Report: Butterfly MacBook Pro keyboards require more frequent, more expensive repairs

An AppleInsider article has stoked some consumer frustration over Apple’s butterfly keyboards. In it, AppleInsider combed through a limited dataset of warranty events from participating Apple Genius Bars and third-party repair shops. The site determined that, in that data, the 2016 MacBook Pro’s keyboard accounted for twice the percentage of all warranty events in that machine’s first year on the market as its predecessors from 2014 and 2015 did.

These keyboards already have plenty of detractors. They have very short travel, which serves two functions: it frees up a tiny bit of space in the machine for other components (every nanometer counts), and it can make typing considerably faster since not as much effort is needed to register a key press. I like these keyboards, but  of other people feel strongly that they’re terrible to type on.

The AppleInsider report has resulted in Apple customers expressing frustration in forums and on Reddit. Detractors have even started a petition asking Apple to recall all MacBook Pros from 2016 and later and replace their keyboards with a new design that is less prone to failure. That’s not likely to happen—partly because it’s not practical and partly because the data is not as conclusive as it might seem.

The article claims that “the 2016 MacBook Pro keyboard is failing twice as often in the first year of use as the 2014 or 2015 MacBook Pro models,” but that’s not exactly what the data shows. That’s because the “twice as often” conclusion is based on the percentage of all tracked repairs that the keyboard constituted, as Daring Fireball notes. The 2016 MacBook Pro had fewer warranty events over all, so while the absolute number of keyboard-related events didn’t double, the percentage of all repairs that were keyboard-related did. Further, the 2017 model’s slightly revised keyboard saw significant improvements on this front, so as usual, it’s the earliest adopters who are dealing with the most problems.

The numbers

In AppleInsider’s data, the 2014 MacBook Pro (inclusive of both the 13-inch and 15-inch models) “saw 2,120 service events in the first year” it was on the market. 2015’s MacBook Pro saw 1,904 service events. The 2016 MacBook Pro saw only 1,402. AppleInsider found 165 keyboard-related incidents (excluding those related to the Touch Bar) in its data for the 2016 MacBook Pro’s first year on the market. There were 114 in 2015 and 118 in 2014—two prior years that used the older chiclet keyboard design. That’s an increase of about 45 percent and 40 percent, respectively, but not double.

There’s another wrinkle, though: return visits. Out of the 2015 model’s 114 keyboard-related repairs in the dataset, six returned for a second repair for the keyboard, and none did for a third. In 2015, it was eight out of 118 for a second repair, and once again no third round of repairs. In contrast, 51 customers out of the 161 who initially sought repairs for their 2016 MacBook Pro keyboards returned for a second round of repairs, and of those, 10 returned for round three. That’s still not quite twice as many repairs as with the prior models, but it’s close.

Why did people return for another round? Was it because the keyboards failed again or because they were improperly repaired to begin with? We don’t know, so we have as many questions as we have answers after seeing this data.

AppleInsider found that a slight redesign of the keyboard that was included in the 2017 models (and that is now installed in 2016 models when servicing them) seems to be resulting in repair numbers moving a little closer to the 2015 and 2014 numbers, although a full year of data for that model is not yet available.

The data suggests that the newer MacBook Pro keyboards require repairs a little more often. And they’re much more difficult and expensive to repair than prior models. That creates a dilemma for consumers.

The high cost of repair

My own 2016 15-inch MacBook Pro keyboard failed about two months ago. The “Z” key stopped working. I took the computer to an Apple Store, and Apple determined that some kind of dust or similar matter had gotten into the keyboard and caused a problem. Apple replaced it with the updated keyboard found in the 2016 MacBook Pro. My computer was working again the next day, and it cost me nothing because I had AppleCare. If I hadn’t, the repair would have cost me more than $700 according to the repair sheet the company gave me when it returned my computer.

That’s because Apple has designed the MacBook Pro such that fixing even one key requires replacing the entire keyboard apparatus, as well as part of the metal enclosure and some other components as well. This is the real consumer’s dilemma with the MacBook Pro keyboards—not their failure rate.

AppleInsider’s own reporting on the cost of the repair is right on the money with my experience:

The keyboard isn’t replaceable by itself. Break one key switch, and you need to replace the whole assembly, consisting of the keyboard, the battery, and the upper case metal surrounding the keyboard and Thunderbolt 3 ports.

We’ve seen out-of-warranty pricing with labor and parts exceeding $700 for the job, and it isn’t an easy repair, necessitating a complete disassembly of the machine. This same repair is $400 on the 2014 and 2015 MacBook Pro—cheaper, but still a lot of money.

Making these kinds of serviceability sacrifices allows Apple to produce some striking designs, and it frees up space for other features, better heat management, and so on. But for customers who don’t purchase AppleCare, those benefits can come at a very high cost when components in the computer fail. The default, one-year warranty just isn’t enough—and in many regions, either AppleCare isn’t available at all, or it is, but no Apple Stores are close enough to make the service practical.

That leaves quite a few customers hanging. And it’s not just Apple anymore; other laptops, like Microsoft’s Surface Pro, are just as difficult to service. It’s not great for tech consumers that buying an expensive service plan is the only way to have peace of mind when buying a $2,500 device.

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