When Apple announced the latest refresh to its MacBook Pro, it declared that the keyboard design had been through yet another revision. This is the fourth respin on Apple’s original failed design. To date, all of the short-travel keyboard revisions Apple has used have suffered from severe problems, including jamming if a single grain of sand becomes lodged under a key. Because Apple designed its keyboards to be essentially irreplaceable, it can cost $600 – $700 to fix this issue — or at least it did, before Apple instituted a repair program. (It’s been tweaking that program as well, expanding it to cover more users.)
Last year’s model supposedly reduced (but did not eliminate) this flaw, and so it’s back to the drawing board for some new materials changes. iFixit does note some changes to the design; Apple has altered the transparent material that covers its actual switch. It may have also changed the materials in its metal domes.
iFixit stops well short of declaring that Apple has fixed or solved anything. In fact, there are at least some folks arguing that we may have been deceived about the cause of this problem in the first place.
According to a recent teardown posted on reddit by a self-described Apple Authorized Service Provider (AASP) Technician, it’s not even completely clear that dust has ever been the problem here. Dust is Apple’s explanation. Dust is the explanation we’ve all run with. He states: “My suspicion is that the metal dome experiences metal fatigue and slowly begin to lose connection, or that that little U-shaped cutout in the centre of the dome weakens and starts to easily bounce when pressed, making contact 2+ times.” (This would explain the loss connections as well as the multi-presses.)
The significance of this? Unclear. Perhaps dust still plays a role in the damage process that causes these keyboards to fail early. But as iFixit writes: “It’s entirely possible that several of these factors are contributing to switch failures, which could explain why Apple is having such a hard time untangling the problem. Fourth time’s the charm?”
If Apple doesn’t know why its keyboard design is failing this way, it would explain a lot. It would explain why the company has allowed journalists to make claims about how each successive generation of repairs should resolve issues but has avoided those claims itself. It would explain why the company has made small reliability changes to the key designs (maybe) but not taken any steps to prevent further dust or dirt intrusion, as near as anyone can tell.
But if the issue were to turn out not to be dust related, it would mean Apple has been lying for years to cover the fact that it doesn’t know what its actual problem is. That also strains belief. It is possible, however, that these keyboards fail in more than one type of way, or that they have multiple interlocking issues. It could be that if dust or debris maneuvers inside the keys in certain ways, it can then be destructive. The exact details are unclear.
What is clear? This laptop scores a 1/10 on iFixit’s repairability meter, and given Apple’s four-year failure to fix these problems and its refusal to speak straight about the issue, I do not recommend buying an Apple laptop right now. I do not recommend expensive machines with defective-by-design keyboards whose current defect status is unknown, particularly not when dealing with a company with a now-extensive track record of misleading customers by omission. I’d wait 12-18 months, through multiple future hardware refreshes, to see if any of these systems report issues and if Apple keeps changing the design.
The bottom line is that Apple has not disclosed enough information about why its keyboards have been failing for four years. It has not been transparent about its efforts to stop this from happening. It has not cared enough to return to proven-good keyboard design. It has not cared enough to replace known-bad keyboards, like the one on the 13-inch MacBook Pro w/o Touch Bar, with an improved design — and based on what we’ve heard about failure rates on these keyboards, the third-generation design is supposed to have at least reduced the failure rate. The only explanation for this kind of behavior that doesn’t reek of bad customer service is that Apple hasn’t bothered adopting the new keyboards on old systems because they didn’t actually fix anything, either — and that’s not a good conclusion.
I don’t recommend hardware when the company manufacturing it behaves in this fashion. Apple fans would be best served by a better-built Windows PC (possibly configured as a Hackintosh) than by rolling the dice on a machine with known potential defects and no communication from the company on whether they’ve been resolved. Obviously, there will be people — probably the vast majority of people — who buy a Mac laptop and never have a problem with it. That’s a good thing. I’m still not going to accept that people who drop four figures on a supposedly premium laptop should be planning their first repair visit in the back of their minds when they walk out of the store.
Our “Third-Generation MacBook Keyboards Are Still failing” article linked up below contains a chronological account of just the various consumer-hostile moves Apple has made against its customers in recent years, if anyone is wondering why I’m this unhappy over a keyboard problem.
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