An ode to Apples awful MacBook keyboard
Yes I am very late to this. But I am also very annoyed so I am adding my voice to the now sustained chorus of complaints about Apples redesigned Mac keyboard: How very much it sucks. Truly, madly, deeply.
This is the keyboard that Apple completely redesigned in , in its quest for size zero hardware, switching from a scissor mechanism for the keys to what it described then as the new Apple-designed butterfly mechanism touting this as 40% thinner and 4x more stable.
Reader, there is nothing remotely beautiful and butterfly-esque about the experience of depressing these keys. Scattershot staccato clattering, as your fingers are simultaneously sucked in and involuntarily hammer out a grapeshot of key strikes, is what actually happens. Its brutalist and unforgiving. Most egregiously its not reliably functional.
The redesigned mechanism has resulted in keys that not only feel different when pressed vs the prior MacBook keyboard which was more spongey for sure but that meant keys were at reduced risk of generating accidental strikes vs their barely-there trigger-sensitive replacements (which feel like they have a 40% smaller margin for keystrike error) but have also turned out to be fail prone, as particles of dust can find their way in between the keys, as dust is wont to do, and mess with the smooth functioning of key presses requiring an official Apple repair.
Yes, just a bit of dust! Move over the princess and the pea: Apple and the dust mote is here! Just use it in a vacuum shouldnt be an acceptable usability requirement for a very expensive laptop.
Apple has also had to make these keyboards quieter. Because, as I say, the act of using the keyboard results in audible clackclackery. Its like mobile phone keyclicks suddenly got dizzingly back in fashion. (Or, well, Apple designers got to overindulge their blue-sky thinking around the idea that in space no one can hear you type.)
Several colleagues have garnered dagger glances and been told to dial it down at conferences on account of all the key clattering as they worked. Yet a keyboard is made for working. Its a writing tool. Or it should be. Instead, Apple has made a keyboard for making audible typos. Its shockingly bad.
As design snafus go, this is up there with antenna-gate. Except actually its much worse. You cant not hold it in that way. You cant press keys on a keyboard radically differently. I guess you could type really slowly to try to avoid making all these high-speed typos. But that would have an obvious impact on your ability to work by slowing down your ability to write. So, again, an abject mess.
Ive only had this Oath-issued MacBook Pro (in long-held-off exchange for my trusty MacBook Air, whose admittedly grimy and paint-worn keys were nonetheless % functional after years of writerly service) for about a month but the keys appear to have a will of their own, whipping themselves into a possessive frenzy almost every time theyre pressed, and spewing out all manner of odd typos, mis-strikes and mistakes.
This demonic keyboard has summoned Siri unasked. (Thanks stupidly pointless Touch Bar!) It has also somehow nearly delivered an Im not interested auto-response to a stranger who wrote me at length on LinkedIn to thoughtfully thank me for an earlier article. (Fortunately I didnt have auto-send enabled so I could catch that unintended slapdown in the act before it was delivered. No thanks to the technologies involved.)
At the same time Caps Lock routinely fails to engage when pressed, as if its practising for when itll be broken. It equally countlessly fails to disengage when re-pressed. Craps Out Lock more like. I fear its beset by dust motes already. Which is hard to avoid because, yknow, everything in the world ismade of dust.
The keyboard also frustrates because of the jarring juxtaposition of having individual keys that depress too willingly, seeming to suck the typos from your fingers as letters get snatched out of sequence (and even whole words coaxed out of line), coupled with a backspace key that refuses to perform quickly enough (Ive had to crank it right up to the very fastest setting) so it cant gobble up the multiple erroneous strikes quickly enough to edit out all the BS the keyboard is continually spewing.
The result? A laptop thats lightning quick at creating a typo-ridden mess, and slow as hell to clean it up.
In short, its a mess. A horrible mess that makes a mockery of the Apple catchphrase of yore (it just works) by actively degrading the productivity of writing interrupting your work with pointless sound and an alphabetic soup of fury.
