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How do you say thank you to a loyal servant who’s been with you through so much of your life, late nights, heartbreak, successes? When the servant is the Apple MacBook butterfly keyboard, the kindest words must be “thanks for your service”. Loyal it may have been, groundbreaking in its ability to bring in a new generation of portable, thin, and light MacBooks, but it was never something to make you sing with joy. 

Apple has bid its fond farewell to the butterfly keyboard as it’s introduced the newest version of the 13-inch Macbook Pro. The three flagships of the MacBook range, the Air and 16- and 13-inch Pros all come kitted out with the new Magic Keyboard. It’s a definite step-change from where Apple was last year, with every MacBook coming with the hotly-debated butterfly keyboard. 

Roughly twelve months ago, when the butterfly debate was raging, when every single MacBook had one whether you liked it or not, Dan Ackerman went against the grain in an article for cnet. He was being somewhat sarcastic, but where it falls on the spectrum of joke vs serious is rather fluid. 

In a new article for cnet, Ackerman still maintains the keyboard wasn’t amazing, but it also didn’t deserve the flack it got from the online community. At the time, he said, “People simply don’t take to Twitter to report that their product is working as expected.” Not exactly singing praises from the rooftops, but detractors had been vilifying the butterfly keyboard in a witch hunt of Frankensteinian proportions. The truth was, the majority of people with a MacBook weren’t having any real issues.

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The genesis of the butterfly keyboard. Image credit: Sarah Tew/CNET

Ackerman estimates that in the last few years, with extensive use of at least eight MacBooks, he’s had exactly one problem with a stuck key. It was easily resolved with a little fiddle with the computer flipped upside down. That’s not said to do down or minimize the major problems some people encountered, or the legal cases that ensued, nor the updated repair policies that had to be launched, or even that sad groan inside when you know you’ve paid a whole stack of money for a laptop that should be the best in class yet can’t even get a keyboard right. 

The nightmare began with the worst butterfly keyboard that came with 2015’s 12-inch MacBook. There was no bounce to the keys; yet the 12-inch MacBook as a whole was so wonderful, you could accept the keyboard not being up to par. No one really talks about it, but there was an evolution to the butterfly keyboard – there were improvements over the years. What could be termed the best incarnation came with the 2018 update; a rubber membrane was inserted under the keys. Debris was prevented from getting inside and there was a touch of bounce added to the keys. If this was how it had worked straight out of the blocks back in 2015, opinion may have been much different. 

There’s a lot of technology and a lot of power crammed into a small space in a laptop. Everyone, consumers and reviewers alike, are always demanding more power from the processors and a better battery life. The batteries need to get physically bigger and there needs to be space to fit in the cooling chambers and fans. Hand in hand with these hardware demands, we all want to see out laptops get thinner and lighter, so compromise needs to come from somewhere. It seems Apple thought that the keyboard was where this was at; a good place to find a few millimeters to shave off. This was not where it was at. 

It all academic now; rather than keep flogging the butterfly keyboard into something acceptable, it’s been consigned to the same dark, low shelf of the 12-inch MacBook, 11-inch MacBook Air, the MagSafe connector, and other assorted not-quite-as-successful-as-they-should-have-been designs from Apple.

No one would really argue it’s a bad move. When you try out the new Magic Keyboard that comes with the 16-inch MacBook Pro and Air, and now on the 13-inch MacBook Pro, you can immediately feel the improvement. Ackerman’s first thoughts when he tried out the new design was, “Where the f*** has this been for the last four years?” 

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How the Magic Keyboard looks. Image credit: Sarah Tew/CNET

Can Apple fans be to blame for the troubles the company had with the butterfly keyboard? One of the standard responses for faulty products is user error. Maybe if people didn’t eat at their computers, littering crumbs that can find their way under keys? If users could be truly happy with the smallest of noises a super-shallow keyboard produces rather than demanding a full-on clack maybe the butterfly keyboard could have survived. But users want what they want, and that’s the ability to eat and type, or watch, or play, and to hear what’s going on under our fingers as we type.

It was Arthur C. Clarke who once opined, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This also rings true of a well-engineered keyboard, it seems.

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