The lawsuit over the terrible MacBook Pro butterfly keyboards has proceeded to a new stage after overcoming a motion to dismiss, bringing the story of Apple’s awful keyboards back into the news. Today, we can see the likely resolution: Apple is floating rumors about a return to the older scissor-style switches, which won’t have the same massive reliability problems. What makes the keyboards so terrible, and why will the rumored fix solve those problems?
Why Apple’s Butterfly Keyboards Are Terrible
There are several attributes that make Apple’s butterfly-style keyboards unpleasant to use. Keep in mind that these are community speculation: Apple has not acknowledged the widespread failure of these keyboards directly or stated why they fail so frequently.
- Low key travel: the keys barely move when you press them, which is the opposite of the tactile feedback you want on a keyboard. Aside from the poor user experience, this low travel ensures that any particulates, which find their way into the key mechanism, cannot find their way back out.
- Delicate mechanism: the key mechanism itself is far more delicate than a standard scissor key or membrane-style key. Thanks to the low key travel, there’s little room for excess or error. Because we use keyboards percussively, delicate switches make for fragile keyboards.
- Poor dust management: on many keyboards, including Apple’s butterfly keyboards, the keys work like a pump, actively sucking air and any nearby dust into the key mechanism. Normally, this wouldn’t be a huge issue, but thanks to the low travel and delicate key system, even a small, moderately sticky crumb can jam a key permanently. While the silicone condom wrapping each key stem on newer models helps, it does not solve the problem entirely.
All of this leads to a problem modern MacBook owners have become familiar with: stuck keys. It frequently presents as a single keypress causing either no input or too much input. For example, pressing the E key results in no input, or it types three Es at once.
This jamming can happen on any key, but it occurs most frequently on the 1p-sized keys used for letters, numerals, and punctuation. The largest keys are actually the most durable, since they have the greatest distance between the key edge and the actuating mechanism, allowing dust to enter the key without jamming the switches unduly.
How Can Scissor Switches Fix Apple’s Keyboards?
We don’t know much about Apple’s planned design for their scissor-style keys. However, we can look at Apple’s previous keyboards. The keyboards available on pre-2016 MacBook Pros were reliable and functional, with scissor-style switches likely built with commodity parts. Simply returning to that design with zero changes would be a major upgrade over Apple’s current laptop keyboards. But why?
Mostly, it comes down to their physical design differences. Scissor-style keys require more key travel to function. That’s a big plus for tactile feedback, but it also could help reliability. Greater key travel makes it easier for particles to leave the key if they get trapped. Extended travel also permits a higher key actuation point, meaning you can perform a keystroke without bottoming out the switch. Even if some small piece of food getslodged in the mechanism, a scissor-style key would likely still function, since it doesn’t need to depress to the absolute bottom of its travel to function.
Scissor switches are also far less delicate, standing up to far worse treatment. The more robust scissor-style mechanism makes it easier to crush or eject particles blocking key travel. Plus, users like them. All those pluses have made scissor switches the industry-standard choice for most laptop manufacturers. They’re thin, users don’t mind them, and they work reliably.
The “downside” of scissor switches is their greater height. It’s that requirement that convinced Apple to shift towards their own design. But given the choice between a thin keyboard and a reliable keyboard, most users would prefer the latter.
We can speculate on why Apple created their own proprietary butterfly mechanism, but the results of their experiment have been overwhelmingly negative. If Apple has a single competent hardware designer, they’ll seriously consider a switch away from their ill-fated butterfly keyboards. With the right design, Apple can return to scissor-style switches, and their laptop users will rejoice.