How Useful Is the Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro?
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Apple’s refreshed MacBook Pros Apple Unveils New Touchy-Feely MacBook Pro Apple Unveils New Touchy-Feely MacBook Pro Apple has taken the wraps off of its brand new MacBook Pro. It's a beautifully designed piece of hardware, with several innovative touches and some annoying caveats potential buyers will have to beware. Read More from last year received a fair share of flak from Mac loyalists. Major complaints included removal of the SD card slot Why the New MacBook Pro Has No SD Card Slot Why the New MacBook Pro Has No SD Card Slot Why has Apple dumped the SD card slot from the new MacBook Pro when most people still use one? Only Apple has the answer... Read More , using futuristic-but-mostly-incompatible-today USB Type-C ports, and flaky real-world battery life Apple Fixes the MacBook Pro Battery Life Bug Apple Fixes the MacBook Pro Battery Life Bug Apple claims to have fixed one of the bugs affecting battery life on the MacBook Pro. But it's clearly "a" bug, and not "the" bug. Unfortunately. Read More .

Power users sighed at Apple’s focus on a thinner design instead of drastically better performance (the maximum RAM capacity is limited to 16GB and the new models aren’t considerably faster than their predecessors).

But the biggest question looms over the Touch Bar — a touchscreen strip that replaces the traditional function keys above the keyboard of the new MacBook Pros. Does it improve productivity or is it just a gimmick as some users are making it out to be?

After using a MacBook Pro 2017 with Touch Bar for over a month, here are some observations about the marquee feature of Apple’s new computers.

What Is the Touch Bar?

For long, Microsoft and Google have been sold on the idea of putting touchscreens on laptops. Microsoft’s own Surface Laptop 5 Things to Know Before Replacing a MacBook With the Surface Laptop 5 Things to Know Before Replacing a MacBook With the Surface Laptop Should you buy the Microsoft Surface Laptop? You might want to think twice about replacing your MacBook with a Micosoft Surface laptop. It may not be what Microsoft claims it is. Read More has it, and Google’s Chromebook Pixel had it too. Beyond these two, several laptops running Windows 10 or Chrome OS have displays that accept touch input as well.

On the other hand, Apple for long has been against the idea of putting a touchscreen on computers. During the iPad announcement in 2010, Steve Jobs talked about how vertical touchscreens can be painful to use after a while, and will “make your arm fall off”.

In recent times Apple has warmed to the idea as per the iPad Pro with Smart Keyboard cover iPad Pro 10.5 Review: Is the Best iPad Good Enough? iPad Pro 10.5 Review: Is the Best iPad Good Enough? The 9.7 inch iPad Pro was the shortest lived tablet in Apple's history, surviving only 15 months before being succeeded by the new 10.5 inch model. So does 0.8 inches do enough to close the... Read More , which does require you to interact with a vertically mounted touchscreen.

Nonetheless, for the Mac, Apple stuck to their belief and built on an idea that Lenovo had toyed with years before. By putting a tiny strip of touchscreen right above the keyboard, Apple believes this is a better implementation of touch input on a computer, rather than making the entire display touch-enabled.

Because of its position, it’s technically easier to reach the Touch Bar than having to lift up your hand and touch the computer display.

The Touch Bar dynamically changes function depending on the app in the foreground. For example, a Safari browser window will show shortcuts for Back, Forward, New Tab and more. Putting the focus on Finder (the file explorer) will show shortcuts for Quick Look, Tags, Share Sheet, and so on.

A “Control Strip” is persistently shown on the right-corner of the Touch Bar. While by default those include Siri, Brightness, Volume and Mute, they can be swapped with ones you prefer instead. I use Play/Pause, Screen Lock, Brightness, and Volume controls.

macbook pro touch bar control strip

Tapping the arrow button to the left of the Control Strip reveals the remaining functions you’ll typically find on other Macs (like keyboard backlight and Mission Control). For some reason, if you’re wanting to use actual function keys, you can press-and-hold the Fn button to show the F1 to F12 keys on the Touch Bar.

touch bar control strip traditional

In System Preferences > Keyboard, there are a few settings to tweak the Touch Bar behavior, including keeping a fixed set of toggle keys (pictured above) instead of dynamic ones.

