Apple’s refreshed MacBook Pros from last year received a fair share of flak from Mac loyalists. Major complaints included removal of the SD card slot, using futuristic-but-mostly-incompatible-today USB Type-C ports, and flaky real-world battery life.
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 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, 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.
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.
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.
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, and sometimes using spreadsheet and word processor apps. Also, apps like Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack and an unofficial Google Play Music app keep moving in and out of focus repeatedly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
And then there’s the problem of not many third-party apps supporting the Touch Bar 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.
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 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.
Another day another touch bar crash. It’s cool, putting buttons in software means you can’t change your brightness! pic.twitter.com/CEDBbO08VB
— ?? Owen Williams (@ow) August 4, 2017
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.
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.