macbook pro keyboard

Marco Arment has a number of suggestions for Apple in Fixing the MacBook Pro. Arment’s post runs down a list of the things that are wrong with the 2016 MacBook Pros and offers suggestions for putting them right. It covers four areas, but the main one and the problem that bothers me personally is the new MacBook Pro keyboard.

Arment writes:

Butterfly key switches are a design failure that should be abandoned. They’ve been controversial, fatally unreliable, and expensive to repair since their introduction on the first 12” MacBook in early 2015. Their flaws were evident immediately, yet Apple brought them to the entire MacBook Pro lineup in late 2016.

The decision to use the butterfly key switch keyboard looked odd at the time. One reason people thought earlier MacBook Pro models were among the best-ever laptops was the solid keyboards. They were great. Dropping the earlier design looked and felt like a mistake at the time. Yet, as Arment points out, things only got worse when it emerged they were unreliable and required an expensive, fix.

He says:

After three significant revisions, Apple’s butterfly key switches remain as controversial and unreliable as ever. At best, they’re a compromise acceptable only on the ultra-thin 12” MacBook, and only if nothing else fits. They have no place in Apple’s mainstream or pro computers.

Maybe not. But here’s the strangest thing. I have a 12.9 inch iPad Pro with the Apple Smart Keyboard. It is great to type on. Yet it uses the same basic butterfly key switch.

I’m a touch typist and hammer keyboards because I learnt to type on manual typewriters. The Smart Keyboard may not be perfect, no portable keyboard is, but it is a far better experience than typing on a new MacBook or MacBook Pro.

When I wrote about the MacBook Pro keyboard before, I found it acceptable, but clearly preferred the keyboard on the Air.

Few options beyond MacBook Pro

My ageing MacBook Air is coming up for replacement. After looking at the MacBook and MacBook Pro keyboards and deciding they are not for me, I’m thinking about the options for my next portable computer. At this stage the shortlist is go with the iPad Pro and get a desktop iMac for home, buy a new MacBook Air or wait until there’s a refurbished older Retina MacBook Pro in the local Apple Store.

While buying a refurbished machine is good for the planet, it doesn’t seem right. A new MacBook Air would be a productive choice. Yet I prefer Retina displays. The MacBook Air specification is old-fashioned by late 2017 standards.

Which means the most likely choice will be the iPad Pro and iMac. That’s remarkable as it means for the first time in years there isn’t a MacBook model that meets my needs. All because Apple doesn’t offer one with a decent keyboard.

Back to Arment:

The MacBook Pro must return to scissor key switches. If Apple only changes one thing about the next MacBook Pro, it should be this.

It needs to do this soon to get my business. I’m probably not alone. And yet it’s unlikely Apple will move because it seems the new MacBook Pros have been selling better than expected. If the market has spoken, whatever it said was not: “fix the MacBook Pro keyboard”.

Mobile phone handsetPeople are paying more for phones. After years of falling prices, market research firm GfK reports the average price of a phone climbed seven percent in the last year. The number of phones sold worldwide climbed three percent during the year. Sales fell in North America and Western Europe.

GfK works with actual sales data rather than the shipments preferred by some analysts. This means the information is a more accurate reflection of consumer behaviour.

The clear pattern is that phone makers have switched focus towards more expensive premium smartphone models. Apple, Samsung and, most of all, Huawei all moved their customers upmarket. GfK says the premium features have become more important to customers.

What phone buyers want

They now look for: “water and dust protection, battery power and memory, high-resolution sound, camera and video capabilities, bezel-less design and even biometric sensors”.

Rising handset prices run counter to conventional technology hardware wisdom. The usual pattern is for prices to fall over time as manufacturers improve processes and wring out economies of scale. This is accelerated by new market entrants undercutting existing players.

The phone market has been running on a different track ever since Apple introduced the first iPhone a decade ago. For most of that time Apple has made almost all the industry’s profit despite having only a minority market share.

Aggressive phone prices

To a degree Apple’s rivals bought market share with aggressive discounting. That made sense to them during the growth years as people around the world bought their first smartphones.

It meant the phone business went through the usual economic cycle much faster than earlier technology waves. While it was always a competitive business, there were far few players than in, say, personal computer hardware.

There have been casualties along the way. Blackberry, Nokia and HTC were all roadkill on the route to today’s market.

Chasing margins

Now the phone makers, especially the Android phone makers, have turned their focus to margins and profitability. Hence the price rises. Apple pushed the bar higher again with its iPhone X which costs more than NZ$2000. Huawei has an even pricier phone.

