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Summary:

About three weeks ago, the keyboard and trackpad on my MacBook Pro (from mid-2007) began failing randomly for no apparent reason. I would turn it on only to find its keyboard and trackpad unresponsive to any input. Rebooting sometimes helped, but many times it did not. […]

About three weeks ago, the keyboard and trackpad on my MacBook Pro (from mid-2007) began failing randomly for no apparent reason. I would turn it on only to find its keyboard and trackpad unresponsive to any input. Rebooting sometimes helped, but many times it did not. Without a reproducible pattern I could determine, it was impossible to know if the problem was caused by failing hardware, a software conflict, or both.

Imagine if this happened to you while you were out at a cafe or are about to give a presentation, and you’ll understand why I was near the brink of insanity. After some investigation,1 it became clear there was a fundamental design flaw present in the MacBook Pro that was causing the problem. If your MacBook Pro does not have the new unibody design, this design flaw could give you grief sooner or later.

The Symptoms

Your MacBook Pro may exhibit any or all of the following symptoms:

  • Upon waking from sleep, the keyboard and trackpad become unresponsive; log entries in OS X’s Console say “IOUSBFamily failed to enumerate a device.”
  • Booting up the MacBook Pro and into the login screen with neither keyboard nor trackpad input. The only way to do anything further is to force shutdown of the system by pressing and holding the power button.
  • The keyboard is sometimes present at boot, and sometimes isn’t. You can verify this by hitting the Caps Lock key and seeing if its corresponding light lights up or not while you are at the white boot-up screen with the gray Apple logo.
  • Plugging in an external keyboard and mouse works, thereby eliminating the possibility that software is at fault.
  • While OS X is running, the keyboard and trackpad may become intermittently unresponsive.

The Problem

Prior to going the way of the unibody enclosure, the MacBook Pro sported a design largely carried over from the PowerBook G4. A design trait common to all such MacBook Pro models is that of the battery bay. In this design, the battery bay of the MacBook Pro is located beneath the trackpad, in roughly the middle of the wrist-rest area in front of its keyboard. MacBook Pro models that share this design are:

  • 15-inch Early 2006, Intel Core Duo (MA463LL/A, MA464LL/A, MA600LL, or MA601LL)
  • 17-inch Early 2006, Intel Core Duo (MA0922LL/A)
  • 15-inch Late 2006, Intel Core 2 Duo (MA609LL, or MA610LL)
  • 17-inch Late 2006, Intel Core 2 Duo (MA611LL/A)
  • 15-inch Mid 2007, Intel Core 2 Duo (MA895LL, MA896LL, MA895LL/A, or MA896LL/A)
  • 17-inch Mid 2007, Intel Core 2 Duo (MA897LL/A)
  • 15-inch Early 2008, Intel Core 2 Duo (MB133LL/A, or MB134LL/A)
  • 17-inch Early 2008, Intel Core 2 Duo (MB166LL/A)
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Removing the battery

Remove the battery and you will see the partially exposed circuitry of the trackpad. Notably, you will see a orange ribbon cable that ends in two connections to the trackpad.

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Take a closer look at this ribbon cable and you will see that it does not lie completely flat against the floor of the battery bay.

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I have my MacBook Pro in a sling bag whenever I’m on the move, placed in such a way that the battery side of the notebook is always against my hip. I suspect that the jostling of the MacBook Pro, specifically its battery, against my body over time has weakened the connection of the ribbon cable to the trackpad.

Replicating the Problem

If your MacBook Pro is exhibiting the symptoms I’ve described above, here’s how to replicate the problem.

Before you proceed, install HardwareGrowler. HardwareGrowler is a subset of Growl that notifies you whenever hardware is disconnected and connected from your Mac. This is extremely useful, as it lets you see, in real time, the keyboard and trackpad disconnect and connect while you troubleshoot.

Once you have HardwareGrowler installed, perform the following steps:

  1. Your MacBook Pro should be running. If the keyboard and trackpad are still dead, use an external keyboard and mouse to login. Once you’re in OS X, unplug the external keyboard and mouse.
  2. Make sure your MacBook Pro is plugged into AC power.
  3. Flip your MacBook Pro over and remove its battery.
  4. Then arrange your MacBook Pro so that its screen is flat on a surface and its lower assembly is vertical, 90 degrees to the surface.
  5. Arrange yourself so that you can see both the battery bay and the screen of your MacBook Pro.
  6. With one finger, press the ribbon cable in the spot just before where it bulges. You may need a couple of tries before you find the exact spot.
  7. If you’re pressing the right spot, you should see two HardwareGrowler notifications appear on-screen. The first notification will say ‘USB Disconnection: Apple Internal Keyboard/Trackpad,’ while the second will say ‘USB Connection: Apple Internal Keyboard/Trackpad’.
  8. Remove your finger from the ribbon cable. At this point, the keyboard and trackpad may or not remain working.

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If this troubleshooting procedure yields the results in Steps #7 and #8, congratulations — you can now be certain that it is a hardware problem, that you are not going insane, and that you have a high-tech problem to which there is, fortunately, a low-tech solution.

The Solution

If the warranty on your MacBook Pro is no longer valid, like mine, don’t worry. Simply take a small piece of paper, such as a Post-It, and fold it in half. Stick it over the spot on the ribbon cable. Then reinstall the removable battery. The battery should exert enough pressure on the piece of paper to keep the ribbon cable working.

