Apple is evaluating new keyboard mechanisms to make thinner MacBooks

Posted:
in Future Apple Hardware
Future MacBooks could be made even thinner by using a slimmer keyboard, by switching out the butterfly mechanism for one where the keys are positioned much closer to the circuit board, reducing the amount of travel and materials required to register a key press and to actuate.

2019 MacBook Pro
2019 MacBook Pro


The butterfly keyboard mechanism used in the current generation of MacBook Pro models has gone through a number of revisions to fix issues with how it functions, including occasions where debris could interfere with the mechanism's operation. The issues have led to the creation of a repair program to fix the problem, but complaints about the component continue to be made.

The keyboard is also a space-occupying component of a notebook's design, with the switch mechanism providing an actuation, namely the physical movement of the key to register a press and to reset. In order to allow this to happen, a mechanism has to sit between the key and the circuit board, taking up valuable space that could be used to make the notebook design even thinner, or to provide more battery capacity.

In a patent published by the US Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday titled "Keyboard assemblies having reduced thickness and method of forming keyboard assemblies," Apple seeks to do just that.

An illustration of the PCB at the bottom of the stack, with layers for the membrane, switching mechanism, and keycap.
An illustration of the PCB at the bottom of the stack, with layers for the membrane, switching mechanism, and keycap.


In Apple's filing, the company suggests the use of a single membrane sheet adhered directly to the printed circuit board (PCB). A switch housing can optionally be affixed directly to the membrane layer or to the PCB, sandwiched between the two, and a dome switch coupled directly on top to the membrane layer.

Generally the membrane is not typically attached to the PCB, but is used to help facilitate the closing of a connection, to trigger the key press. By attaching the membrane completely across the PCB, this eliminates any wasted space and brings the components closer together.

Apple also reasons that, by coupling the dome switch to the membrane directly, the switch can be more easily installed, reducing assembly time.

An example of a dome switch being sandwiched between the PCB and the membrane
An example of a dome switch being sandwiched between the PCB and the membrane


To make the electrical connection, the membrane could consist of a series of membrane pads constructed from a "substantially flexible, electrically conductive material," though the membrane could also be attached to the PCB using a conductive adhesive to do a similar job once dried.

Alternately, the system could simply use a sandwiched dome switch.

While Apple does suggest the use of a "hinge mechanism positioned adjacent the switch housing" for installing the keycap above its respective dome switch, it is not limited to the existing butterfly system. Apple proposes the use of "any suitable hinge mechanism," listing off a V-shaped hinge, scissor hinge, telescoping hinge, and sliding hinge mechanism as examples alongside butterfly.

Apple files numerous patent applications on a weekly basis, but while the presence of a filing indicates areas of interest for the company's research and development efforts, it does not guarantee the concepts will make an appearance in a future product or service.

There have been many patent filings over the years where Apple attempts to refine or replace the existing mechanism with an improved version. The most recent attempt in August suggested the use of light in an "Optical Keyboard" to replace switches entirely, with key presses obscuring a light source and triggering a press.

There has also been the suggestion of using glass panel keyboards with force detection for each key, the addition of touch-sensitive keys, and replacing the keyboard section of a MacBook entirely with a touchscreen.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 49
    crowleycrowley Posts: 6,064member
    I'm sure this won't cause any problems.
    boboliciousdysamoriaanantksundarammacgui
  • Reply 2 of 49
    Apple's obsession with thinness is causing them endless problems.

    Do pro laptop users (as opposed to consumers) care about thinness?  Well, put it this way:  My work laptop (my employer's property) is a Dell Lattitude running Linux.   It is significantly thicker but the keyboard is amazing.  Yeah, the trackpad isn't nearly as good, but that has nothing to do with thinness.  I'm pretty sure Apple has lost a lot of server-side developers to Linux.

    These keyboard experiments have been fraught with hazards.  The best you can say about the butterfly keyboard is that it's "controversial" or "polarizing".

    boboliciouscroprdysamoriaanantksundarambaconstang
  • Reply 3 of 49
    arlorarlor Posts: 514member
    Thinness is cool and all, but I type thousands of words a day, and I don't move my laptop around all that much. Short key travel and lack of wrist elevation both reduce comfort and the latter is a well-studied cause of repetitive stress problems. Comfort when I'm working is far, far more important to me than comfort when I'm carrying the thing around. Modern laptops from almost any manufacturer are already light and thin enough that further progress seems unnecessary. 

    I think the thinness has gone further than is sensible on the phones, too. The camera bump exposes the critical covering of the camera to scratches and damage, and means that the phone doesn't lay flat. Sure, both of these problems can be addressed with a case, but what's the point of the beautiful design if it's just going to go into a case? 
    edited September 24 boboliciousdocno42zoetmbvoenixrisingmuthuk_vanalingamdysamoriaanantksundarambaconstang
  • Reply 4 of 49
    If there's one thing I don't like about the Macbook, it's the fact that it's too thick. LOL.

