Matthew Fitzsimmons

Much Ado About Keyboards

tl;dr: The late 2019 16“ Macbook Pro keyboard is a winner.

2016–2018 MacBook Pro Keyboard Reliability Issues

Shortly after the 2016 MacBook Pro was released (the first models with the new keyboard style and Touch Bar), my employer purchased one for me to replace my aging 2011 MacBook Pro. In the approximately two years I had the 13" 2016 model, the “top case” was replaced twice due to keyboard issues.

In 2018, Apple redesigned the keyboard a little bit, and my employer upgraded me to a 2018 15" MacBook Pro. This keyboard also had reliability issues. It was sent in for a top case replacement, but while it was in they told me that it also needed a new logic board to fix the keyboard issues. This seemed very weird to me, but I never had another keyboard problem after they did the repair, so maybe there was something to it.

These experiences are by no means unique to me. Apple is offering a repair extension program for these keyboards, even if they are out of warranty. They claim to have the problems figured out, and given my experience with the 2018 model post-repair, maybe they did get it figured out.

But there's more to the story.

Personally, as soon as I switched from the 2011 model to the 2016 model, I immediately liked the more solid feel of the new keyboard. Many people, however, don't like the extremely firm feel and very low travel.

The old style used through 2015 was also easier to repair. It was very easy to swap out a keyboard key and the associated scissor mechanism. With the new butterfly mechanism keyboards, this became nearly impossible. This is why every time someone had an issue with a keyboard key, Apple would replace the top case instead of the key that was the problem. Even if the new keyboards were just as reliable as the old ones, any small repair became a major repair. Out of warranty, this repair would be very costly.

They did make some improvements at some point, because when I initially took my 2018 model in for repair, they tried replacing some keys in the store first before sending it in. I'm not sure if that was only because of changes in the 2018 model, or if Apple came up with new procedures that they trained the technicians with, making it easier to perform key replacements.

Now some people have accused Apple of just changing the keyboard on a whim for aesthetic reasons. However, they were actually trying to improve things about the keyboard, and I think they mostly succeeded; but the end result was not something preferred by most of their target users.

Enter the Late 2019 16“ MacBook Pro

Apple made a big deal about how they got lots of feedback from their customers while they were working on this keyboard. They returned to a scissor mechanism, but they didn't just return to the design they scrapped in 2015. Instead, they took a different approach to the improvements they were trying to make with the butterfly keyboard (like reducing key wobble and sponginess). This also allowed them to return to what is supposed to be a more easily repairable mechanism that shouldn't require a complete top case just for minor fixes.

Ever since I started using the 2016+ laptops, the previous models have felt spongy to me, and I haven't really liked them. With this in mind, I was a little concerned that there would be a warm up period with the 2019 model where I would have to get used to the increased sponginess again.

I was wrong.

As soon as I started using the 2019 16" MacBook Pro, I immediately felt the new keyboard was a dramatic improvement over the butterfly keyboards. There is a little more travel, and a little bit of a softer feel, but it does not feel at all “spongy.” The keys are solid and stable. This keyboard is a joy to type on, and is a winner in all respects. After typing on it for a few minutes, the butterfly keyboard that I previously loved felt cheap by comparison.

There are a couple of other improvements on the 2019 model as well:

The Escape Key Makes a Triumphant Return

As I mentioned in [my article about the Touch Bar], the 2016+ models had no physical escape key. The physical escape key has made a return in the 2019 model. However, I got so used to using the Caps Lock key as escape, the new physical escape key feels just like too much of a reach. However, for a lot of developers, this will be a welcome addition. I've actually set up the new escape key to be Caps Lock, so at least it gives me a Caps Lock key, which I haven't had since I repurposed it.

The Arrow Keys are Fixed

There was one change with the 2016 MacBook Pro that I initially hated. I got used to it, though, so I'd completely forgotten about how much it bothered me until it was fixed in the 2019 models. The arrow keys prior to the 2016 models were in an inverted T shape, and with the 2016 model they switched to having full height left and right arrow keys next to the half-height up and down keys. At first, this seems like it might be a welcome change, because the keys are larger, and therefore a larger target to hit.

However, the inverted T shape gives a big advantage that I didn't realize I needed until I lost it: the gaps above the left and right arrow keys make it easy to find them without looking. Without those gaps, it became more difficult to find the arrow keys by touch.

Summary

All these changes add up to a keyboard that is not only functionally superior to the 2016–2018 models, but also to the 2015 and prior models. The return to the scissor keyboard mechanism will hopefully also prove to make this keyboard more reliable and easier to repair.