By Jason Snell
November 14, 2016 5:00 AM PT
MacBook Pro with Touch Bar review: Keyboard chameleon
The new MacBook Pro is a powerful computer in a relatively thin and light shell that brings an entirely new connection format to the Mac mainstream, but it won’t be remembered for any of that. The legacy of this laptop sits at the top of the keyboard, where a row of function keys have been replaced by a high-resolution multitouch OLED display with a fingerprint sensor next to it.
This isn’t the MacBook Pro, it’s the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar and Touch ID. And it’s a major investment by Apple, featuring major additions to macOS and almost all of its included apps in order to support the Touch Bar and Touch ID.
New form, new function
The Touch Bar’s surface, while glass, looks different than Apple’s other displays. It’s been designed to match the matte surface of the keyboard’s keycaps. (It’s still reflective, but only at angles you won’t see while actually typing with the computer on a table or in your lap.) In terms of texture, the Touch Bar feels very much like the trackpad. Its brightness varies based on room conditions, with the ultimate goal of trying to match itself to the look of the keyboard. Basically, the Touch Bar is trying to blend in, not stand out.
There’s no way to control the brightness of the Touch Bar, but it does engage in some very specific power-saving behavior. When the MacBook Pro is idle for a little while, the display will dim. After a bit longer, it will shut off entirely. The moment you begin using the MacBook Pro again, it snaps back into life. But it’s not always on.
To the far right side of the touch bar is a tall, narrow, shiny space—and when you press it, you’ll discover it’s a key. This is ostensibly the power key, but it’s not like the power key on any previous Mac. When you press it, it doesn’t do anything (unless the computer is off). Press it and hold it down for six seconds and the computer will restart. Apple has removed other functionality from it because it’s a magnet for accidental button presses owing to its more important function: This is where the Touch ID sensor is located. (More on Touch ID in a bit.)
To balance out the design, the Touch Bar’s OLED screen doesn’t extend all the way to the left edge of the glass. As a result, the Touch Bar always appears inset from the rest of the keyboard. It’s a bit weird. Fortunately, it appears that touch sensitivity extends a bit past the end of the display itself—when I tapped the corner of the Touch Bar, reflexively reaching for the Escape key, my touch would still trigger that key—even though my finger wasn’t actually touching the part of the Touch Bar displaying the virtual Escape key.
(It took me a few days to get used to the presence of the Touch Bar. Until then, I found that my pinky would slide off the carat key and make contact with the Touch Bar, triggering the virtual Escape key. I’ve trained myself not to let my finger stray up into the Touch Bar accidentally, but it was an adaptation.)
Perhaps it says something about me that when I envisioned the Touch Bar, I envisioned a touchscreen largely populated with virtual keys with custom keycaps. Though Apple’s design of the Touch Bar interface is in its infancy—and I’d expect a whole lot of refinement and even rethinking over the next year or two—it’s already surprised me with its detail and even its whimsy. This is a full-color, retina-caliber screen, and while the default interface does its best to fit in with the monochrome keycaps it’s sitting above, in various contexts you’ll see splashes of color that stand out in some delightful ways.
But what really surprised me were the animations. The Touch Bar is an animated interface through and through. Items don’t just fade in and out, but also slide smoothly back and forth. The arrow pointing from the Touch Bar to the Touch ID sensor during a request for an unlock grows and shrinks, practically begging you to put your finger down. There’s a lot more personality here than I expected.
Another aspect of the Touch Bar that I hadn’t really thought about is that every label can now provide context in a way that a fixed key can’t. Yes, there’s a volume button on the Touch bar, but the number of sound waves radiating out from the speaker on the volume’s icon indicates the current volume level. When you tap the Mute button, the sound waves disappear from the volume button. The Play/Pause media control button isn’t a Play/Pause button—it’s a pause button when audio is playing, and a play button when it’s paused. When you’re editing text and you tap the Bold style button, the button remains lit up as long as you’re still within the bold style.
If you think of the contents of the Touch Bar as a software toolbar, this is all obvious. If you think of it as replicating keys on a keyboard, it’s surprising. Is there an Uncanny Valley for keycaps?
