I compared a new MacBook Air with a manual typewriter from the 1960s and my favorite Apple laptop of all time to see if the MacBook’s controversial keyboard is as bad as everyone says

A made-in-England vintage Smith-Corona manual typewriter that I actually use all the time.

caption
A made-in-England vintage Smith-Corona manual typewriter that I actually use all the time.
source
Matt DeBord/BI

  • The “butterfly” keyboard on Apple laptops has been resoundingly criticized.
  • I’ve been using an Apple MacBook Air for about six months – and I’ve found that keyboard isn’t all that great.
  • But compared with a manual typewriter from the the 1960s, the MacBook keyboard is a miracle of modern technology.
  • I’ve owned a number of Apple laptops, however, and the latest keyboard is probably my least favorite – a far cry from the keyboard I remember most fondly, on an ancient iBook G4.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Hate your MacBook butterfly keyboard? You aren’t alone – complaints about the keyboard are all over the internet, and at Business Insider we’ve found the design to be wanting.

I’ve been using a new MacBook Air for about six months, and while typing on the keyboard is super-fast, I’ve also noted a decline in accuracy from the desktop keyboard I had been using, and from Apple laptops I’ve owned in the past.

As it turns out, I also possess the state-of-the-art for portable word processing from the 1960s: a Smith-Corona manual typewriter, which I still often use. I thought it might be both amusing an illuminating to compare that heavy-duty, hard-work keyboard with what modern technology has given us.

So here we go:


Here’s my new MacBook Air.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

It’s exceptionally slim.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

The 13-inch laptop with a Retina display is a sophisticated piece of 21st-century technology that unfortunately has one glaring flaw …

source
Matt DeBord/BI

… Its controversial butterfly keyboard.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

My BI colleague’s Antonio Villas-Boas and Lisa Eadicicco have been all over the complaints about the keyboards.

I gather that Apple is preparing to phase them out, according to the latest reports.


There are other quirks. My new MacBook uses a USB-C charger — gone is the magnetic MagSafe charging port.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

And the overall lack of old-school ports means that I need a special adapter to provide an ethernet hookup and to connect a printer or charge an iPhone.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

There is, however, a headphone jack.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

Honestly, I haven’t found the keyboard to be that bad. But it probably is the least accurate, worst-feeling Apple laptop keyboard I’ve ever used. I can see why folks are complaining.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

But how does it compare with the laptop of the 1960s?

source
Matt DeBord/BI

Behold, my beloved Smith-Corona manual typewriter. Made in England!

source
Matt DeBord/BI

Smith-Corona as a brand dates to the late 19th century, and through the 20th until the 1990s, when it effectively vanished. I can’t be sure, but I think my typewriter was made between 1965-1969.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

It’s the Corsair Deluxe model, a lightweight plastic manual that was designed to be affordable and portable.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

It’s certainly not MacBook Air thin, but it was quite svelte for the period.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

Obviously, it has no use for USB-C charging.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

And I don’t need to connect a printer.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

I do, however, need to use a pad to keep it from slipping around on my desk.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

I unpack this typewriter for various artsy projects, as well as when I just want to quickly write something up. I used typewriters for years before computers, so I have the process down pat. You first roll paper into the machine.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

It has these wing-like bars to support each sheet.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

And once you have the paper rolled onto the plate and everything lined up, you lock the carriage and bring down the guide to hold the paper in place.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

The typebars rise in response to keystrokes and hammer letters and numbers into the ribbon. It’s all rather noisy.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

No fonts, but you can change colors, if you have the correct style of ribbon.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

Whack the carriage return lever to set the left margin and you’re rockin’ and rollin’ like an analog throwback boss.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

The ERROR CONTROL function is sort of cool: it allows you to drop a letter between letters you’ve already typed, to fix mistakes.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

My Smith-Corona uses ribbon spools that I can still find on Amazon. But it is slightly dirty work to charge them.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

The way it works with typewriters is that you make a small stack of fresh paper to one side …

source
Matt DeBord/BI

… And transfer the typed sheets to the other side when you’re finished.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

No cutting and pasting or spellcheck, much less Grammarly. The tools of the typewritten manuscript editing trade are pens, pencils, staples, scissors, and tape.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

I’m one of those typists who always uses two sheets at a time — one sheet absorbs the impact of the typebars and keeps the platen from getting beaten up.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

So what about the keyboard?

source
Matt DeBord/BI

Well, there ain’t no butterflies here! The truth is that typing on the MacBook Air, as I’m doing now, goes at Mach speed compared with the manual typewriter. BUT because you have to think carefully about what you’re writing with the Smith-Corona, and you have to apply some serious muscle, I think you make fewer errors.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

It’s clearly no contest. Even the controversial Apple keyboard beats out the manual typewriter. That said, I’ve always felt that I do my best writing on the typewriter. It’s both more meditative and more physically demanding. A real workout!

source
Matt DeBord/BI

Meanwhile, once I wrapped up the typewriter-MacBook comparo, I figured I should haul out my favorite Apple keyboard.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

There are lots of stickers on this thing.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

It’s an iBook G4! I think I got it in 2004. The keyboard always felt just about perfect to me, and although the laptop isn’t powered up here, it still works — and I still use it when I want to do some distraction-free writing.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

The G4 was the last of Apple’s iBook lineup, which was replaced by the MacBook.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

It’s not thin, exactly, but it does have a CD slot.

source
Matt DeBord/BI

And a whole mess of ports!

source
Matt DeBord/BI

As you can see, I used the heck out of this machine. If I can keep it running, it could become to my descendants what my Smith-Corona Corsair Deluxe is to me.

source
Matt DeBord/BI