Skip to main content

Apple’s Keyboards revisited

Posted in Apple and Design

Apple announced a new MacBook Pro last week. The first of the two big features is the improved speakers, but this isn’t really a big deal for me as I use headphones pretty much exclusively. The second feature is a biggie: a new keyboard!

When I wrote about my love-hate relationship with the new-style built-in keyboards in January, I mentioned:

My replaced keyboard has been fine for a number of months, but just the other day I noticed that the backspace key wasn’t clicking properly. It quickly went back to normal with a few rapid presses, but that’s not a good sign.

This got progressively worse as they year went on, and in October I took my MacBook back for repair. Apple did this without any trouble under their Keyboard Service Program; unlike the first time, where Apple switched the keyboard out like-for-like, when I got this keyboard back it feels different. I suspect they’ve been swapping older keyboards out with the newer version with the silicone layer under the keys to minimise further issues.

Change of key mechanism

Anecdotally, I know people with the silicone layer that have still been having issues, so while it’s better, it’s definitly not a panacea. The actual cause of all those keyboard problems seems to have been the ‘butterfly’ mechanism Apple switched to. On the launch page for their new 16-inch MacBook Pro, they say:

The new Magic Keyboard features a refined scissor mechanism with 1 mm travel for a responsive, comfortable, and quiet typing experience

This sounds a lot like they’ve used (a refined version of) the same mechanism that the older keyboards and their excellent Bluetooth Magic Keyboard.

That external Magic Keyboard is worth some attention: before I wrote this, I had had a half-written post about it sitting in my drafts for a while, detailing how I thought it might be about as perfect a keyboard as I’ve used. I’ve never had any issues with keys repeating or sticking. The only issue is the lack of upside-down T arrow key layout.

Return of the inverted ‘T’ arrow key arrangement

This caused problems for me. It took a long time to get use to the new arrow key arrangement – instead of the up ↑ key, my finger would gravitate to the shift ⇧ key, just above. And the moment I used an older inverted T keyboard those months of adjusted muscle memory were undone.

I design Government systems for a living and they put usability over looking sexy. The inverted T didn’t look as nice as the newer full-height left ← and right → keys, but it was 100% more useable.

But Apple have seen the light:

the inverted-T arrow keys enable fluid navigation whether you’re flying through lines of code, navigating spreadsheets, or gaming

Is that inferring that the full-height and arrow key layout hindered fluid navigation?

Hardware escape key

A dedicated Escape key allows quick switching between modes and views

The Touch Bar escape key didn’t bother me that much aside from the implementation: holding the key causes it to repeat until you release your finger. This if fine with a hardware key were have physical resistance between you and the ‘press’, but on a touch screen like the Touch Bar it’s too easy to accidentally lay a finger on esc without realising. Going back to hardware fixes this.

Not quite perfect

John Gruber at Daring Fireball sums it up nicely:

We got it all: a return of scissor key mechanisms in lieu of butterfly switches, a return of the inverted-T arrow key arrangement, and a hardware Escape key.

The keyboard itself might have been perfected—it looks to have hit the right balance between what made the newer keyboards feel great and the practicalities that let them down so badly—but any discussion of the keyboard should also include the Touch Bar.

The Touch Bar has gone unchanged, aside from being slightly less wide to accommodate the hardware escape key.

Apple have moved away from 3D Touch on iPhones but it’s still a big part of Apple Watch so isn’t something they’re abandoning altogether, and I’m hoping it makes it into the Touch Bar. This would add much-needed resistance, meaning fewer accidental Touch Bar presses.

Finally, throw in a Taptic Engine to provide the physical feedback you get from pressing a physical key so that you know if you have made an accidental press.

And who knows, with that Apple might even have the basis for a usable software keyboard!

Accessibility in your inbox

I send an accessibility-centric newsletter on the last day of every month, containing:

  • A roundup of the articles I’ve posted
  • A hot pick from my archives
  • Some interesting posts from around the web

I don’t collect any data on when, where or if people open the emails I send them. Your email will only be used to send you newsletters and will never be passed on. You can unsubscribe at any time.

More posts

Here are a couple more posts for you to enjoy. If that’s not enough, have a look at the full list.

  1. Images as the first thing in a button or link

    If the text of an interactive element like a button or link is preceded with an accessible image, we’ve probably got an accessibility problem.

  2. Alt text for CSS generated content

    There’s an interesting feature in Safari 17.4 that allows content added with CSS to have ‘alt’ text. I’m not sure how I feel about this.