The Future

The new and improved MacBook keyboards have the same old problems

Many users continue to report stuck keys; maybe it’s time for other companies to stop looking to Apple for design cues.

The Future

apple didn’t fix anything

The Future

The new and improved MacBook keyboards have the same old problems

Many users continue to report stuck keys; maybe it’s time for other companies to stop looking to Apple for design cues.

Apple never actually caved to user complaints that its top-of-the-line computers developed sticky or dead keyboards very easily, despite having now been served with several keyboard-related class action lawsuits. In June, the company offered to repair computers with these keyboards for free for four years following the date of purchase (the cost of being without their computer notwithstanding). It claimed only a “small percentage” of users were affected. I was one of them, several times, and there were many, many others. Compared to this time last year, its computer sales are down ten percent, and not a few people have been holding off on purchasing any computer from its line in fear of getting stuck with a keyboard that doesn’t work.

In July, Apple slightly redesigned the very low profile butterfly keyboard on its MacBooks and MacBook Pros, not because “a small percentage” of the previous version was rendered useless by a speck of dust, the company said, but to make it quieter; it even invited the tech press to try it out. iFixit teardowns of the hardware revealed that, in fact, Apple had added a silicone membrane under the keys that looks quite a bit like it’s meant to keep dust and debris from lodging under the key and locking it up. Was that the idea? No, Apple unequivocally said.

But this was not the story I got from several Apple employees I have since spoken to at Apple stores I visited. Every time I described the 2017 MacBook Pro I sold because I couldn’t stand its non-functional keyboard and asked an Apple store employee if the new one would screw me over the same way, each assured me that Apple had changed the keyboards so that that would never happen again. I described my issues with “dust” to one shop associate at the Apple Store at the World Trade Center and asked if the new computers were any better. “Yeah, yeah, they fixed that problem… it was a BIG problem,” she told me. “So it doesn’t happen at all?” I asked. “No, it shouldn’t happen,” she said. Maybe the bad days were finally over.

But checking around online, it appears the new keyboards have the same old issues. They may be delayed, but they happen nonetheless. The MacRumors forum has a long thread about the the “gen 3 butterfly keyboard” where users have been sharing their experiences since Apple updated the design. “How is everyone lse’s keyboard doing? I rplaced th first one because ‘E’ and ‘O’ gave double output. The replacment ither eats “E”, “O”, “I” and “T”, or doubles them,” wrote one poster. “I didn’t correct the typos above on purpose.”

“I have had to bring mine (maxed out version of 2018 15") twice to a local [authorized Apple service provider] for repairs,” said another. The letter “O” and the spacebar repeat themselves twice or more times with just a single keystroke, normal typing. The letter “O” has that issue consistently while the spacebar has it randomly… I’m out of business for 2 weeks now and I don’t know what to do about it.”

“Irritatingly, my 2016 rMB never had a problem that couldn’t be resolved with canned air,” wrote another, “yet this model with its Special Membranes does. Clearly Apple was telling the truth when saying the membranes do not improve reliability.”

A different user responded to him: “The older MBP’s you almost never had to do anything with the keyboards. Canned air or otherwise. Now we are down to people asking if you ever used it outside (asked on another MR thread), because apparently the developer of Better Touch Bar thought maybe the issues he had with his was from using it on his balcony or some crazy stuff. There is just something inherently wrong with a keyboard design if folks are worried about a little dust or pollen.”

“That’s just plain reckless,” responded a third. “I mean he took a laptop from a closed apartment to a balcony. It was probably an open balcony. Does he think that a laptop is a portable computer or what?!?”

“Mine is going back [for service] again,” said another. “The E key either registers, or doesn’t at all, or registers twice. Sometimes I have to literally slam it a few times until I get the result. Unshaky helps with I, O, and R, but this is not really how I want to use a €2489 laptop.”

Another: “It’s sad and I’m now even more worried about Apple ruining the rumored MacBook Air successor with this keyboard.”

Another: “The first MBP worked fine for about 10 days before keyboard problems started. In this one, keys started to repeat on day two, and by now E is often unusable, either doubling or forcing me to slam it. :/ I'll have the third one end of the week. ”

The thread goes one for 600 posts, most either posting complaints, expressing how mystified they are that the problems continue, or speculating what Apple will do now that this design has failed as well.

Based on the star charts and the historical rhythm of Apple events, the company is due to hold a computer-oriented event for later this month, but it’s unclear whether the company will continue to stick with this broke-off butterfly keyboard horse. Rumor blogs that follow supply chain leaks extremely closely were certain Apple would issue some kind of update at its event in September; no dice. Most reporters can’t even make any good guess as to how Apple will reconcile its normally seamless product line. The Macbook is aesthetic but underpowered; the Air is an outdated design paradigm, a “thin and light” notebook that has the worst performance-to-weight-to-cost tradeoff of all the computers Apple makes, but the only one left with a decent keyboard; the MacBook Pro fails at being a Pro in a number of ways (a small number of ports that almost always require dongles, garbage battery life), not least of which is that the keyboard stops working after a couple of months for many people. Every laptop offering has serious tradeoffs, none of them are compellingly priced, and most are just old.

Several users in the MacRumors keyboard thread suggested that the butterfly keyboards Apple has been pushing for two years now are a stepping stone to full touch-screen models; no keys, no mechanisms, no nooks and crannies, just a solid screen that displays virtual buttons. Others have wondered why Apple doesn’t just use Magic Keyboard keys in its computers; they are much more pleasant to use, quieter, and appear to not have the same crippling vulnerability to, uh, dust.

I’ve gone to the Apple store page a few times in the last couple of months, just staring down the new MacBook Pros, wondering if I can trust again. Could a silicone membrane be effective in keeping debris out, when it seemed like it would be equally good at locking debris in? There are no other good computers to buy right now. My current computer is five years old, and central to my job; also I need to be able to open a weather.com tab now and again. All the time this has been going on, those in the know have been scouring Apple’s refurbished offerings for 2015 MacBook Pros (the last edition without the butterfly keyboards). These days, they’re in short supply. What’s worse, many computer brands blindly take cues from Apple designs, and the low-profile keyboard designs have started to show up on all the pretenders, too. I’m too mad to stay and too tired to leave, but the time seems fast approaching when there won’t be anywhere else to go.