The MacBook keyboard: I can’t say I’m surprised

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Both Casey Johnston and Stephen Hackett have detailed the problems they’ve faced with their MacBook Pro’s keyboard. They’re just two prominent examples, but they’re far from being isolated cases.

It turns out that my concerns about the post-2015 MacBook and MacBook Pro keyboards — which I voiced since first trying out a 2015 retina 12-inch MacBook — were not unfounded. When that MacBook came out I was excited, and I gave it a serious thought when deciding which Mac to purchase next. But after trying it out in person, the keyboard disappointed me right away:

[T]he keyboard is really the deal-breaker here. 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.

In June I argued that, thanks to that keyboard, the 12-inch MacBook couldn’t be really considered a laptop for writers. Later in 2015, I added:

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.

In early 2016, a friend of mine told me that she had to bring her 6-month old 12-inch MacBook to an Apple Store because the ‘V’ key had stopped registering, and the spacebar was stuck. I wrote her that this was troubling, but that somehow I wasn’t surprised. Later, when she asked me for advice (“Do you think I should try selling the MacBook after they fix the keyboard? I’m bummed, but I also love it for its lightness…”), I urged her to buy AppleCare if she wanted to keep it, because I feared the problem could return in the future.

It’s October 2017. She still has that Early 2015 MacBook. She had the keyboard replaced three times. She’s grateful to have followed my advice about getting AppleCare.

I’m always wary of treating a few anecdotes as valid statistical data, but the fact is that in the last two years at least a dozen people I know, friends and acquaintances, have purchased MacBooks and MacBook Pros with that horrendously thin keyboard, and many (many more than I expected, frankly) have had some issues with it. Another friend with a 12-inch MacBook had the keyboard replaced once. An acquaintance with a 2016 13-inch MacBook Pro had to go back to the Apple Store three weeks after purchase because the Enter key had become unresponsive. 

Another fellow writer got his 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar in February 2017; like me, he usually engages in long typing sessions on a daily basis, and the MacBook Pro’s keyboard never really impressed him. But he needed a portable machine, and a display that was both retina and bigger than 13 inches. He considered buying the mid-2015 model with the ‘better’ keyboard, but didn’t want to invest money in a Mac that had 2-year old technology in it. After having to replace the keyboard twice, in May and in late September, he told me he’s seriously considering selling the MacBook Pro and getting an older one. Decades as a Mac user, and I’d never met other Mac users willing to take a step backwards this way.

Other three people I know had to bring their MacBook Pros (both 2016 and 2017 models) to have the keyboard replaced once. In one case, the whole keyboard had become unresponsive, and at least the Apple Store genius didn’t blame ‘a piece of dust’ for it, saying instead that it was ‘probably a defective connector’.

Long story short, of these twelve friends and acquaintances that got in touch with me regarding this particular matter, seven had serious keyboard issues, and the remaining five told me that their MacBook/MacBook Pro keyboard feels different now than when they purchased their Macs: some mentions uneven feedback when typing, others say that certain keys — despite still working and being registered after pressed — have kind of lost what little clickiness they had at the beginning.

Casey Johnston observes:

The problem with dead keys is that, unless you can stop what you’re doing mid-paper or report or email or game and have a physical tiff with your computer, the temptation to just slam a little harder on those delicate keys to get the N or B or period you need until you reach a stopping place is high. But there is no logical at-home remedy for the consumer; when one key on a butterfly switched-keyboard becomes nonfunctional, unless you can dislodge whatever dust or crumb is messing it up without being able to physically access it, the keyboard is effectively broken. If you remove the key to try and clean under it, you stand a high chance of breaking it permanently, but if you leave it there and continue to have to pound the key to type one measly letter, you also might break it permanently. A single piece of dust can literally fuck you over.

And the reason, in case you didn’t pay attention, is that:

If Apple decides to replace the keyboard, it sends out the computer to replace the entire top case; there is no such thing as replacing an individual key or just the keyboard. On a Macbook Pro, the top case retails for $700, but the computers haven’t been around long enough for anyone to be out of warranty yet. In regular MacBooks, which were first available in the spring of 2015, Apple has quoted as much $330 to replace a top case out of warranty. The path from “a piece of dust” to “$700 repair” is terrifyingly short.

This is bad design, simple as that. The butterfly switch mechanism is a design solution dictated by compromise. The compromise here is Apple painting themselves in a corner after making laptops that are thinner and thinner, and thinner. Two years ago it took me three days of intensive testing to understand where this was going — forgive this little bout of immodesty, for once — and if I remember correctly, Apple has machines in place to conduct this kind of stress test. Perhaps they simply concluded that the keyboards were robust enough to withstand all typing styles; but really, nobody had a clue that by introducing dirt and dust in the equation, things would go awry sooner rather than later? 

To conclude, another thing concerns me — that Apple’s way of fixing the problem (they created) in next MacBook iterations is to introduce an even lower-travel keyboard with Force Touch-like sensors. As MacRumors noted two years ago, Apple was granted a patent for it, so it’s a plausible path. Who knows — maybe it’ll end up being a better keyboard than the current one; maybe it’ll break much less frequently. Yet I’m guessing that, should something go wrong, it will still be a matter of replacing the whole top case of the computer. As for the typing experience, I doubt it’ll be as pleasant as a keyboard with physical switches. This is all hypothetical of course, but somehow I’m not convinced Apple is going to address this problem by making thicker laptops with more thoughtfully designed keyboards.

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