The flight of the butterfly: If you can’t take the heat, get out of the MacBook Keyboard

Apple’s divisive butterfly keyboard mechanism has been back in the news following Joanna Stern’s Wall Street Journal article. Stern contends that Apple’s decision to persevere with the new mechanism is ruining customer experience and urges Apple to ‘stop prioritizing thinness over usability’ and change the design of their keyboard mechanisms.

Stern’s article was typically cheeky. And it received a typically blasé response from Apple’s Marketing team. However, like much of the commotion online about the failure rate of these keyboards, Stern’s article focuses, in the main, on how dust and debris can enter the keyboard’s delicate butterfly mechanism and prevent it from working properly. Even Apple’s efforts to install what Lisa Gade at MobileTechReview called a ‘keyboard condom’ on its most recent MacBook Airs or its ridiculous (and insulting) keyboard cleaning guide focus our attention on dust. While eating Doritos over your keyboard is clearly not a good idea, I want to argue that this is not the only – or even the most significant – cause of these keyboard failures. Something far bigger and far more symptomatic of Apple’s lack of focus on the Mac is to blame here.

Let me give you some context. I spend most of my day writing. And not in the way those Grammarly ads that pepper YouTube tell you: when the smug guy on a sofa grins that he ‘writes all day every day’ and then proceeds to show me some emails. I’ve published around four hundred thousand words of peer-reviewed material in the last seven years and countless (so many) drafts. In addition, I transcribe archival documents – lots of them – day after day. My partner has described my typing style as ‘assertive’. I’m hard on my laptops but I care for them as the most significant investment in my job: I had a Lenovo machine between 2009 and 2012 and a MacBook Pro (non Retina) between 2012 and 2016. The keyboards on those two machines lasted without any problems.

I’ve owned the late-2016 MacBook Pro sans Touch Bar (aka the MacBook Escape) since its debut. Since then, I’ve experienced three broken key caps and a number of ‘sticky’ keys. I think, today, I’ve discovered broken key number four. Considering the failure rate of other users, I should probably count myself lucky (I’ve never had to send my MacBook away). Considering Stern’s article was based on a similarly low number of failures, however, I consider my experiences have some merit.

On every occasion a keycap has come off, it has exhibited the same damage: the plastic lugs that keep the keycap attached have broken – usually at the bottom of the key. In every case, what remained of the lugs was deformed. A helpful ‘Genius’ at the Apple Store once told me he’d never seen such damage and speculated that it might be my typing style, just ‘knocking them off’. In every case, there is no visible evidence of debris or crumbs in the mechanism. In fact, the topcase and mechanism are just fine. It’s just the keys.

All of the keys that have become damaged – until today – have come from the top row. Specifically, the top left (around ‘QWERTY’). This is precisely the area under which the MacBook Pro’s processor lives. On warm days or occasions when the system fan is spinning (which for me is very rare) and the top of the machine is warm to the touch, the top row of keys is especially ‘clicky’ – the usual sign of an impending failure. Other keys then stick. My argument is that any increase in heat from the CPU – no matter how small – runs the risk of heating the plastic nubs on the nearest keycap and then making them brittle. Heat is the enemy not dust.

Heat is the enemy not dust

The reason the ‘E’, ‘R’ and ‘T’ keys become jammed on many machines (including Stern’s) is that they are the ones closest to the CPU that don’t get adequately cooled by the fan. In the case of the MacBook Air she tested, reviewers mentioned how its little CPU was regularly spooling up its fans because it was getting so hot.

This isn’t the first time that Apple’s thermal management has come in for criticism. In 2018, Apple confirmed that it was throttling CPU performance because they run hot under load. Oh and we all remember the Mac Pro’s design painting Apple ‘into a thermal corner’ and Apple’s problems in stopping AirPower pads from combusting. In all consumer electronics, heat is an issue. Doubly so when your products are so thin, your parts so small. Clearly there aren’t enough engineers working on Macs for long enough before being poached to iPhone development to stop this happening.

Reducing the reasons for MacBook keyboard failures to crumbs is a simplification that is, believe it or not, kind on Apple. The quest for thinness has produced a situation where the processor is too close to a delicate keyboard mechanism and cannot be cooled. No amount of rubber gaskets or revised butterfly switches is going to change that. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the MacBook.

What’s the consequence for Mac owners or those needing to upgrade? I whiled away some time looking at the old MacBook Air online. Then I had a daydream about the iPad Pro. But, honestly, those of us considering our next notebook purchase will have to wait. That’s what Apple is doing in waiting to introduce its own ARM processors into its notebook line so they can be a) passively cooled and b) as close to the damn keyboard as they want. Thin and light didn’t fall foul of your sneaky lunch-at-the-desk. It hit the limits of thermal dynamics and the effects of heat on plastic.

Regrettably typed on an iPad Pro 9.7 with Smart Keyboard