The Good

Being a capacitive touchscreen running software made by Apple, you can trust that the Touch Bar will be accurate in responding to your taps. I seldom hit the wrong thing, and for the most part, the animations and operation are smooth enough.

My computing usage revolves around working with several tabs on a web browser, an image editing app called Pixelmator Photoshop VS Pixelmator: Which is Better for Mac Users Photoshop VS Pixelmator: Which is Better for Mac Users Photoshop is the most famous image editing application in the world. For Mac users, however, there's another option. Here's a look at how Pixelmator stacks up. Read More , and sometimes using spreadsheet and word processor apps. Also, apps like Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack and an unofficial Google Play Music app How to Listen to Google Play Music on Linux How to Listen to Google Play Music on Linux Google Play Music has no desktop version, instead designed for mobile use. Fortunately there's an unofficial desktop player called the Google Play Music Desktop Player, available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. Read More keep moving in and out of focus repeatedly.

youtube video playback touch bar

I am particularly fond of enhanced media playback controls on the Touch Bar. For instance, when playing a song on a music app, I can scrub to any part of the song without bringing the app to the foreground. Or when a YouTube video is playing full screen, on either sides of the seekbar, you’ll see a time elapsed as well as a time remaining counter.

And here’s the most interesting part: if you have media playing in a browser tab, and Safari isn’t even in the foreground, you can still play/pause or scrub by clicking the media control button. This is awesome because on a Mac with physical keys, hitting Play/Pause would only work for media apps, not contents playing in a web browser.

google play music touch bar controls

In the Safari web browser, you’ll see tiny webpage thumbnails in the middle. Many a times, they are indistinguishable, so you can’t really tell which tab is which. You can quickly move between tabs by sliding your finger over these tiny thumbnails. For people using Apple’s Photo app, I can imagine scrubbing through photos with a similar glide of the finger could be useful.

safari browser tabs touch bar

If you open the Calculator, commonly-used arithmetic symbols (like addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, percentage) occupy the touchscreen strip. I got used to tapping on the Touch Bar when doing long calculations.

calculator touch bar

The Bad

The first gripe I have with the Touch Bar is its default brightness — it feels low when you’re sitting underneath a bright light source. To make matters worse, the matte finish makes content even harder to see in such lighting conditions. As of writing this, there’s no way to change the Touch Bar screen brightness.

The next problem is that the Touch Bar goes to sleep if you don’t use the trackpad or keyboard for roughly a minute. Meaning, the computer display timeout and the Touch Bar display timeout isn’t synced.

Remember how I loved seeing the time elapsed or time remaining counters during fullscreen video playback? Well, if you’re watching a video past a minute, the Touch Bar isn’t helpful in showing you that information unless you touch the trackpad. As of today, there is no way to change the Touch Bar screen timeout as well.

preview touch bar

Most importantly, barring the niche use cases I talked about above, the Touch Bar in its current form does not dramatically improve the usability of a Mac. For example, when using Finder, you’ll see a shortcut for Quick Look. The problem is that Quick Look is faster to access by simply hitting the spacebar than raising your index finger towards the Touch Bar. There’s a New Tab shortcut when Safari’s open, but my brain is hardwired to use the Command + T shortcut.

