The Curious Case of the Missing MacBook Pro Keyboard and Trackpad

89 Comments

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.

19602_20090310-img_1734s

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.
19602_growl_kb_notification

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 (s aapl) 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.

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

89 Comments

Sean Chandler

I can’t get hardware growler to do anything when pressing on the ribbon cable on my A1181 black macbook

USB keyboard and mouse work OK though

I’m not sure if to replace the cable or not, or if I have a logic board problem

anyone have similar experiences with an A1181 macbook?

Biberkopf

Excellent error analysis and solution by Clayton Lei. Thanx A LOT. This article should be on apple.com instead of endless, confused, and confusing assumptions by more or less desperate users. The HardwareGrowl trick is excellent thought our. It helped me diagnosing my own, and now I can see, that in fact there are numerous small fall disconnections and reconnections going on while tabbing away on my keyboard.
I think, however, it’s important to stress (as Bryan has already done) that we are seemingly facing two different problems with similar symptom, the other one being a sofware/OS bug of some kind.
But kudos to Clayton beautiful, clear, and intelligent error analysis. It helped me a lot!

dan

Fixed with a 0.5″x1″ pice of notepad paper. Macedge NH took $90 worth of labor to tell me there’s nothing wrong with the trackpad or the keyboard. Thank you, Macedge.

Stewart

Thanks for the article!!!!

So far so good – although I have probably just jinxed it by posting this…

DavidDRUMEDOMUNDUM

On a rural road a state trooper pulled this farmer over and said: “Sir, do you realize your wife fell out of the car several miles back?”

To which the farmer replied: “Thank God, I thought I had gone deaf!”

Piezoman1

I did’t read all the posts here to see if anyone has already reported my problem or not, but my issue is a little different than the one discussed. My keyboard doesn’t NOT work, but certain keys seem to be keyed indefinately. For instance, I open my computer and I can’t even login because the e key is just scrolling across the text box. I am sometimes able to offset this by holding the delete key, but as soon as I release it the e key starts again. Restarting, pulling the battery,pushing on the cable, beating on the keyboard SOMETIMES works, but no ‘fix’ seems to be foolproof that I’ve discovered.

I think my best bet at this point is to get an external keyboard and mouse and try to disable the internal keyboard/trackpad entirely.

I’m sure I’ve found this issue discussed before, but can’t seem to find it now.

Byron

I am having a similar problem which started out intermittently and then went completely. Now the keyboard and trackpad never respond. Backlighting does work.

I have done the following since total failure of KB and TP

Installed new HD
fresh install of 10.6 (was running tiger when failure occurred)
reset pram
reset smc
also loaded the flash gala preview
updated firmware

installed growl and tried applying pressure on orange ribbon – no response.

keys do not respond at boot up.

Nothing has yielded a response.

Any ideas as to how I might diagnose the source of the problem?

Electrapilot

Hi All, the intermittent operation of the trackpad and keyboard is most DEFINITELY down to the orange ribbon cable. Period. Yes, using a folded post-it note, will temporarily solve the problem, as will unlatching the ribbon from the trackpad circuit board and re-plugging it. BUT EVENTUALLY IT WILL FAIL COMPLETELY! The problem, as some folks here have already said, is the slight curve in the orange ribbon cable as it joins the trackpad circuit board. Apple designed this cable just slightly too long, which is why it’s slightly raised. The intermittent pressure from the battery against this raised ribbon cable causes miniature breaks in the tiny copper wires that pass through the ribbon cable. It’s called “metal fatigue” and in this case causes a broken connection. So, there you have it, the problem explained. This is, without doubt, a design flaw. I shall be taking all of these comments to Apple and I shall also be taking legal advice on what steps to take next. No amount of replacement keyboards will stop the fault recurring.

Josh

Hello Patrick I just wanted to see if you had any luck with this fix. I am about to attempt this as well for my A1226 2.2GHz rather than buying the entire top case.

Thank you!

Joseph Gelmis

Patrick, I’d also be grateful if you’d share your experience: Did replacing the flex cable fix the problems? I’m ready to buy the part, but suspect I don’t have the expertise to do a replacement myself — so would have to find and pay a repair person I can trust to do the job.

Grant Murray

Can anyone confirm that replacing the flex cable fixes the problem please. Also how easy is it to replace the flex cable. I have seen plenty of videos on how to replace keyboard and remove the topcase but none on how to replace the flex cable.

Thanks

Noel

I have tried pressing down this ribbon and it doesn’t work!

I am going to just take it to Apple and see if I can get some sort of sympathy from them. Regardless, I can’t afford an entire new laptop. Will have to settle for the repair charge for now.

Bryan

Excellent article. Very concise and clear. Love the good photos. However, there’s more… :P

I thought you might be interested to know that, whilst there are certainly many people having the exact problem and cause you describe, and having success with a similar fix, there also seems to be a large number of people with the same sort of mysterious missing trackpad and keyboard issue, but for whom the cause does not appear to be this cable, or any other hardware thing.

I’ve been chasing this fault for some time now and have read many forum posts etc. In my case, for example, I get the same trackpad and keyboard freeze, while external devices still work, etc. BUT, there is never a USB disconnection/reconnection — and no amount of fiddling with that ribbon cable (which is not buckled in my case) does anything either.

So in fact, it would appear there is a double-whammy fault going on with MacBooks. Oh dear :(

If it’s of interest to others, there two potentially useful things I have recently discovered.

  1. The ‘total freeze (KB/TP only) that can only be fixed by full restart’ seems to have changed to ‘only’ a 15 to 30 second freeze since updating to OS X 10.6.3. It will freeze, then unfreeze, then freeze again some time later. BUt also…

  2. That update having made it possible to do more testing far more conveniently, there would now appear to be a link to Adobe Flash Player running in either Firefox or Safari (background or foreground windows/tabs) and this dreaded problem.

So far, point 2. has not been completely confirmed. But I’ve managed to type this entire comment (and even proof edit it) without a freeze, whereas I’d seldom get this far if I had, say, a YouTube site opened somewhere. (I can confirm the fault occurs whether using Firefox OR safari btw.)

Bryan.

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