The greatest Apple design fail and mess of all time

Apple is world famous for its design success stories, from the iMac G3 to the best iPhones. But things don’t always go according to plan, even for the most design-savvy technology company in the world.

No, Apple has had its fair share of design caulking over the years. Here we’ve rounded up eight of the most egregious design sins Apple has ever committed. It’s a good reminder that no one is above dropping some absolute clunkers – even Apple.

The butterfly keyboard

For years, Apple has elevated the concept of “thin and light” above seemingly everything else. In the quest to strip the designs down to their purest essence, not even the keyboard could escape the steely gaze of Jony Ive and his fellow Apple designers.

The result was the butterfly keyboard, first introduced on the 2015 12-inch MacBook. Instead of the traditional scissor switch mechanism under each key, this keyboard featured a new design that was much thinner and allowed for far fewer key presses than before. Of course, this made it almost impossible for the laptop to get thin, but at the cost of terrible reliability (and numerous lawsuits were filed against Apple).

Even the tiniest crumb can jam your keys and make them fickle and erratic. And with almost no key travel, typing on the keyboard felt like tapping on a solid, immobile surface, making mistakes more and more common. Apple finally ditched the butterfly keyboard in 2019 and hasn’t looked back since.

Magic mouse 2

I’ve fixed Apple’s biggest design flaw…sort of.

The butterfly keyboard may have been abandoned, but this next design fail – the Magic Mouse 2 – is still with us. Buy a Magic Mouse 2 today and you’ll find it really annoying – literally.

For starters, the low profile shape can cause discomfort with prolonged use. I know at least one person who had to switch to a different mouse after it caused severe wrist pain. Sure, the multitouch gesture support is great, but is that worth the potential carpal tunnel syndrome?

That’s not the only problem. The most meme-worthy aspect of the Magic Mouse 2 is the way it charges, as Apple bafflingly found the charging port on the bottom of the device. That means you can’t use and charge it at the same time, but instead have to lay it on its back like a rodent playing dead. That seems pretty appropriate, actually.

The iMac G3’s ‘hockey puck’ mouse

An Apple USB mouse, known as the
Factory on Wikipedia

The Magic Mouse 2 wasn’t the first time Apple had a mouse all wrong. No, more than 15 years before that, Apple launched the iMac G3 and its design bomb of a mouse. While the iMac G3 is rightly celebrated as one of the greatest Macs of all time, the mouse isn’t remembered nearly as fondly. You certainly won’t find it on lists of the best mice, that’s for sure.

That’s because it was completely circular (hence the nickname “hockey puck”). In practice, this meant it was extremely difficult to get your bearings without taking your eyes off the screen and looking down. You’d either be holding it wrong and not being able to find the one button, or you’d have to interrupt your work to get it right. It was distracting and annoying – hardly the hallmarks of great design.

The Touch Bar

macbook pro touch bar

When Apple launched the redesigned MacBook Pro in 2016, the Touch Bar feature was announced by the company with much fanfare. This touch-sensitive strip offers handy app-specific shortcuts when you need them and even lets you quickly type emojis into any message. What’s not to love?

Well, its shortcomings became apparent over time. While a few apps had built-in support for the Touch Bar from the start, many did not, and adoption was slow. It wasn’t long before the Touch Bar felt like it was stagnant and unable to live up to its potential.

In addition, it replaced the row of physical function keys of the MacBook Pro, which was loved by many users. Apple eventually reinstated a physical Escape key in later iterations, but the absence of a proper function row was strongly felt. Apple corrected that mistake when it dropped the Touch Bar in 2021.

1st generation Apple Pencil

Apple pencil
Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Apple Pencil. It adds a lot of extra functionality to the iPad and feels well thought out and well designed.

In all but one sense, that is. You see, the first-generation Apple Pencil came with a Lightning connector on the top. To charge the device, you had to plug it into the iPad’s Lightning port, which made your tablet look like some sort of bizarre engineering stingray.

Even worse, this baffling arrangement put the Apple Pencil at a huge risk of breaking if bumped while charging, as a frightening amount of pressure would be directed through the Lightning connector. It may have been a fine device, but its peculiar – and risky – charging method was an inescapable design flaw. Fortunately, Apple has fixed it in the second-generation model.

The ‘trash can’ Mac Pro

A 2013 Mac Pro emerges from a shadowy black backdrop.

When Apple’s marketing chief Phil Schiller unveiled the new Mac Pro in 2013, he uttered one of the most infamous lines in launch event history: “Can’t innovate more, my ass.” The irony is that the design he revealed actually prevented Apple from further innovating.

You see, the 2013 Mac Pro (informally known as the “trash can” Mac Pro) was a pretty smart device, with all of its components designed around a cylindrical cooling chamber. It was a marvel of engineering and very proprietary. But the problem with proprietary designs is that they are very difficult to upgrade in the future.

Apple admitted as much in 2017, when an unusually candid Schiller said the Mac Pro was “thermally limited,” which “limited our ability to upgrade it.” As a result, the 2019 Mac Pro was much more modular. The 2013 model, meanwhile, is a great example of how a design that impresses in the short term can lead to headaches in the long run.

AirPods Max Smart Case

Apple's AirPods Max headphones in a blue Smart Case.

The AirPods Max Smart Case is perhaps the most ironically named product Apple has ever released. That’s because it’s hardly a case, and certainly not a smart choice. Wrap your AirPods Max in the Smart Case and you’ll find that only about half of the headphones are covered. It looks much more like a fashion accessory than a case.

While it’s a bit clever in that it looks like a handbag, that’s definitely not what most people want from a headphone case, as it offers almost no protection at all. If you were hoping to protect your AirPods Max from bumps and bruises, you’re out of luck.

More annoyingly, using the Smart Case is the only way the headphones can enter power-saving mode. Throw the case away and you’ll have to wait a few hours for them to turn off, all the while draining the battery.

Style? Account. Substance? Not so much.

iPhone Smart battery case

Two Apple iPhones, each in a Smart Battery Case.  One is a white cover and the other is a black cover.

What is it with Apple devices with “Smart” in their names? Next up is the iPhone’s Smart Battery Case, which became something of an instant meme thanks to its bizarre design.

While Apple’s rivals opted for larger charging cases, Apple went for a stripped-down look, making the battery poke out of the back of your phone oddly. Unfortunately, this design made it look like the case had swallowed the battery and was about to burst.

The bulbous design even prompted Tim Cook to step out and make the case, and that’s never a good sign. Lucky for him, Apple later dropped the Smart Battery Case in favor of the MagSafe Battery Pack, which is a bit more elegant (although it’s actually not that hard).

The Newton Message Pad

Apple Newton next to an iPhone
Blake Patterson/Flickr

The iPad has been a huge success for Apple, but it wouldn’t exist without the Newton MessagePad. This portable personal digital assistant (PDA) was launched in 1993, but it was plagued with problems pretty much from the start.

The MessagePad – and perhaps the world – just wasn’t ready when it launched. The handwriting recognition software was so imprecise that it was even mocked in The Simpsons, but the device was still pushed out ahead of time, perhaps because it was the pet project of then-Apple CEO John Sculley.

In the end, the MessagePad was a tremendously poorly designed idea. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the late 1990s, he axed the company’s entire Newton division. But with more mature technology and a few design tweaks (including dropping the stylus), the MessagePad idea lived on in the form of the iPad.

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