MacBooks still have keyboard problems? I went to two Apple stores to find out

Complaints about Apple's hardware -- both MacBooks and now the iPad Pro -- have significantly increased over the past few months. How does Apple's sales staff deal with this?

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A problem? If so, how much of a problem?

Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

It's all very well Apple wanting customers to partake of its shiny, but perhaps not substantial, new services.

Cupertino's hardware, however, has increasingly been irritating customers for its lack of reliability.

First it was the MacBook's butterfly keyboard. It allowed more dust under its keys than I have under my sofa. It was all supposed to be fixed with the new MacBook Air.

Sadly, that seems not to be the case. You know when Apple actually apologizes, the situation is serious.

Last week, it was the iPad Pro's turn to suffer the wailings of customers. Some iPad Pro screens have apparently become erratic.

I wondered whether stores had seen an increase in the decibel-level of complaints. I wondered what they'd say to reassure customers.

Are Geniuses being flooded with machines that insert unwanted double-spaces into artists' great works? Have they been poking more iPad screens that respond by sticking their noses in the air and doing what they feel like?

So I went to a Bay Area Apple store, browsed around the laptops, until a salesperson volunteered her help.

"I hear people are complaining that these keyboards don't work very well," I ventured. "Haven't there been problems with dust?"

"It's the opposite," she replied.

Naturally, I felt relieved. Reading The Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern typing out her MacBook Air horror in misspelled words had made me a touch queasy.

Wait, what did the salesperson mean by "it's the opposite"?

"There's no way dust can get in because they've put an extra layer of plastic underneath to make sure it doesn't," the salesperson explained.

"So you don't see customers having problems?"

"Well, they have problems with the keyboards being so thin, if you see what I mean," she said.

I tried to see. "You mean the keys don't go as far down as they used to?"

"Yes, but you just get used to it."

"But you don't get people coming in here all the time with MacBook problems?"

"We get some, but it's not as if one in every two MacBook has a problem."

Ah. Oh.

We chatted a little about the pros and cons of the MacBooks and the iPad Pro when it comes to typing. She plumped for the 15-inch MacBook, but said that some people really do prefer the more compact nature of the Pro's keyboard.

And, well, try getting dust under those keys.

"It just depends what you like," she said. I like machines that don't break down and I've been very lucky with Apple products over the years, as it simply hasn't happened.

That's why problems such as the ones recently being reported are so disturbing. 

So I got back in the car and took my disturbance to a second Apple store.

The Perfect Sales Answer?

I began: "I hear people are complaining that these keyboards get dust inside them and start playing up."

"Mine doesn't," said the salesperson.

I've heard some sales rap in my years. This was a new level of disarming.

"Ah, good. Well, I've been reading that some people are saying that their keys are behaving erratically."

"I haven't heard that," she replied.

This choice of blatant deadpan was an interesting one. 

"So you haven't had customers coming in here saying their MacBooks need fixing?"

"No," she said and then slid immediately to explaining the difference between the second generation MacBook Air keyboard and the third generation MacBook Pro keyboard.

"The third generation is quieter, but they both work great."

I ventured that Stern's experience had seemed especially pained.

"I guess I'll have to catch up on my reading," said the salesperson. "But as I said, I haven't heard of these problems."

I was silent for a moment or two, then thanked her for her help.

"Maybe one or two customer have come in with MacBook problems, but nothing unusual," she suddenly conceded. "In any case, there's a one-year warranty and you can always get Apple Care."

It is, though, unusual to hear of so many complaints, even after Apple said it had addressed the dusty issues.

How many customers does it take for a hardware issue to become a real hardware problem? Is it in the tens, the hundreds, or the thousands?

How do customers know, indeed, whether their problem is a rare one or far more widespread?

Apple has sometimes been slow to address reports and even slower to do something about them.

It isn't as if the complainers are holding their MacBooks wrong. They're complaining about something fundamental.

You might expect that Apple's sales staff would be prepared to answer questions about that. If it's a big concern, that is.

Just as I was leaving the second Apple store, I remembered to ask the salesperson about the iPad Pro's screen.

"Is it true that some iPad Pro screens are a bit faulty?"

"Mine isn't," she replied. "And I've definitely not heard anything like that."