Not a laptop for writers

Tech Life

I have already offered a few first impressions on the new 12-inch MacBook with Retina display. In brief: it’s a lovely machine, it’s light, it has a gorgeous screen, a long battery life, an interesting new trackpad, and it could very well be my next Mac — too bad its quirky keyboard is a deal-breaking feature for me.

Back in April I wrote: I type a lot every day, so keyboard performance in a computer is one of the most important features for me. So, for the better part of the time I spent with the new MacBook, I tried to type as much as I could. And, like Christina Warren, I too found that “extended periods typing on the new MacBook keyboard tired my wrists a bit more than a traditional keyboard.” I also found the short key travel discomforting for my fingertips after just 15 minutes of more-or-less uninterrupted typing. Two months ago, my conclusion on the MacBook (and its keyboard) was:

It’s maddening. What I kept thinking was This should be the perfect computer for a writer and at the same time I was thinking I just can’t write on this MacBook all day.

Meanwhile, thanks to a generous acquaintance, I’ve had the opportunity to try the 12-inch MacBook much more extensively. I was hoping that my initial negative impressions regarding the keyboard would attenuate by spending more time typing on the MacBook and familiarising with the new hardware, using it in generally more comfortable situations than standing at an Apple Store desk without being able to move the computer much. Instead the experience did nothing but confirm I just can’t type consistently, comfortably, and for long sessions on this machine. Which is really a pity.

So when a friend pointed me to Matt Gemmell’s recent piece, A Laptop for Writers, I was curious to read an assessment that certainly promised to be different from mine.

Gemmell writes:

Otherwise, I was fluent and back up to speed with the new keyboard within an hour of switching over. It’s just not as different in use as it at first seems. The only lasting effect of the switch for me is that the keyboards on the Air, and my wife’s MacBook Pro, now feel spongy – but still perfectly usable. The shallower action on the new model still has enough travel to let you know that you’re typing. My error rate after the first day or so wasn’t any higher than on the Air’s scissor-action keys.

I used my loaned MacBook intensely over a weekend (Friday included), and while the typing mistakes almost entirely disappeared after a couple of hours, the keyboard maintained its unfamiliarity under my fingers all the time. When I briefly returned to other Macs and keyboards I use (like my MacBook Pro and my G4 PowerBooks) — as Gemmell notes — their keys felt softer and spongy indeed, but my fingers also felt quite relieved.

I’ve been lucky to never seriously suffer from RSI, but I’ve also always been careful. I believe that shallower-action keys are probably easier on the wrist. Whilst the keypress force on the new MacBook is delivered over a shorter travel, making it feel harder, I suspect that overall there’s less actual muscle movement required to operate each key compared to the much higher travel on the scissor-style keys on Air and Pro models (and indeed the desktop Apple keyboards).

In my experience, the opposite is true. I think we should not consider ‘key travel’ and ‘force to apply when typing’ as always in direct proportion. The keys of the Apple Extended Keyboard II, for example, have way more key travel than all modern Apple keyboards, but their responsiveness didn’t require me to apply more force. They have a different, and probably better, feedback that makes up for the longer key travel. That, in turn (at least for me) makes typing on such a keyboard much less stressful for my fingers, hands and wrists than typing on any modern flat keyboard. The only exception being the keyboard of the aluminium PowerBooks, which may sound and feel mushy to some people, while I find it to be one of the most comfortable and easy-on-the-hands Apple laptop keyboards ever.

Other mechanical keyboards I’ve used in the past, while having more or less the same key travel than the Apple Extended Keyboard II, required more force — perhaps because the keys themselves felt less robust, more wiggly, or because the switch mechanism simply required more force for the key to register.

Back to the MacBook keyboard, I ended up tiring my fingers and wrists much more than with any other keyboard (mechanical or otherwise) I’ve tried previously also because I could not find and retain the ‘right’ force to apply when typing. It’s like the keys always register slightly before the expected travel, and that kept my typing unbalanced and erratic. When you pass your fingers over the MacBook’s keyboard, you have the feeling you could simply touch type, applying very little force. In reality, you have to apply a bit more force, but each time I tapped on a key, I ended up with the feeling I was just hammering on it too much. The feeling I kept having while typing on the MacBook keyboard was: Too little force, and I risk not typing some of the characters; a bit more force and it feels like I’m bashing on the keys.

Perhaps the title I’ve chosen for this article is too harsh and just provocative for the sake of being provocative. Perhaps other writers out there may find the MacBook’s keyboard perfectly adequate for their needs and habits. But I’m really having a hard time believing such a keyboard can be comfortable in the long run for someone who writes for a living. After three days spent typing on the MacBook’s keyboard for very long sessions (e.g. five consecutive hours with brief pauses here and there), my hands and wrists were exhausted. I’m still convinced the new MacBook’s keyboard is for truly casual users, people who type URLs in the browser, write emails and the occasional note or document or blog post. Unlike Gemmell, I don’t think that “[a writer’s] work can happily masquerade as casual use”, nor that it’s comparable to what a blogger does. Writers may use less CPU-intensive tools, and that may give them an advantage in the choice of what computer to use, but their work and their computer usage is certainly not casual.

The Author

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