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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Three months of Touch Bar

When the new MacBook Pros came out, I ordered a stock $1499 model. That’s the 13-inch model without the Touch Bar.

I left my review with a bit of a meh feeling about the whole thing. I liked the new design, but Dongle Life and poor battery performance had me down.

I spent quite a bit of time in that review explaining why I didn’t pony up for a Touch Bar model, but in January, I needed a new-in-box Mac for a YouTube video. I went to my local Apple store and picked up the $1799 machine. It’s the entry-level, 13-inch with Touch Bar. I shot my video and then figured that, since I had some time before I had to return it, I should get to know the Touch Bar a little bit.

If you haven’t caught on, that’s the laptop that I am currently typing on. (Shocking, right?) Out of the box, the increased power was a welcome addition. More importantly, this MacBook come with four ports, which I’ve found to be helpful while working out in the real world, doing things like recording and editing audio or video.

In the time since my upgrade, those two things are why I’m happy I kept the nicer laptop, not the Touch Bar itself.

That’s not to say the Touch Bar is bad. It does what it advertises on the tin, but it hasn’t revolutionized the way I work on my Mac. It may be that most of the time I use an iMac, so the Touch Bar can’t fully elbow its way into my workflows. However, I think part of it is that I just don’t see the Touch Bar as critical to the Mac experience yet.

I like Control Strip, which allows fast access to things like screen brightness, volume controls and more. I’ve swapped out Siri for the “Show Desktop” feature of Mission Control, which I use constantly.

I love the emoji picker. It’s a lot of fun to blast through a bunch of faces to find just the right one. The emoji palette in macOS Sierra is clunky at best, and the Touch Bar really highlights the need for Apple to overhaul it.

(Don’t get me started on the lack of search within iOS’s emoji keyboard. Geez.)

The whole thing with the Touch Bar is that it’s context-aware, adapting itself to what is onscreen at any given moment. This enables fun things like scrubbing video in QuickTime or Safari, but the flexibility means some developers have handled things very differently than others.

Even Apple’s own apps are uneven in their approach. iWork does its best to cram in as many useful tools as possible; Mail shows a huge “Move to…” button to help file away email, even for accounts that just have an Inbox and an Archive. Of course, some apps have no Touch Bar support, in which case it doesn’t light up unless the user is typing.

This uneven experience has made it harder for me to grow accustomed to it. I find it frustrating to reach for something that’s not there when I want it. Taking my eyes off the screen to swipe around can slow me down, especially if I already know how to complete the task at hand with a keyboard shortcut or in the GUI.

Keyboard shortcuts are the obvious parallel in all of this. I wasn’t around when they first showed up, but I’m sure some complained about an uneven experience back in the day. Time works wonders, though, and today keyboard shortcuts are second nature for many users.

These days, if an application doesn’t assign a keyboard shortcut to a menu item I often use, I can simply open System Preferences and make my own. With the Touch Bar, the user is at the mercy of the developer.

All of that said, I’m fully aware that we are still in the early days of the Touch Bar. Best practices will emerge and I think Apple and others will do a more consistent job of implementing parts of applications to better work with swipes and taps.

At this point, though, I’m pretty cool on the whole thing. It’s very clever hardware, but it’s not changing the software world for this Mac user just yet.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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