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What’s Wrong with the Touch Bar

Last October, when Apple unveiled the redesigned MacBook Pro, I wanted one immediately (see “New MacBook Pros Add Context-sensitive Touch Bar,” 27 October 2016). Practically speaking, I needed a second Mac, and a portable one at that. But I was mostly lured in by the Touch Bar, both for its novelty factor, and because, as a technology writer, I like to have experience with each unique Apple device to inform our articles.

Alas, closing in on a year later, I’ve found that I don’t use the Touch Bar much. I was forced to confront this unhappy fact when Adam suggested that I write an article about interesting uses of the Touch Bar. After some research, we agreed that there wasn’t enough there to warrant an article. Although there was a flurry of fascinating developer projects after launch, nothing significant ever shipped.

I’m not saying the Touch Bar is useless, because that isn’t true. At least in theory, it’s more capable and more flexible than a row of physical keys. And Touch ID is fantastic for logging into my MacBook Pro and authenticating 1Password. But if you were to ask me today if you should spend the $300–$400 extra on a MacBook Pro with a Touch Bar, I would say no for two reasons:

  • Per Apple’s own Human Interface Guidelines, no functionality should be exclusive to the Touch Bar. That makes sense because Touch Bar-equipped Macs are a small minority, but the flip side is that the Touch Bar provides no additional functionality apart from Touch ID. That wouldn’t be terrible if using the Touch Bar was faster than using other interface elements, but it’s not, because of the second problem.

  • The Touch Bar offers no tactile feedback, and it’s impossible to use it without looking, as you can do with the function keys. On my iMac, my keyboard of choice is the Apple Wireless Keyboard. If I need to adjust volume or pause audio playback, I just tap the appropriate key, generally without looking. On my MacBook Pro, I have to take my eyes off the screen to find the right button on the Touch Bar, and then in the case of volume (as of macOS 10.13 High Sierra), adjust the slider accordingly.

Those two factors alone make the Touch Bar largely pointless. Here’s a simple example: in Microsoft Word, the Touch Bar offers shortcuts to items in the toolbar. Let’s say you want to bold some selected text. On a Touch Bar-equipped MacBook Pro, you have three main (there are others, but they’re even slower) ways to do this:

  • Press Command-B on the keyboard, which lets you keep your hands on the keyboard and eyes on the screen.

  • Click the Bold button in Word’s toolbar, which takes your hands off the keyboard but keeps your eyes on the screen.

  • Tap the Bold button on the Touch Bar, which takes your eyes off the screen and your hands off the keyboard.

In most cases, the Touch Bar is the slowest way to perform an action! It’s a cool-looking racing stripe that slows you down in many cases, and even worse, eliminates useful physical keys that you probably reach for reflexively, like Esc.

That’s not all. The screen is too small to be useful in some cases. For instance, you can use the Touch Bar to switch tabs in Safari, which looks cool, but you can barely make out what’s in each tab.

The upcoming macOS 10.13 High Sierra doesn’t do much for the Touch Bar. You can double tap its volume button to mute your Mac’s audio, and you can swipe to adjust both volume and display brightness. It also adds buttons to activate Night Shift and send audio and video to an AirPlay receiver (most likely an Apple TV).

Should Apple abandon the Touch Bar concept? I’m not ready to go that far, but Apple needs do some work if it’s to become useful.

Making the Touch Bar Useful -- There are a handful of potentially useful Touch Bar applications, but they’re hampered by Apple’s restrictions. As far as I know, and this is backed up by Keyboard Maestro’s Peter Lewis, there’s no Apple-approved way for an app to add actions to the Touch Bar without being in the foreground. Eliminating that restriction would go a long way toward making the Touch Bar more practical.

If background apps could present Touch Bar icons, automation utilities like Keyboard Maestro could allow users to trigger custom macros from the Touch Bar without requiring a potentially obscure key combination. Was it Command-Shift-Option-M or Control-Shift-Option-M?

