Apple in 2015 and 2016 introduced updated keyboards for its MacBook and MacBook Pro, debuting new butterfly keys with home switches beneath each key that minimize thickness while also providing a satisfying press under the fingers.
Unfortunately, Apple's butterfly keyboards are highly controversial and have been called out as one of the company's worst design decisions due to their penchant for failure due to small particulates like crumbs or heat issues. All butterfly keyboards in MacBook Pro, MacBook, and MacBook Air models introduced since 2016 (and 2015 in the case of the MacBook) have butterfly keys that could be vulnerable to failure, though Apple says the issue has been addressed in new 2019 models.
What's the problem?
Butterfly keys use a butterfly mechanism that's different from the scissor mechanism used for traditional keyboards. It's called a butterfly mechanism because the components underneath the key resembles a butterfly's wings, with a hinge in the center rather than overlapping like a pair of scissors.
Apple swapped to a butterfly mechanism to make a thinner keyboard, which is possible because each key moves less when pressed so less space is needed. The keyboard provides a satisfying amount of travel and stability when each key is pressed, but unfortunately, the thin butterfly mechanism can get jammed up with crumbs, dust, and other particulates, resulting in keys that don't press properly, keys that skip keystrokes, or keys that repeat letters.
Keyboard failure is an in Apple's notebooks because replacing the keyboard requires the entire top assembly of the computer to be replaced, which is not a cheap repair.
Which Macs are affected?
All MacBook models have the potential to experience keyboard issues because the 2015 MacBook was the first machine to get a butterfly keyboard. All 2016, 2017, and 2018 and 15-inch MacBook Pro models are vulnerable to failure despite some generational changes Apple has made to the keyboard with different models, which we'll explain more below. It's not yet clear if the 2019 models are vulnerable due to component updates.
Apple's 2018 MacBook Air uses the same butterfly keyboard that's in the MacBook Pro, which has also been the subject of some failure complaints on Reddit and the MacRumors forums, but full data is not yet available as these machines have only been available since October 2018 and most complaints have focused on the MacBook Pro.
Note: Not all MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air owners have experienced issues with the butterfly keyboard. It is a problem that seems to be related to dust, crumb, and small particulate exposure, with some complaints of heat issues, that affects a portion of MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air owners.
According to Apple, only a "small percentage" of Mac users have experienced problems with the butterfly keyboard, but anecdotal claims and the high visibility of the issue have resulted in a public perception that most butterfly keyboards fail. This isn't true as some people have keyboards that are fine, but any modern Mac notebook's keyboard has the potential to experience issues.
What has Apple done?
Apple in June 2018 launched a keyboard repair program for MacBook and MacBook Pro models equipped with butterfly keys, and in May 2019, the program was expanded to encompass all MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air machines equipped with a butterfly keyboard, including the new 2019 models.
- MacBook (Retina, 12-inch, Early 2015)
- MacBook (Retina, 12-inch, Early 2016)
- MacBook (Retina, 12-inch, 2017)
- MacBook Air (Retina, 13-inch, 2018)
- MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016, Two Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
- MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017, Two Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
- MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016, Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
- MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017, Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
- MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2016)
- MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2017)
- MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2018, Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
- MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2018)
- MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2019, Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
- MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2019)
Customers with eligible 2015 to 2019 machines that are experiencing keyboard issues can visit an Apple retail store or Apple Authorized Service Provider to receive repairs free of charge. The repair program is a huge deal, as prior to its initiation, some customers had to pay upwards of $500 in fees to get their MacBook and MacBook Pro models repaired.
All MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air models are covered for four years from the date of purchase, so 2019 machines are covered until 2023.
What about 2018 MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models?
Apple in 2018 debuted MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models that use an updated third-generation butterfly keyboard. The third-generation butterfly keyboard has a thin silicone barrier behind each key, which was put in place as an ingress-proofing measure to prevent dust from getting in the keys.
There was hope following the launch of the third-generation butterfly keyboard that it would cut down on failures, but as a recent report from The Wall Street Journal pointed out, the 2018 MacBook Pro is still prone to keyboard issues. Apple in a statement apologized, but did not outline specific repair options or future keyboard plans.
We are aware that a small number of users are having issues with their third-generation butterfly keyboard and for that we are sorry. The vast majority of Mac notebook customers are having a positive experience with the new keyboard.
It's possible 2018 machines with updated butterfly keyboards will fail less often, but 2018 MacBook Pro and MacBook Air owners have still been reporting issues, which is something to be aware of before making a purchase.
We haven't heard as many reports about the new keyboards as we have with other older butterfly keyboards, but the problem hasn't been solved entirely and more data is needed to determine the effectiveness of the membrane in the third-generation keyboards.
What about 2019 MacBook Pro models?
Apple in May 2019 debuted new MacBook Pro models with additional improvements to the third-generation butterfly keyboard. The 2019 MacBook Pros have keyboards built with a new material that Apple claims will significantly cut down on the keyboard failures that users have seen.
Apple has not provided specific details on the material change in the updated butterfly keyboard. According to an iFixit teardown, Apple has made changes to the membrane that covers the keyboard switches.
The new membrane is clearer and smoother to the touch, and appears to be made with polyacetylene. There are also subtle changes to the metal dome over each key switch, perhaps designed to alleviate problems with durability, bounce-back, or other issues.
According to Apple, 2018 MacBook Pro and MacBook Air machines that experience keyboard failures will be able to be upgraded with this new upgraded third-generation butterfly keyboard. Older machines that do not use the third-generation butterfly keyboard will not be able to be updated with the 2019 technology.
What do I do if my keyboard fails?
Regardless of which MacBook, MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro you have, you should contact Apple support or visit an Apple retail store for repair options. Now that all butterfly keyboards are covered, customers with an affected machine will have no problem getting a fix.
Apple is prioritizing MacBook and MacBook Pro keyboard repairs and requiring Apple retail staff to perform the repairs in store rather than sending machines off to a repair facility, which takes days. Apple is now aiming to offer next-day turnaround time MacBook and MacBook Pro keyboard replacements, which should improve the inconvenience of repairs.
In some cases, if you get a large crumb underneath a key, a key will feel locked in place. There are occasions where you can wiggle the key to break up the crumb and get it working again, and Apple also recommends cleaning out the keyboard with compressed air.
What will Apple do next?
Public sentiment about the butterfly keyboard and the overall performance of Apple's notebooks is growing worse, which is not surprising as Apple has been releasing machines with keyboards that can potentially fail since 2015. Apple made an effort to improve the situation with the 2019 MacBook Pro models, but given the negativity toward the butterfly keyboard, Apple could be planning on more significant design changes for future MacBook Pro models.
A New MacBook Keyboard?
According to Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, Apple may be planning to do away with the butterfly mechanism in its MacBook keyboards, introducing a new design based on scissor switches. Kuo says the new keyboard could bring longer key travel and durability by using glass fiber to reinforce the keys' structure.
The scissor keyboard will be thicker than the butterfly keyboard, but Kuo says that most users likely won't be able to tell the difference. Kuo believes the new keyboard will first be introduced in the rumored 16-inch MacBook Pro update that's expected in the fall of 2019 before expanding to other MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models in 2020.
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