Apple readying all-new all-non-butterfly keyboard for MacBook

MacBook Pro keyboard
MacBook Pro keyboard (Image credit: Rene Ritchie/iMore)

Back in May, I talked about the scuttlebutt going around that Apple would be replacing the butterfly keyboards in MacBooks going forward with an everything-old-is-new-again scissor switch design.

Now, supply-chain exfiltrator extraordinaire, Kuo Ming-Chi, has some details. Text via MacRumors:

There have been successful developments in the new scissor keyboard. The new keyboard could improve the typing experience by offering longer key travel and durability by adopting glass fiber to reinforce the keys' structure.

This, allegedly, for a 2019 MacBook Air update.

If you're not up on your keyboard nomenclature, then scissor switches are the fairly standard mechanisms Apple used to use across their laptop lineups. At least prior to 2015 when they introduced their own, invented-at-Apple butterfly switches to the newly redesigned 12-inch MacBook, and then in 2016 with the new MacBook Pro and 2018 with the new MacBook Air.

We believe the partially refreshed MacBook Pro models will also adopt a new scissor keyboard in 2020; shipments of MacBook models equipped with a new scissor keyboard will grow 500–700% YoY in 2020. Though the butterfly keyboard is still thinner than the new scissor keyboard, we think most users can't tell the difference. Furthermore, the new scissor keyboard could offer a better user experience and benefit Apple's profits; therefore, we predict that the butterfly keyboard may finally disappear in the long term.

This part is a little harder to parse.

Apple released the all-new MacBook Air design last year, in October of 2018, but without a new keyboard design. Normally, swapping out keyboard designs is non-trivial, since they're machined down to the micro-millimeter so everything fits perfectly.

All new designs are expensive, though, both in terms of what it costs to ramp up production and to keep current customers from getting angry if you update too often, never mind not often enough.

Apple could just say frak-it, in Battlestar parlance, and go with two new models two years in a row, or it's also possible that, knowing the new keyboard design was coming but not yet quite arriving, they built the current chassis so that it'd be easier to transition to the new keyboard.

I find this kind of stuff so fascinating but we'll just have to wait and see.

Curiouser is the MacBook Pro.

It was previously rumored that Apple was coming out with an all new 16-inch MacBook Pro design this year, in 2019. How does that reconcile with what Kuo calls partially refreshed MacBook Pro models only getting the new scissor keyboards in 2020?

Does that mean, like the Air, Apple will release the new MacBook Pro first with the old keyboards this year and then refresh them again with the new keyboard next year?

Does it mean the new MacBook Pro's won't be coming at all until next year, and Kuo only considers them a partial refresh either way, war on bezels be damned?

Or does it mean he just forgot about the 16-inch for this report, like whoops, whoopsie?

Because as much as smaller bezels will be nice, I think it's safe to say the only thing everyone really wants from a new MacBook Pro is that new keyboard.

Much like nothing unreal exists, no unannounced Apple products exist, and the company can and will move things around as needed. So, until Phil or John Ternus or someone at Apple shows them off on stage, or slips them out in a press release, we're all just trying to read patterns in the echoes of past decisions yet to ship.

Now, personally, I hope Apple doesn't go entirely back to the old scissor switches. The current butterfly switches do have some good characteristics as well.

The amount of travel was hugely divisive, which is untenable in a product with only one manufacturer, but that is something scissor mechanisms alone should fix. Butterflies were literally like the bottom halves of scissors and now you're getting both halves back.

And the failure rates, regardless of whether you choose to believe they were under-reported to Apple because people simply suffered through them, or that they were exaggerated by the social media rage machine, had become radioactive.

After three generations, membranes, and new materials, there's just nowhere left to go but end-of-line.

But, I really like how flat and stable they make the typing experience. The old scissor switches feel positively loosey-goosey by comparison.

If the new scissor switch design, or the new glass-fiber reinforcements, somehow give us the best of both switch worlds, I'll be super happy.

Now, real talk, I had problems with the old scissor keyboards. I'd pop the caps off to clean them when they got goofy, even had to have the whole keyboard and casing replaced once, thanks AppleCare.

And I've been doing pretty much the same with the current MacBook keyboards, popping and cleaning with compressed air, but it doesn't work as well for as many people and they're so much more damn fragile that I can't recommend anyone else even think about doing it, lest your left ordering replacement keys off of Amazon like an animal.

And that's just not a solution for anything approaching normal.

Apple's had bad designs before. The iPhone 4 antenna, infamously, could be killed with a single touch at just the wrong spot, and they even shipped an iPod shuffle that had, I kid you not, no buttons.

But Apple fixed the iPhone 4 antenna in less than a year for the Verizon model and for every carrier in less that 18 months with the iPhone 4s. And they called a mulligan on that iPod shuffle just as fast.

That the butterfly keyboard stayed on the market for this long is atypical, a confluence of bad decisions and bad timing. But, hopefully, it's also exactly the kind of thing Apple's new design org and, yeah, their new operational overlord, Jeff Williams, will catch and correct much, much faster.

