MacBook Pro Keyboard Recall: My Ridiculous Experience

06 Aug 2018

In October 2016, Apple launched their new MacBook Pro lineup, which included the controversial Touch Bar, and new “butterfly” keyboard design. It wasn’t long before people started having issues with the new keyboards, to the extent that Apple recently issued a recall. I’m one of the many who was afflicted by keyboard issues, and this is my frankly ridiculous tale of getting it fixed.

I bought my MacBook Pro in May 2017, which turned out to be one month before they were updated, that’ll teach me for not checking the MacRumors buyers guide. It was my second Apple computer, having bought my first MacBook Pro back in 2011. Back then I was skeptical of Apple’s popularity among developers, but decided to give it a go, as no Windows based offerings appealed to me. It didn’t take long for me to convert to the Church of Apple. It was the most I’d ever spent on a computer, but it was a pleasure to use. Serving as both my work and home computer, my first MacBook saw heavy use pretty much every day for over 5 years, and suffered exactly zero issues. In fact, 7 years later, I still have that MacBook, and my only complaint is that the battery no longer holds a full charge. I really felt I’d got my money’s worth.

Buying my 2017 MacBook was similar to my experience in 2011. Having eked more service life out of my last MacBook by quadrupling the RAM and upgrading to an SSD, I was disappointed to learn new MacBooks were not user upgradeable. I also wasn’t convinced by the new Touch Bar, but as I really wanted to upgrade to a 15” model, a Touch Bar it had to be. Unlike a lot of people, I actually like the Touch Bar, the contextual buttons work well for me, especially when I’m using audio and video editing apps. This was my first Retina MacBook, which was a joy to behold, and I love the feel of the butterfly keyboard. I’m not a fan of the massive trackpad though, as it’s far too easy for my palm to slightly rest on the edges of it, causing it to register unintended gestures. It was also annoying to have to buy dongles so that I could keep using my existing peripherals, however I can definitely see the potential in USB-C. All in all, I was happy with my purchase. Except…

The Problems

The very first time I opened my shiny new MacBook Pro, there was a loud “click” sound, with an accompanying jerk in the opening motion. I just assumed it some kind of internal latch on the clamshell, but it was disappointing as opening and closing my last MacBook was smooth and silent.

As I used the new laptop, I noticed that it would occasionally make that “click” noise, even though I wasn’t opening or closing it. This caused me to wonder if there was something wrong. A quick Google later I found this was quite a common issue. One of the comments in that thread said they could trigger the click noise by pushing gently on the MacBook Pro logo below the screen. I tried it, and sure enough, “click”!

At this point I’d probably had the new MacBook for about six months. I intended to schedule an appointment at the local Apple store to get it looked at, however the nearest Apple store to me is Exeter, a 3 hour round trip. Because of this, I wanted to wait until I was going to be in Exeter anyway, but that never seemed to happen.

Fast forward to the MacBook being around a year old, and I noticed the ‘g’ would sometimes repeat. It wouldn’t get stuck, it would just repeat once. Eg: I’d type git status and instead I’d see ggit status or sometimes even gitg status. It wasn’t long after the g key started repeating that Apple announced their recall. This was just the kick in the ass I needed to finally book mine in and make the pilgrimage to the Exeter Apple store.

First time at the ‘Genius Bar’

I’d never been to the fabled ‘Genius Bar’ before, I’m not a fan of the concept (or name), but I have to admit, that first appointment was delightful.

My wife (Sophie) and I arrived about 5 minutes before our appointment. On entering the Apple store we were greeted by three different overly friendly members of staff, each of whom directed us upstairs to the ‘Genius Bar’. As we ascended the brushed steel and perspex stairway, the quiet calm of the downstairs ‘showroom’ area was forcibly displaced with a cacophony of voices. There were people seeking help, watching demonstrations, and playing with WiFi toys. There was also one woman inexplicably making a phone call using the loudspeaker. Why do people do that in a busy public place?

We made our way to the far end of the ‘Genius Bar’, as far from the madding crowd as possible, and awaited our assigned ‘Genius’. He turned out to be an affable guy who had great knowledge of the the new MacBook Pros’ internals.

He told us that the clicking was probably coming from the screen, so that would be replaced, but as the antenna module was also in that area, he’d order one of them as well. The keyboard issue would require replacement of the entire top case. My MacBook was just over a year old at this point, but under UK consumer rights laws, faulty goods must be repaired or replaced up to 6 years after purchase. This meant all three parts would be replaced for free. Good news for me, as this work out of warranty would cost £1,089.

I signed something vaguely resembling my signature on an iPad, left my MacBook with them, and was told it should be ready after 3 - 5 working days.

Collecting my ‘fixed’ MacBook

Three working days later, I got a call telling me my laptop is all fixed and ready for collection. As the weather was beautiful, I decided to take my new (to me) motorcycle on its first long trip, and made the 1.5 hour journey to the Apple store. I picked up my laptop, had a cup of coffee, got back on my bike and rode the 1.5 hours home.

