an Escape key as, just like on the Mac, you can tap the Escape key on iOS to cancel out of various states, including Spotlight searches.

There is a small rubber ‘bumper’ positioned on each of the keyboard's front corners to protect your iPad's screen when it's in clamshell mode. When folded down, the iPad and keyboard will automatically go to sleep, waking again when you fold them open. Like MacBooks, the Brydge keyboard has a small notch to make folding open easier.

Detaching the iPad from the Brydge keyboard is relatively straightforward - needing only a firm grip and a straight lift up to avoid strain on the hinges - making swapping between using your iPad as a tablet and a pseudo laptop quick and easy.

Whilst the Brydge lacks the seamless and easy functionality of Apple's Smart Keyboard Folio that comes from the latter's utilisation of the iPad's Smart Connector to transfer data and power, bluetooth connectivity in my experience has been fast and reliable. And, with a claimed 12 month battery life if used for 2 hours on average per day, the fact that the Brydge is yet one more device in the house that needs charging is less of a nuisance than it might otherwise be.

With its smaller keys and less space between them, switching from typing on the MacBook Pro to the Brydge still feels somewhat jarring, but I see this as a necessary compromise for the benefits of a MacBook and iPad hybrid.

At half the price of Apple's Smart Keyboard Folio, the Brydge was a genuine bargain - it offers far more in terms of functionality, delivers a better typing experience, and has the heft and feel of quality that would have you believe it sported an Apple logo. Combine all of this with a lifetime warranty, and I have no hesitation in recommending the Brydge keyboard.

Revising my Thoughts on the iPad

When approaching the iPad Air, I tried to keep in mind something that I didn't give fair consideration to when using the 11-inch iPad Pro - there are problems with VoiceOver on both iPhone and Mac. Accordingly, it would be naive to not expect VoiceOver on iPad to share some of those problems or to have issues all of its own.

Additionally, I appear to have constructed a distinction in my mind between thinking of what the iPad can do for me, and thinking of what I can do with an iPad. It may be a completely artificial and meaningless distinction, but placing more of a focus on the latter has for some reason helped with finding a fit for the iPad Air in my life.

The combination of this mindset and a much smaller hit on my bank balance has clearly had a positive impact on my experience of the iPad Air and finding a place for it in my life.

For example, in my iPad Pro post, I stated that lifting my fingers from the keyboard to touch the iPad's screen didn't feel natural or come easily. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this view has changed given more time. Not only have I adapted, but I have also learned ways in which combining keyboard, touchscreen, and Siri can offer a more productive and satisfying user experience. I was reminded of just how much this was true the first time that I found myself reaching towards the screen of my MacBook and coming away feeling a little foolish, but also a little frustrated.

On the negatives front, I do wish that there was better support of keyboard shortcuts. Some apps are excellent in this area, some are okay, and some appear to simply not know that keyboard shortcuts are a thing. It would also be nice if there was consistency across apps with the shortcuts assigned to common tasks. Apple's plans to enable developers to design and engineer a single application that runs on iPhone, iPad, and Mac will hopefully be a driver for improvements in this area.

A greater hit on productivity and the user experience is, for me, an issue with the movement of VoiceOver focus and the text cursor when editing long text documents. Specifically, Option-Up Arrow or Option-Down Arrow are proving horribly inconsistent and unreliable for moving by paragraph (particularly Option-Up).

I am also regularly encountering some niggles with VoiceOver and the iPad's multitasking capabilities, which are preventing my use of this feature from being as productive and satisfying as I would wish. For example, when using Split View or Slide Over, locating by touch the elements which control the presence and position of apps on screen can be challenging and frustrating. It's also frustrating apparently not being able to use the keyboard to move focus from one app to another when in multitasking mode. Additionally, on some occasions, using the VoiceOver Actions menu to dismiss Slide Over apps isn't reliable, most particularly when using the keyboard. Although, perhaps I just haven't got to grips with how multitasking works with VoiceOver, in which case please speak up if you have any pointers.

