Future MacBook Pro may gain retractable keyboard for thinness, screen protection

Posted:
in Future Apple Hardware
Apple has researched using a keyboard that expands up out of the MacBook Pro chassis, and retracts again when the lid is closed.

The current keyboard on a 16-inch MacBook Pro
The current keyboard on a 16-inch MacBook Pro


Screens on laptops have always been delicate, but perhaps never more so than now with the new 14-inch MacBook Pro and revised 16-inch MacBook Pro. It's not that those are any more delicate, it's that they are so much better that the thought of damaging them is painful.

And MacBook Pro screens do get damaged. In 2020, Apple had to advise people against fitting slideable camera covers over the lens in the lid, because it was leading to cracked screens.

Similarly, in 2015, there were MacBook Pro users complaining that just closing the lid was leading to damage on the screen coating.

Now a newly-granted patent attempts to solve some screen issues by also potentially making it possible to keep the MacBook Pro thin. "Retractable keyboards" was originally filed as a patent application back in the butterfly keyboard days, but it remains relevant today, even as Apple has drastically improved its MacBook Pro keyboards.

That's because this patent is about getting the best of all possible worlds. By having a keyboard that retracts, then Apple can present a laptop that is slim when closed.

And yet it can also provide a keyboard that potentially has the travel and feel of a larger one. Plus, any retraction keeps the keys away from the screen, and it helps make a tighter fitting lid so there's also less chance of anything else getting in to damage the display.

"Recent advances in computing [means that portable] devices have become thinner, lighter, and more efficient," says Apple. "However, mechanical user interfaces with the devices have parts that can be difficult to change in size due to user preferences."

"Users expect devices to have a button or key size that is well-suited for a finger to press, and users generally have a preference for buttons or keys that provide audible and tactile feedback when pressed," it continues. "Thus, user interfaces such as keyboards and other buttons are designed to have a predetermined size and amount of perceived deflection when pressed."

Detail from the patent application showing space beneath a key mechanism
Detail from the patent application showing space beneath a key mechanism


You can't call any of this a problem when it is the "predetermined size" and the "perceived deflection" that make all the difference between a good and a poor keyboard. However, Apple does think it's a problem when that keyboard is not being used.

"These constraints can make devices larger than needed for some tasks, such as when the user interfaces of the devices are not being used or are stored," says the patent.

At the same time, Apple notes that "keyboards are also a particular area of interest" for making slimmer devices, "since they are made with internal empty space within their structures to accommodate keycap movement."

Apple's proposal is to make it such that the MacBook Pro chassis can move, "selectively retracting or extending the keys of the keyboard relative to an internal keyboard mounting or support layer."

That movement could be "movable magnetic or mechanical linkage elements [that] are configured to reposition keycaps and stabilizers between different relative positions."

It's all reminiscent of the IBM ThinkPad's famous butterfly keyboard, where in this case "butterfly" referred to how it spread out from the casing. Open the lid of such a laptop, and the keyboard would move up, forward, and out.

IBM ThinkPad 701's Butterfly keyboard moved outwards when the lid was open. (Source: Mikebabb on Wiki Commons)
IBM ThinkPad 701's Butterfly keyboard moved outwards when the lid was open. (Source: Mikebabb on Wiki Commons)


In that model, the aim was to present a full-size keyboard which extended out over the sides of the laptop, and would retract back inside it. With Apple, there's no plan to widen the keyboard, rather to keep the current size and have it retract when not needed.

This patent is credited to five inventors, including Houtan R. Farahani, who has a previous related patent regarding "Enclosure features for a portable computing device."

Read on AppleInsider

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 9
    And the article helpfully includes the prior art from the 1990s that should have caused the instant rejection of this incredibly obvious patent.
    williamlondon
  • Reply 2 of 9
    darkvader said:
    And the article helpfully includes the prior art from the 1990s that should have caused the instant rejection of this incredibly obvious patent.
    Or.... not. Patents are granted on implementations, not ideas. If Apple has a novel or unique mechanism for implementing a retractable keyboard, then that mechanism is patentable.
    freeassociate2OctoMonkeywilliamlondonMplsP
  • Reply 3 of 9
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 3,441member
    hmlongco said:
    darkvader said:
    And the article helpfully includes the prior art from the 1990s that should have caused the instant rejection of this incredibly obvious patent.
    Or.... not. Patents are granted on implementations, not ideas. If Apple has a novel or unique mechanism for implementing a retractable keyboard, then that mechanism is patentable.
    Yes - I can’t imagine the implementation of their would be trivial. Im trying to figure out how they would keep the solid feel while moving the keyboard. Even moving the keyboard 0.5 mm would be helpful. My MBP screen regularly gets marks on the screen from the keyboard. It hasn’t broken, but it is annoying and speaks to the incredibly tight tolerances Apple uses in their designs. 
  • Reply 4 of 9
    wood1208wood1208 Posts: 2,582member
    Keyboard will last many years but I doubt the retractable keyboard mechanism. Apple better perfect the keyboard retractable mechanism to last many years.
    williamlondon
  • Reply 5 of 9
    No they won't.
    williamlondonelijahg
  • Reply 6 of 9
    elijahgelijahg Posts: 2,506member
    I’d hope Apple has learnt their lesson and is done playing games with the keyboard. Just make the gap between screen and keyboard 1mm thicker and problem solved. 
  • Reply 7 of 9
    mattinozmattinoz Posts: 1,687member
    I’d love a completely removable keyboard so when you are at your desk you could have a bit more space for 2 hands to use track pad and keyboard. 


    watto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 9
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 3,441member
    elijahg said:
    I’d hope Apple has learnt their lesson and is done playing games with the keyboard. Just make the gap between screen and keyboard 1mm thicker and problem solved. 
    Well, that's the problem, isn't it? People have been complaining that the new MBPs are too thick and they're only 0.2mm thicker. Can you imagine what they'd say if Apple made them an entire mm thicker?
    williamlondonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 9
    frank777frank777 Posts: 5,837member
    In 2020, Apple had to advise people against fitting slideable camera covers over the lens in the lid, because it was leading to cracked screens.

    Now that Apple is once again listening to customer feedback on MacBook designs, maybe they can take the hint from this sentence.
    williamlondon
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