MacBooks could ditch butterfly switches in favor of an optical keyboard

MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2019)
(Image credit: Future)

Apple’s MacBooks have suffered somewhat at the hands of their keyboards – with a number of complaints about the by now infamous butterfly switch – but it seems the company might have plans to move away from a mechanical switch entirely, given the existence of a patent exploring the use of optical switches.

The patent, which was highlighted by Apple Insider, documents several optical keyboard concepts revolving around the use of a light sensor which detects when a key has been depressed.

The underside of the key could utilize some kind of ‘opaque structure’ which blocks light when it’s pressed down, and that’s the manner in which a key press is registered.

The key itself might include a light source to work in conjunction with the sensor and the light-blocking structure, and if so, that integrated light source could double as a backlight, giving it a second purpose which would be quite nifty.

Tackling tactile

One area that needs to be tackled is ensuring that the typing experience still feels satisfying using an optical rather than traditional mechanical switch. And to that end, Apple may use a ‘leg portion’ with the keycap which is designed to buckle when the key is pressed, “so that different tactile feedback responses are generated” depending on whether the key is fully or partially pressed.

That leg portion may be designed to buckle “two, three, or more than three times at one or more buckling locations to provide multiple tactile feedback events during compression of a key”, according to one implementation discussed in the patent.

So Apple is obviously keen to keep the feel of a mechanical keyboard when changing over to a non-physical switch.

As always, though, just because Apple has patented this particular optical technology doesn’t mean it will ever be seen in a future MacBook keyboard.

That said, it’s clear enough that Apple is keen to work to make its laptop keyboards better, and of late, a further refinement of the butterfly keyboard has been pushed out more widely.

However, the rumor mill reckons that the allegedly incoming MacBook Pro 16-inch will drop the butterfly keyboard entirely, although the replacement won’t be anything fancy, with speculation contending that Apple will employ a scissor switch instead.

But beyond scissor or butterfly switches, or indeed optical sensors, Apple has some other more radical concepts that have been aired by previous patents, including turning the MacBook into a dual-display device with a virtual OLED keyboard.

Darren is a freelancer writing news and features for TechRadar (and occasionally T3) across a broad range of computing topics including CPUs, GPUs, various other hardware, VPNs, antivirus and more. He has written about tech for the best part of three decades, and writes books in his spare time (his debut novel - 'I Know What You Did Last Supper' - was published by Hachette UK in 2013).