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The new MacBook keyboard

Posted in Apple and Design

The new MacBook keyboard has been a talking point.

I got my first MacBook Pro with the new-style keyboard in September 2017. It was the first generation of MacBook Pro with the Touch Bar, no esc, Touch ID, the new keyboard, all USB-C ports, and the controversies that came with those things.

Let’s put aside the usefulness or otherwise of the Touch Bar, how great Touch ID is, lack of MagSafe, huge trackpad, and the need for a million dongles; I’m going to focus on the keyboard.

The biggest issue isn’t subjective

The biggest issue with the keyboard has been with the keys getting stuck.

What started out as the odd anecdotal gripe quickly became a huge issue. So much so that Apple is running a Keyboard Service Program where it will replace faulty keyboards free of charge. Not a trivial thing to do: the keyboard is built into the top case of the laptop, so it’s not just the keyboard that has to be replaced – it’s the keyboard, battery and a bunch of other components that are fixed to the top plate.

My first machine with this new-style keyboard was a 2016 13 inch MacBook Pro and I had zero issues with keys sticking in the 5 months I used it.

Following redundancy, I bought myself a new machine (2017 13 inch MacBook Pro) and I had all sorts of problems, starting pretty much immediately. Pretty galling when you’ve just handed over £2.5k.

Every now and then a key would still work but get less clicky, but whatever was lodged in there would work its way out with lots of angry key-presses. Sometimes this happened but the key-press wouldn’t register. On one occasion a key stuck down and the key-press repeated until whatever was causing it dislodged.

So I took advantage of Apple’s concession that their keyboards were flawed and had it replaced, free of charge. This wan’t without its own issues as it meant I would be without my laptop for up to a week, but I arranged it when I had some time off.

Apple’s newest line of MacBooks, released in 2018, has a third generation of the new keyboard. iFixit did a tear down of these new machines and found there was a very thin layer of silicon under the keyboard which goes some way to prevent keys sticking.

My experience of having things swapped by Apple is that you get like-for-like, but when I got my MacBook back from Apple, I wondered if they had replaced the keyboard with the newest variant with the silicone membrane. This wouldn’t be like-for-like but it might be sensible in order to stop my computer coming back again with sticking keys. I asked the Genius when I got the machine back and she double checked before confirming that the replacement doesn’t upgrade the keyboards, so I left wondering when I might be back for another inconvenient spell without my laptop.

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.

The subjective issues

When these new-look MacBooks first hit the shops, people named the model without the Touch Bar the ‘MacBook Escape’ as it still had the row of physical function keys, including the escape key.

The escape key

A lot of people make heavy use of esc, so replacing it with a virtual key was always going to be controversial. I use it enough to comment, but it hasn’t really bothered me. It’s in the same place as it always was and there’s enough extra space to the left of the key that the touch target is difficult to miss.

However, I have two issues, the first a hardware issue and the second software:

  1. The Touch Bar is embedded in the top case as part of the keyboard, but the height of the keys—and Touch Bar—is so shallow now that it’s not obvious to the touch, so I often find myself reaching up with my left hand and pressing the aluminium just above the escape ‘key’. This is solved by taking my eyes off the screen and looking at where I’m pressing. Not ideal.
  2. If the esc key is held it triggers repeatedly until it released. This is expected behaviour (e.g. holding the space bar inserts spaces until you let go) and fine with a hardware key as there is some resistance, but where they key is virtual, simply resting a finger on it will cause it to activate rapidly. This is both annoying and can feel buggy if you don’t realise what’s going on. Introducing 3D Touch (or is that Force Touch…?) would be a good way of requiring a more deliberate press. And introducing haptic (Taptic?) feedback to the Touch Bar would give you an idea of what’s going on.

Bigger keys

The bigger keys mean less space between them to orient your fingers. This makes differentiating one key from another by touch a bit trickier, but I got used to it as I still have the f and j keys to find my place on the keyboard.

The arrow keys

Aside from keys sticking (or the fear of keys sticking), the new arrow key layout is my biggest issue with the new keyboard. The up and down arrow keys are the same as they always were: half-height with a slight curve where they meet. The left and right arrow keys, however, are now full-height. They used to be half-height, which created a sort of inverted T shape. This left a bit of clear space above each key, which my fore and ring fingers used to feel for.

Even after a year and a half using these new keyboards, I find myself pressing the right shift key when I mean to press the up key, and sometimes the up arrow key when I want to press the down arrow key. Something inside me thinks that, now that the left and right arrow keys are full-height, the up and down keys should be too – I look for the top of the left and right arrow keys, find it then move my middle finger up, hitting shift rather than the up arrow key.

The shallowness of the keyboard inset and the keys themselves only makes this worse as it makes the keys more difficult to discern.

To make matters worse, using a keyboard with the older layout immediately undoes any work I’ve done to get used to the new arrow key layout.

There are positives

For all the complaints, there are many things I love about the new keyboard. Overall, I’m very pleased with the direction Apple have taken and look forward to seeing how it matures as a piece of hardware.

The clickiness is amazing and makes the old keyboards feel cheap; like typing on little sponges. The premium feel is also achieved by the amazing balance – press anywhere on a key—even in the very corner—and it clicks just as if you’d pressed it in the centre.

With the addition of Taptic feedback and 3D Touch, the Touch Bar would be a proper part of the keyboard.

Some wishful thinking:

  • Once Apple move to their own ‘A’ series processors from Intel and battery life gets better, perhaps they’ll increase the depth of the keys with the extra space they gain with a thinner battery
  • Apple see the error of their ways with the arrow keys and make the left and right arrows half-height again

I don’t think either of those things will happen—the batteries will remain the same size to allow a longer between charges, but I can dream.

If only my keyboard had the silicone membrane that the newest iteration has, I’d feel a lot better.

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