The redesigned keyboard has been denounced by Apple loyalists such as John Gruber who in April called it one of the biggest design screwups in Apple history.
He precision-hammered his point home with this second economical sentence: Everyone who buys a MacBook depends upon the keyboard and this keyboard is undependable.
Though it was Casey Johnson, writing for The Outline, who raised the profile of the problem last year, kicking up a major stink over her MacBook keys acting up (or dead) after a brush with invisible dust.
Since then keyboard-related problems have garnered Apple at least one class-action lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the company has responded to this hardware headache of its own design like the proverbial thief in the night, quietly fiddling with the internals when no one was looking. Most notably it slotted in a repair earlier this year, when it added a sort of silicon gum shield to wrap the offending butterfly mechanism, which is presumably supposed to prevent dust from wreaking its terribly quotidian havoc. (Though its no use to me, right here, right now, with my corporate provisioned MBP.)
We know this thanks to the excellent work done by iFixit this summer, when it took apart one of Apples redesigned redesigned keyboards and found a thin rubberized film had been added under the keycaps. (Looking at this translucent addition, I am reminded of Alien designer HR Gigers biomechanical concoctions. And of Ashs robotic hard-on for poking around inside the disemboweled facehugger. But I digress.)
Shamelessly Apple tried to sell this tweak to journalists as solely a fix for those noisy key clicks. iFixit was not at all convinced.
This flexible enclosure is quite obviously an ingress-proofing measure to cover up the mechanism from the daily onslaught of microscopic dust. Not to our eyes a silencing measure, it wrote in July. In fact, Apple has a patent for this exact tech designed to “prevent and/or alleviate contaminant ingress.
And the date on Apples ingress-proofing key-cap condom patent? September 8, Read that and weep, MacBook Pro second-half , and first half owners.
So if, like me, youre saddled with a (or earlier) MBP theres sweet F.A. you can do about this fatal design flaw in the core interfacing mechanism you must daily touch. Abstention is not an option. We must typo and wait for the inexorable, dust-based doom to strike the space bar or the E key which will then make the typing experience even more miserable (and require a trip to an Apple store to swaddle the misbehaving keys in rubber leaving us computerless, most probably, in the meanwhile).
There is an entire novel written without the letter E. I propose that Apples failed keyboard redesign be christened the Gadsby in its honor because, ye gads, its awful.
This is especially, especially frustrating because the MacBook Air keyboard was so very, very good.
Not good it was great. It was as close to typing perfection Ive come across in a computer. And Ive been typing on keyboards for a very long time.
Why mess with such a good thing?! Marginally thinner than what was already exceptionally thin hardware is hardly something consumers clamour for.
People are far more interested in having the thing they bought and/or use actually doing the job they need it for. And definitely not letting them down.
(Or defienmtely nort letting them down as the keyboard just reworked the line. I really should have saved every typo and posted a mutant mirror text beneath this one, containing all the thousands of organic instances of found poetry churned out by the keyboards inner life/poet/drunk.)
If shaving 40% off the profile of the key mechanism transforms an incredible reliable keyboard into a dust-prone, typo-spewing monster thats not progress; its folly of the highest order.
Offering free repairs to affected users, as Apple finally did in June, doesnt even begin to fix this fuck up.
Not least because thats only a fix for dust-based death; There isnt a rubber film in the universe that could make typing on these keys a pleasing experience.
What does it tell us when a company starts making the quality of its premium products worse? Especially a company famed for high-end design and high quality hardware? (Moreover, a company now worth a staggering $1tr+ in market capitalization?)
It smacks of complacency, misaligned priorities and worrying blindspots at the very least, if not a wider lack of perspective outside the donut-shaped mothership. (Perhaps theres been a little too much gathering around indoors in Cupertino lately, and not enough looking out critically at a flaking user experience )
Or else, well, it smacks of cynical profiteering.
