Sunday, April 16, 2017

BulletTrain Express Keyboard Platform (3rd Generation) for Magic Keyboard 2 and Magic Trackpad 2 By Matthew Taylor

BulletTrain Express Keyboard Platform

 (3rd Generation) for Magic Keyboard 2 and Magic Trackpad 2

By Matthew Taylor

My first experience with the BulletTrain Express Keyboard Platform was 5.5 years ago while traveling in Bali: 

Ever since Apple released the updated Magic Keyboard 2 and Magic Trackpad 2, I’ve anxiously anticipated the arrival of the 3rd Gen. Express, and Jake was kind enough to loan me a prototype for evaluation.

TLDR: overall, the new Express is excellent, with one caveat: I’d prefer it were sloped at a negative instead of a positive angle. If you’re a fan of Apple’s Magic Keyboard 2 and Magic Trackpad 2, I highly recommend it so long as you either don’t mind the positive slope or you can work around it, as I have done.

The Ideal Mac Setup?

I can only talk about the new Express in a holistic sense, and how it fits into my entire Mac setup.

Ever since Retina Mac displays became a “thing” when Apple launched the original 15” Retina MacBook Pro way back in 2012, I knew exactly what Mac setup I wanted:

  • a Retina 13” MacBook Air
  • attached to an external 27” Retina Display
  • and an integrated Express Platform/Magic Keyboard/Magic Trackpad setup that charges off USB

Now, that finally exists! Late in 2016, Apple released the laptop I’ve always wanted: the lighter-than-ever 13” Retina MacBook Pro, which at 3 lbs., is the same weight as the old-model MacBook Air… and, with thinner bezels, it covers a smaller footprint. Thus, the new MBP essentially is the Retina MacBook Air I wanted four years prior! As a bonus, my new MBP includes Touch Bar and Touch ID, two features I didn’t even know I wanted back in 2012. (Apple’s so great at that… delivering goodies we didn’t know we wanted. Right?)

Also in late 2016, LG released the 27” Retina 5K UltraFine display that connects to the new MBP via Thunderbolt 3. Unfortunately, this display is riddled with usability bugs and wake-from-sleep problems. At times, you have to restart your MBP just to get it to connect to the display. Additionally, the case and black plastic bezels are fugly as sin. However, when it works, the display is positively gorgeous, and comparable to the display quality of a Retina iMac. The moment Apple releases an external Pro display, I’ll buy it and ditch the LG.

And so, to complete my ideal Mac setup (at least, the one I envisioned back in 2012), Jake provided me with the 3rd Gen Express, which unifies the charge-via-USB Magic Keyboard 2 and Magic Trackpad 2. I cannot even begin to describe how much I freaking hated dealing with the AA batteries in the old Magic Keyboard/Trackpad (talk about obsolete technology!).

Being able to charge over USB makes a world of difference in terms of convenience and niceness. I occasionally travel with my Express, so now I no longer have to pack heavy batteries and a battery charger!

The form factor and design of the new Express is lovely: the Magic Keyboard and Trackpad snap in easily, the lines are clean and smooth, the design is attractive and significantly improved compared to Generation 2, and it’s much lighter than the previous model, which is a huge benefit especially when you travel with it. I also love that I can easily access both the lightning charge ports and power switches on both the Keyboard and Trackpad.

Previous Generation 2 BulletTrain eXpress pictured above

Going back to my first experience with the Generation 1 Express, that product was a total game changer compared to all the other janky solutions. The 3rd Gen is a lovely extension and refinement of that original breakthrough innovation.

Ergonomic Considerations

My one suggestion to BulletTrain for future improvement is to change the slope design to be negative instead of positive. Simply put, my understanding of ergonomic principles is you want your wrists angled slightly down, not up. Read more about that here:

The Express features a positive slope, which based on the above-referenced ergonomic principles as well as my personal experience, is far more likely to cause wrist strain. The 2nd gen Express also featured a positive slope, and the slope appears to be even more positive with the 3rd gen model. To compensate for this issue, I usually place my Express on a negative-sloped book or keyboard tray so I can gain the advantages of better ergonomics. Even if BulletTrain decides not to go with a negative slope in the future, a true-neutral slope (as is the case with the standard MBP keyboard/trackpad) would be a substantial improvement in my usability experience, because it would mean I would have to use a less-negatively-sloped book or keyboard tray in the future.

Whither Touch Bar and Touch ID?

Lastly, and this certainly isn’t something BulletTrain can currently control, I miss having easy access to Touch ID and the Touch Bar while using the new Express. This obviously will not affect anyone who doesn’t own a MBP with Touch Bar, so if you don’t own one of those models, you can skip this section.

User feedback on the Touch Bar has been mixed, with about 50% of users giving it a thumbs up and 50% thumbs down:

It seems there’s more consistent support for Touch ID, and a little less enthusiasm for the Touch Bar. My personal experience is Touch ID is awesome, and the Touch Bar is great for emojis and brightness controls. The Touch Bar has a number of downsides, for instance, the “send mail” shortcut is easily pressed accidentally and shouldn’t exist, because it can lead to the embarrassing experience of accidentally sending an incomplete email.  That said, for me, being able to access emojis in this manner is a game-changer in using my Mac, because I text with friends from Mac Messages frequently, and the keyboard shortcut to access emojis is piss poor. Ironically, if Apple simply implemented a better emoji keyboard shortcut, most of the rationale for the Touch Bar would disappear!

Overall, I like the Touch Bar a lot despite its eccentricities, and love the Touch ID. So, I’m hoping Apple will release an updated Magic Keyboard 3 with Touch Bar, preferably in the same form factor as the existing one, so it can fit right into the 3rd Gen Express!

All of this leaves me in a quandary: do I use my MacBook Pro keyboard to type (with easy Touch Bar and Touch ID access), or, do I use the Express with Magic Keyboard 2 and Magic Trackpad 2? Currently, I’m trying out both options, with a slight preference for using the Express.

Using the Express as my primary input method provides a more satisfying typing experience, as the Magic Keyboard 2 provides better key travel than the new MBP’s keyboard. So, when I’m doing serious long-form writing, that’s better – and I can always reach up to access Touch ID or the Touch Bar if I must. I also gain the benefit of being able to position the MBP next to the LG 5K, for a side-by-side monitor experience.

Future Mac Dreams

Returning to my original premise – the “ultimate Mac setup” – here’s what I want that I don’t currently have:

  • An Apple-designed external 27” or larger Retina Display (5K for sure, but if we’re talking ideal, how about 8K or 10K?)
  • A Magic Keyboard 3 with Touch Bar and Touch ID
  • A 4th Gen. Express with a negative slope

A Mac fan can dream, can’t he?

For now, I’m happy with the 3rd Gen. Express, and the way it integrates into my Mac setup, so long as I have it appropriately-positioned on a negative-slope surface.

Congrats, Jake and BulletTrain, for continuing to push the envelope on what’s possible in accessorizing, integrating, and completing the ideal Mac user experience!

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