During the time my laptop was being repaired, I was using my old one again. While my old MacBook still works, it felt sluggish by comparison, especially for video editing, so I was really excited to have my new MacBook back. I sat at my desk, opened up my newly repaired laptop, and instantly noticed there was no click noise. Opening it up felt smooth, just like my old MacBook. So far, so good.

Next I turned on Bluetooth and waited for my my wireless trackpad to connect. And waited. And waited some more. Then I turned Bluetooth off and on again. Then I turned the trackpad off and on again. Still nothing. My MacBook wasn’t seeing the trackpad. Thinking this might be a common issue with an easy fix, I turned my attention to Google. Except Google didn’t load. In fact I had no Internet at all. My MacBook couldn’t even see any wireless networks, which is odd as there’s usually 10 or so visible from my home office. My phone was able to connect to our WiFi without issue, so this was definitely a problem with my MacBook.

Bluetooth and WiFi, the two things that would require an antenna, were no longer working. It was at this point I remembered that the antenna module was replaced. Utilising my superhuman powers of deduction, I started to suspect something hadn’t been put back together correctly.

Feeling a little let down, I found the phone number for the Exeter Apple store and called them. Except I was redirected to Apple’s national tech support line. After 30 minutes on the phone being guided through the usual steps (safe mode, PRAM reset, etc.) the tech support agent confirmed it was a hardware issue, and told me he would speak to the Apple store to get me back in as soon as possible.

After about 5 minutes on hold the support agent informed me that although I could go back today, there weren’t any appointments available, so I’d have to wait in the store until someone could see me. Alternatively I could book an appointment for the next day. I decided to go back in today, as I’d already lost half the day, so I’d rather wait around to get it sorted, instead losing half of tomorrow as well.

Genius Bar take two

As much as I enjoyed it the first time, I didn’t feel like doing another long motorcycle ride, so Sophie and I jumped in the car and headed back to Exeter. Our second trip to the ‘Genius Bar’ was a less enjoyable experience.

When we arrived we were told there no appointments and we’d need to come back another day. I politely informed them that I’d been told we could wait to be seen today, and that it’s a 3 hour round trip, so we really don’t want to have to come back. After a few minutes, one of the engineers came out to speak to us. When I explained the issue, the engineer informed me that the antenna module wasn’t actually changed, as replacing the screen fixed the clicking issue. He then said “the only way WiFi and Bluetooth would stop working is if the antenna module wasn’t plugged in properly, which is very unlikely as that’s never happened before, and all repaired MacBooks are throughly tested before being released back to the customer.”

Reading between the lines, I suspected this guy was telling me I was wrong, and it was a user issue.

He then told us rather rudely that he was very busy and that we would have to book an appointment for another day.

Now I don’t remember it this way, but according to Sophie, at this point I stood up very straight, looked him dead in the eyes, and said firmly “that’s not good enough”. I’m not really a confrontational person, but apparently this was my limit.

It seemed to work, as he agreed to have a quick look at my laptop. As soon as he opened it up and searched for WiFi he realised that he was wrong. There should have been a plethora of WiFi networks available to connect to, but there was only one, and my MacBook refused to connect to it. The engineer seemed to become much more friendly at this point. He admitted that he didn’t enjoy working on these new MacBooks, as everything is so delicate and tightly packed in that it’s not easy to get them back together properly.

So once again, I left my MacBook with them, ready to wait another 3 - 5 business days.

That was quick

That very evening I received a call from an overly familiar Apple store employee, telling me they had already fixed my laptop. It turns out that they hadn’t properly connected the antenna module after all. Even though that never happens. And they thoroughly test all repairs. He told me that he’d reseated all the antenna module plugs, tested WiFi and Bluetooth, and everything was now working.

The next day it was forecasting rain, so Sophie and I took the car back to the Exeter Apple store (7th journey for those keeping count). This time I made sure the WiFi and Bluetooth were working in the store. Once we’d confirmed it was fixed, we headed home, happy to have this whole mess behind us. Or so we thought.

Ever tried programming without [ { - or _ ?

I’m a web developer, I make my living programming the Saber Website Feedback Tool. My main languages are Ruby and JavaScript. The point I’m making is that I use the [ { - and _ characters a lot. Since I first took my MacBook in to be repaired, I’d not actually done any work on it. All I had done was try (and fail) to connect to Bluetooth and WiFi, and then take it back to the Apple store.

Now I could finally get some work done, but it wasn’t long before I tried to open an array with [ and nothing happened. My immediate reaction was that Sublime Text’s auto-syntax-thing had broken, so I tried in note pad, and nothing. The key was dead. Then I tried every other key, and found the key above it (- and _) also didn’t work. Unfortunately for me, those are some pretty damn important keys in my line of work.

