When Apple introduced its new MacBook Pro last week, it didn’t just infuse it with faster processor and more RAM. It also introduced a new keyboard design, purportedly to make things quieter. But a detailed teardown completed by repair site iFixit Thursday shows a much more likely catalyst: keeping out dust and other particles, so that the keyboard won’t break.
Apple’s previous keyboard design (found on MacBooks dating back to 2015 and MacBook Pros from 2016 until this most recent version) has been prone to key failure. Debris gets under the keyboard and has no way to get out again, resulting in unresponsive keys. While Apple has previously downplayed the extent of the problem, it’s pervasive enough to have inspired three class action lawsuits, and prompted a rare acknowledgement from Cupertino last month that something is amiss.
While Apple has offered to fix any affected keyboards for free for the next several years, the new MacBook Pro appears to be its first attempt at a design-based fix. Specifically, a thin layer of silicone now sits above the keyboard’s butterfly mechanism—a protective layer that, yes, might make typing a little quieter, but definitely keeps more particles out.
“Having taken it completely apart and looked at it, I think the ‘quieter’ thing is just a red herring,” says iFixit’s Jeff Suovanen.
There’s plenty of supporting evidence, starting with the fact that the new keyboard sounds a whole lot like its predecessor. “The noise reduction, if you put it side by side with the 2017 keyboard, is pretty underwhelming,” says Suovanen. “It sounds different, but not necessarily a whole lot quieter.”
Even more compellingly, the new design looks very similar to a pair of Apple patents designed not for decibel control but to “prevent and/or alleviate contaminant ingress.” The type that, say, could neuter the keys on an otherwise functional MacBook. Moreover, Apple-focused news site MacRumors reported today that the company’s internal 2018 MacBook Pro Service Readiness Guide explicitly describes the new keyboard membrane’s purpose as “to prevent debris from entering the butterfly mechanism.” Apple did not respond to a request for comment.
Why would Apple not just acknowledge that it had attempted to solve its sticky key problem? Those lawsuits might have something to do with it. For now, the new keyboard design is limited to the MacBook Pro alone, and recent reports suggest Apple won't use the revamped keyboard to repair older models. Everyone else has to work with what they’ve got.
The good news, for those who get it, is that the new feature does seem to work as intended. During several days of testing, iFixit sprinkled blue powder on the keys, then removed the keycaps to see where it went. While not infallible—a big dose of powder and heavy typing will still knock some particulates past the membrane and onto the dome switch—the 2018 MacBook keyboard came out much better than last year’s model.
“It’s not 100 percent effective at keeping debris out, but it’s pretty good,” says Suovanen. “I definitely think it’s going to reduce their headaches going forward, and certainly consumer headaches.”
Apple also appears to have done itself a favor in terms of repairability. Previous-generation keyboards were difficult if not impossible to repair; Suovanen says Apple’s strategy was to hold the laptop at a 45 degree angle and hit it with compressed air. Failing that, an entirely new unit might be needed, since removing individual keycaps risked damaging the underlying mechanism. But iFixit found it could get them on and off on the new MacBook Pro without a hitch.
“The measurements are very, very slightly different. Just going off of feel, I would guess that they changed the dimensions very slightly, and/or maybe the composition of the material they’re using for the clips. We used to break those a lot, even being careful,” says Suovanen.
It’s still not perfect. The membranes aren’t impermeable. Pouring sand over the keyboard—don’t do that at home—caused a few keys to seize up right away in iFixit’s tests. But any more thorough solution would likely have required a total redesign of the keyboard, and of the MacBook Pro generally, rather than strategic tweaks.
Regardless of how Apple frames its new keyboard, it clearly helps keep dust out and solves a vexing problem. Hopefully the company extends that solution to future MacBooks as well—and eventually acknowledges why it exists in the first place.
Additional reporting by Lauren Goode.
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