How a guy with no hardware background engineered a more responsive keyboard than Apple with scotch tape and a business card
Keyboards are not rocket science.
Each time you press a key, the plastic pushes down on a small piece of metal that hits another piece of metal to complete an electric circuit. A small amount of electric current flows through the circuit, and the processor translates the current into a character that appears on your screen.
Because the mechanics are simple, I was surprised when a key on my 2016 MacBook Pro stopped responding a year after I’d bought it.
No key had ever failed on any previous computer I’d bought — not on a $300, 2005 Toshiba; not on a $250, 2009 Compaq; and not on a 2011 MacBook Pro that has been handed down and used continuously for almost 7 years.
The Genius Bar
At the Apple store, I showed the Genius the unresponsive key and the web posts I found of the recurring issue.
Genius began a 2-minute lecture about why this wasn’t a known issue, why the posts I’d read weren’t representative, and why some smudges I had on the keyboard could be the culprit. He then took the computer into the back room, where he spent 20 minutes wiping away the smudges and spraying underneath the keys with compressed air.
When Genius walked away with my computer, the person sitting next to me swiveled over. “I was here last week and that guy gave me the exact same spiel. My shift key doesn’t work. There’s obviously something wrong with these keyboards.”
When Genius returned, he confirmed the obvious. It was a hardware issue, and my computer was out of warranty by a month and a half. To fix the one unresponsive key, Apple would have to replace the top case — the entire top half of the computer. The cost? Around $700.
Like any red-blooded person, I didn’t want to get ripped off.
With nothing to lose on an out-of-warranty computer, I took matters into my own hands.
After getting home from the Apple store, I opened my desk drawer and took out whatever I saw first. A scotch tape dispenser. An old business card. A debit card. A pair of scissors.
I used the debit card to pry out the key’s black cap and its underlying white butterfly-switch from the keyboard, exposing the bare metal underneath that clicked to connect the circuit.
The hardware issue became clear: the key-cap and butterfly-switch were no longer pressing down on the metal with enough force to get a response. More padding on top of the metal would allow each click to press down fully with more force.
Cutting two small squares off the corners of the business card, I stacked them with folded pieces of tape in between and taped them to the top of the bare metal to add padding.
Because the butterfly-switch was much more brittle than its scissor-switch predecessor, it actually broke when I pried it out. To give the black key-cap enough height and support in a way that mimicked the butterfly-switch, I rolled pieces of tape into thin cylinders of double-sided tape and stacked them to support the edges of the black key-caps.
After putting the key-cap back into its slot and typing a few words, the results floored me. The key was actually more responsive than it was the day I’d bought the computer.
I was happy with the result.
But if a guy with no hardware background can engineer a more responsive keyboard with scotch tape and a business card, then what does that say about Apple, the world’s most valuable publicly-traded company?
And why did Apple make a computer where customers must pay $700 and trade in the entire top half of their computer to fix a single unresponsive key?
Apple has never been perfect. A recent version of its MacOS software even allowed anyone to break in without a password. But a hardware company that makes a computer where its biggest user interface, the straightforward keyboard, repeatedly fails is a new low.
Short of a general recall of the defective computers to show that Apple is still a hardware company with a sense of responsibility, my next computer will be a Microsoft Surface Book. It may not look as slick as a MacBook Pro, but it does have a detachable touchscreen, longer battery life, and — most importantly — a keyboard that actually works.