I'm still waiting on the 15-inch MacBook Pro I ordered, but a developer friend who wanted me to try out his Touch Bar features lent me his 13-inch machine for a few days. In this column, I'll give you my impressions of Apple's latest UI innovation.
In a word: meh. I'm not impressed.
I don't hate it. It's nice enough, I guess. It just doesn't seem to add anything to my daily work process and, at least as something of a power user, it adds a bit of annoyance to the process of typing.
The Escape key
Let's start with my one big beef: in daily use, the Touch Bar makes the Escape key less convenient than when using a regular keyboard.
The Escape key is the only "key" on the Touch Bar that I actually need to use. Because the Touch Bar doesn't go the full width of the keyboard (I know, odd, right?), the Escape key soft image is actually about half a key's width in from the left.
If you press right where the Escape key is supposed to be, the Mac registers it as a keypress, so muscle memory is somewhat functional. Somewhat.
That leads me to the second problem. There is no haptic feedback. When you press a key on the Touch Bar, there's nothing to tell you that a key has been pressed. There's no vibration, no press down, no feeling at all.
It's not terrible, but rather than just hitting the Escape key because it's where it's always been, whenever I needed to press Escape, I found myself pausing a bit, interrupting my flow, looking away from the screen, and making sure I was actually hitting the 60 pixel high area on the Touch Bar.
Looking away from the main screen is a theme with the Touch Bar. Basically, because you can't predict what will be where on the Touch Bar. You have to take your eyes off the main screen to look at, and choose from, the options on the Touch Bar.
During moments of "Gee, I know there's a way to do..." the Touch Bar is helpful. But for most of the folks who use these machines regularly, there's just no good reason to interrupt the flow to pause and glance down at the Touch Bar.
I found that when I was hard at work, I just forgot the Touch Bar existed, except for my every few minutes grumble about the Escape key. Otherwise, I didn't stop, look away from the main Retina screen, and look down at my hands. But I haven't needed to look at my hands to type since, well, far before there were laptops.
The big yawn
The big yawn about the Touch Bar is that there isn't much beyond Apple's own applications that support it yet. My developer friend is hard at work trying to find a reason to add Touch Bar support, but he's just duplicating menu items on the Touch Bar, which isn't compelling for either him or me.
All of Apple's portable Macs since 1984
There are some unique applications, like the ability to scrub through a timeline in Final Cut while reviewing video in full screen, but there aren't many such useful moments.
I imagine sound editing would also benefit from the ability to scrub right on the Touch Bar, but scanning through photos or PowerPoint slides would be painful, since the whole thing is only 60 pixels high. I just can't see a reason to squint at my keyboard rather than look at a selection of images on the beautiful Retina display.
Chrome has no support for the Touch Bar, which means all the web-based apps we use are completely disconnected from this new feature. Yes, Safari offers the ability to switch tabs, but again, meh. So what? We can switch tabs by clicking on tabs on the main screen.
Over time, as developers add support for the Touch Bar, there may be some compelling applications, but we'll have to wait and see.
There are also some edge cases. For example, Boot Camp. Using Boot Camp, you can install Windows on your MacBook Pro and boot into it using a dual boot environment.
But what happens to the function keys and the Escape key when that entire area is a soft display? Windows sure as heck doesn't know from the Touch Bar.
I couldn't test this because my friend really didn't want me mucking with his partitions. He says he's heard from some other developers that Boot Camp works, but just puts a default set of function keys on the bar. Well, at least that's something.
The big disappointment is with Keyboard Maestro. This is my favorite application for customizing keystrokes and behaviors for MacOS. I'd even go so far as to say it's one of the key reasons to use MacOS, because it makes so many things possible so easily.
Keyboard Maestro with the Touch Bar would be ideal. Using it, you could create any function or key you want and make that available via a menu on the Touch Bar. But no. According to the developer:
The API for the Touch Bar does not appear to allow non-front applications to affect the Touch Bar, except that Apple does this themselves in Xcode and Screen Capture and the like. So Apple knows and understands the need, but have not made the facility available for Third Party macro trigger style applications. In the mean time, asking Apple to add Third Party APIs for the "Control Strip" section of the Touch Bar would be a good idea.
So not only is the Touch Bar not terribly impressive, apparently Apple has nerfed the API so developers can't really use it to its maximum potential. That's so Apple for you.
Over time, there's no doubt more applications will support the Touch Bar. That will make it more valuable. Innovation does require a bit of waiting for developers to catch up. I get that.
The Touch ID button on the Touch Bar is nice. Unlocking the machine via a single thumb press is useful. I do wish Apple would go all-in on multi factor security and create a mode where you need a password (something you know), a thumb print (something you are) and an Apple Watch (something you have) all at once for real security. But that might have to wait, too.
Not all Apple features are adopted by all users, and I think that's definitely the case with the Touch Bar. New users who use mostly Apple's own software may find the Touch Bar helpful. But as a fast touch typist and power user, I didn't find features like predictive text display helpful. It was just a distraction.
Bottom line: at this point, don't buy a new MacBook Pro just for the Touch Bar alone. I'm sure even I will use it from time to time. But while it's unique, it's just not all that helpful.
By the way, I promised you that when my MacBook Pro's USB-C to USB adapters arrived, more than a month before my actual MacBook Pro makes it here, I'd build a shrine with the adapters. Ever good to my word, here's the shrine. Fortunately, my 3D printed Yoda army wasn't otherwise engaged. It looks like they're using The Force to do what they can to make the MacBook Pro itself arrive as soon as possible.