Huawei is knocking on the door of Apple and Samsung. It aims to be the first Chinese company to be a global technology quality brand.

There’s still a way to go. The company’s products are excellent quality and contain as much innovation as brands like Samsung. Unlike Samsung, Huawei is on the whole more inclined to invest in engineering than in marketing budgets. That said, the company uses Scarlett Johansson in its advertising to great effect.

Huawei also teams with prestige brands. Its high-end phones use Leica camera lenses and its most expensive models have blingy Porsche designs.

Despite the company’s engineering prowess, Huawei has yet to master the art of looking after a customer after the sale. The biggest complaint you hear is that phone software is rarely, if ever, updated. That may be an issue that only concerns a certain market segment. Ironically, it is the market segment most likely to be drawn to advanced engineering.

Artificial intelligence

Huawei’s latest phone, the Mate 10, includes the kind of artificial intelligence features found in Apple and Samsung models. It’s ability to translate written languages feels almost like magic, or perhaps something from science fiction. In a similar vein, the phones take screenshots when you knock on the display with your knuckle.

For now, the sector’s move upmarket has created opportunities for mid-tier phone makers like Oppo. It’s another Chinese brand. Oppo sells an Android phone with about 90 percent of premium phone functionality for about 50 percent of the price.

Although Huawei would love to be seen as a serious rival to Apple, in truth the two address two quite different audiences. Few Apple iPhone owners would jump ship for a Mate 10. That’s not the case with Samsung customer, the two brands both use the same basic Android software and switching is relatively painless.

ipad-pro-12-9-inch second generation Smart Keyboard
Apple’s Smart Keyboard cover gives the second generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro basic protection from knocks and scratches.

Apple made the large screen 12.9-inch iPad Pro to travel. It may not be as portable as the 9.7 or 10.5-inch iPads, but the bigger display makes up for that. It is fast becoming my first choice travelling computer1.

The 12.9-inch screen on the second generation iPad Pro is tough. Even so, there is no point taking chances. What is the best way to keep it from damage?

Apple’s NZ$269 Smart Keyboard Cover is the obvious first option. It is light; only 340g. The 12.9-inch iPad is 723g. Together they weigh a shade over a kilogram. That’s a little more than the MacBook which weighs in at 920g.

Smart Keyboard cover

The Smart Keyboard Cover turns the iPad Pro into an effective laptop replacement. I’ve found it is good to type on. Not perfect, but good. One advantage is that it is as wide as normal laptop keyboard.

It is more comfortable for touch typing than the Surface Pro 4 keyboard. It compares with many modern laptop keyboards. This isn’t so true of the 9.7 or 10.5 inch Smart Keyboard Cover. I find the keys are almost too close together for comfort.

The larger keyboard is one reason why I prefer the larger iPad Pro.

In practice I’ve found the Smart Keyboard Cover provides enough protection around the house. It also works if I put the combination in my briefcase to travel to a meeting or work in a client’s office. The only downside is that it doesn’t accommodate the Apple Pencil.

More protection for 12.9-inch iPad Pro

You can walk about town with no more protection than the Smart Keyboard Cover. I have an Apple-made first generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro Silicon case. It’s helpful guarding against knocks and drops. This is also an Apple-made leather shell for the first generation model. Neither of these are still available on Apple’s New Zealand site. There are third-party shells.

The Leather Sleeve protects the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in style.
The Leather Sleeve protects the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in style.

Apple’s new protective case is the NZ$269 Leather Sleeve. As the name says it slips over the computer. There’s enough room inside to accommodate the Smart KeyBoard Cover as well. Apple has added a space to take the Pencil.

Leather Sleeve showing the Apple Pencil slot
Leather Sleeve showing the Apple Pencil slot

Although it is expansive, in practice it works better than the Silicon shell case. It is lighter and takes up less room. I’ve found it works great on airplanes, if you’re a regular flyer I recommend you invest in one. I also use the Leather Sleeve when I’m ducking out for a quick meeting in my car and don’t need to carry anything else.

Snugg Leather Sleeve

If the price of the Apple Leather Sleeve is too much, Snugg has a solid alternative. I first reviewed and used the Snugg MacBook Air 13 Wallet Case with my MacBook Air. It is ideal for protecting my 12.9-inch iPad Pro. After all, 12.9 inches is not a long way from 13 inches, so it fits well.

Snugg MacBook Air Leather case
Snugg MacBook Air Leather wallet case works well with the larger iPad Pro

You don’t get the dinky Apple Pencil holder, although there is more than enough space in the Snugg case to take that. I’ve come away from meetings and conferences with papers in my Snugg case alongside the iPad Pro.

