Is Apple’s MacBook Keyboard Reliability Issue Worse Than the Company Admits?

BY Evan Selleck

Published 4 Apr 2019

2018 MacBook Pro keyboard teardown sneak peek

Apple introduced the butterfly keyboard design with the 2015 MacBook. And while the design made sense for the laptop (super thin and lightweight), that same design eventually bled over to Apple’s other laptops. Ever since then, there has been a semi-consistent proclamation that Apple’s new keyboard design is awful, prone to reliability issues, and that the company needs to revert its design to something else entirely.

And while some might enjoy the low key travel of the new butterfly keyboard design, it’s hard to ignore the call for something else. Some might say anything else at this point, as the reliability issues do not appear to be going away. And while Apple apparently tried to fix the issue with the third-generation butterfly keyboard by installing a thin membrane below the keys, that doesn’t appear to be working on a broad scale.

Now, Apple has acknowledged that some older butterfly keyboards have issues. In fact, the company has a keyboard replacement program in place right now for butterfly keyboards dating back to the 2015 model, and all the way up to the models launched in 2017. However, the third-generation 2018 butterfly keyboard is not included in the mix, but it honestly just feels like that’s a matter of time.

What’s more, it was just recently that the company not only publicly addressed the “small number” of MacBook owners who have experienced keyboard reliability issues, but actually apologized for the issue, too. And that’s for the third-generation butterfly keyboard, which is not covered by the aforementioned keyboard repair program!

However, this is what they actually said, which, unfortunately, does not end on a positive note:

“We are aware that a small number of users are having issues with their third-generation butterfly keyboard and for that we are sorry. The vast majority of Mac notebook customers are having a positive experience with the new keyboard.”

It’s that last sentence that, rightfully, has rubbed some people the wrong way. Because while Apple has its own data to look at, the argument here is pretty simple: Most people might not be taking their MacBook into an Apple Store to get it fixed or replaced, which means Apple is not seeing those numbers.

David Heinemeier Hansson published a story recently for Signal vs Noise, and articulated his frustration with the current situation. Namely, as the title of the article suggests, “The MacBook keyboard fiasco is way worse than Apple thinks”. But that’s probably not really the case, because it’s not like the majority of Apple employees don’t use a MacBook at some point or another. Apple knows (and has publicly acknowledged) that reliability issues exist for these butterfly keyboard designs.

Apple needs to admit that the issue is much broader than it previously has. “The vast majority of Mac notebook customers are having a positive experience with the new keyboard” is not necessarily lying, but it does seem to be obtuse at best. Social media is not a quiet place, and I can see on a semi-regular basis people decrying the butterfly keyboard design, regardless of the generation.

And that’s where Heinemeier Hansson comes in, offering up data to show that Apple needs to actually go beyond its own data and see the real problem for the fiasco it is:

“So here’s some anecdata for Apple. I sampled the people at Basecamp. Out of the 47 people using MacBooks at the company, a staggering 30% are dealing with keyboard issues right now!! And that’s just the people dealing with current keyboard issues. If you include all the people who used to have issues, but went through a repair or replacement process, the number would be even higher.”

And, here’s a Twitter poll with more than 7,000 respondents, showing that the real world usage of the butterfly keyboard is marred by folks who are just living with broken keyboards:

I’m using a 2016 MacBook and my keyboard is not perfect. Some keys don’t press. The “E” key is . . . finicky, to say the least, and sometimes has repeated inputs. The space bar and I don’t see eye-to-eye more often than not. And, in general, it always just feels like the keyboard is a little off, now more so than it was last year, and the year before that. I’ve sprayed it with compressed air more times than I can count, and while that seems to fix major issues for a short period of time, they always come back. They are persistent.

And here’s the reality of the situation for me, like it is for so many others who use these machines (as promoted by Heinemeier Hansson): Getting the keyboard replaced isn’t an easy fix thanks to Apple’s design decisions, which means it can take anywhere between one to five days to fix. That’s simply not an option for me, who uses his Mac every single day and can’t be without it.

So that means I’m one of the people out there who doesn’t report the issue to Apple and just lives with a slightly less-than-great butterfly keyboard.

I’ve grown accustomed to the shallow key travel of the butterfly keyboard. So much so that typing on a more “traditional” keyboard feels strange and alien (but obviously something I could get used to again with persistent usage). But that doesn’t mean I want Apple to just stick to their guns here and keep producing these types of keyboards just because. There is a problem with these keyboards, and Apple needs to admit as much. And not in the way they already have.

It’s time to change the design again. It’s been almost four years now and that’s long enough. You gave it the old college try, Apple, but the experiment failed and now it’s time to take the stage and reveal a brand new design. Make it the spectacle that you normally do, even if you’re just going back to the design you used to have. Do something to actually address the problem, not just ignore it and hope for the best.

Because this is obviously not something that’s going away on its own.