The New MacBook Pro Keyboard is a Throwback in the Best Way

The New MacBook Pro Keyboard is a Throwback in the Best Way

Your long butterfly keyboard nightmare is over. The new Magic Keyboard in the 16-inch MacBook Pro has an almost identical look and feel to much older Apple devices—so close, in fact, that you can swap in old Magic Keyboard keycaps. It feels like a do-over, a throwback, almost an apology.

Customers, press, and those of us who care about device longevity have scored a win. These new keys, which are essentially the old keys, have deeper travel, softer sound, and a more robust design. Replacing a broken switch mechanism still involves disassembling the whole device, and will likely be painful, but, still: this is a practical move, and one we could not have expected until recently.

Apple’s not exactly surrendering, though. Their four-year keyboard hostage negotiation with MacBook buyers seems to have paid off handsomely. Early reviews are full of Stockholm Syndrome swoon, with high praise for keys that don’t feel or sound bad. Meanwhile, the company has only barely admitted to “some quality issues.” Don’t get us wrong; adding function at the expense of negligible size and weight increases is a step in the right direction. But we have to wonder if a similar outcry could make Apple reconsider making other parts of their esteemed laptop more simple and repairable.

When we lost the Magic

Scissor keyboard mechanism on the 2015 MacBook Pro
A pre-Butterfly-era 2015 MacBook with its keycap removed, and scissor-style switch exposed.

Before there were butterflies, there was Magic. Before there was a “Magic” keyboard, actually, Apple simply called their own take on a scissor-switch input device the Apple Wireless Keyboard. It evolved into a Magic Keyboard in October 2015. By Schiller’s own admission, this keyboard was a fan favorite for years, but was Apple satisfied? Of course not.

The scissor key mechanism on the Magic Keyboard
Scissor key mechanism on a desktop (wireless) Magic Keyboard.

Apple’s patent for “Low-Travel Key Mechanisms Using Butterfly Hinges” states that “it is often desirable to reduce the size of electronic devices,” but keyboards “may occupy relatively large portions of the available interior space.” In other words, all that comfortable key travel takes up vertical room that would be better used as … nothing.

The butterfly key switch on the 2015 MacBook
The butterfly key switch on the 2015 Retina MacBook.

Butterfly keys with 0.7 mm travel first showed up in the Retina MacBook of March 2015. We had some reservations about the plastic hinge fatiguing, but were cautiously optimistic that fewer moving parts meant fewer breakdowns.

October 2016 brought the 13-inch MacBook Pro. In our teardown (of the model that still had function keys), we noted that the second version of butterfly keys had a dome switch that “appears to be heftier and better mated to the keycap” than the MacBook. The Retina MacBook of June 2017 was much the same, but this time spotted a switch with “a new, slightly thinner frame.”

Enter the butterfly

People who used these MacBooks instead of taking them apart often complained that typing on them was loud and felt crunchy. An editor I worked with at the time compared it to typing on a pizza box. In October 2017, Casey Johnston wrote about needing her keyboard fixed three times in one year. Apple’s “fix” was to take her MacBook for days at a time and return it with a new keyboard. Johnston’s issue was the spacebar, which almost nobody, not even Apple’s own techs, could remove without breaking.

Apple made their replacement policy official in June 2018, with a four-year extension on keyboard warranties. We detailed how and why they had engineered their own downfall. “The basic flaw,” wrote Kyle Wiens, “is that these ultra-thin keys are easily paralyzed by particulate matter. Dust can block the keycap from pressing the switch, or disable the return mechanism.” We also detailed the unfixable issue in a video.

People noticed. A class-action lawsuit filed in May 2018 claimed that Apple was aware of the problems right after the first butterfly-equipped MacBook, but continued to sell and tout the design. Helping with this argument was a patent for an ingress-protecting membrane for key switches, filed in Sept. 2016 but only made public in March 2018. The membranes showed up in the MacBook Pro 13-inch Touch Bar from 2018, which also had an easier-to-remove spacebar that seemed like anything but a coincidence.

We tore down the keyboard itself and tested its ingress protection. The membranes helped, but they were not foolproof. Particles can get in through the cut-outs that accomodate the butterfly hinges and seize the keys.

Meanwhile, Apple, whether due to brand image or legal liability, maintained publicly that the membranes were a fix for noise issues, not particle ingress, despite internal service documents saying the exact opposite.

It was a cover-up, and we said as much.

2018 MacBook Pro keyboard membrane
2018 MacBook Pro butterfly keyboard and its noise-dampening-but-actually-ingress-protecting membrane.

The 13-inch MacBook Air of November 2018 had the same third-attempt switches and membrane. By March 2019, the issues were piling up. A new MacBook Pro in May 2019 had a “change to a material in the keyboard mechanism,” Apple told Wall Street Journal columnist Joanna Stern. We went deep into these keys in our teardown, discovering a new silicone-like plastic over the dome switch, and that the switches themselves had new metals, new heat treatments, or maybe both.

The butterfly keyboard switch in the 2019 MacBook Pro
The butterfly keyboard switch in the 2019 MacBook Pro, with new (but hard to see) materials.

Suffice to say, none of these changes fixed the issue. On some of the most expensive consumer laptops available, the keys still didn’t feel great, broke more often than on cheap laptops, and were a costly, time-consuming repair, whether for Apple or the out-of-warranty customer. By July 2019, a couple months after their latest model, Apple was reportedly ready to give up on butterflies.

What’s different about these Magic scissors

New scissor mechanism on the 2019 16" MacBook Pro
New scissor mechanism on the 2019 16″ MacBook Pro.

The new Magic Keyboard in the 16-inch MacBook Pro uses a scissor switch that looks almost identical to the switches in the desktop Magic Keyboard, and MacBooks sold before the butterfly blunder. The switch is two plastic pieces, crossed, with a pivot in the middle to control key movement. It’s more robust than butterfly switches, and there’s more space to tolerate debris within its movements. This is backed up by the lack of a membrane around the keys, and the lack of an extended warranty (so far) on this keyboard. Apple seems confident about durability (or noise levels, perhaps).

Compared to the butterfly keyboards, the new keyboards have about 0.5 mm more travel when you press them. The keycaps are about 0.2 mm thicker. The tiny clips that attach the keycaps to the scissor switches seem reinforced, so that there’s a lower chance of breaking them and ruining the keycap when you pull it off for cleaning or repair. Now you have a way better chance of getting the cap off and back on intact.

You’ll be able to see more of the keyboard when we post our full teardown of 16-inch MacBook Pro on Monday.

We could have more nice things like this, if we demanded them

Side by side comparison of 2015 15" MacBook Pro, left, with 2019 16" MacBook Pro, right.
Side by side comparison of 2015 15″ MacBook Pro, left, with 2019 16″ MacBook Pro, right.

After that four-year journey through the dusty badlands, we’ve arrived at a MacBook Pro that has a functioning keyboard, and isn’t functionally much thicker or heavier than those that didn’t. You can tell the difference if you compare them side-by-side, carefully; otherwise, it feels like a sleek, slim MacBook. We’re certain Apple was loath to give up on something Designed by Apple in California, but they heard the outcry of customers and came to a sensible solution: using a technology that worked and was (moderately) repairable.

Imagine if we could push Apple to make other parts of their acclaimed device easier to repair on a part-by-part basis. Consider how they might respond if hard-to-replace ports and batteries, or soldered-on memory and storage sparked people’s ire.

It’s a bittersweet moment to see that we’ve ended up here, right where we started, but it’s possible to see a different path forward.