One other thing, the Snugg case is chunkier, or if you like, more rugged. It can take more punishment than the Apple Leather Sleeve. There are plenty of colour options, including a soft pink if you feel the rugged look is not for you.

I’ve left the best thing about the Snugg to last. At US$25 plus postage, it works out at around a quarter of the price. The problem is that Snugg product is out of stock, although you can still find some on sale online. Snugg makes tablet cases, but I prefer the Wallet case.


  1. I’m thinking of from switching from a MacBook plus 9.7-inch iPad to a desktop iMac plus a 12.9-inch iPad Pro. ↩︎

~650,000 machines still ship every day, but that’s the lowest total since 2007

Source: PC sales still slumping, but more slowly than feared • The Register

Simon Sharwood writes:

Both analyst firms suggest that rising component prices have led to rising PC prices which has led to falling enthusiasm from buyers, especially consumers. DRAM, LCD panels and solid state disks prices all share some of the blame for the rise, as all are in short supply.

This is nonsense: not Sharwood’s reporting, what the analysts say. They are clutching at straws. Rising PC prices are not the issue, prices have only ticked up a smidgen. That is not enough to affect sales if there is an underlying demand.

The demand is not there. Customers have little appetite or need to start buying PCs again in large numbers. Not today.

Two points stand out from the latest PC sales figures.

First, HP moved ahead of Lenovo. Sharwood quotes a Gartner analyst talking about Lenovo pulling back to focus on margins.

That’s a plausible explanation, but I think there’s more to it.

HP has been on a roll since the business split from HP Enterprise. Hardware quality is better than in the past and the designs are more interesting. While it would overdoing it to use a word like excitement, HP has momentum. Some good products too.

Second, Apple has moved to fourth place. Apple’s year-on-year sales are flat, in a falling market that means the company’s market share has climbed. It’s not much of a climb, about 0.3 percent, but that’s enough to move Apple past slumping Asus.

Phone buyers tend to stick with their choices for the long-haul.
More than nine-out-of-ten iPhone owners pick another Apple phone.

Android owners move between brands. Even so, they are more likely to buy another Android than switch to Apple.

Staying put makes sense. We have a lot of money, time and energy tied-up in our apps, music, other media and services. Moving from one phone to another can be a wrench.

It can also mean more expense than the cost of buying new phone hardware.

Apple users tend to spend more on everything phone-related than Android owners. They buy more apps, services and music. That is a form of lock-in.

apple iphone 7 plus

Learning

Even if you didn’t spend much money on extras, you spent time learning to use your phone. Switch brands and the learning starts all over again. Some people enjoy that. Many do not. Yet this learning amounts to another investment. It is also a different kind of lock-in.

Don’t discount lock-in. It can be significant. Lock-in is a form of inertia which adds friction to moving between phones.

It means you need to be unhappy or desperate to consider a switch. Moving phones is not something you should do lightly.

One reason Apple owners move to Android is money. On the surface it looks like you can save money by switching.

Take care with that line of thinking. The money you save buying a cheaper Android phone may be less than your investment in everything iOS. Don’t discount the time cost it takes to adjust to a new phone, or the cost of lower productivity.

In the real world, we should talk about perceived savings when switching phones.

Let’s assume you’ve decided you can’t live with Apple any longer. You’ve thought through the financial and productivity implications.

You’ve decided to move to Android. What should you look for? Which brands will give you the best Android experience and what traps can you avoid?

Bewildering choice

The first big difference between Apple and Android is choice. Most Android phone models come in a bewildering array of variations. Phones often have cheaper lite version. Some are small versions of large screen premium models. Others have less processing power or built-in storage.

Another difference is that the main Android phone brands have more than one range. Vodafone New Zealand lists 10 distinct Samsung phone models from the Galaxy S8 to the Galaxy J1. 2degrees has 12 Samsung choices. There are five Huawei models and three Sony phones at Vodafone. 2degrees has five Huawei and one Sony phone.

In New Zealand, iPhone 7 prices run from NZ$1200 to $1829 for the 7 Plus. That top iPhone costs 20 percent more than the most expensive Android phone on sale here at the moment. That’s Samsung’s $1500 Galaxy S8 Plus.

Samsung Galaxy S8 Midnight Black

As a rule iPhone users will be more interested in the premium Android phones. Prices are not that far behind Apple. If you need to save money, head further downmarket.

That doesn’t mean rock bottom. You can save a lot more than 20 percent on the price and still get a decent Android phone. At $700 the Oppo R9s is less than 40 percent of the price of an iPhone 7 Plus.

