Dealing with a phantom stuck key bug on MacBook Air
June 15, 2013 11:22 AM   Subscribe

I'm troubled by a mysterious bug on my MacBook Air. It manifests itself when I use Microsoft PowerPoint, but I believe it is a Mac-wide issue. It is extremely rare, impossible to reproduce on demand, and yet - when it strikes, it does so with a vengeance, and embarrasses me in front of a theater full of people.

My job entails screening PowerPoint presentations. I sit in the back of a theater and advance the slides as needed, using the down- or right arrow. Usually, everything works beautifully, but last September, the phantom bug struck for the first time. In the middle of the presentation, the slides suddenly began rushing past, faster than the eye can see, as if I were pressing down the arrow key. The computer seemed to be in a trance, unresponsive to any keystroke. 5-10 seconds and several dozen slides later, the computer snapped out of it, and I was able to scroll back and resume the presentation at the point it was interrupted. The bug occurred twice that day, during two separate presentations. Retracing my steps, I realized that several other applications were open at the time, so on subsequent days, I tried the default home remedy of restarting the computer right before the presentation and making sure no other apps were open. This seemed to do the trick, and I hoped it was behind me, but today it struck again - not once, not twice but four times. The slides rushed by again and again, in front of a ticket-being audience. Needless to say, I was mortified.
I want to stress that the key wasn't physically stuck, the computer just behaved as if it were. Also, I seem to remember this problem occurring once or twice during regular use, where the computer froze for a few seconds as if a key were being pressed, only to snap out of it after about ten seconds - that's why I don't think it's a PowerPoint issue. It only happened a handful of times in the 18 months I've had it, so it's an extremely rare bug, and I've done dozens of presentations with no issues at all. But after today, obviously I'm not at ease about it.
The one idea I had today, during the disastrous presentation, was to turn off Key Repeat in System Preferences. Logically, that should help, but who knows? I also thought about using a different computer and/or using an external USB keyboard. Any other ideas would be most welcome.
posted by Silky Slim to Computers & Internet (17 answers total)
This happens to me too and I don't know the cause - however, usually if I click the Esc key it stops. So at least while you look for the real solution, you can do that.
posted by thatone at 11:32 AM on June 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Although the key doesn't seem to be stuck, the mechanics below the key could be sticking.

Were I you, I would attach a different keyboard and see if that solves it. If so, you'll probably want the keyboard on the laptop replaced.
posted by HuronBob at 12:00 PM on June 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Can you try using a remote instead?

If it's still happening with the remote, then you know it's not a key issues also.

My apple remote works fine with powerpoint (just tested it to confirm). And it's only $19. If you have an iphone or ipod touch you may also be able to set them up with a remote control app to use for power point also (although I haven't tried that before.)
posted by Crystalinne at 12:04 PM on June 15, 2013

One caveat, without positively identifying a cause you could never be confident you had fixed the problem. I don't have any answers but here are some questions.

Could it be a powerpoint issue after all? It has an automatic advance feature and if the interval were small enough it would look like a stuck key.

Also, I don't think an Air would 'freeze' just because a key were held down. Have you seen the spinning beachball at any time? Have you checked the system logs to see if errors are being logged?

Have you run diagnostics/hardware test? The next thing to try is hardware resets, SMC, PRAM, maybe others, check Apple support pages for your model. A last ditch, nothing-to-lose thing to try is reinstalling OS X and applying a combo-updater to get it up to date.
posted by epo at 12:31 PM on June 15, 2013

My money's on this being a Powerpoint issue. I haven't had the exact trouble you describe, but my PPT does a very similar random, rapid scroll thing when I'm editing a deck. Tends to happen when I'm using a Magic Mouse.

Do you have to use PPT? Keynote's miles better :-)
posted by ZipRibbons at 12:35 PM on June 15, 2013

I've had this happen to me using Safari while scrolling downward, but infrequently enough that I've never bothered to investigate it. Could it be your trackpad jumping? Try cleaning it by thoroughly wiping it, just in case it's related to that. Hand creams and moisture can transfer and lead to them acting weird.
posted by jaffacakerhubarb at 12:46 PM on June 15, 2013

Do you have any device paired with your MBAir?
I had weird problems like this and eventually realized a keyboard that I had paired to my machine had fallen over upstairs, depressing the keys. The same thing happened to a relative. The signal still travels.
You might turn off Bluetooth to rule that out, assuming Bluetooth is active.
posted by PickeringPete at 12:49 PM on June 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have had this happen in iPhoto while scrolling through photos. Not often and not in front of an audience so I have just lived with it so far.
posted by sadtomato at 1:18 PM on June 15, 2013

I've seen this issue twice. Both times it was due to spill damage, but even if that isn't possible here this is still a hardware issue.

Take it to the Genius Bar(lol iPhone capitalizing that) at the apple store, explain the issue and let them run diagnostics. When they look at it and can tell nothing was spilled in it, they'll likely just fix it for free.

I've had several similar issues(stuck headphone jack sensor for example) fixed by them at no charge, actually.
posted by emptythought at 2:03 PM on June 15, 2013

Try opening your PowerPoint presentations with Keynote.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:43 PM on June 15, 2013

Bluetooth was off the whole time, so it wasn't a Bluetooth issue. I also only used the arrow keys, so I don't think the trackpad has anything to do with it. I'll try the escape key trick next time it happens (hope it never does!)
The reason I've been using PowerPoint is that Keynote's support for Hebrew is even worse :^(
For now I'm moving over to my older MacBook Pro, hope that bug doesn't exist there. Just to be on the safe side, I'll also turn off Key Repeat.
Thanks all!
posted by Silky Slim at 12:47 AM on June 16, 2013

FWIW, the same thing happens on my 2008 Macbook Pro every couple of days, in my case usually when I'm scrolling around a document in Vim using the `j` and `k` keys. I think it's a problem with the keyboard itself, because it never happens when I'm using a BlueTooth keyboard.
posted by Emanuel at 6:03 AM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have had this issue with several keys on my old 2007 MacBook Pro. Usually it means something is stuck below the key, so that depressing it keeps the mechanism depressed - but this should not happen with the chiclet-style keys on an Air. But I have also seen this occur with keys I KNOW are not stuck: the Enter key once went nuts in Word, but didn't cause problems in any other program once I Cmd-tabbed out of Word. And of course it immediately started again as soon as I went back to Word. Similar issues with Crtl getting stuck, so that any key I press is treated as if it were being pressed with a modifier - this has happened in Firefox and in text editors, so it isn't just an Office issue if the root cause is the same. Usually hitting the "stuck" key by itself a few times fixes the problem, but who knows. With Word, I just had to keep smacking keys until the program started behaving again. And then I had to go through all the documents that were opened and delete several dozen carriage returns from each, fun stuff.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:27 AM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm struck by how many people seem to have had this problem.
How can anyone ever give a PowerPoint presentation in peace, without the looming shadow of this bug that can strike at any moment?!
Have you ever attended a PowerPoint presentation where this happened to the presenter?
Perhaps my first mistake was choosing to do a PowerPoint presentation on a Mac? Maybe that's what windows PCs are for?
posted by Silky Slim at 10:42 AM on June 16, 2013

FWIW, I'm the one who suggested the Escape key up there, but I never ever use PowerPoint. This usually happens to me while using Chrome, but it can happen anywhere.
posted by thatone at 10:46 AM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

And is your computer a MacBook Air?
posted by Silky Slim at 10:53 AM on June 16, 2013

If that question is for me, no - mine is a Pro.
posted by thatone at 9:23 AM on June 17, 2013

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