Apple introduced its butterfly laptop keyboard design for the 2015 12-inch MacBook. It is shallower than previous keyboards. The 2016 Apple MacBook Pro keyboard uses the same design.
The key action is less positive than on older Apple laptops like the MacBook Air or earlier MacBook Pros.
Put aside for one moment the Touch Bar that appears on most 2016 MacBook Pro models. What remains of the keyboard looks like those on Apple’s recent MacBooks.
The Force Touch trackpad on the 15-inch MacBook Pro is huge. Because of its size, the MacBook Pro keyboard sits further up the body, closer to the screen. This doesn’t make any difference to typing in practice.
Flush versus recessed keys
Although it has the same underlying design, it is not identical. On the 12-inch MacBook the keys are flush with the body. The new MacBook Pros have keys recessed a millimetre or so below the body.
Apple has improved the butterfly key action. There is more click and greater travel when you hit a key. You hit them harder.
The keys sound louder when you type. This audio feedback helps but I can’t articulate or measure how that works. In practice I found it all adds up to make typing and touch typing easier than on the 12-inch MacBooks.
MacBook Pro keyboard for touch typists
When I first used the 12-inch MacBook keyboard it took a while to adjust my touch typing technique. That’s not unusual, this happens every time I use a different machine or keyboard.
After a few hours I was typing with ease. I made a few more errors than before, but there was no performance hit. At that stage I decided the butterfly keyboard was an acceptable change.
Then I returned to the old MacBook Air keyboard. It was like swapping smart new shoes for comfortable slippers.
Although I didn’t get through my work faster, it felt right. There’s a more pleasing bounce to the keys that feels right or maybe it’s a matter of familiarity.
There is less of a comfy slippers effect moving back and forth between the 2016 MacBook Pro and the Air. It could be down to what some describe as muscle memory.
My error rate is still higher on the new keyboard, but not as high as it was on the 12-inch MacBooks. Unlike then, this time I’m certain that it will soon be back to normal.
The new keyboard is not without flaws. The up and down arrow keys are too small and close-packed. They are hard to use. There’s a good chance you’ll hit the wrong one by accident. Yet with the trackpad, there is less need for arrow keys.
Flat, less travel keyboards seem to be a feature of 2016 premium laptops.
Surface Book comparison
Microsoft echoes some aspects of the butterfly keyboard in its Surface Book. Both are flat, both keyboards have a hard feel. If anything the Surface Book keyboard has a better layout and spacing. In practice the typing experience is similar.
Some other reviewers are unhappy about the missing esc key. The good news is that it always turns up on the Touch Bar when you need it. This is not a real issue.
You might argue that a MacBook Pro is not the device for someone who spends a lot of time typing so all this is academic. That view is nonsense. A keyboard is why you buy a computer instead of a tablet. It is not an essential component it is the essential component.
There is always a payoff between portability and function with laptop keyboards. Apple has balanced the two well here. You may find better keyboard experiences elsewhere. Yet the MacBook Pro keyboard goes well beyond being an acceptable compromise given the size and weight. It’s a worthy keyboard for a Pro laptop.
- The MacBook Pro and Surface Book have a different fundamental design. They come from different philosophies of what modern laptops should be. Yet in many ways they are head to head rivals. I’ll explore this idea in more depth elsewhere. ↩