Does Apple Need to Fix the MacBook Keyboard?

BY Evan Selleck

Published 18 Oct 2017


Back in 2015, Apple introduced the 12-inch MacBook. A super-thin ultraportable that also introduced a universe where Apple only includes two ports on a computer: One USB Type-C and one 3.5mm headphone jack.

And while the wireless future was one step closer for Apple with the MacBook lineup, and heralded a future where the MacBook Pro lineup shared these similarities, it also welcomed one other big change to Apple’s computers: The butterfly switch in its keyboards. At the time, the new keyboards were not necessarily warmly welcomed. A lot of people talked about how the keys didn’t travel at all, and how that was not good for a keyboard.

The new keyboard was polarizing for a lot of people.

I didn’t jump on board with the new MacBook immediately. I had a perfectly good MacBook Air that I just didn’t want to get rid of — even if I knew the screen on that thing just wasn’t very good. Still, I held onto it, which meant I held onto the older keyboard style. When I did eventually switch over, it was with the new MacBook Pro, which included the second-generation version of the butterfly keyboard. Basically, I’m pretty new to this whole new keyboard thing, but so far I haven’t really run into a problem.

But, I’m starting to see that I might be the minority here. A friend of mine recently tried out a new MacBook Pro, because he was ready for an upgrade, but he flat-out refused to pick one up. According to him, “the keyboard is straight awful” and he went over to a Microsoft Store and picked up something from them.

And then, as if dealt by fate itself, Casey Johnston –an editor for The Wirecutter— put together a piece effectively eviscerating Apple’s butterfly keyboard over at The Outline. The title of the article is “The new MacBook keyboard is ruining my life,” which is definitely an eye-catching title. And then there’s a huge “BAD TECH” right there front-and-center. Johnston makes a case against the butterfly keyboard in general, and, as you can tell from the title, she’s not a fan.

Johnston has her reasons, of course. It’s actually really small! A piece of dust is apparently enough to completely disable the keyboard. Not because all of it stops working, but because that’s just how Apple engineered it. A piece of dust takes out the space bar, like it did with Johnston’s, and then Apple has to run some diagnostics and, if they deem it needs to be repaired, the whole top case has to be replaced.

It’s certainly not ideal:

“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?”

MacBook keyboard live

I don’t live in a fantasy land where I think I live in a dust-free zone (the state where I call home basically makes that impossible), and after reading that article –and checking up on forums– I basically feel relieved that I’ve been lucky enough not to have any issues. I can also admit that switching to the butterfly keyboard wasn’t the easiest thing to do. It took a lot of getting used to. And honestly, the only reason I stuck with it probably comes down to the fact that I needed a new computer, and I’m not switching to Windows.

So I didn’t really have a choice.

Johnston’s takeaway seems to be that 1) Apple should switch away from the butterfly keyboard, and/or 2) Make the repair process a lot better, so one key malfunctioning doesn’t mean that the whole keyboard has to be replaced. Probably both. I’ve seen people on Twitter saying the same things. That, after this article picked up steam, maybe Apple pays attention and changes things.

“Perhaps it’s true that less dirt gets under butterfly switched-keys. But therein lies the problem — when dirt does get in, it cannot get out. A piece of dust is capable of rendering a butterfly switch nonfunctional. The key won’t click, and it won’t register whatever command it’s supposed to be typing. It’s effectively dead until someone can either shake loose the debris trapped under it or blow at the upside-down keyboard Nintendo-cartridge style. Meanwhile, Apple quietly put up a page with instructions expressly to try and help people with dead butterfly switch keys.”

I was a little surprised to see so much hate for the butterfly keyboard. I can understand where it comes from, but I’ve grown accustomed to it. I can type just as quickly as I used to on more “traditional” keyboards, and with just as much accuracy. And, in fact, going back to a keyboard with more travel, like a keyboard on a Surface device, feels awkward. Yeah, I could get used to those keyboards again, but I don’t really want to (because Windows).

The second-generation butterfly keyboard does have a bit more travel than the first iteration of the keyboard, so maybe Apple is paying attention. Maybe Apple will continue to tweak its keyboard design, making travel a higher priority along the way, but I don’t think we’re going to see a return to how things were. Apple likes thin devices too much, and they see the butterfly keyboard as the best way to make its MacBook lineup thin.

(Editor’s Note: So, as it happens, YouTube musical artist Jonathan Mann has posted a video about the MacBook keyboard. It’s pretty straightforward, so check it out below.)

But I guess the question is whether or not Apple should “fix” the butterfly keyboard. And, if so, what should the move be? What do you think Apple should do with the keyboard in its MacBook lineup? Keep what it has, with slight improvements over the years, or go back to a more traditional design? Have you had any issues with your keyboard, if you’re using a MacBook or new MacBook Pro?