Over the last couple of months I've noticed that my dexterity has become a lot less accurate when using the keyboard on the newer notebook from work. When the task is simply typing words, much like I'm doing right now, then everything is just fine. I can type at almost 200 words a minute1 with a minimal number of mistakes and everything keeps up just as it's expected to. However, as soon as I need to switch the hands up to start using the arrow keys or many of the special characters, things begin to go downhill. The cursor moves in the wrong direction or an @ appears where I expected a [, which is frustrating to say the least. While some of this could be attributed to stress-induced errors, the problem seems to be with the keyboard itself as the problem vanishes almost instantly when I grab my personal notebook, a 13" 2015-era MacBook Pro.

A first-world problem for sure, but one that can be solved relatively easily by using the older hardware which is still perfectly good for 95% of the tasks I ask of it.

Of course, being an inquisitive sort of person, I've tried to understand the why behind the problem. Answering this question might provide a workable solution, after all. So, having given it some thought, there are three main issues that I have when working with last year's MacBook Pro:

  1. The arrow keys are not an "upside-down T"
  2. The palm rejection on the oversized touchpad prevents characters from appearing on the screen
  3. The TouchBar is more a novelty than a productivity helper

Each of these issues have likely been covered ad nauseam by the tech bloggers of the world since 2016, so there's little point getting too deep into any of them, but it's important (for me) to consider how it is that an older machine can be more conducive to productivity despite the slower hardware, limited storage capacity, and cracked screen.

Pointers Need Not Apply

Mice are awful little peripherals. They force a person to take one hand off the keyboard and many are about as ergonomic as a cinderblock, which results in lost productivity at best and carpel tunnel at worst. I've seen a lot of people with white collar jobs become unable to use their computers after a decade or more at their desk because one hand is bent into the shape of their mouse and no longer has the dexterity required for hours of typing and clicking. This was something that I noticed back in the 90s and have abstained from using the things unless absolutely necessary. If the pointer is needed, then Lenovo's keyboard pointer — often referred to as "the nipple" — or Apple's touchpad are the only way to go2. Because there's no need to use a mouse, the hands can generally stay on the notebook at all times, allowing for keyboard shortcuts and quick pointer actions without losing focus or looking away from the screen. This is one of the reasons why the keyboard is a make-or-break decision for me when it comes time to research a new device. If the keyboard is illogical, then it doesn't matter how great the rest of the machine is, I won't want to use it.

On the 2019-era notebook from work, I find the keys are laid out just wrong enough that I'm often needing to take my eyes off the screen to look at where the fingers are resting, then correcting their position and getting back to work. This might not sound like a very serious issue and, in the grand scheme of things, maybe it's not. When you're taking your eyes off the screen to look at a keyboard several hundred times a day, though, frustrations can mount. Imagine a pianist having to look at their fingers every so often because the maker of their piano slightly tweaked the size and position of the keys to look a little nicer from a distance. It's illogical. The 2015-era notebook does not have this issue and I do not believe it's just because I've used that keyboard layout for the better part of 7 years.

Not Pointing

Palm rejection on the MacBooks I've used has generally been pretty good. We can have a good amount of our hand sitting on the touchpad without the pointer jumping all over the place and taking focus away from the application window we're working in. However, it seems that with the newer MacBook, if you have more than 5% of your palm on the oversized touchpad, anything you type will not appear on the screen until your hand is repositioned, which dumps the last sentence or two that you typed before recognising the problem onto the screen as though the system were lagging behind your typing speed.

This never happened on any previous MacBook I've used. Given that the vast majority of my day is working in text editors with code that refuses to compile if there's just one character out of place, having a keyboard appear non-responsive simply because the palm-rejection software is acting up isn't cool.

Hey, Siri? Go away, please.

The final item that bugs me about the newer keyboard is it's WatchOS-powered TouchBar. The fingerprint reader doesn't recognise my fingerprints for more than 3 days3, I hit the Siri button at times when quickly hitting backspace, and the escape key in the upper left corner isn't left enough. I can live with the little nuisances of not being able to quickly pause music or skip to the next track without at least three taps, but not having the intended keys operate in an expected manner is not at all conducive to efficiency.

So, with all this in mind, I'll try something odd next week. Rather than use the newer, incredibly powerful notebook, I'll switch back to the 2015-era 13" MacBook Pro and see if the keyboard itself makes up for the slower hardware. If so, then it may be time to investigate either buying an external keyboard for the newer machine or repurposing it.

Time will tell ….

  1. The fastest I've been able to measure myself is 193 words per minute on a 2019-era 15" MacBook Pro, which is pretty astounding given that "I type wrong".

  2. HP's notebooks had some pretty going touchpads when the Synaptics software was not installed, but they'd quickly discolour and look awful.

  3. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though. Biometrics can be circumvented though coercion or severing of body parts. Passwords … well … they can be given up as a result of coercion or severing of body parts. If someone wants in to a computer bad enough, bad things might take place.