No ‘inverted T’? No thanks

Tech Life

Sometime ago, not long after the 12-inch retina MacBook was released, I had the chance to carry out a thorough test of the machine by using it as intensely as I could over three full days (thanks to a kind soul who graciously lent me the MacBook). I was looking forward to this MacBook as my next Mac, but the experience was disappointing, and the single point of disappointment was the MacBook’s keyboard. As a writer and someone who types a lot and all the time, the keyboard for me is even more important than CPU speed or GPU capabilities or storage capacity. My experience with the MacBook’s keyboard has led me to abandon the idea of considering this machine as a possible candidate for upgrade.

In my ‘First impressions’ article about the MacBook, I wrote:

Finally, another new design choice that I really found off-putting in the new MacBook’s keyboard is the shape of the new arrow keys:

Macbook retina arrow keys

The enlarged left and right arrow keys really screwed up my muscle memory while using the MacBook. I constantly thought I was hitting the Command or the Option key, and I found myself looking at the keyboard more often than I liked. There are some who don’t love the small size of the arrow keys in the usual ‘Inverted T’ design, at least on laptops, but the space above the left and right arrow keys really helps to ‘find’ them without looking, and also helps when you’re quickly moving around a software program’s interface using the arrow keys (positioning an object in a graphics application, moving your character in a game, etc.). I found their new design in the retina MacBook’s keyboard to be too ‘crowded’ and my fingers didn’t move as easily when tapping on them.

Meanwhile, Apple introduces the Magic Keyboard, which, although it doesn’t feature the same butterfly mechanism of the 12-inch retina MacBook’s keyboard, it has a similar key travel and, most importantly, the same ridiculous design for the arrow keys.

I was glad to read that Brett Terpstra feels the same as I do. In his recent A Magic Mistake, he writes (emphasis his):

I’ll be able to get used to the key profile, eventually, but there’s one thing that’s absolutely killing me: the configuration of the arrow key cluster. The seemingly small change in the size of the left and right arrow keys to full height has made it nearly impossible for me to use.

Wireless Keyboard Before and After

When my right hand travels to the arrow cluster, my index finger feels for the top of the left arrow key, and my middle finger assumes that the down arrow is to the right of it, and the up arrow is above it. This is the way every keyboard I’ve ever used is configured.

With the new key size, when my index finger hits the top edge of the left arrow, my middle finger hits the shift key above almost every time. The ridge between up and down has also decreased, and my fingers are large enough that even if I can feel it, hitting both or the wrong one is happening frequently.

[…] I really want to love this new keyboard, but I’m at a point where I’m not sure it’s going to happen. Arrow keys are kind of important.

Getting used to poor design

Note how many of the people who reviewed the Magic Keyboard, speaking of the arrow keys design, have said something along the lines of Oh well, I’ll get used to it or I’ll adjust to it. Susie Ochs, reviewing the Magic Keyboard for Macworld, writes:

I find the full-size right and left arrows a bit harder to find with my fingers than the half-size arrow keys on my MacBook Air and Wired Keyboard. But I can adjust to that.

Jason Snell, in his review, writes:

The major key differences are the left and right arrow keys, which are now full-sized—I used the empty space around the arrows to orient on the keyboard, so occasionally I find myself completely at sea when typing and my text editor will get xinikerejt xibdyaws. (I’m sure I’ll adjust.)

Of course, what else can you do? Apart from returning the keyboard, there’s no other option than adjusting to the new arrow keys design. I’m absolutely baffled by this change, because it’s simply poor design. It impacts usability, it goes against the majority of keyboards out there, it seems completely unnecessary and arbitrary, something like Let’s fill up all the space because the empty areas above the left/right keys don’t look cool. Something users have to take time and adjust to for no justifiable reason.

I’ve only seen a design like that on small keyboards, like folding Bluetooth keyboards and pre-iPhone smartphones with physical keyboards, where the design of the key arrangement is dictated by the need to save space. On full-size keyboards like the Magic Keyboard and the MacBook keyboard such arrangement is unnecessary.

You may think I’m making a big deal out of a minor detail. It’s that I utterly dislike arbitrary design impositions such as these. Sure, one may get used to that arrow keys arrangement eventually, but if you — like me — usually type on more than one keyboard, and all the other keyboards you own have the traditional ‘inverted T’ design, good luck getting used to the other design while you switch from the Magic Keyboard to another and back.

When it was just the 12-inch retina MacBook, I thought the new arrow keys design was somehow dictated by a change in the particular manufacturing process for that Mac, but now that the same design has appeared on the Magic Keyboard, I suspect that’s the new direction Apple is going with this, and that when the time comes to fully refresh the MacBook Air and Pro lines, they’ll get this new, questionable ‘innovation’ in their keyboards. I really hope my previous-generation Wireless Apple Keyboard and Wired Apple Keyboard will last for a long time, otherwise I’ll have to use third-party keyboards, or maybe buy other units of older, better designed Apple Keyboards such as my beloved Apple Extended Keyboard II, which for me is still unparalleled for long writing sessions.

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