I mean, maybe not Steve Jobs "well then why doesn't it do that?!" Throwing things across the room fast. But fast.

At least, as someone who depends on the MacBook Pro day in, day out, that's my beautiful dream. But now I want to hear yours.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • The Butterfly keyboard was something that was great on paper, but poor in execution. I might be buying a MacBook Air at some point, so I really hope they can release the new keyboard on it this year
  • I sampled the new Retina Air some months ago. I could probably get used to the force touch clickpad with time, but the keyboard was still a no-go. Better than the 12" MacBook and the MBP models, maybe, but that's a pretty low bar. I consider the folio keyboard for the iPad Pro pretty mediocre, but even that feels better than current MacBook/Air/Pro keyboards to me. I suggest you wait, though this year might be a tad optimistic since the Air is technically the latest MacBook that was updated. As for me, opted for another brand of laptop - a small Linux vendor from the UK - since I didn't want to wait. Was strongly considering the iPad Pro as a laptop replacement (this was before iPadOS announcement), but it just wasn't there yet for my workflow.
  • I have to agree on this one - I find the travel and responsiveness of the iPad Pro 11 keyboard better than the MacBook Pro butterfly, and it’s pretty lame in its own right. Frankly, although the maglev in the Dell is better, it’s still not as good as a scissor switch - I just can’t wait to see how Phill Schiller spins the the “Switch back to scissor...”
  • Danny/Rene I thought you had a new macbook with the crappy keyboard and you said you loved it. Typical.
  • I far prefer typing on the new butterfly keyboards than the old scissor keyboards but: 1) A lot of people don't, and it's not all about me. No one hated the old ones and a single manufacturer can't have a product so divisive. 2) A lot of people don't trust these keyboards any more and that's untenable.
  • I have used the old keyboards on my macbook and my sons air. The new one did not impress me when I used it for an hour. The new dell maglev is a joy to use however. Maybe it's a direction apple could go to keep Thin notebook profiles but increase durability and tactile feel of the keyboard. I am waiting for the full touch macbook. Then I might switch to apple.
  • Hi Rene, I think there is a way we can find the middle with the key travel. I prefer a bit more travel or some cushion at the bottom of the stroke. The edge hit issue is caused by the lack of guides, similar to how the old IBM keyboards worked. My biggest beef I have with the butterfly is the noise. The butterfly design, is just too noisy! If you get a metal bottle cap that pops up when the vacuum is lost you can hear the noise it makes when you depress it. This type of contact switch Apple used in the Butterfly keyboard. The older Scissor keyboard used a carbon tip nipple on the blister so when you depress the carbon shorts across the two pads closing the circuit. It is so much better! No contact noise and has a bit of cushion!
  • I like the feel of the keyboard, but MacBooks should be designed to last, I don't want anything to sacrifice stability
  • It took way too long! I do hope this new keyboard is as good as the older scissor was. Filled fiber glass plastics also have a weakness when you get to the smaller dimensions. I hope they don't fail here.
  • Why is anyone - Apple, of all companies - designing new keyboard mechanisms? Aren't keyboards a known quantity these days? We have been building computer keyboards for over 50 years now. We know what works and what does not. We have time-tested designs that everyone uses. A keyboard is not a part to cut costs on. It HAS to be rugged. These are basically buttons that will be pounded on every day, for years. Dirt/dust/cookie crumbs WILL get in there. Maybe even coffee/Coke/beer/whatever. If you can't blow it out/rinse it out and dry it, then it is going to fail. Hey Apple. Keyboards are basic. Stop trying to re-invent the wheel/save a buck per unit.
  • They never re invented the wheel to save a buck, they re invented the wheel to make it the thinnest / lightest macbook evaaaa!!!!!!!!!!! That's all it's about with Jony Ive's apple. This is the thinnest / lightest "insert apple product here" EVER. Who cares about performance, durability, and battery life. As long as it was the thinnest and lightest the apple "fans" drooled over it. As for new keyboard technologies. The new dell maglev keyboard is AWESOME!
  • The butterfly switches were more expensive and had a lower yield rate than the old switches. It cost them money to do this but it was the design (they thought they) wanted.
  • Some think the idea was to ease us into a glass panel virtual keyboard like the iPad has. Clearly, that thinking failed! While we all use a panel keyboard for quick messages on our iPhones & iPads. A laptop is a writing system! People bang out books on them. Banging a glass panel for hours is just harmful to ones fingers, and it just hurts!
  • Apple has always been about putting a design on paper and challenging themselves to see if they can pull it off, there was nothing wrong with designing a new keyboard mechanism per se, but they clearly didn't put it through rigorous testing which is especially needed for a mobile computer where it could be taken outside or who knows where.
  • At first I thought I was going to hate the butterfly keyboard as I had been using my 15' rMBP for so long with the scissor switches that I thought I would hate this lower travel keyboard. I got a new 13" MBP for work and after using the butterfly keyboard I have come to like it quite a bit. I find my older (2013) rMBP keyboard to be mushy. I truly hope Apple can find a happy medium and soon as that 15" unit needs to be replaced in the next year to eighteen months.