Eight Weeks With the MacBook Keyboard: Total Love

Apple's new MacBook uses a new keyboard mechanism. The keys are larger and the throw is less, and so when people try it out for just a minute ot two in the Apple store, it may feel strange, different and even undesirable.


I've spent eight weeks with my new MacBook now, and one of things I like about it the most is the keyboard. Just like the single USB-C port, past experience doesn't prepare or guide one for using this keyboard because it's so different from what Apple has delivered in the past.

I'm not a keyboard design expert, but I've been using computers since the Apple II, and I've learned a lot about keyboards along the way. What follows are my personal observations. I hope they help.

Rock, Scissors, Butterfly, Paper

Recall that the keyboards Apple used in all previous MacBook Air and Pro models use what's called a scissor mechanism. Not only does that design use up more vertical space than desired, but it also wobbles around the edges. We've all used a keyboard like that for years, and we've gotten used to it.

Because the key tends to wobble just a little, it probably doesn't pay to make the actual key face too large. As Apple describes the problem:

This creates a lack of precision when you strike anywhere except the center of the key. We needed to reduce key wobbling for a keyboard this thin; otherwise, striking a key off-center could result in the keycap hitting bottom before a keystroke registers.

The individual center to center spacing for a standard keyboard is pretty well defined (19 mm) and researched, and so what's left is a decision on how wide to make the key itself.

Image credit: Apple

With the new MacBook, the key center to center distance remains the same, 19 mm, but the keys are a little larger: 18 mm vs 16 mm on Apple's other keyboards. This reduces the gap between the keys. It looks odd at first, but after eight weeks of typing, I haven't noticed any tendency to fumble and strike the wrong, adjacent key. That's because the surface of each MacBook key is slightly concave, and the curvature sends a signal to the brain, I suspect, on where the finger is on the key—preventing bleed over.

In addition, because the keys on the MacBook use the newly designed "butterfly" mechanism, it feels different at first. Not only can the keyboard assembly be thinner, but the entire key depresses evenly, remaining level. Because this feels different, the natural human reaction is that different is not better. And so I don't think a two minute tryout in the Apple store is not really a good test of this keyboard's long term potential.

When the TMO team was in Breckenridge, CO last week for a writer's camp, I wrote the entire Particle Debris column, published on June 26, on the MacBook. That article was over 1,200 words, and I found the keyboard to be natural and precise. I now prefer it over any keyboard I have ever used.

Key Throw

While we're on the subject, I should discuss a related factor, the idea of key throw. I prefer a keyboard with a short throw (equal to or less than 2 mm), that is, the vertical distance the key travels before it registers. The shorter the throw, for me, the faster the key registers and the faster I move on to the next key. Both the Apple aluminum keyboard and the MacBook Air have a throw of about 2 mm.

However, my preference isn't true for everyone. I've talked to several other writers who like a longer throw and a very audible feedback, like the Mattias tactilepro which has a 3.5 mm throw. The MacBook's key throw looks to be about 1 mm. And so, not only should one be be prepared for wider keys and no wobble, but a shorter throw.  That could be a more serious source of irritation, but it also goes with the territory in a very light, mobile device.

In summary, the MacBook's keyboard will feel different for several reasons, but that doesn't mean the keyboard is poorly designed. A prospective customer should be aware of the mechanics of key design, be aware of what factors appeal to them and then spend a goodly amount of time testing the new MacBook. Sometimes different is better than we may have thought. However, occasionally not.