Living with a MacBook keyboard is like managing a chronic condition [Opinion]

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Taking it out on your problematic MacBook butterfly keyboard will only make things worse.
Taking it out on your keyboard will only make things worse.
Photo illustration: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

At this point, we all know the MacBook’s butterfly keyboard can prove problematic. Apple recently admitted the problem is real — and even issued a rare apology.

Anecdotally, pretty much every MacBook owner I know has experienced keys sticking or repeating at one time or another. But occasionally I meet someone who seems blessed with a faultless MacBook keyboard. And Apple claims the problem only affects a small number of MacBook users.

So what is going on? I have a theory — and a tip that might keep your MacBook’s keyboard from crapping out if it hasn’t already.

Learning to live with a chronic keyboard condition

Ever since I was diagnosed with cancer 10 years ago, my body has been a bit like a MacBook keyboard. It does not always work perfectly or do what I want it to do. My chemotherapy treatment made me partially deaf and my skin often gets painfully dry.

But I’ve learned to work around these problems. I connect my new AirPods to my Mac rather than my iPhone, because that lets me crank up the treble in the iTunes graphic equalizer so I can hear The CultCast. And every day, I go for a run along the beach with my Apple Watch, because the sunlight (in moderation) helps keep my skin healthy.

Having a chronic medical condition forces you to become more resourceful. You can find workarounds that enable you to get on with your life, without constantly visiting your doctor.

And so it is with the MacBook’s butterfly keyboard. We Mac users love our favorite operating system. It would take a lot to make us switch to the dark side. So, when presented with keyboards that are barely fit for purpose, we suck it up.

The alternative is unthinkable.

Finding a workaround for MacBook keyboard problems

In a recent blog post, Basecamp co-creator David Heinemeier Hansson argues that the problem with MacBook keyboards is probably far worse than Apple realizes because most Mac users never report the problems. Like patients with chronic conditions, they just find a workaround and struggle on.

I’m sure this is true. I’ve had problems with stuck and repeating keys that almost drove me insane with frustration. Repeatedly tapping the offending keys while holding the MacBook upside-down (a tricky maneuver) seems to help. As does pre-emptively giving the keyboard a regular spray-down with compressed air.

My MacBook is my primary workstation. It is just not practical for me to be without it for days while the Genius Bar replaces a defective keyboard. So I make do with these workarounds instead, as imperfect and inconvenient as they may be.

But there are a lucky few, like Lewis (Cult of Mac’s managing editor), who have never had any problems with their MacBook keyboard. So what’s up with that?

Having spent months trying to get my chronic keyboard condition under control, I think I know the answer.

A tale of two MacBooks

For months, my husband and I both worked at the same co-working space. We both used brand-new MacBooks, which we took with us to work every day in rucksacks. Endless keyboard problems plagued both of our MacBooks.

Then I switched to working from home, while my husband continued to commute to the co-working space every day. And magically, my keyboard issues improved. I still got the occasional problem, but they became rarer.

My husband’s MacBook, however, became worse and worse. Eventually, it got so bad that he had no option but to take it to the Genius Bar for repair.

Equipped with a brand-new keyboard, his MacBook worked fine again. And this time, in addition to his laptop bag, he bought a $199 leather sleeve for extra protection. The sleeve fits snugly, keeping the MacBook tightly shut, and thus keeping any lint from his rucksack out. This seems to have helped a lot.

Handle your MacBook with kid gloves

Thanks to the leather sleeve, my husband’s MacBook keyboard now works about as well as mine. It’s not OK by any means, but the deterioration seems to have slowed.

This makes me suspect that it is the dust, lint and other debris inside laptop bags that causes most MacBook butterfly keyboard snafus.

Theory: Why some people don’t experience keyboard problems

Buying expensive cases and handling your MacBook with kid gloves can help you avoid problems with the notorious butterfly keyboard. But a MacBook is supposed to be a mobile device. It should be rugged enough to handle a bit of lugging around.

My theory is that the reason some people, like Lewis, are lucky enough to avoid keyboard malfunctions is because their MacBooks remain in their offices or homes most or all of the time. Basically, these laptops never encounter lint.

I imagine this is the kind of environment in which Apple developed and tested the new butterfly keyboard design — within Cupertino’s pristine, hermetically sealed Industrial Design department. (Apple did not respond to our questions about how it tests MacBook keyboards.)

Earth to Apple Park: We have a problem

Apple Park’s spaceship-style campus has an otherworldly appearance. It’s not the type of environment most of us mere mortals occupy. Instead, bag lint and dusty co-working spaces clog up our keyboards.

And maybe that is the fundamental problem. Apple’s butterfly keyboard design might be just a bit too perfect for the real world.

Apple constantly improves its products. So inevitably, a new MacBook keyboard design will arrive. It will probably trigger the biggest upgrade cycle in Apple’s history, as Mac fans realize it’s safe to buy a MacBook again.

In the meantime, most of us MacBook users will continue to suffer in silence, managing our chronic keyboard conditions as best we can.