For Apple’s own apps, the Touch Bar most of the time just ends up showing elements that are either a familiar keyboard shortcut away, or easily visible on the computer display. For example, when manipulating images in Preview How to Resize Images Using iPhoto, Photos or Preview on Mac How to Resize Images Using iPhoto, Photos or Preview on Mac Your Mac can resize images for you using built-in software, free of charge! Read More , you’re presented with the Rotate Left and Rotate Right shortcuts, among others. Again, using the Command + R keyboard shortcut just felt easier to use.

finder touch bar

The keyboard autocorrect suggestions is probably the most pointless feature on the Touch Bar. When you type, you’re typically looking at the screen, not underneath. There’s almost never a time when you’ll comprehend those autocorrect suggestions to be able to use them. The only silver lining? One-click access to your frequently-used emojis, which is certainly nicer than using the complicated Control + Command + Space keyboard shortcut.

keyboard suggestions touch bar

And then there’s the problem of not many third-party apps supporting the Touch Bar 10 Apps That Put the MacBook Pro Touch Bar to Good Use 10 Apps That Put the MacBook Pro Touch Bar to Good Use When the new MacBook Pro models first launched, most of the first apps to offer Touch Bar support were Apple's own. Thankfully many third-party apps now also support the feature. Read More today. As of writing this, the dynamic portion in the middle of the Touch Bar currently shows up blank for popular apps like Twitter, Slack, WhatsApp, Telegram, VLC, and many more.

Finally there’s some re-training required when using the Esc key, which is now a virtual button on the leftmost corner of the Touch Bar. Out of habit, I was used to resting my hand on the Escape key before I actually press it. It took some effort to break that habit, as I’d end up accidentally closing something while trying to rest my finger on the virtual button. But I can attest that I’ve finally got used to this and it’s become a non-issue for me.

emoji touch bar

Even for repetitive tasks like changing the screen brightness or volume, you have to look at the virtual buttons before using them — something you didn’t have to with the tactility of physical keys in the past.

The Ugly

The Touch Bar experience has not entirely a bug-free one for me. And although I’ve faced only a couple of freezes till now, others have reported more frequent occurrences of buggy behavior.

Since it’s software, and it’s used to control useful functions like volume, brightness, and media playback — a Touch Bar crash can put certain aspects of macOS out of reach.

Should You Buy the MacBook Pro With Touch Bar?

If you were hoping that the Touch Bar will drastically improve your workflow, then I’m afraid you’ll be left disappointed. In its current form, it’s a cool, experimental feature at best. Many of the issues I’ve raised can be fixed with future software updates.

But the learning curve to use the Touch Bar instead of keyboard shortcuts or the mouse pointer is unfortunately too high. And this is why, unless Apple somehow drastically changes the way the Touch Bar operates today, it will mostly be forgotten by the bulk of its users.

But trapped within the MacBook Pro Touch Bar strip is a gem of a feature: Touch ID. If you use password managers or use Apple Pay frequently, using a fingerprint scanner instead of typing a password over and over is worth biting the bullet for (that’s why I did). It is sad that the MacBook Pro without Touch Bar doesn’t have Touch ID, else the decision to choose between the two would’ve been a lot simpler.

1password touch id touch bar

What do you think? Would you opt for a Touch Bar Mac or are you sticking to the one with the good ol’ function keys? Let us know in the comments below.

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  1. Mal
    September 18, 2017 at 8:30 am

    I bought the MBP with no touch bar (ppl are calling it the MBP "Escape") and instead spent about $500 on 16GB RAM and 512GB SSD. The battery also lasts longer on the Escape (in fact it's a bigger battery, while the no-touch also uses less energy). The touch bar seemed like it could be fun, but also too much of a distraction. Still, the touch-bar version has two more USB-C ports (though slower than those on the left side), a stronger processor (which in benchmarks doesn't seem to make a difference, or might paradoxically be slower, but does eat up more power), as well as two fans vs the Escape's one. It's a really annoying choice between the two. I bring my machine everywhere so I opted for battery over power, essentially. With USB-C you'll need dongles anyway, so the two ports aren't a disaster.

    • Rohan Naravane
      September 18, 2017 at 2:08 pm

      Hey Mal, yeah I've battled with the TouchBar vs Escape choice, and it was actually Touch ID that made me ultimately choose the former, especially since this is a computer I'm going to be using for the next five years.