Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Concerns Linger About MacBook Pro Keyboards

Casey Johnston, the Outline:

[…] 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.”

It’s pretty wild that the Apple Store employee would admit to anyone that this was a “big problem”, given how often Apple has emphasized that it was a small percentage of users and that the silicone membrane in the 2018 models is just for quieter typing — though, in service documentation, they copped to its debris-fighting intention.

This is my favourite quoted response from that MacRumors thread:

“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?!?”

The nature of online reviews and Mac enthusiast forum users, in general, tends to draw out negative experiences in a sort of shared commiseration experience. There aren’t loads of people who will chime in with their flawless keyboard experience. But, even if a smaller number of 2018 MacBook Pro owners are finding their computers susceptible to dust-induced keyboard failures compared to 2016 or 2017 model year users, these problems are still unique to the ultra low profile “butterfly” mechanism used in these models and are not present in previous generations of keyboards. This a serious regression of one of its single most critical components. These are not good keyboards.

Johnston’s thoughts on the current Apple notebook lineup echo my own:

[…] 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.

The MacBook today fills the same slot as the MacBook Air of 2008, and vice-versa. Neither represents a massive upgrade for me over my mid-2012 MacBook Air for my changed workflow. The MacBook Pro has a worrisome keyboard, and it’s extremely expensive: a base 15-inch PowerBook in 2004 cost $2,649 in Canada, the 2007 15-inch MacBook Pro started at $2,199, and the Retina 15-inch MacBook Pro started at $2,449 in 2015. But the new 15-inchers start at $3,199. That’s a big leap; Apple’s 15-inch portables haven’t been that expensive since the early 2000s.

More than anything I’m confused by the current Mac lineup. It feels all out of sorts — almost as if each model were handled by a separate team with its own shipping deadline and requirements. There isn’t a clear rubric. I don’t think the lineup needs to go back to the Jobs quadrant, but it ought to be easier to buy a computer than the current lineup permits.