I always struggle with this, because it’s challenging to create memorable keyboard shortcuts that don’t conflict with existing shortcuts. Here at TidBITS, we have a Keyboard Maestro macro that runs a BBEdit text factory in any app to fix things like non-curly quote marks. Another macro we use combines iPhone screenshots. But I often have trouble remembering their key combinations, particularly for the second one, which I use much less frequently. Being able to activate those from the Touch Bar would make the Touch Bar instantly useful for me.

Some developers have figured out how to hack an extra button into the Control Strip — the handful of controls that are always visible on the right side of the Touch Bar by default. BetterTouchTool, Mute Me, and TouchSwitcher all add a fifth button to Control Strip, but they’re ugly hacks. You can’t configure these buttons in System Preferences > Keyboard > Customize Control Strip, and if you have more than one of these apps running, they fight over which one gets that fifth spot.

Even most regular apps that support the Touch Bar now just replicate basic functionality in it, rather than allowing users to choose which commands to show there. Command-B is faster than tapping a Bold button, but if you were in a word processor and had defined a custom character style, accessing it from the Touch Bar might be faster than finding it in a contextual menu or palette that isn’t always visible. Apple should set an example here and implement some non-obvious uses of the Touch Bar in its apps.

Giving the Touch Bar some level of tactile feedback would help too. The near-mythical Optimus Maximus keyboard did this by putting little OLED displays on each key. I can’t see Apple doing that, but Apple might be able to use its Taptic Engine technology to simulate gutters between buttons while still letting a slider remain smooth as you run your finger along it. Given how convincing the software Home button in the iPhone 7 is, I think this could be an effective solution.

In the here and now, if you’re looking at a new MacBook Pro and can’t decide if you want the Touch Bar, I don’t think it, by itself, is worth the money. Of course, buying decisions are never that simple, since the Touch Bar-equipped models add a few other niceties, such as two more Thunderbolt 3 ports, faster CPU options, and faster Wi-Fi, that might make it worthwhile. And Touch ID is nice. But until Apple opens the Touch Bar up to developers, don’t assume that it will increase your productivity.


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Comments about What’s Wrong with the Touch Bar
(Comments are closed.)

Daniel TidBits Kegan  2017-08-04 16:50
Besides the Touch ID, I found the Touch Bar handy when using the Mac Calculator: + - / and + are closer to numeric keyboard input and easier/faster than mousing to main display screen.
Jerome Kornfield  2017-09-03 20:03
Damn that is an expensive calculator!!! Isn't it interesting how we rummage for reasons to "like" the touchbar. I tried it over and over before I bought my "bottom end" MacBook Pro (loaded as far as I could take it). I still cannot find a use for the "bar" other than the fingerprint login.
Devesh   2017-08-04 17:22
Might it be possible to use the Touch Bar as a context sensitive slider for image (or audio) editing? I'm thinking of LightRoom, etc. Select a control like brightness or brush size and then control the range of the tool by sliding back and forth to fine tune the setting. Add a function to scale the sensitivity and suddenly this thing would be very useful!
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2017-08-10 06:36
That's what you get with Windows touch screen displays. The Touch Bar is less than a limp substitute for touch screen functionality. Which is to say, it's an epic fail. What's more, Microsoft is implementing touch screen in a desktop computer, the Surface Studio, whereas the Touch Bar will never be practical with an iMac.
Alan Forkosh  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2017-08-07 14:51
Another problem with the Touch Bar is that there is no way to implement it on non-integrated keyboards. Until such a method exists, the Touch Bar is limited to laptops. That has nasty effects for users and developers:

1) A user with both a laptop and a desktop needs to either forget about the Touch Bar on her laptop or use different muscle memory for her desktop and laptop.