    Actually, there are several things I don't like about my 2017 Macbook and chief among them is the crappy keyboard.  In addition to feeling worse than most keyboards (including the MS Surface detachable keyboard -flame away but it's better), the whole laptop could be ruined by a bit of dust or lint.  The trackpad also does very poorly at discerning intentional touches from unintentional hits from the palm - it very often sends the cursor where I don't want it.  It's damned hard to use the keyboard without touching the trackpad at all.  Now, I really don't think these plans from Apple are going to improve the keyboard in the areas where I have problems with it.
    boboliciousdocno42muthuk_vanalingamdysamoriaanantksundarambaconstang
  • Reply 5 of 49
    Ho thin do they want the laptop to be, seriously? Give me back the 2015 model with SD Card any time over these new models, I hate the new keyboard, it is noisy and not comfortable, bring back the old design!
    80s_Apple_Guydysamoriaanantksundarambaconstang
  • Reply 6 of 49
    I wish I could stay with "before 2015" design forever... I'm still using a late 2013 15-inch and I love it. I'm not afraid of ssd wear as it is replaceable, keyboard is great. Never have I wished for a thinner laptop... More powerful - yes. TouchId (like in the new Air) - yes. I still use SD Cards regularly and I still hook up the laptop to hdmi occasionally... 
    boboliciousdocno42dysamoriaanantksundarambaconstang
  • Reply 7 of 49
    avon b7avon b7 Posts: 4,302member
    On reading the title of this piece I was smiling right up to the halfway point. When I reached the end I was crying. LOL.
    muthuk_vanalingamdysamoria
  • Reply 8 of 49
    Anything that makes a notebook computer thinner and lighter while remaining powerful as the MacBook Pros are is to be welcomed. Innovation is a good thing.
    Wgkruegerfastasleep
  • Reply 9 of 49
    If they want to innovate on the thickness and apply that to the MacBook Air line, I have no problem with it.  But for the MacBook Pro, the keyboard is the weakest link at the moment and making less key travel doesn't seem like a step in the right direction.  I have to use an external keyboard at work to be productive on my company-owned 2017 MacBook Pro.  At home I still use my 2012 MacBook Pro and love the keyboard.  I was holding out hope of a new (better) keyboard design before buying a new laptop for home use, but now I am not so sure.
    boboliciousmuthuk_vanalingamdysamoriaanantksundaram
  • Reply 10 of 49
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 1,728member
    With all the problems and complaints the butterfly mechanism has had, I'm not surprised by this. Of course they would probably be doing research regardless. 

    As for their 'obsession with thinness,' some of it is certainly trying to get bragging rights, but for some consumers it is definitely an issue. I loved my 2011 MacBook Air and part of the reason was because it was thin and I could slide it in my bag and it didn't take up much room. Of course, it had a decent keyboard.

    The other issue is that everyone is interested in battery life, and every mm of keyboard you shave off is an extra mm of battery you can pack in.
    PickUrPoison
  • Reply 11 of 49
    sce1 said:
    If they want to innovate on the thickness and apply that to the MacBook Air line, I have no problem with it.  But for the MacBook Pro, the keyboard is the weakest link at the moment and making less key travel doesn't seem like a step in the right direction.  I have to use an external keyboard at work to be productive on my company-owned 2017 MacBook Pro.  At home I still use my 2012 MacBook Pro and love the keyboard.  I was holding out hope of a new (better) keyboard design before buying a new laptop for home use, but now I am not so sure.
    As you suggest is there room for both a pro grade portable laptop and desktop ?
  • Reply 12 of 49
    Quit with the thinness. Do what you did with the iPhone 11 Pro Max and allow a little more girth and a MUCH bigger battery.
    HeliBum
  • Reply 13 of 49
    Rayz2016Rayz2016 Posts: 4,788member
    So, the conditioning of the user base continues.

    fastasleep
  • Reply 14 of 49
    neilmneilm Posts: 658member
    Reducing the size of a component is no bad thing in a portable — witness the latest iPhones, where room has been found to allow higher battery capacity for longer run time. But like all such things, it's only good as long as the compromises still work. Let's hope that Apple has learned its lesson with regard to keyboards.
  • Reply 15 of 49
    wood1208wood1208 Posts: 2,027member
    Besides many other goof things, reliability of Macbook/Pro/Air is key for users. Hope, new keyboard design address it.
    baconstang
  • Reply 16 of 49
    docno42docno42 Posts: 3,337member
    Ugh - hopefully it's optional until proven and not pig-headedly pushed out to all the laptops whether it's worth a crap or not.  