Clearly its not a good look. Apples reputation rests in large part on its hardware being perceived as reliable. On the famous Steve Jobs sales pitch that it just works. So Apple designing a keyboard thats great at breaking for no reason at all and lighting fast at churning out typos is a truly epic fail.
Of course consumer electronic designs wont always work out. Some failure is to be expected and will be understood. But what makes the keyboard situation so much worse is Apples failure to recognise and accept the problem so that it could promptly clean up the mess.
Its apparent inability (for so long) to acknowledge there even was a problem is a particularly worrying sign. Having to sneak in a late fix because you didnt have the courage to publicly admit you screwed up is not a good look for any company let alone a company with such a long, rich and storied history as Apple.
More cynical folks out there might whisper its design flaw by design; A strategic fault-line intended to push users towards an upgrade faster than they might have otherwise have unzipped their wallets. Though Apple offering free keyboard repairs (also, albeit, tardily) contradicts that conspiracy theory.
Yet the notion of built in obsolescence persists where consumer computing hardware is concerned, given how corporate profits do tend to be locked to upgrade cycles.
In Apples case its an easy charge to level at the company given its business model is still, in very large part, driven by hardware sales. So Apple doing anything that risks encouraging consumers to feel its intentionally making its products worse is also folly of the highest order.
Apple does have some active accusations to deal with on that front too. For example, a consumer group filed a complaint of planned obsolescence in France late last year on account of Apple performance throttling older iPhones something the company has faced multiple complaints over and some regulatory scrutiny. So again, it really needs to tread carefully.
Tim Cooks Apple cannot afford to be slipshod in its designs nor its communication. Jobs got more latitude on the latter front because he was such a charismatic persona. Cook is lots of good things but hes not that; hes closer to safe pair of hands so company comms should really reflect that.
Apple may be richer than Croesus and king of the premium heap but it cant risk tarnishing the brand. The mobile space is littered with the toppled monuments of past giants. And the markets where Apple plays are increasingly fiercely fought. Chinese device makers especially are building momentum with lower priced and highly capable consumer hardware. (Huawei displaced Apple in second place in the global smartphone rankings in Q2, for example).
Apples rivals have mercilessly cloned its slender laptop designs and copypasted the look and feel of the iPhone. Reliability and usability are the bedrock of the price premium its brand commands, with privacy a more recent bolt-on. So failing on those fundamentals would be beyond foolish, with so many rivals now pushing cheaper priced yet very similarly packaged (and shiny) alternatives at consumers which also often offer equal or even greater feature utility for less money (assuming youre willing to compromise on privacy).
When it comes to the Mac specifically, it clearly has not been Apples priority for a long time. The iPhone has been its star performer of the past decade, while growing its services business is the fresh focus for Cook. Yet when Cooks Apple has paid a little attention to the Mac category its often been to fiddle unnecessarily such as by clumsily reworking a great keyboard for purely cosmetic reasons, or to add a silly strip of touchscreen thats at best distracting and (in my experience) just serves up even more unwanted keystrikes. So thrice blighted and the opposite of useful: A fiddly gimmick.
This is worrying.
Apple is a company founded with the word Computer in its name. Computing is its DNA. And, even now, while smartphones and tablets are great for lots of things they are not great for sustained writing. For writing and indeed working at any length a laptop remains the perfect tool.
Theres no touchscreen in the world that can beat a well-designed keyboard for speed, comfort and typing convenience. To a writer, using a great keyboard almost feels like flying.
You wouldnt have had to explain that to Jobs. He honed his Mac sales pitch to the point of poetry famously dubbing the Mac a bicycle for the mind.
Now, sadly, saddled with this flatfooted and frustratingly flawed mechanic, its like Apple shipped a bicycle with a pair of needles where the pedals should be.
Not so much thinking different as failing to understand what the machine is for.
