Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Apple Introduces a 16-Inch MacBook Pro With a New Keyboard

Apple:

Featuring a new Magic Keyboard with a redesigned scissor mechanism and 1mm travel for a more satisfying key feel, the 16-inch MacBook Pro delivers the best typing experience ever in a Mac notebook. The 16-inch MacBook Pro also includes a six-speaker sound system, longer battery life, Touch Bar, Touch ID, the Force Touch trackpad and the Apple T2 Security Chip.

“Our pro customers tell us they want their next MacBook Pro to have a larger display, blazing-fast performance, the biggest battery possible, the best notebook keyboard ever, awesome speakers and massive amounts of storage, and the 16-inch MacBook Pro delivers all of that and more,” said Tom Boger, Apple’s senior director of Mac and iPad Product Marketing. “With its brilliant 16-inch Retina display, 8-core processors, next-gen pro graphics, even better thermal design, new Magic Keyboard, six-speaker sound system, 100Wh battery, up to 8TB of storage and 64GB of fast memory, the 16-inch MacBook Pro is the world’s best pro notebook.”

The battery is the maximum capacity that the FAA allows, and it has accordingly pushed up the weight of this MacBook Pro by 170 grams compared to the 2019 15-inch model. It’s now more-or-less the same size as the 2015 pre-Touch Bar 15-inch model.

Also of note is the new display, which is not just the old display cut slightly larger: its pixel density is greater than the 15-inch; it’s equivalent to the density of the 12-inch MacBook that Apple discontinued earlier this year. Because this 16-inch configuration replaces the 15-inch model, this is the first time since January 2001 that Apple has not offered a new 15-inch laptop.

And then there’s the new keyboard.

Roger Cheng of CNet interviewed Phil Schiller — these are Schiller’s words:

As you know, a number of years ago we started a new keyboard technology with this butterfly keyboard and began it with MacBook. It had some things it did really well, like creating a much more stable key platform. It felt more firm and flat under your finger — some people really like that, but other people weren’t really happy with that. We got sort of a mixed reaction. We had some quality issues we had to work on. Over the years we’ve been refining that keyboard design, and we’re now on the third generation, and a lot of people are much happier with that as we’ve advanced and advanced it.

But a few years back, we decided that while we were advancing the butterfly keyboard, we would also — specifically for our pro customer — go back and really talk to many pro customers about what they most want in a keyboard and did a bunch of research. That’s been a really impressive project, the way the engineering team has gotten into the physiology of typing and the psychology of typing — what people love.

As we started to investigate specifically what pro users most wanted, a lot of times they would say, “I want something like this Magic Keyboard, I love that keyboard.” And so the team has been working on this idea of taking that core technology and adapting it to the notebook, which is a different implementation than the desktop keyboard, and that’s what we’ve come up with [for] this new keyboard. We’re doing both in advancing the butterfly keyboard, and we’re creating this new Magic Keyboard for our Pro notebooks.

Nilay Patel:

Apple’s marketing spin on these new MacBook Pros is all about “listening to “customers,” but it’s pretty important to note that @caseyjohnston and @joannastern are the actual people who highlighted the problems with the previous keyboards over and over again in their reporting.

Marco Arment:

I’m on cloud nine. Look at this glorious keyboard! An Esc key! Inverted-T arrow keys! A millimeter of key travel! Enough spacing between the keys for our fingers to accurately orient themselves! And keystrokes will probably work, 100% of the time, for years!

Five years ago, nobody would’ve considered any of these noteworthy, and readers would’ve suspected you weren’t of sound mind if you included them in a review.

Five years ago, laptop keyboards were fine. Everyone was pretty much satisfied with the ones they had, they worked, and we never had to talk or think about them.

Today, finally, we begin heading back to that world.

There are two key words in that last sentence: “begin” and “finally”. Apple has not announced new models of the MacBook Air or 13-inch MacBook Pro, both of which still ship today with an unreliable keyboard, so this absolutely is just a first step. There’s also an open class action suit in California concerning the keyboards in Apple’s laptops from 2015 through this year, and that highlights the “finally” aspect of this improved keyboard. Having a reliable input system is basically the ground floor in computer hardware, and it’s absurd that this design was able to ship at all, let alone across three product lines for four years.

Alas, here we are: Apple has discoveryd’d the problematic butterfly keyboard in favour of a scissor switch design based on the Magic Keyboard. By all accounts I’ve read today, this is entirely the correct decision. If it feels like the Magic Keyboard I have on my desk and it’s similarly reliable, I can’t imagine a better keyboard in a laptop.1 Of course, whether these changes improve long-term reliability is something that will reveal itself after months of real-world exposure. There’s also a separate Touch ID key — like on the MacBook Air — and a physical escape key, with the unchanged (apart from in size) Touch Bar nestled in between.

There’s a lot to love about this new model: apparently, the speakers and mic are surprisingly great, and you can run two of Apple’s forthcoming Pro Display XDRs off one of this things, which is nuts. Apple doesn’t say, but I assume that last supporting two external 6K displays requires the highest-end graphics card, which is a reasonably-priced $200 configuration option.

There seem to be very few negatives to this MacBook Pro model. The still-absent SD card slot and the lack of port variety are probably its biggest knocks, but those things are relatively minor quibbles. The crappy keyboards in Apple’s laptop lineup was a primary reason I bought an iMac in January, and I’m glad I did, but this update shows that Apple is listening and will throw away stuff that doesn’t work. I just wish they’d done so sooner.


  1. And speaking of the Magic Keyboard, if that gets updated with an inverted-T arrow key layout, I’d be sorely tempted to buy a new one just for that improvement. ↩︎