    They seriously need to focus on reliability FIRST when they finally do replace the blasted butterfly keyboards.  And fix whatever oversights that were part of their design process that allowed them to develop and completely miss in testing a keyboard that couldn't hold up in the real world.
    edited September 24
  • Reply 17 of 49
    Crap keyboards are here to stay.
    muthuk_vanalingamanantksundaram
  • Reply 18 of 49
    arlor said:
    Short key travel and lack of wrist elevation both reduce comfort and the latter is a well-studied cause of repetitive stress problems.
    I don't know what studies you've seen, but my personal experience with carpal and radial tunnel irritation led me to look pretty deeply into the ergonomics of my own workstation. The occupational therapist who visited my office was, for lack of a better term, incompetent. Virtually everything she suggested was contrary to my own engineering intuition. I continued my experimentation with monitor/keyboard placement/geometry and finally settled on a configuration that has allowed me to continue working, symptom free, for an additional 20 years.

    One of the therapist's suggestions was to elevate the back of the keyboard to achieve greater wrist extension. That was exactly the opposite of what I'd been doing to alleviate my symptoms. My continued experimentation after her short visit ultimately resulted my my placing the keyboard on a tray just above my legs when seated, with the keyboard slanted down to match the angle of my forearms. Subsequent research has shown that wrist extension is a cause of carpal tunnel stress.

    Here's a study... https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2649727/

    Here's the graph of carpal tunnel pressure vs. wrist angle. Notice that minimum pressure unsurprisingly occurs at zero extension, the natural position of the wrist.


    My greatest difficulties during the peak of my RSI problems were with mice. I tried trackballs, vertical mice, joysticks... everything. When Apple introduced the Magic Mouse, I was skeptical. With no tactile feedback, I was certain it would exacerbate my mouse hand RSI. Imagine my surprise when, within days of using it, I was able to stop taking ibuprofen. I am now a Magic Mouse fan of the first order.

    I have a 2018 MacBook Pro as well as an iMac Pro and find both keyboards comfortable to use. They do not offer the tactile feedback of old Apple mechanical keyboards, but they also don't aggravate my RSI. I recently spent an afternoon at an old Apple Extended Keyboard, which I'd always thought was the best I've ever used. Within minutes, though my fingers were delighted by the feel, the rest of my arm began to revolt. I can't go back again.

    Everybody's situation is different and I do not recommend my particular ergonomics to anyone, yet I find Apple's march towards thinness to work well for me.
    avon b7muthuk_vanalingamRayz2016badmonk
  • Reply 19 of 49
    zoetmbzoetmb Posts: 2,491member
    williamh said:
    The trackpad also does very poorly at discerning intentional touches from unintentional hits from the palm - it very often sends the cursor where I don't want it.  It's damned hard to use the keyboard without touching the trackpad at all.  
    This drives me out of my freaking mind.   The trackpad is TOO WIDE.  One cannot keep their arms straight and not hit the trackpad unless you don't rest your arms on the computer and hold them in an uncomfortable position instead.   Apple used to be great at testing everything with end-users, but they're so paranoid about secrecy, either they don't do it anymore or they're incompetent at it.   With all the thousands of hires at Apple, you'd think they could get this right.    

    Every time they update the OS, even with just primarily a security update, things that had worked fine for years, stop working or work inconsistently.   Apple also used to be brilliant at testing on screen messages back to the users - back in the Apple ][ days, they went through six iterations of a single question about whether the user was using a color monitor before finding the one that worked the best.   Now the messaging sounds like a programmer wrote it.  

    I've been seeing lots of complaints online about the latest iOS update:  people are complaining that typing has become very slow.  I haven't updated myself yet - I always wait a few weeks to make sure there are no issues.   

    And I agree with the other comments about unnecessary thinness.  Apple's obsession with this is absurd and my hope was that with Ive gone, they would move on.  If a new keyboard does save space, they shouldn't make the machines thinner - they should instead put in a larger battery.    And there's only about 1/16th of an inch above and below the USB-C ports and about 1/32" above and below the headphone jack, so there's very little room to play with anyway (Apple's idiot solution to that will probably be to remove the earphone jack).    

    Apple seems to create products that they don't think people will ever actually use for real tasks that need to be done efficiently.   They think people will primarily just look at the products and exclaim how beautiful they are.    I'm furious at Apple anyway for not having removable/replaceable storage, memory and battery.   I may well be on my last Mac and I've been using a Mac since the very first one.  I hate Windows, but I played with a $500 Windows laptop that seemed to work just fine for most of what I do.   If it breaks, I'l toss it and get another - I can't imagine I'll go through six of them in the time I would keep one $3200 MBP.  

    /rant
    anantksundarambaconstang
  • Reply 20 of 49
    melgrossmelgross Posts: 31,982member
    Considering how bad the last attempt was, I would think that they would forget about the entire concept.

    now that the phones are getting thicker again, maybe they should be looking in that direction for notebooks as well. I really don’t think people would be so opposed to a couple of extra millimeters in exchange for a better keyboard. Have we all forgotten that there was a time when Apple’s laptops were considered to have the best keyboards of all laptops?
    muthuk_vanalingambaconstang
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