With today’s announcement of a new inch MacBook Pro, Apple has finally stopped trying to fix one of the most controversial and problematic hardware designs in its history: the butterfly switch mechanism on its laptop keyboards. After five years of applying bandages to the butterfly keyboard, Apple has switched over its entire laptop line to the scissor-switch-based Magic Keyboard in the span of six months.
Switching the entire product lineup over to a new keyboard in the span of six months is impressive, but the decision to finally do so came far too late. Apple obstinately stuck with this keyboard design for much too long, hurting its image and causing wholly unnecessary hassle and cost for its customers.
I would say good riddance, but I am typing this on a MacBook Pro with a butterfly keyboard right now. If you’re using a MacBook yourself, there’s a good chance you’re typing on one, too. So while the butterfly keyboard may be gone from Apple’s store, it’s certainly not gone from this world.
The era of the butterfly keyboard kicked off with ’s inch MacBook. It was just called MacBook (no “Air” or “Pro” modifier), and it was heralded as a new kind of laptop for Apple. It kicked off a new design language, complete with USB-C ports and that butterfly keyboard. For a brief time, it seemed as though Apple intended it to be the MacBook, but it was too small, underpowered, and expensive to go truly mainstream.
That MacBook was discontinued in July , replaced by the refreshed MacBook Air. But that little MacBook really was influential: the keyboard mechanism spread to the MacBook Pro and the first iterations of the redesigned MacBook Air. Apple clearly believed in it and thought its benefits outweighed its problems up until relatively recently.
The primary benefit of the butterfly keyboard was that it was thin, giving Apple more flexibility to use the extra space for more components or to make the entire laptop thinner. It also meant that the keys were more “stable” as you pressed down, giving you virtually the same feel when you pushed down on the corner of a keycap as the center. Notably, today’s new inch MacBook Pro is ever so slightly heavier and thicker than the last one.
But those benefits were eclipsed by the butterfly keyboard’s many faults. The biggest is simply that the design was unreliable. The mechanism was so fragile that seemingly any little piece of debris or grit could break a key, keeping it from working or making it type double letters. Adding insult to injury, Apple’s laptop construction meant that replacing that single key wasn’t a simple operation. It required taking the laptop into an Apple repair center where the entire machine would have to be disassembled.
Casey Johnston was the first major tech journalist to call Apple out on this issue in a serious and sustained way, beginning with a article in The Outline titled “The new MacBook keyboard is ruining my life.” A March editorial from Joanna Stern at The Wall Street Journal also made a huge splash, taking the idea that these keyboards are fundamentally flawed to the mainstream.
Through it all and up until the November launch of a “new” keyboard design in the inch MacBook Pro, Apple kept defending and tweaking the butterfly keyboard. It created a “second-generation” version in Then, in , it added a silicone membrane underneath the keys to keep dust out (though Apple claimed it was meant to make the keyboards quieter). A third — and, depending on how you’re counting, fourth — generation design followed, with Apple descriptions of its tweaks getting more and more arcane until the last generation when it would only say that there were “new materials” in ’s MacBooks.
However, Apple did acknowledge keyboard problems, but it was in a way that implied the problem wasn’t as widespread as people thought. In , it instituted an “extended keyboard service program,” essentially warrantying butterfly keyboards for four years. When it released new MacBooks after that, it even went so far as to say the extended service program would apply to those brand-new machines as they were announced.
Only Apple truly knows how widespread the problems with this keyboard really are, and only Apple truly knows whether those problems made a significant impact on MacBook sales. If they have, it’s difficult to separate that effect out from larger trends in laptop and Mac revenue, which has been little better than flat over the past five years.
Apple’s Mac revenue is Apple’s problem, not yours. If you are a MacBook user, the biggest effect on you is whether your keyboard lets you type. That’s doubly important now, with Apple’s stores shut down in most countries during the pandemic and no clear way of knowing when you might be able to get a repair done.
