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Loud typers are on trial in the Theranos courtroom

Several people are typing

Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes Attends Criminal Trial

After two months, the Elizabeth Holmes trial has settled into some particular rhythms. Reporters and curious onlookers line up in the early hours of the morning for access to the trial, clutching coffees from the Starbucks down the street. Holmes shows up in colorful masks, often holding hands with her mother. And Judge Edward Davila lectures everyone sitting in the public section of the courtroom about typing too loudly.

I was in the courtroom last month for one such admonition. Apparently, jurors had been complaining that the typing noises from people taking notes about the trial — which isn’t recorded and doesn’t have a call-in line — were distracting them from paying attention to the testimony. Davila keeps threatening to kick everyone with laptops out of the courtroom and send them to the overflow room where they can watch on a stream and type as loudly as they want. That’s not making the reporters in the room happy since the stream is apparently very finicky, and no one wants to miss anything. Lately, a court marshal has been standing in the back of the room, ready to oust anyone typing too loudly.

Davila says people can keep using laptops as long as they have a silent keyboard. I checked in with the laptop experts on The Verge’s reviews team, though, and they said that silent keyboards aren’t really a category. Noise level isn’t usually something people rate when they’re evaluating laptops, so it can be hard to know what you’re getting.

I also called Jacob Alexander, a keyboard expert at Input Club, to ask him about the best ways to manage typing noise. There aren’t really truly silent keyboards, he told me. “Silent as the judge means it? No,” he says. There are a few things that contribute to keyboard sound: there’s the contact between fingers and keys, which it’s difficult to minimize through design, Alexander says — someone with long nails or a rough typing style is still going to bang into the key. There’s the noise when someone presses down on a key and it hits the bottom of the computer. And then there’s the noise of the key popping back up.

That’s a reason why MacBooks from 2016 to 2019 are notoriously loud — the keys don’t have very far to go when they’re pressed, and they hit the bottom of the keyboard hard. (The MacBook I took to the trial is from 2019 — oops). Someone who wanted a quieter keyboard could get a ThinkPad or something from the HP Envy laptop line, The Verge’s laptop reviewer Monica Chin told me. Deputy editor Elizabeth Lopatto, who’s also been in the courtroom, added a plastic keyboard cover to her 2016 MacBook to muffle some sound. Or people could eliminate the keyboard entirely and get a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold — and type on a touchscreen.

Laptop makers can adjust the various elements that make sound to try and make keyboards quieter, but all the factors are part of a system. “You can’t just solve all the problems,” Alexander says. “Or, you can, but it would cost infinite money.” And people who own existing laptops are a bit out of luck, he says. “You can’t really modify your laptop keyboard.”

Holmes trial reporters could try and track down silicone roll-up keyboards to use in court. “Those would be silent,” Alexander says. “But they’re totally awful; I wouldn’t recommend them.” Or everyone could go out and buy a ThinkPad X1 Fold. Those start at $2,499 — I don’t really think that’s in The Verge’s budget for trial coverage, but I’m not sure about Bloomberg.

I was in the courtroom when some of this supposed loud typing was happening, though, and I didn’t really notice anything that seemed like it could rise to the level of a distraction. But then again, I also didn’t notice anything distracting in school when someone spent a semester asking a friend of mine to stop typing so loudly in class. Maybe I’m just not sensitive to keyboard noises.

So I tried to get a more objective measure of the noise than “does this sound loud to me.” Lopatto wears an Apple Watch with decibel monitoring enabled — and it’s on her left wrist, so it’s quite close to her own keyboard. When she was in court last Wednesday morning, the loudest reading she got was 60 decibels at 10:49AM. The afternoon was about the same, with one reading as loud as 60 decibels at 2:03PM. The morning before that, the loudest reading while court was in session was 58 decibels; that afternoon also peaked at 60 decibels. According to the University of Michigan, the average noise levels in an office are 70 decibels.

Now, it’s totally reasonable that a juror might be hard of hearing and need an assistive device. Because of the pandemic, jurors are more spread out than usual, and some are sitting in the public section only a row in front of some spectators. Some people have a condition called misophonia, which triggers intense reactions to certain sounds. But Judge Davila hasn’t shared what part of the courtroom the noise seems to be coming from, and most people with laptops sit in the very back of the room. The jurors are much closer to the court stenographer — who’s also typing (though on a specialized type of keyboard that could have different sound elements).

But after weeks of warnings, everyone is doing their best to type very, very quietly. If this all continues, it’s not going to help the stress levels in the courtroom. And if there’s a mistrial because of loud typing, it’ll maybe be the funniest twist in the Holmes saga yet.