The E key recently broke off WIRED senior writer Lauren Goode’s MacBook Pro. She’s not alone. Other writers on staff have dealt with a litany of other keyboard problems in the last few years. The culprit is almost always Apple’s butterfly keyboard, which was introduced in 2015, changing the design of the keys to have an innovative flapping-wing-like mechanism under them. It helped make MacBooks thinner and lighter, but it also rendered them a lot less reliable.
Modern MacBook keyboards are Apple’s biggest blunder in recent memory, but the company is finally taking steps to rectify the mistake. The latest 16-inch MacBook Pro, announced today, has a whole new keyboard. Those butterfly keys are completely gone.
Apple may have had noble intentions when it switched to the butterfly mechanism, but the design of the keys made it so that a single speck of dust could disable the mechanism of a key, and the fix was costly. Apple conceded late last year and made improvements to the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro keyboards—and also expanded its keyboard repair program—but the butterfly mechanism was still present, and the keyboard failures continued to happen.
From repeated keystrokes to dead keys, MacBook owners have been plagued with typing frustrations, leading to three class-action lawsuits. Apple still claims only a “small percentage” of keyboards have issues, but the new 16-inch MacBook Pro—which starts at $2,399 and goes on sale this week—is a clear attempt to hit reset and get the word “butterfly” out of people’s minds.
Fly Away, Butterfly
Apple is killing off the butterfly switch and returning to a “scissor switch” design on the new MacBook Pro keyboard. It’s a similar mechanism to the one Apple used before the butterfly party began. This time around, Apple is calling it the Magic Keyboard—the same name Apple uses for the keyboard sold with the iMac, which the company said inspired the new design.
Apple says there’s now one millimeter of key travel—the amount each key moves when you press down on it. That’s an increase from the 0.7 mm of travel on the butterfly keys. An Apple-designed rubber dome sits under each keycap, offering a more responsive keypress. The keycaps also lock to prevent them from wobbling.
I’m typing this story on a new MacBook Pro loaned to me by Apple, and I’m quite happy with the tactility. The key travel feels nice, and the keyboard is remarkably quiet. It feels like a return to form for the beleaguered MacBook.
To show how confident Apple is with its new keyboard, it’s not including the 16-inch MacBook Pro in the keyboard repair program (which it did for its MacBook Pro refreshes earlier this year). Time will tell if mere dust particles will cripple the Magic Keyboard as well, but considering the scissor mechanism is one that’s widely used in the industry, hopefully this design won’t be plagued by the same issues as the butterfly design.
There are other small changes too. The physical Escape key has returned, and the arrow keys have a more traditional layout, updates that make them easier to find without looking at the keyboard. The same rings true for the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, which sits separately next to the Touch Bar. Apple hasn’t made any dramatic changes to that TouchBar (the context-sensitive OLED strip still sits above the keyboard), except there’s supposedly a little more room between it and the number row to lessen the chance of accidental taps.
The new keyboard with the updated layout is only available on the new 16-inch model. So unless you can pay the $2,399 starting price to buy a big new MacBook, you won’t benefit from these improvements. There’s a standard Mac trade-in program you can use to lower the cost of the new 16-inch Pro, but that’s about it. It’s an especially odd time for the change, considering that Apple refreshed its 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro line earlier this year, and the MacBook Air late last year—all with the butterfly keys. The 16-inch Pro will replace the short-lived 15-inch model.
Thick and Thin
Keyboard aside, the new MacBook Pro is very much like its predecessors, except in one particularly important way: It’s heavier and thicker. This marks a stark contrast from the past, where every new Apple product seemed to get sleeker and lighter with each update.
Apple has already applied the bigger-is-better philosophy to its latest iPhones, which have been made thicker to accommodate beefier batteries. By thickening the MacBook Pro, the company was able to add that scissor keyboard, a bigger battery, and improve the heat management system.
The 16-inch Pro is slightly bigger than the now-canceled 15-inch Pro, and about the same weight. Apple has shaved down the bezels around the display to squeeze in an extra inch of pixels, which helps the MacBook Pro look a little more modern next to thinly bezeled laptops like the Dell XPS 13. The MacBook Pro is still an IPS LCD display with 500 nits of brightness, but Apple has bumped up the screen resolution to 3,072 by 1,920 pixels—just a little crisper than the 2,560 by 1,600 resolution on the 15-inch.
The laptop gets the usual slate of performance upgrades. Apple says that if you’re upgrading from a quad-core, 15-inch MacBook Pro, you should get about double the performance on the new machine. There are options for either a 6-core or 8-core ninth-generation Intel processor, with a base option of 16 GB of RAM (upgradeable to 64 GB). For the graphics card, Apple has opted for the AMD Radeon Pro 5300M or AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with 4 GB RAM. You can bump their memory to 8 GB if you want more power still.
If all of those upgrades sound excessive, wait until you see the storage options. The base model comes with a 512 GB solid-state drive (SSD), but you can configure your model to come with a whopping 8 TB SSD.
Apple claims the 100-watt-hour battery will last 11 hours on a single charge (of wirelessly web browsing), and you can use one of the four Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports to charge it up with the included 96W power adapter. There’s also still a headphone jack—surprising, I know.
Great … Speakers!
Before my briefing, I had no idea I’d want to spend any time writing about the MacBook Pro’s speakers or microphones, of all things, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring them up. There’s a six-speaker array inside with dual-speaker drivers that cancel each other’s vibrations. To put it simply, they sound phenomenal. The audio is rich and can easily fill a small room—or at least the small room Apple used to demo the laptop. It’s hard to believe how good it is without hearing it for yourself.
Paired with the speakers is a “studio-quality” triple-microphone setup. If you’re planning on recording a podcast, song, or interview, you’ll be quite happy with what the MacBook Pro can do. A recording I listened to produced barely any noise floor, that hissing sound you’ll hear when recording in a quiet room. It’s impressive.
As Good as It Gets
Apple doesn’t really do apologies, but the new 16-inch MacBook Pro feels like the best we’re going to get. It fixes the complaints people have had with the keyboard. And even though it doesn’t bring any radically new ideas to the Mac (where’s Face ID?), well, it’s something.
It’s just a darn shame you’ll need to spend well north of two grand to get a better keyboard than the one in your current MacBook. There’s no word on when, or if, Apple will introduce the Magic Keyboard to the rest of its MacBook line.
You can order the new MacBook Pro today, and it will be in stores by the end of this week.
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