Future MacBook Pros could come with a form of retractable keyboard which could allow for thinner laptops without compromising on tactile key feel.
At least that's what we can glean from a new Apple patent (opens in new tab), discovered by Patently Apple (opens in new tab), that showcases a keyboard design with a mechanism under the keys that allow them to retract when the MacBook has been closed. Crucially, the keys are built to pop out and function normally when the machine is in use.
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The patent describes a “selectively magnetizable magnet system” to hold keys in place when they’re not in use. From the look of the diagrams and the patent's description, it appears that there will be a magnetic material under each key. Those magnets then let the keys retract or expand as needed.
The latest MacBook Pro M1 is pretty slim as it is. But a retractable keyboard could allow for it and potentially a next-generation MacBook Air 2021 to be slimmer and have a keyboard with a decent amount of key travel and tactile feedback. And when the MacBook isn't in use, the magnetic mechanism could essentially pull the keys into the laptop's chassis making for a slimmer overall profile when it's not in use.
"The magnetizable material may be demagnetized when the display portion is in the open position, thereby allowing the keycap to move between an extended position and a retracted position, and the magnetizable material may be magnetized when the display portion is in the closed position, thereby magnetically maintaining the keycap in the retracted position," the patent explained.
However, once the magnetic material is magnetized it would appear not to require a constant flow of power to keep its magnetic properties. The patent clearly outlines that the design features “a persistent magnetic field that is maintained without a continuous application of electrical power to the coil”.
In other words, the magnetic retraction system should not have any significant impact on your battery life, and won’t require any additional power once you close the MacBook. The patent suggests using the likes of aluminum nickel cobalt iron, and chromium cobalt iron to enable this.
Apple’s previous attempt to reduce the thickness of its keyboards with the now-infamous Butterfly keyboard didn't go well. That mechanism allowed for the slim 12-inch MacBook, which has since been discontinued, but it came at the cost of very shallow keys and a rather unsatisfying typing experience for a lot of users.
The mechanism was also prone to failure, to the extent that Apple moved away from the Butterfly mechanism and adopted a scissor mechanism found in more recent MacBooks.
A retractable keyboard mechanism, in theory, would enable the best of both worlds, enabling a slim keyboard but one that still provides plenty of actuation in use. But it’s not clear whether the retractable keyboard would ever make it into an actual MacBook. After all, a patent doesn’t necessarily mean plans are in motion to make it a reality, just that Apple has an idea bubbling away.
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