- March, 2015: Apple introduces butterfly keys in the 2015 MacBook
- October, 2016: Apple introduces butterfly 2.0 in the Late 2016 MacBook Pro. We note in our teardown, “The keycaps are a little taller at the edges, making keys easier to find with your fingers. The switches have likewise gained some heft.”
- Late 2017: Keyboard complaints begin to roll in
- June 2018: Apple announces keyboard replacement program
The first-gen butterfly keyboard showed up in 2015, but the real root of the problem dates back to 2012 in the very first Retina MacBook Pro. That radical redesign replaced their rugged, modular workhorse with a slimmed-down frame and first-of-its-kind retina display.
And a battery glued to the keyboard.
The new notebook was universally applauded by tech pundits, with one notable exception: my team at iFixit. Unlike the rest of the tech media, we don’t judge products for their release-day usability or aesthetics—we focus on what will happen when the device (inevitably) fails. How time-consuming (and therefore expensive) is it to open? Can broken components be replaced individually, or will you have to swap out more expensive larger modules? Our score provides a consumer with an educated guess of repair costs before they buy the product.
The basic flaw is that these ultra-thin keys are easily paralyzed by particulate matter. Dust can block the keycap from pressing the switch, or disable the return mechanism. I’ll show you how in a minute.
So you can’t switch key caps. And it gets worse. The keyboard itself can’t simply be swapped out. You can’t even swap out the upper case containing the keyboard on its own. You also have to replace the glued-in battery, trackpad, and speakers at the same time. For Apple’s service team, the entire upper half of the laptop is a single component. That’s why Apple has been charging through the nose and taking forever on these repairs. And that’s why it’s such a big deal—for customers and for shareholders—that Apple is extending the warranty. It’s a damned expensive way to dust a laptop.
Thin may be in, but it has tradeoffs. Ask any Touch Bar owner if they would trade a tenth of a millimeter for a more reliable keyboard. No one who has followed this Apple support document instructing them to shake their laptop at a 75 degree angle and spray their keyboard with air in a precise zig-zag pattern will quibble over a slightly thicker design.
This is design anorexia: making a product slimmer and slimmer at the cost of usefulness, functionality, serviceability, and the environment.