The Touch Bar itself changes based on context. The currently frontmost app controls the bulk of the space of the Touch Bar, and can either present a single static set of tools or change the contents of the Touch Bar depending on context. Apple has added support for the Touch Bar for many of its own apps—Activity Monitor, Calculator, Calendar, Contacts, Finder, Final Cut Pro, GarageBand, iMovie, iTunes, Keynote, Mail, Maps, Messages, Numbers, Pages, Photos, Preview, QuickTime Player, Safari, System Preferences, and Terminal, plus several other apps (TextEdit, Stickies, Notes, Script Editor) via a more generic styled-text interface. And most standard user-interface elements, right down to Open and Save windows, also will present contextually appropriate Touch Bar options.
Touch typing and Touch Bar
One of the most common criticisms I’ve seen leveled at the Touch Bar is from touch typists, who navigate their keyboards entirely by feel. A smooth glass touchscreen can’t be navigated by feel—in fact, the act of feeling its surface interacts with it! I’m a touch typist myself, so I can relate to that line of thinking.
I assume that some people have committed the position of all the physical function keys to memory, but even as a touch typist, I never did. If I need to press F4 or adjust my Mac’s brightness or volume, I almost always look down to the keyboard to orient myself. I’d wager that Apple’s decision to remove the function keys was made with an understanding that most keyboard users—even touch typists—tend to look down when they’re reaching for the function keys1.
(Why a Touch Bar instead of a touchscreen? Apple believes that the Mac is defined by two perpendicular surfaces—one for display and one for control. The Touch Bar is on the same plane as other input devices, namely the keyboard and the trackpad. And it behaves like a smart input device.)
Over the years Apple had tried to kick the function keys out the door, adding labels for macOS-specific functionality and making the “traditional” F-keys hide behind the fn modifier key. Now it’s gone all the way: Instead of having to remember the difference between F4 and F5, users get to see explicit labels—words, icons, whatever—indicating what will happen if they press a particular button. That’s the trade-off with losing the ability to touch-type the function row: A much clearer, more accessible space for functions that might have otherwise been buried under keyboard shortcuts or deep in menus.
While it’s natural to wonder if looking down to the Touch Bar tends to break your concentration from the Mac’s screen, on numerous occasions I was surprised that it was much more direct to tap an item on the Touch Bar while keeping my hands in keyboarding mode than to move my right hand down to the trackpad and drive the cursor somewhere else on screen in order to click on an icon.
If you’re a believer that keyboard shortcuts are better (and easier on our arms and wrists) than pushing a cursor around screen, the Touch Bar will only reinforce that belief. Now instead of remembering that keyboard shortcut or being forced to move your cursor in order to click on an on-screen element, you can reach out and tap an explicitly labeled item on the Touch Bar.
People who tend to prefer using the keyboard to drive the Mac’s interface will love the Touch Bar, I think. I tried a prerelease version of the calculator app PCalc, and was struck how much easier it was to use now that I could not just input numbers and invoke basic operators from the keyboard, but I could use the Touch Bar to activate functions that I’d previously had to mouse around on screen to use. (Apple’s own Calculator app comes with a whole bunch of Touch Bar shortcuts, too.)
Here’s one example of how the Touch Bar changed how I used a pretty common app, Notes. I was taking notes while watching some old “Twilight Zone” episodes for an upcoming episode of The Incomparable. Normally my text goes into Notes unadorned, but with two taps on the Touch Bar I could style the titles of each episode as a header. Now, it turns out there’s a keyboard shortcut (command-shift-H) to set headers in Notes, but I’ve never used it or even thought about using it. But the style button on the Touch Bar called me, and upon tapping it I was offered several different styling options, including one simply marked Header. It’s a basic example of unearthing features in an app, but it struck me that this is one of the ways the Touch Bar could expose app functionality that users might have missed in other contexts.
The Touch Bar excels at creating custom keys, but because it’s a touchscreen, it’s also got a lot of potential to replace the act of pressing keys altogether. In the Control Strip there are buttons that control the MacBook’s brightness and volume, but instead of two keys each—as is the case on physical keyboards—there’s only a single button. Tapping it brings up a slider, at which point you can slide your finger left or right on the Touch Bar to adjust brightness or volume. It’s a much more natural interface than tapping a key a few times in order to dim your display.
The Control Strip rides again
Back in the classic Mac days there was a utility called Control Strip that offered quick access to some basic system controls and could be expanded or contracted with a click. Now Apple has revived the term for a Touch Bar feature that’s a bit similar conceptually.
