Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Dust and Tedium

Casey Johnston, the Outline:

I was in the Grand Central Station Apple Store for a third time in a year, watching a progress bar slowly creep across my computer’s black screen as my Genius multi-tasked helping another customer with her iPad. My computer was getting its third diagnostic test in 45 minutes. The problem was not that its logic board was failing, that its battery was dying, or that its camera didn’t respond. There were no mysteriously faulty innerworkings. It was the spacebar. It was broken. And not even physically broken — it still moved and acted normally. But every time I pressed it once, it spaced twice.

“Maybe it’s a piece of dust,” the Genius had offered. The previous times I’d been to the Apple Store for the same computer with the same problem — a misbehaving keyboard — Geniuses had said to me these exact same nonchalant words, and I had been stunned into silence, the first time because it seemed so improbable to blame such a core problem on such a small thing, and the second time because I couldn’t believe the first time I was hearing this line that it was not a fluke. But this time, the third time, I was ready. “Hold on,” I said. “If a single piece of dust lays the whole computer out, don’t you think that’s kind of a problem?”

Johnston’s keyboard isn’t an outlier: various people and organizations she spoke with have indicated that dust under the keys — in particular, under the spacebar — is a common affliction of the latest generation of Apple laptop keyboards. Apple provides instructions on how to remove dust, but they are ridiculous: you must hold your laptop in one hand at a recommended 75° angle and spray the keyboard with compressed air while rotating your computer in midair.

I do not baby my electronics, but I want them to last. These instructions seem like a fantastic way to shatter the display or destroy the case.

Stephen Hackett kept running into this problem, too, with his months-old MacBook Pro, and he followed Apple’s steps to clean it:

After a couple days of light usage, the problem got worse.

The bottom lip of the key began to flip up a little bit as the key tried sprinting back up after being depressed. Light was leaking around it, and eventually this happened:

[…]

One of the tiny arms that the key cap clips onto is broken. My nearly $2,000 laptop that I bought less than a year ago is now missing a key, as I shared with our Connected audience this weekend.

This is, frankly, inexcusable. I was already hesitating on upgrading from my five-year-old MacBook Air because this generation of MacBook Pros still seems like a work-in-progress; now, I will absolutely be waiting another generation to see if this problem gets fixed.

By the way, I know there will be some people suggesting that plenty of generations of Apple products have had their teething issues. I don’t deny that; the MacBook Pro was recalled for graphics issues, the first-generation iPod Nano scratched like crazy and the battery could overheat, and the unibody plastic MacBook’s bottom case peeled off.

But input devices should always — and I mean always — work, in hardware and in software. If a speck of dust affects the functionality of the most-used key because of an attribute inherent to the design of the keyboard, that’s a poor choice of keyboard design, especially for a portable computer.

On a related note, too, there’s an existing bug in recent versions of MacOS where key and cursor inputs are sometimes delayed. I notice the keyboard bug especially frequently in Messages when I haven’t switched to it for a while, and I experience delayed trackpad input often in Safari and in Photos. But it seems to persist throughout the system, and it is infuriating. I’m glad that apps on my Mac crash less frequently but I would genuinely rather have Safari crash on me as much as it used to than I would like to keep seeing problems with input mechanisms. I can choose a different web browser; I can’t choose a different way for MacOS to process my keystrokes.

Problems like these should not escape Cupertino.