For the second time, I had to go through a long phone call with Apple tech support to make sure it wasn’t a software problem. Once we’d ascertained that it was a hardware issue, I was passed over to a senior support support agent (Chris), who informed me that after three failed repairs Apple’s policy is to initiate a Customer Replacement Unit (CRU). Chris booked another appointment for me, and made sure the Apple store knew I was now due a replacement laptop. He also told me to give him a call if I didn’t get a replacement, and he’d make sure I got something to make up for all the hassle.

Third time’s a charm?

Things were finally starting to look up. All these trips to the Apple store had cost me a lot of time, and a few tanks of petrol, but a brand new laptop would more than make up for all of that. This time Sophie was at work, so I went back on my own, and explained everything that had happened so far to the ‘Genius’ (I’m sorry, I can’t type that without the quotes). He told me that all he could do is book it in for another repair.

I explained to him how I’d been told that after three failed repairs I’d get a CRU, and I really didn’t want to wait for yet another repair. I also explained my concerns about the long term effects of multiple repairs on the newer MacBooks, based on what the engineer had told us.

I was told that CRU didn’t apply, as the second time they had my laptop (re-seating the antenna) wasn’t technically a separate repair. He said he’d go and ask the manager, but warned me that his manager would agree with him and I wouldn’t be getting a new laptop.

He promptly returned and told me his manager had approved a CRU, and that as long as Apple also approved it, my MacBook would be replaced.

Because my laptop was a custom order from apple.com, they couldn’t do the CRU in store, so it would take up to three weeks to get a new laptop. He told me that they’d phone me in the next couple of days letting me know if Apple had approved the CRU or not, but it should be OK as the store manager had approved it. The really good news was that I was able to take my MacBook home and keep using it (albeit with and external keyboard only).

That was quick, again

Three days later, I received another call from the Apple store. I expected this to be the call informing me whether or not the CRU had been approved, but instead the chirpy sounding girl informed me that my replacement laptop was ready for collection. So much for three weeks.

Back to Exeter I went, this time with Sophie providing excellent company. We ascended into the chaos of the Apple store’s upper level, hoping it would be the last time. We were greeted by another friendly girl who confirmed my identity, and then retrieved my new laptop.

I was finally starting to learn from this experience, so instead of just taking the new laptop and leaving, I first checked the specifications to make sure they matched my old one. Unfortunately, they did not:

  • Where my laptop had a 2.6 GHz quad core i7 CPU, this one had a 2.2 GHz
  • Where mine had the Radeon 450 graphics processor, this one only had the onboard Intel graphics.
  • And where mine had a 512 GB hard disk, this one only had 256 GB.

Boy was I glad I checked.

While writing this I researched MacBook Pro specs to make sure I was remembering correctly, and it seems no touchbar MacBook was ever available with the specs of the one they tried to give me. Judging by the MacBook Pro wikipedia page, it would appear it was a mid 2015, pre-touchbar model. Talk about a downgrade.

The employee was incredibly apologetic, and seemed to genuinely appreciate how ridiculous this whole thing had been. She told us the girl who picked out this replacement was new, and must have not checked the specs properly, and then said she’d try and find us a machine with matching specifications.

Eventually she returned looking triumphant, with a white MacBook Pro box in her hands. She explained that she was unable to find a matching laptop, so instead found one on which the specifications either matched or exceeded those of mine:

  • The hard disk matched at 512 GB
  • The CPU was a faster 2.9 GHz i7
  • The GPU was a more powerful Radon 560

Finally, a happy ending.

So that’s the story of how my MacBook Pro, with its intermittently sticky g key, and sporadic weird clicking noises, escalated its way to being replaced with a brand new upgraded machine. All it took was 15 hours of driving to and from the Apple store, along with another couple of hours on the phone to Apple tech support, and a good few days of lost work time.

Closing thoughts

I’m not really sure what the take away from all this is, I just thought my story was too ridiculous not to share.

One thing I’d say is that Apple does appear to have a serious issue on their hands regarding these keyboards, as the replacement top case they fitted to mine was dead on arrival. I hope the new version they’ve just released is able to mitigate at least some of these issues.

A problem I witnessed repeatedly was different departments within Apple not communicating effectively, especially between tech support on the phone, and the employees in the shop. All these issues were quickly resolved, but I feel they shouldn’t have happened to begin with. I also would have much preferred to be able to speak to someone at the Exeter Apple store directly, instead of being redirected to the national tech support helpline.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the Exeter Apple store. At the time I was pissed off with them, but looking back on it, I think I just got a run of bad luck. Most of the people I encountered there were incredibly friendly, and did all they could to help me get this sorted.

Overall, I’m happy with how it all turned out, and for the most part, Apple’s customer support was pretty damn good.

Thanks for reading.

- Matt


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