Direct comparisons with Apple’s phone are not fair. They don’t compared on features or functionality. Yet, if you choose an R9s you’ll get a lot of change from the price of a basic iPhone 7. That’s a lot of money to spend on apps, music or elsewhere.

Oppo is an Android phone brand where Apple users will feel more at home than, say, Samsung.

While the R9s is not an iPhone knock-off, its design borrows much from Apple. In low light you might mistake it for an iPhone. Make that in low light and after a few drinks.

Skin deep

Many Android phone brands load a software skin on top of the Android operating system. Oppo’s software skin has a distinct iOS look. It seems familiar. That’s about where the comparisons end. You won’t mistake the R9s for an iPhone in use.

There are compromises moving to a low-cost Android. Cheaper phones don’t do as much. For many people the most noticeable difference is in the camera. Although the Oppo R9s has a great camera for a $700 phone, it doesn’t hold a candle to iPhone. Nor is Oppo’s camera software as easy to use as Apple’s.

If you don’t care for photography, this won’t matter. If you do, then you could save a decent amount of money towards paying for your next digital SLR.

You will find the R9s doesn’t feel as nice in the hand and it takes longer to perform some tasks than the iPhone. The screen isn’t as good either. While this is often harder to notice on a conscious level, it will register with your brain at some level.

If you use phones for social media more than anything else, these deficiencies may not matter. If your phone is where you get most of your work done, you may want to invest in a more powerful alternative to Apple.

Samsung, the obvious choice

For years pundits have written about Samsung’s iPhone killers. That’s a ridiculous cliche. And a crass, clickbait-driven line of thinking. Samsung is the one Android phone maker you could describe as Apple’s rival1.

Like Apple, Samsung makes beautiful hardware. Like Apple, the company innovates. While Samsung fans argue the brand innovates more than Apple, comparisons are meaningless. The two brands exist in parallel universes.

Still, the Galaxy S8 has to be at the top of any iPhone alternative list.

Huawei, Sony

Huawei is number three in market share. The company plays leap-frog with Samsung when it comes to who has the best premium Android phone. For a while earlier this year, the Huawei Mate 9 Pro was top dog.

Sony also makes great Android phones. The company doesn’t have the market share or the presence it deserves in New Zealand. That makes it a less obvious choice.

Departing from iPhone expectations

Once a year Apple announces new iPhone models and updates the iOS operating system. As a rule of thumb you can upgrade every Apple phone from the last couple of years to the new software without a hitch. It gets trickier with older iPhones. One more than four years old might not make the transition.

In practice, almost every iPhone owner will make the update soon the software release. The only exceptions are where key apps don’t work with the new iOS. Users may decide they’d rather have that app than new operating system features.

Google updates Android software on a similar schedule. Android phone users often don’t get to upgrade their software. Some phone makers are slack about Android updates. Huawei is notorious for this, but others can be as guilty. Even the ones who make update can be slow and they may not update all models at the same time.

The upshot is that many Android phone owners are on older versions of the phone operating system. This can be confusing.

Distribution of Android operating systems used by Android phone owners in May 2017, by platform version
Distribution of Android operating systems used by Android phone owners in May 2017, by platform version

Take a look at this graph from Statista. It shows the distribution of operating system versions in use in May 2017. Only seven percent are on the latest, Nougat, version of Android.

Around a third are on the previous version. About a third are on the last-but-one version. That’s a more than two-year old operating system. The remaining users are on even earlier versions.

Fragmented Android

Apart from anything else, this fragmentation spills over in to the app world. It can be a source of friction with long-time Android users although some swear it doesn’t bother them. It’s something that will confuse many people moving from Apple.

If this bothers you, but you’re committed to Android, consider buying a Google Pixel phone. Google manages the Pixel brand itself. It means you’re guaranteed to get the purest Android experience. You’ll also get timely software updates soon after Google releases the new code.

Pixel phones can be hard to find in New Zealand, although some stores stock them. They’re not cheap, expect to pay around NZ$1300.

Like it says at the top of this post, you need a good reason to move from one phone operating system to another. The transition can be painless, it may even be trouble free. Only you can decide if the cost and effort makes the move worthwhile.

Similar issues confront an Android user switching to Apple. Some people make the move without a single glance back. Others pine for a feature that Apple doesn’t offer or doesn’t do as well as on the Android phone. It’s something of a lottery.


  1. Samsung may sell more phones that Apple. But Apple makes the real money. This is not a volume game. ↩︎
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