If your MacBook Pro is still under warranty, take it to an Apple service center. While Apple has not officially acknowledged that this is a widespread problem, it’s afflicted the machines of many owners, so surely it’s not unknown to them. Demonstrate the steps described above to whomever is helping you as letting him or her see the problem as it happens eliminates the guesswork and may help expedite the time needed for repairs.

The long-term solution is, of course, to have the ribbon cable replaced, because the last thing you want is to have the keyboard and trackpad fail on you when you need to use your MacBook Pro most. In the meantime, you have a temporary fix should you need one.

1 I wish to credit Steve Eugene of Dallas for discovering the cause of the problem as detailed in his post on Apple’s discussion forum.

  1. A similar flaw exists in the PowerBook G4, but in a different (or additional) location. The presence of a second (upper) DRAM DIMM can put downward pressure on the ribbon cable near where it actually connects to the logic board. The effect is that the ribbon cable is pressed down where it should be allowed to flex. Stress is transferred to the far side of the cable’s connection to the logic board, causing it to break up and away from the board. That is, increased pressure on the front of the connection causes the back of the connection to “lever” up and away from the board.

    I fixed this in my own PB G4 17″ as follows:

    1. Remove both DRAM DIMMs
    2. Pressing the connector down evenly, (carefully) apply light, brief pressure to the connection’s contact points with a fine-tip soldering iron to restore the solder points.
    3. Allow to cool.
    4. Place a small piece of rubber beneath the curve of the cable to counter the downward pressure on the cable when the DRAM DIMMs are reinstalled. (I used the edge of a thin, non-skid rubber pad, cut down to size with an X-acto knife.

    A bit delicate, but not difficult. My PB has worked fine for another year and a half since.

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    1. It’s pretty obvious it’s a design flaw. What really sucks is my macbook pro is 3 years old and still runs great excvept for this flaw. But it’s a big flaw and is really really annoying. I paid $2000 for this laptop and 3 years is ridiculous. I actually had my isight cable go as well but was able to pick one up on ebay and install it myself.
      If you buy a keyboard cable on ebay the same problem will happen because the cable is flawed.
      It’s too bad that someone couldn’t come out with a 3rd party cable. I’ll bet they could sell quite a few.
      I was thinking of trying to cut the cable and solder extensions to the contacts, but I’m not sure if thats even possible, it’s a very thin cable.
      Pretty sure Apple would rather you buy a new macbook than fix your old one but until this problem gets fixed I’m never buying another Apple product.

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  2. Had this happen as well Fortunately I had purchased apple care and they replaced the whole keyboard/trackpad module and all affected. Took it to the Mac Store on Saturday and had it back on Monday. Love the tech support and care!

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  3. YAY! Someone else has this same problem! I’ve been having this problem since November. Thanks for the tips.

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  4. Oddly enough, I have had this exact same problem on the same model of Macbook Pro for the past couple of weeks.

    When opening the lid to come out of suspend, the keyboard and trackpad are dead. The first time I had this issue, reboots didnt fix anything.

    Initially I put it down to my own fault. About 4 weeks ago I installed a new HDD inside my Macbook Pro so I assumed that the connector from the Lid (keyboard/trackpad/speakers/lights etc) had come loose.

    So I took the lid off and reseated the cable. It took a couple of attempts at this before I got the internal KB/trackpad back. But it came back and worked for a bit.

    However, this has happened a couple of times again since. On recent occasions things started working again when I rebooted with an external mouse. I also found that the apple USB keyboard and trackpad were still visible as USB devices in system profiler even though they were not responding. This last point made me wonder if it was my cable replugging that was teh issue or if there is a software/firmware issue that I have recently introduced.

    Thanks for your article, will check the connection where you suggest the problem lies. However I am still suspicious that the problem is not hardware related. Please keep us updated if you have further problems!

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  5. I have had this problem twice. Apple fixed it twice. Now I always carry a USB mini mouse. If you press between the trackpad and the keyboard, about 25% of the way from left to right you can get the keyboard back to life (sometimes) enough to authenticate. I’ve temporarily fixed the issue with a folded sticky bit off a post-it note but it won’t last long! Now if only there was a fix for the flickering keyboard back-light problem I’m now beset with.

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  6. [...] reported what appears to be a MacBook Pro design flaw yesterday in his article entitled “The Curious Case of the Missing MacBook Pro Keyboard and Trackpad“. Lai reports that about three weeks ago his keyboard and trackpad began to fail [...]

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  7. This happened to me as well. I finally located the buried thread about it on the Apple forum and fixed the problem instantly.
    I love my MBP, but that’s a lot of money to pay for something that needs to be held together with a bit of tape and cardboard. Should be fixed for free by Apple on all units regardless of warranty, IMHO. They wouldn’t have to replace the whole assembly, just do an approved mod on the cable like everyone else is doing.

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    1. Can you please post a link to that thread?

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  8. Thanks for this article…I’ve been having this problem just in the last couple weeks, and I thought it was software related (I’ve been testing a lot of alpha stuff lately). But after going through the step-by-step to trigger the problem, it was (unfortunately) spot on. I’m out of warranty, but I may go to the Apple store this weekend, I’ll post again to see how much (or if) they charge me for it. For now I’m rockin’ the post-it note!

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  9. Yes, Jared, please do post back if Apple insists on charging you. I’m interested to how just how much it’d cost to get this problem fixed, because, the keyboard and trackpad on my MBP have been flickering on and off recently.

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  10. Thanks for the tip, will try it the next time I’m on the road. It’s really been getting on my nerves for a week or two now, and I would be far more than happy if your fix works. Thanks in advance!

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