However, despite these complaints, most of this post has been written and proofed on the iPad, using iA Writer. This is proof in itself that my experience with the iPad Air has been more positive than with the iPad Pro; proof that I can transition tasks to the iPad which are probably as demanding as my needs and workflows get.

This is also proof that although the iPad Air would miss out to the iPhone and MacBook Pro if I had to choose just two of the three to keep, the gap between the MacBook and the iPad is a lot closer than I would have anticipated two months ago. In fact, there are a growing number of applications and tasks where the iPad Air is the more productive of the three or offers a better user experience.

My suspicion is that the gap would become even closer if I were to put the MacBook Pro away for a week, thus effectively forcing me to transfer some of its tasks and workflows to the iPad Air for that time. I suspect that apps such as Drafts would then very much come into their own, making it likely that I would be reluctant to transition all workflows back to the MacBook at the end of that week.

There are, however, current limitations of iOS which are likely to keep some workflows on the MacBook.

These include file management and spellchecking. The first will hopefully be improved on iOS 13, the second will probably depend on whether I can shake off decades of how I think spellchecking should work. Until then, the iOS spellchecker will continue to frustrate me most times I use it.

Additionally, applications such as Keyboard Maestro and LaunchBar are also likely to keep me coming back to the MacBook. I am far from being a Mac power user, but these applications still transform my experience of the Mac. They are either doing something useful in the background or only a keyboard shortcut away. I hadn't realised exactly how much some of those keyboard shortcuts were part of my routine workflows and muscle memory until I found myself trying to use them on the iPad, and then being disappointed when they didn't do anything.

I don't see these types of applications coming to iOS any time soon, so for now my hope is that Apple's Shortcuts app will continue to expand its capabilities. In particular, being able to apply a keyboard shortcut to a Siri Shortcut would be an extremely welcome addition.

Despite the limitations of iOS and the other issues and frustrations mentioned above, I am already exploring different ways to perform some established tasks and workflows on the iPad. There's some “can't teach an old dog new tricks” getting in the way, but I am quietly enjoying the first part of this journey.

Closing Thoughts

If you want the smallest iPad, get the 7.9-inch iPad mini; the cheapest iPad, get the 9.7-inch iPad; the most powerful iPad, and money is no object, get either the 11 or 12.9-inch iPad Pro.

But, my recommendation would be to get the 2019 iPad Air if you want the iPad that hits the sweet spot in terms of size, features, performance, and price.

For me, it has proved to be the “Goldilocks” iPad - performance and enough features to keep me happy, at a price point that I am comfortable with, and a price point that also leaves me more forgiving towards the current limitations of an iPad and any problems I encounter with VoiceOver.

Does that make it a viable alternative to a laptop? Well, that's going to depend upon your specific use case and circumstances. For me, it's about 90% there. If it weren't for the decades of experience and muscle memory invested in ‘traditional’ computers and software, I suspect that I could find that missing 10% and transition to an iPad. For anybody who comes from the generation where using a touchscreen and apps is the norm, then attaching a keyboard to an iPad may indeed be a viable alternative to a laptop.

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1 Comment

#1 Very interesting

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Very interesting post David. Personally I use my iPad, which is the older 9.7 iPad Pro, 95% for media consumption, though I did some basic word processing back in college.
You have me wondering if I should try it for productivity again. I completely agree about the need for more consistency and development around things like keyboard shortcuts, as well as file management, so I think the upcoming WWDC and iOS13 is hugely important for iPad.
The other area where iPad is massively lacking in my experience, and which would certainly hold me back from even being able to consider iPad as a full laptop replacement, is audio recording and editing.
I also still have a lot of movies, TV shows and music, historically ripped from DVDs and CDs, inside iTunes on my Mac. I'm not too sure what would happen to all that if I went all in on iPad some day. Or does it even really matter these days...?
All that is to say I found this a very interesting post, and I certainly think that for many people, iPad may be all the computer they need.