The new Control Strip lives on the far right side of the Touch Bar, and is available at all times. It consists of four user-configurable buttons (by default it’s Brightness, Volume, Mute, and Siri), a fifth Now Playing button that appears if media is currently playing, and at its far left edge, a narrow button that you can tap to expand the Control Strip to take over the entire Touch Bar. The expanded Control Strip features even more system controls, including keyboard backlighting controls, and is also customizable.
The Control Strip is a good idea. In just a few days of using the MacBook Pro, I came to enjoy very quickly swiping to control brightness or volume and tapping to pause or play music from iTunes. But it’s also very clearly a first version, missing a lot of options that might make it much more useful.
Just to name a few: There’s no way to put control of keyboard backlighting on the base Control Strip, just the expanded version, so adjusting your keyboard lighting is always at least two taps away. The expanded versions of the lighting and audio controls are discrete buttons, so you can’t swipe to control them—you must tap repeatedly or tap and hold to make adjustments, and there’s no option to replace them with the single buttons found on the smaller Control Strip.
There’s also no facility for third-party utilities to have access to Control Strip, which isn’t really surprising—but it’s an area that Apple should consider adding in the future, because some of my favorite Mac utilities are those that are available systemwide rather than in one particular app, and they’d be great inside Control Strip.
While I appreciate the idea of the Now Playing Control Strip item, I don’t particularly like the way it’s implemented. When I expand it while playing audio from iTunes, there’s an iTunes icon, a very large scrubber, and playback controls. I can appreciate the iTunes scrubber as a fun demonstration of alternate interfaces on the Touch Bar, but for the life of me I can’t imagine how often I’d want to scrub through the contents of a song. I’d rather have volume control, the name of the song and artist, and a shuffle/repeat control.
Also, the Now Playing item seemed to be the least reliable aspect of the entire Touch Bar. At numerous times it lost track of the fact that iTunes was playing and displayed a Play icon instead of the proper Pause icon. I had to switch to iTunes and pause and play the audio to get it to work properly. And at one point, the expanded Now Playing widget showed me a Twitter icon—I was running the Twitter app, but it wasn’t active and was in the background—rather than the iTunes icon. Maybe it got confused by a video or animation in my Twitter timeline. I don’t know.
Make it your own, or don’t
The Touch Bar’s behavior can really vary from app to app. In some, such as Final Cut Pro, there are rich sets of controls that change depending on context and aren’t really made to be customized. In others, you can choose which items you want to appear on the Touch Bar by choosing Customize Touch Bar from the Edit menu.
In an interface that’s pretty much identical to the one you use to customize the toolbar in most standard Mac apps, you get a palette of icons that you can drag down to the bottom of the screen. When you reach the bottom, those icons pop onto the Touch Bar itself, and you can drag them around with your trackpad. Similarly, you can select items in the Touch Bar and drag them out to remove them.
It’s the one instance where you interact directly with the Touch Bar by using the trackpad. And while it could’ve been a weird interaction (after all, it’s not like you can see your cursor down there), it’s actually an instantly understandable interface. When you’re editing the Touch Bar, all the items wiggle a little bit, and the item you’ve selected is highlighted. Moving your finger on the trackpad moves the highlighted item left or right, and moving up will pop the item out of the Touch Bar altogether and make it reappear at the bottom of the MacBook’s screen.
Any time you customize the Touch Bar in a specific app, you can also customize the Control Strip in both its standard and expanded forms. Just tap on the Control Strip during customization, and the on-screen icons will change to reflect the items you can add to it. Tap to expand the Control Strip, and now you’re editing the icons that appear when it’s expanded.
It will be interesting to see how different apps approach using the Touch Bar. In some cases, the ultra-custom Touch Bar interfaces are fantastic playgrounds for changing how laptop users interact with their apps. But in others, I found the choices the developers made to be at odds with the features that I wanted quicker access to. In the end, customization will be important to all apps, not just the ones using the standard customization method.
Pushing it forward
The Touch Bar is a peculiar beast. It’s Apple’s attempt to apply what it’s learned from building touchscreen interfaces, but in a more traditional personal-computer context. When you think about that top row of function keys, they really were a strange remnant of a past age. Rather than ditch them entirely, Apple has transformed that space into something more interesting, with contextual content that brings app features to the foreground in a way that traditional app interfaces don’t. Even if all the Touch Bar did was replace inscrutable function keys with keys with proper, explanatory labels it would be helpful, but it does a lot more than that.