More than anything else, though, the whole butterfly keyboard saga has been a huge reputation hit for Apple.
For those who thought Apple was sacrificing functionality for thinness across its entire product lineup, the butterfly keyboard looked like confirmation. For those who felt Apple was intentionally making its devices harder to repair as a way to further lock them down and also cut out third-party repair shops, it was another data point. For those who felt Apple had stopped paying attention to the Mac, here was a prime example of a problem allowed to languish to years. For those who felt Apple is still trying to create a “reality distortion field” where everything it makes is great but the truth is much more mundane, well you get the picture.
The butterfly keyboard hurt Apple’s reputation precisely because the outlines of its problems and Apple’s response to them lined up with some of the biggest complaints people have about the company.
Earlier, I called Apple’s attempts to save the butterfly keyboard obstinate, but a less charitable way of putting it is simply to call it hubris. For some, it called Apple’s judgment into question. How could the company fail to see — or refuse to admit — that it was shipping a bad product?
The Mac has serious challenges in front of it. As Intel’s processor roadmap meanders, Apple is reportedly working on a switch to its own ARM-based processors. As the iPad Pro gains more traditional computer functionality, more people are considering it a laptop replacement. Through it all, macOS has seen slower development compared to iOS, plus less clear direction over the past few years. Are Catalyst apps the future? Is it SwiftUI? How will the impending ARM switchover affect the future Mac apps?
Those are fundamental software questions for the Mac, and answering them could be an invigorating challenge — one that could spark an exciting next era for the Mac. What a relief that we don’t need to worry about fundamental hardware problems at the same time.
From $ at Apple
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Ready to pick up the inch MacBook Pro with the scissor switch Magic Keyboard? If youre thinking of selling your current MacBook to upgrade to Apples latest, follow along for how to repair or replace your current butterfly keyboard for free to get more money when you sell your notebook.
Apples butterfly keyboards in MacBooks that date back to have seen serious problems with debris being caught under keys. This causes keys to not work, or in some cases the computer registering a double press when keys are just pressed once.
All of Apples MacBooks with butterfly keyboards are eligible for the free service program. The MacBook Pro and MacBook Air featured the third-generation butterfly keyboard that includes a new gasket, but that didnt fully solve the issue for many users.
Finally, even after MacBook Pro models included a new material in the keyboards (a fourth iteration), they became eligible for the keyboard service program as soon as they debuted.
So if youre looking to sell your current MacBook, particularly on eBay, Swappa, Craigslist, or to a friend or family member, youll likely be able to sell it for more with a fully functioning, and maybe brand-new keyboard (and youll probably feel better handing it off knowing the keyboard isnt glitching too 😄).
Per Apples keyboard service program, in some cases, they will replace the entire keyboard, and others may repair certain keys.
How to replace your MacBook butterfly keyboard for free and get more money when selling
- If youre not sure, check your MacBook or MacBook Pro model ( → About this Mac)
- Check if your MacBook is part of the keyboard service program here or below
- If it is, get in touch and Apple will begin the repair or replacement process
- MacBook (Retina, inch, Early )
- MacBook (Retina, 12-inch, Early )
- MacBook (Retina, inch, )
- MacBook Air (Retina, inch, )
- MacBook Pro (13-inch, , Two Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
- MacBook Pro (inch, , Two Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
- MacBook Pro (inch, , Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
- MacBook Pro (inch, , Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
- MacBook Pro (inch, )
- MacBook Pro (inch, )
- MacBook Pro (inch, , Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
- MacBook Pro (inch, )
- MacBook Pro (inch, , Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
- MacBook Pro (inch, )
Note: No other Mac notebook models are part of this program.
Earlier on in the keyboard repair program, Apple was sending out MacBooks with keyboard issues with a typical three- to five-day turnaround. Back in April, Apple started offering in-store keyboard repair and replacement with next-day turnaround for many customers.
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