Again, on keyboards and thinness

Tech Life

Addicted to thin

The other day, my friend Alex Roddie pointed me to this article on MacRumors: Apple Patents Switch-Less Force Touch Keyboard, Could Lead to Thinner Macs. Alex’s further comments were: I know Apple patents things all the time, but this one seems particularly ominous. — I think they have an end goal in mind of paper-thin (or completely insubstantial) computers for the sake of fashion. — And the rest of the industry will inevitably copy Apple, as it always has.

There’s a key quote in MacRumors’ article — taken from AppleInsider — that describes the workings of such type of keyboard:

Apple’s current MacBook and Mac accessory lineups employ modified scissor switches, or butterfly switches on the 12-inch Retina MacBook, nestled within hollow key caps. Today’s patent mirrors the aesthetic of existing designs, but deviates from established technology by replacing mechanical switches for a stack of sensors, actuators and supporting circuitry.

Theoretically the system operates akin to Apple’s Force Touch trackpads, but on a much larger scale; one force sensor package for each keyboard key. Force sensors configured to measure downward pressure are integrated beneath the keyboard’s key caps, while integrated actuators — part of the key stack — generate haptic feedback.

Part of me thinks it’s a fascinating concept. It’s the part of me that loves technology and admires Apple’s ingenuity. The part of me that loves writing, instead, is rather concerned by the direction Apple is taking when it comes to keyboard design. And completely agrees with Roddie’s remarks above.

I’m generally exhausted by Apple’s fixation with thinness. Don’t get me wrong: what they did with the innards of the 12-inch retina MacBook is marvellous: the tiny motherboard, the custom design of the battery’s shape, the keyboard’s butterfly mechanism, all ingenious ideas and solutions. But a force-touch keyboard just seems an unnecessary step too far in a direction that puts design over everything else — functionality, usability, typing comfort.

Perhaps I’m worrying too much. Perhaps Apple’s final design of a force-touch keyboard will be so great that the taptic feedback will be indistinguishable from the usual feedback of a keyboard with moving parts. But if the keyboard in the 12-inch MacBook and the Magic Keyboard are any indication, I don’t think this theoretical force-touch keyboard is going to be a great instrument for writers. It’s probably going to be good enough for people who type occasionally and with a hunt-and-peck typing style. People who are usually comfortable with just using the virtual keyboard on an iPad, for example.

I’m not a professional typist, I don’t use all ten fingers to type — more like 7–8. My fingers don’t strike the key caps all with the same force. I have a rhythm, a cadence, when I type. I need good feedback under my fingertips, I need to feel the keys move, if you know what I mean. I need the key travel. While I like what Apple did with force touch on the MacBook’s trackpad and the new Magic Trackpad, a whole keyboard is a different matter than ‘virtualising’ the mechanical click of a single trackpad button. I don’t like the idea of upgrading to a Mac laptop with an ultrathin, force-touch keyboard, and having to attach an external keyboard (with traditional key mechanisms) simply to be able to ‘write professionally,’ so to speak.

In the design of a keyboard, in my opinion, function and comfort should always trump æsthetics. Flattened keyboards might look cool, but may not be suitable for long writing sessions. Short key travel might reduce stress in the fingers, but in my terrible experience with the 12-inch retina MacBook’s keyboard, it also leads to striking the keys with a bit more force, which in turn is painful for your fingertips. A force-touch keyboard might be a cool-looking solution for the next generation of Mac laptops, yet I can’t help wondering whether the loss of usability is worth the 2–3 millimetres shaved once more for the sake of having absurdly thin machines. ‘Reinventing’ the keyboard in this way to me feels like a case of Not Invented Here syndrome.

I’ll reiterate a point I’ve already made several times now: you can certainly adapt to these new keyboard designs, but a) that doesn’t mean they’re good for typing, and b) it’s certainly easier if you just use the one keyboard on your new Mac. Once you have to use other traditional keyboards, adjusting is certainly more problematic.

Some past Apple keyboard designs for laptops — a brief overview

I’m not a typical Mac user; I own several vintage Macs I still use on a frequent basis, and I often switch keyboard type (and layout). This is, without doubt, the main reason why I’m having a hard time adjusting to less traditional Apple keyboards, why my experience with the 12-inch MacBook’s keyboard was disappointing, and why I’ve found the new Magic Keyboard a bit weird, too.

Here are a few examples of other Apple keyboards I type on. The main takeaway is that Apple keyboard designs have generally been a hit-or-miss affair over the years, but past hits have also generally been better than today’s latest offerings.