Ultimately, the Touch Bar is a wacky idea that really works. This is an extension of the keyboard that does what no physical keyboard can do, while retaining the traditional approach of having a big display up there being manipulated by your hands on the control area down here. It’s an unfamiliar approach to a very familiar way of using technology. It’s got room to grow, and app developers will have a lot of fun trying to figure out the best way to apply it, but Touch Bar was created with a great deal of care, and it shows.
Fingerprints come to the Mac
The Touch Bar is an enormous change to the Mac platform introduced with the new MacBook Pro, but it’s not the only one. Almost as big is the introduction of Touch ID, a technology we’ve been living with on the iPhone and iPad for a few years now.
Embedded in that power button to the right of the Touch Bar, you can use the Touch ID sensor to log in to a locked laptop (though after a restart you need to enter in your password, as on iOS). When it’s time to log in, the Touch Bar wakes up and points an arrow at the sensor. You can also use Touch ID for fast user switching between different accounts, and to approve Apple Pay on the Web (rather than using an iPhone or Apple Watch).
While Apple is often wary of opening brand-new technologies to third-party apps, both the Touch Bar and Touch ID are available to third-party apps. In the case of Touch ID, I was able to download a new version of 1Password and set it to unlock via my fingerprint, as it does on my iOS devices. It’s pretty great.
There’s a computer here, too
Lest we forget, Apple is not selling a Touch Bar and Touch ID sensor as standalone items—they’re attached to a computer. I reviewed the $2399 base 15-inch model, with a 2.6GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD.
As you might expect, it’s a fast, powerful system. I encoded video, edited multiple tracks of uncompressed audio, and ran some parallelized command-line audio commands. Four cores are better than two when it comes to these powerful multithreaded tasks.
Otherwise the system is similar to others in its generation, including the MacBook-inspired keyboard. I wrote this entire article on that keyboard, and my opinions of it remain intact: It does the job, though I doubt I’ll ever love it.
Notably, the Touch Bar models of MacBook Pro offer four USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, two on each side. Though I don’t have a 5K external display handy, Apple says this one will drive two. I was just happy to realize that I can plug in my power cable on either side of the computer. Sometimes it’s the small things.
I was also very impressed by the power of the speakers on the 15-inch MacBook Pro. They were loud and strong and far better than anything I’ve heard in an Apple laptop before. I actually enjoyed listening to music on them, which is not something I think I’ve ever said about any Apple laptop speakers at any point in history.
One thing I noticed that I didn’t love: Every ten clicks or so, the MacBook Pro’s trackpad would simply “miss” one of my clicks. This is something I haven’t experienced on my desktop Magic Trackpad, which clicks reliably. At first I thought I was interfering with the trackpad somehow, perhaps inadvertently touching my shirt to the bottom edge or laying my palm onto the surface. But it wasn’t any of those, so far as I could tell. Whatever the reason, it’s not fun to have your laptop miss clicks. It slows everything down. I hope this is a bug in the software that Apple can address in an update, because it’s a real bummer. The old hinge-style trackpad on my MacBook Air might not be fancy, but it never let me down.
You will see that I am not afraid
I was skeptical of the Touch Bar when it was first rumored, but it’s obvious that Apple has taken great care in refining the concept to focus it on being a contextual extension of the keyboard rather than a very squat iPad. Apple’s implementation of the Touch Bar interface in its apps vary from incredibly detailed to more generic, but I expect that over the next year or two we’ll all learn more about what makes an effective Touch Bar interface and what doesn’t. My gut feeling is that some of the more ambitious, complex interfaces will prove to be less useful than quick shortcuts, and that customization will be invaluable. But we won’t know until we try.
If the Touch ID sensor is a little less exciting, that’s because it’s so familiar from iOS that it doesn’t seem that unusual to encounter it on the Mac. And I do like reducing the number of times I need to type in my password.
I’m also happy that this is brand-new Apple hardware that’s immediately accessible by third-party software developers, which should limit the really awkward period where early adopters rush to a new feature only to find it supported by Apple but with no hope for more until the next year’s OS update.
So who says there’s nothing new under the sun? Here’s a new dimension added to the Mac, with a debt owed to iOS, but undeniably its own approach. It never forgets it’s a companion to the keyboard and trackpad, but adds more flexibility than a static keyboard ever could. I’m looking forward to seeing how it evolves—and I have to admit, I kind of want one to place above the top row of my own external Mac keyboard now. I never felt that way about function keys.
- I also wasn’t ever distracted by the changing contents of the Touch Bar while I was doing other stuff and not paying attention to it. ↩
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