So Let's Talk About The New MacBook Pro Keyboard

Last week, Apple announced an updated MacBook Pro, packing in fresh processors that were announced just three months ago, and tweaking the keyboard. A new keyboard! Let’s talk about that.

I’ve spent the last day with that new keyboard — after nearly two years with the old one — and I noticed the difference immediately. But I’m not sure if I would say it’s an improvement. Nor would I say it’s worse. For now, it’s just, well, different.

Which could be a good thing, because up until now the keyboard on the MacBook Pro has been a major source of ire. The keys themselves have very short “travel”. That’s the distance it takes a key to be fully depressed and “bottom out”. Most laptop keys have around 1.5 to 2mm of travel. The MacBook Pro has under 1mm.

That means it’s more prone to obstruction by things such as crumbs from a bag of chips. When a crumb gets stuck under the key it can’t be fully depressed. It becomes quite firm, and annoying to use, if it’s usable at all.

It’s so annoying that over 32,000 people have demanded a recall on Change.org, at least one class action lawsuit has been filed, and Apple quietly launched a repair program for the keyboards.

We had a sense that relief might be on the way when in March The Sun reported that Apple had patented three possible solutions to the problem involving a membrane over the key.

Apple declined to say whether the technology in those patents was used in the new keyboard, but it seems at least possible. In a teardown last week, the gadget surgeons at iFixit discovered that the key switches — the actual key mechanism — on the new MacBook Pro are now covered by a silicon membrane. (Please note: If you try to remove the keys on your MacBook Pro, you’ll probably bust it, so please don’t try.)

That membrane should, theoretically, keep crumbs and other detritus out, thus potentially ameliorating one of the biggest problems arising from the keyboard’s shallow travel distance.

I ate a bag of chips over the keyboard, and lo, none of the keys got stuck. But it was only one bag. It’ll take a few more snack breaks to see if Apple really resolved the issue.

But one change that was immediately noticeable to a nerd like me was the sound and feel of the membrane keyboard. It’s more muffled sounding.

In the video at the top of this post, I tried to illustrate differences in how the two keyboards sound — and while the microphone doesn’t quite capture the totality of the difference (you aren’t actually feeling the keyboards after all), you can definitely hear it if you put on headphones.

And when you can feel it, the difference is quite pronounced. The new keyboard is missing that snap I’ve come to associate with the MacBook Pro. When I’m typing quickly with my old model, the keys will bottom out loudly, sending a jolting sensation up the my fingertips.

The new keyboard feels softer when the key strikes bottom out. It’s gentle. I don’t know if I hate it — it’s still snappier feeling then a traditional membrane keyboard. But I definitely find myself missing the harder snap of the original 2016 MacBook Pro keyboard.

But it’s important to remember that I’ve only had a few hours with the 2018 MacBook Pro. My feelings on the keyboard could change after a few days.

And of course, the keyboard is only one piece of the equation. Apple claims that the new MacBooks are faster with better battery life, and that might be enough to convince you to upgrade alone. Stay tuned.

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