Who killed the butterfly keyboard?

Jony Ive, at the Genius Bar, with a spec of dust?

Apple shipped a super slim new keyboard on the ultra-portable 2015 MacBook, and later introduced it across their laptop line. The redesigned physical mechanism underneath each key allowed for a thinner design and improved key stability while typing. Another triumph for the tech world's best designers and engineers.

Except not.

The butterfly keyboard had reliability problems from the beginning, prompting Apple to set up a dedicated replacement policy. The new mechanism was uniquely sensitive to dust, failing to recognize certain keystrokes at times, or generating double keystrokes at others (eg, see Casey Johnston's eviscerating review and Joanna Stern's column written verbatim on a malfunctioning keyboard). Without publicly admitting failure, Apple repeatedly refined the mechanism in hopes of solving the issues (see iFixit's writeups from 2019 and 2020).

I never had reliability problems with my 2017 MacBook Pro keyboard, but the ultra-low travel, ultra-stable typing mechanism constantly aggravated my wrists. “Key stability” means that only vertical force will cause the key to depress. For instance, if you apply force at an angle 30 deg away from normal, then you are forced to type ~15% harder than you would have to type on the non-butterfly keyboard (ie, F cos θ). “Stable keyboard” sounds like a nice phrase, but the poor ergonomics are inescapable.

This is lesson that Apple has yet to learn. Even now after sunsetting the butterfly mechanism, the replacement remains heavily influenced by it. Yes, the key travel is increased, but the keys remain as rigidly stable as the butterfly's. I typed on the new keyboard in person at the New Haven Apple Store when it was introduced on the new 16 inch MacBook Pro last year...it still takes too much force to type.

The only good solution for serious typists is to use an external keyboard. I have become a devotee of split ergonomic keyboards like the Microsoft Sculpt or the Logitech Ergo. Either that or dig out your beautiful first-generation MacBook Pro with the to-die-for silver keyboard ...


Posted by Abraham