PowerBook Duo 280c
PowerBook Duo 280c (1994) — Definitely not a great keyboard. Key travel is okay, but the feedback is terrible and keys feel mushy. You have to exercise more force than the mushy feel suggests, otherwise some keys may not register while typing at a decent speed, and you end up with mssing leters. The spacebar is too small. And that arrow keys arrangement, while more common twenty years ago, was even worse than the one featured in the retina MacBook and Magic Keyboard.


PowerBook 1400
PowerBook 1400c/166 (1996–97) — Just a couple of years later, Apple introduces a line of PowerBooks with possibly the best keyboard Apple has even included in a laptop. The PowerBook 1400’s keyboard is simply a joy to type on, it’s the closest we have in a laptop to an external mechanical keyboard. Key travel is right, key cap size and contour are well-balanced, keys are springy and responsive without being too noisy. Too bad it still has that awful arrow keys arrangement. (Even the trackpad button is great, considering the times.)


eMate 300
eMate 300 (1997) — The Apple eMate 300’s keyboard is nice. The key caps are smaller than the ones in Mac laptops (the eMate 300 is a smaller device, after all), so there’s always a bit of adjustment when I use this for writing — but the keyboard overall is well designed and is much better than the external Newton Keyboard produced for smaller, handheld Newtons — especially with regard to key feel and feedback. And oh, look, the arrow keys finally sport the ‘inverted T’ design.


PowerBook G3
PowerBook G3 “Lombard” (Bronze Keyboard) (1999) — This is one of the Mac laptops I most enjoy using as a writing machine, because it’s a combination of decent keyboard, great palm rest area, and texture of the PowerBook’s top case. I find this keyboard to be a good compromise between the scissor switch mechanism’s typical response and the springiness of certain mechanical keyboards (though this is subjective and your mileage may vary). From this point onward, keyboards in Apple laptops start getting thinner, but key travel is still good.


iBook G3
iBook G3/466 SE (FireWire) (2000) — The clamshell iBook was my main Mac for three years, and has been a secondary machine for an even longer period. I’ve typed a lot on this Mac and it’s been a very comfortable experience. Very similar to the PowerBook G3 Lombard, but the iBook’s keyboard, while retaining the same feedback as the PowerBook G3’s, features slightly wider key caps, so it feels even better. The curved lines of the palm rest, and the general sturdiness of the whole iBook, make for a great typing experience when you have to keep the machine on your lap.


Titanium PowerBook G4 (2001) — Essentially the same keyboard (and the same typing experience) as the PowerBook G3 Lombard and Pismo models. The palm rest area in this PowerBook is flat, which makes typing slightly less comfortable than on the PowerBook G3 and clamshell iBook pictured above. On the other hand, it’s also a wider area, and that mitigates the issue.


PowerBook G4 17
Aluminium PowerBook G4 (17-inch, 1.33GHz) (2003) — This is my favourite keyboard, though I know many will disagree with me. As I wrote previously, “The last truly comfortable keyboard on an Apple laptop is, in my experience, the one featured in the aluminium PowerBook line and the pre-unibody MacBook Pros. The key travel feels right and when you hit a key, there’s a soft, cushioned return that really makes typing for hours a very pleasant and comfortable affair. My main machine from 2004 to mid-2009 has been a 12-inch PowerBook G4, and I still use it as a second machine, especially when I’m out and about and I know that I’m going to write a lot, because my fingers and hands never get tired on its keyboard. […] [A]nother detail that makes the PowerBook’s keys more comfortable is that they’re not flat, but slightly concave — typing on them is more pleasant, but for me also more precise, and I never have to stop and look at the keyboard to find the right key, so to speak.”


Except for the PowerBook Duo 280c and the eMate 300, typing on all these keyboards has been, overall, a great experience and a better experience for my fingers, hands, and wrists than typing on more recent Apple keyboards. In some cases — like the PowerBook G3 and the iBook — the shape and design of the laptop’s top case really helps and works in synergy with the keyboard in making the typing experience pleasant. It is precisely the absence of thinness and flatness (of the computer and the keys) that makes typing better. In other cases — like the aluminium PowerBook G4 — despite the top case being flat, the keyboard’s design and feedback are good enough to prevent typing fatigue. (This is especially true on the 12-inch PowerBook G4, whose palm rest area is really small). Some find this keyboard to be too mushy, and in my experience it’s usually people who hunt-and-peck when they type. Exactly those who are now very happy with the latest Apple keyboard designs. For those who type a lot and with more than four fingers, the feeling seems to be the very opposite.

Perhaps all these keyboard designs weren’t as stylish as the latest flat and thin Apple trend, but they were certainly keyboards that did their job quite well, no matter how long the typing session. And, most importantly, they were keyboards that didn’t need ‘adjusting’. I spent years typing on them and my fingers, hands, wrists are still pain-free and stress-free. Three days typing on a 12-inch retina MacBook, and my fingertips hurt as if I had been tapping on a block of marble.

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