- Many of Apple’s recent laptop models have a keyboard that many people say can be paralysed by even a spec of dust.
- Apple was forced to offer free repairs to people who have had issues.
- Apple released new laptop models with a “third-generation keyboard” this week that was designed to be quieter.
- We still don’t know if Apple fixed the reliability issue.
- Apple won’t say if the new models are covered under the free repair program.
Apple released new high-end laptops earlier this week.
The new MacBook Pro models got faster chips, improved displays, and the option to pack more storage space and RAM.
But there’s still one big question: Did Apple fix the MacBook Pro keyboard that’s spurred thousands of complaints, a mea culpa repair program, and several class action suits?
We don’t know.
Apple did make changes to the keyboard, but described them in only 10 words:
“Additional updates include … an improved third-generation keyboard for quieter typing.”
A tough choice
This makes buying a new MacBook Pro a more difficult choice for consumers. The 2016 and 2017 models suffered from a pretty bad flaw: dirt or dust could get stuck inside the keyboard’s “butterfly” mechanisms and make them unreliable and “sticky.”
As Kyle Weins, founder of independent repair guide iFixit,wrote:
“The basic flaw is that these ultra-thin keys are easily paralysed by particulate matter. Dust can block the keycap from pressing the switch, or disable the return mechanism. ”
It’s a real problem!
Earlier this month, Apple acknowledged the problem by extending free service for the issue to pretty much all MacBooks with the “butterfly” keyboard for four years.
Here are the symptoms, according to Apple:
- Letters or characters repeat unexpectedly
- Letters or characters do not appear
- Key(s) feel “sticky” or do not respond in a consistent manner
Those are pretty annoying problems! I personally have experienced the “sticky key” problem on my personal MacBook Pro, and while it’s not a deal-breaker for me, it’s still infuriating.
The new keyboard still uses a butterfly mechanism, and Apple representatives have said that the new “third-generation keyboard” wasn’t “designed to solve those issues,” according to journalists who got hands-on time with the new laptops before the announcement. Apple says the sticky key problem only affects a “small” number of laptops.
But it’s entirely possible that Apple quietly fixed or improved the problem with the new design. It has engineers working on patents to prevent dust or crumbs for improving keyboard reliability. And when iFixit bought one of the new laptops and took it apart, it found a change to the design that includes a plastic film that protects dust or crumbs from getting in the key.
This might fix the issue. Or it might not. We probably won’t know for sure for a while, or until enough laptops go out into the wild to assemble anecdotal data.
It would be in Apple’s financial interest to improve the keyboard – it costs Apple money when it has to fix one of these keyboards under warranty because it has to replace the glued-in battery, trackpad, and speakers at the same time, according to iFixit.
But still, we don’t ultimately know if the new keyboard has fixed the “sticky keys.” Apple’s not saying – it didn’t return a request for comment about whether the new MacBook Pro models are covered under the service program.
All Apple laptops have a year-long warranty, so it will be a year before Apple has to make a decision on the service program, and it can probably rely on repair data to guide it.
Why Apple can’t say anything
Even if Apple did end up improving the keyboards to address the “sticky” issue, there are lots of reasons why it might not tell people, speculates plugged-in blogger John Gruber.
He writes that it’s not in Apple’s best marking interest to say that keyboards it’s still selling have issues. (The low-end MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar didn’t get an update this week.)
But a bigger issue is that admitting a mistake might give the lawyers filing class-action lawsuits over the keyboard more ammunition.
“Marketing-wise, I don’t think they would admit to a reliability problem in the existing butterfly keyboards (especially since they’re still selling second-generation keyboards in all non-Touch Bar models), and legal-wise (given the fact that they’re facing multiple lawsuits regarding keyboard reliability) I don’t think they should admit to it. So whether they have attempted to address reliability problems along with the noise or not, I think they’d say the exact same thing today: only that they have made the keyboards quieter. I have no inside dope on this (yet?), but to me the reason for optimism is that they’re calling these keyboards “third-generation”, not just a quieter version of the second-generation butterfly-switch keyboards.”
But while silence may be a good move for Apple, it punishes customers who want to buy a new MacBook Pro. These aren’t inexpensive machines – the 13-inch version starts at $US1,799 and the 15-inch model costs anywhere between $US2,399 and $US6,669 – and for most people who buy them, they’re a major purchase that only happens once every handful of years.
So if you’re thinking about buying a MacBook Pro right now, or you need one, you’re faced with a scary possibility: If Apple has not improved the overall reliability of the keyboard, that in a year, you may have a keyboard that doesn’t type certain letters, and getting it repaired could cost a lot of money.
It’s a question consumers shouldn’t have before they plunk down $US2,000 on a new laptop, and it’s a question that Apple should be able to answer.
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