Future MacBooks could come with a solid-state keyboard (SSK) with keys that could be reconfigured to suit different tasks.
That's going by a new Apple patent (via 9to5Mac), which shows off a device with a sleek glass surface that can adjust the key configuration depending on the app or survive someone is using. It could involve switching from a traditional keyboard layout for typing to a numeric keypad for data entry or a large drawing area for more creative endeavors.
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Made up of multiple sensor layers, the SSK effectively does away with traditional keys and the patent shows off something that's a little like a MacBook Pro crossed with the as-yet-unreleased Microsoft Surface Neo.
But as striking as this design appears to be, it could come with a major catch: a lack of key feel and typing feedback.
The lack of tactile feedback isn't an easy issue to ignore. Keyboards come in all sorts of flavors, but regardless of your preference, being able to feel the keys and have some feedback is something not a lot of people will want to give up.
A glass surface that hinders touch typing, and is uncomfortable to use for long periods of time isn't an ideal trade-off. Mechanical keyboard fans will be even less likely to want to swap those clickity-clackety keys for a subpar alternative. Apple does acknowledge these issues in a similar 2018 patent but also noted at the time that: "traditional input devices lack the flexibility to accommodate expansive features offered by newer devices, operating systems, and software."
So in the new patent, Apple details the use of a flexible surface to simulate key feel while at the same time using an SSK to deliver new features.
Apple's patent proposes a flexible screen that "may form a depression in the keyboard surface beneath the finger" when pressed to simulate keys. This can be paired with haptic feedback, and an electrostatic charge to reinforce the feeling of typing on a traditional keyboard.
One benefit of using an SSK beyond adaptive keys would be its resistance to dirt and debris. No physical keys mean no space for debris to get into, something that blighted the shallow travel on Apple's older Butterfly keyboards; the new Magic Keyboard uses scissor switches to deliver more key travel and seemingly be more resistant to getting clogged with dirt.
We'll have to see if the concept of a large glass keyboard will drive forward the future of laptop keyboards or fall to the wayside. Of course, as with all patents, there's no guarantee that this will ever see the light of day. But it's an interesting idea nonetheless, that could prove divisive amongst MacBook users.
- More: Check out our Apple MacBook Pro with M1 review