Anatomy of a Butterfly (Keyboard)—Teardown Style

The 2018 MacBook Pro keyboard is a wealth of secrets—it just keeps surprising us. Just when we think we’ve exhausted one vein of tasty tech ore, we find something new. And today, we bring this trove to you. If you’re not excited for a deep dive, check out our keyboard teardown for a more photo-driven experience.

Testing, testing

First off, I’ll tell you that we didn’t get conclusive noise level comparisons for this keyboard. We don’t have the snappiest equipment or an anechoic chamber lying around, so we resorted to a sound meter, a phone app, and our ears to compare current and past-gen keyboard noisiness. The result? We think the third-generation keyboard is slightly less clacky on the high-frequency end—which is admittedly kinda weak. But hear me out—if Apple is advertising a quieter keyboard (without providing detail on how much quieter), shouldn’t the difference be immediately apparent to a first-time user? Why should we need high-grade equipment to prove what should be obvious to the ears? In a world where Apple once quietly introduced iPhone waterproofing without bragging about it, this seems like a strange instance of under-delivery. Since Apple informed their service providers that the membrane is “to prevent debris,” we’re inclined to think any change in noise level really is just a secondary feature.

Okay, now to the nitty-gritty testing. We pumped this keyboard full of particulates to test our ingress-proofing theory. We started with a fine, powdered paint additive to add a bit of color and enable finer tracking (thanks for the tip, Dan!). Lo and behold, the dust is safely sequestered at the edges of the membrane, leaving the mechanism fairly sheltered. The holes in the membrane allow the keycap clips to pass through, but are covered by the cap itself, blocking dust ingress. The previous-gen butterfly keys are far less protected, and are almost immediately flooded with our glowing granules. On the 2018 keyboard, with the addition of more particulate and some aggressive typing, the dust eventually penetrates under the sheltered clips, and gets on top of the switch—so the ingress-proofing isn’t foolproof just yet. Time will tell how long the barrier will hold up. Following the Mythbusters method of testing, we pushed the keyboard to failure with the higher-grit particulate we used last time: sand. And just like last time, a few poorly placed particles bring the mighty butterfly down to earth, never to click again.

Silicone protector on the MacBook Pro butterfly keyboard

Dust largely stays around the exterior of the new silicone shield, but particles can make their way past the barrier over time.

Teardown Time

Now, that’s all well and good, but what does this silicone barrier actually look like? Are the keys wrapped in individual cushions? Did Apple just hide one of those goofy keyboard covers in this device? Like an ogre onion, this keyboard is a series of layers, so let’s get to peeling. In order to get to the keyboard at all you need to gut the MacBook, peel off a large backing sticker, remove a whole brace of screws and bust through more than a dozen rivets. And you wonder why Apple is replacing entire top case assemblies—including batteries—when they only really need to replace the keyboard. Apple could have saved themselves a lot of money, grief, and a ton of negative press if they just made this thing easier for their own techs to work on. And even after the irreversible pin removal, we still need to cook the thing under a pile of iOpeners to loosen the adhesive holding it together.

Oh, and remove all 64 keycaps on the laptop. More on those later.

When we’re finally able to peel the (absurdly thin) keyboard off of the aluminum case, we’re met with fields of clear silicone. That’s right—a single die-cut and molded sheet.

butterfly keyboard removal on the MacBook Pro 2018Jeff makes this look easy, but this keyboard removal was hard-fought. No wonder Apple techs replace the whole assembly.

Apple’s patent application is pretty broad, basically taking ownership of any flexible barrier under a keyboard. This implementation lacks the “bellows” function intended to blow particulate away from the mechanism; the gaps in the membrane are for keycap attachment, and to allow key presses without interference from an air cushion. Figure 2 in the patent lays out the layers we saw in our teardown, but showcases a secondary keycap layer not present in this design. What we found is closer in spirit to Figure 5, wherein the keycap clips pass through the membrane to attach to the butterfly mechanism. The membrane in its present form covers more of the central area of the switch than Figure 5 shows, and does not “couple” to either the keycap or mechanism, but lies sandwiched between them.

Now back to those keycaps. We kept feeling like the caps were easier to remove and harder to ruin, and it turns out that they have been very slightly redesigned. The new keycaps measure in at around 1.25 mm in thickness, compared to the 1.5 mm thick keys in the 2017 model. Presumably this gives the keys room to travel, despite the addition of the membrane—however, it also provides easier access to pry the caps off. Casey Johnston will be gratified to know that the spacebar key has most definitely been redesigned. It may not look much different, but the keycap separates readily from the butterfly mechanism, instead of ripping it out wholesale and damaging it in the process. Apple is rumored to be providing key cap replacements, so it seems like they’re confident in this thinner, readily removable design.

butterfly mechanism on the 2018 MacBook pro teardown

New removable-spacebar hotness on top, below it: old and busted (literally) in the process of removal.

Dust in the wind

Okay, so why does all this matter? Apple has a proven track record of failure for these keyboards. They’re being accused, by way of several class-action lawsuits, of knowingly selling failure-prone keyboards. Apple may claim that they design products to last—and that designing for repairability compromises the durability of a device—but this keyboard misadventure belies those points. If a single grain of sand can bring a computer to a grinding halt, that’s not built to last. If said computer can only be fixed by throwing half of it away and starting over, that’s not built to last. We’re definitely excited to see improved protection on these machines—consumers deserve it with the prices they’re paying. But if Apple had designed their keyboards for longevity in the first place, instead of chasing thinness at all cost, maybe we’d be in a whole different timeline, where MacBooks are repairable, and they never canceled Firefly