2) Developers would be reluctant to invest much energy is creating and maintaining Touch Bar functionality as only a minority of users(even those with up-to-date machines) will be able use it.
Bocaboy  2017-08-04 18:24
Absolutely right. It took Apple years to release a Bluetooth version of their wireless keyboard with a number pad. I wouldn't hold my breath for anyone at Apple to endorse the release of an external wireless keyboard with Touchbar.
Phil Earnhardt  2017-08-04 19:52
I think that we'll have a BT keyboard with touchbar for the iMac Pro in the fall. I can't imagine their making that machine without a touchbar. Shortly afterwards, it should be available as an option for anyone.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2017-08-10 06:51
Duh. That would take your eyes even further from the screen. If you're a hunt-and-peck typist that might not matter as you are already looking down at your keyboard most of the time and operating at peak inefficiency.. But for a touch typist it would be a useless expense. As Josh points out, the Touch Bar is already the least efficient way to do almost anything on a laptop. On a desktop computer it would be about as useful as the proverbial screen door on a submarine. Now it's possible Apple will continue down this blind alley (to mix some metaphors), but it won't make the Mac any more useful.

Apple is so far refusing to make a touchscreen capable version of the macOS; with the Touch Bar they are merely pouring good money after bad, trying to justify their stubborn stupidity. They won't do a touch screen because Microsoft did it first. One wonders how much money and market share they will have to lose before they see the handwriting on the wall.
Touch Bar is the first feature Apple has put into Mac that exists purely for marketing reasons. It's exactly the sort of feature that Steve Jobs would have mocked. But Apple will keep putting it into Macs because it's a friendly face for all who are terrified of desktop OSes.

Why do they love the phones/tablets? Part of it is portability, but IMO just as significant is the emotional connection people get from using their fingers. Parallel features on mobile are often involve more steps vs. desktop due to how limited the input device is (your fat fingers!) but people overcome those challenges with aplomb simply because of that emotional connection the touch UI builds with the user.

Cynically, Apple sees the touch bar as a way to make Macs seem friendlier to the computer-fearing public. The problem is unlike putting a smiley face on the box, the Touch Bar can actually stand in the way of your productivity if you ever get over your fear.
David  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2017-08-12 12:14
"Steve Jobs would have mocked"

The same Steve Jobs who sold iPod Socks?
Bocaboy  2017-08-04 18:19
I have to agree with your review of the Touchbar. I owned a mid-2010 MacBook Pro that was ripe for replacement. As soon as the late-2016 15" MacBook Pro with Touchbar was announced, I put in my order.

Like you, I'm a 1Password user and find that TouchID for that application and for logging on is a great idea. However, I miss the tactile feedback of a physical key. Using the ESC key still doesn't feel natural to me, even after these many months of use.

I often use my MacBook Pro at the kitchen table and use a Roost laptop stand with an Apple wireless keyboard and touchpad. In those circumstances, the Touchbar is useless to me. I actually prefer the ESC key of the wireless keyboard, and only use the Touchbar when I need TouchID. Even in those situations where I'm not using the Roost stand, I still find myself not using the Touchbar other than TouchID and the ESC key.

Good review! I wholeheartedly agree with your evaluation.
Pete Lindsay  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2017-08-07 18:09
I find the touch bar way too bright for its position in my lower peripheral vision. Bright enough to be distracting at all times, it is particularly distracting when switching app-finder-otherapp with the touch bar in App Controls mode, as icons flicker on and off the bar.

After trying to love the touch bar for just over a month now I have reached the position of locking it to the 'expanded' control strip with only the esc key showing - and that only because I can't get rid of it. (I'm considering a small strip of duct tape, painted black... ;)

On the other hand the touch ID function of the bar is excellent: not there except when it is needed.
If you are serious about covering the touch bar with duct tape, I would suggest using silicon rubber tape. It sticks on slick surfaces without adhesive, so there would be no damage or residue when you remove it.
Richard  2017-08-05 10:10
I do use the Touch Bar especially when confirmation buttons pop up. But for some reason I think it would make more sense if Apple skips the current incarnation and tries to turn the whole trackpad into a Touch Pad. That would make more sense in my opinion.
Tony Di Giacomo  2017-08-08 12:01
That was my initial reaction when they first showed off the Touch Bar, why not the trackpad? It's made of glass and has a haptic engine already. The way they were showing it off, to me, made their hands look awkward when they used it. Didn't look comfortable.
James Wilson  2017-08-08 03:06
I use my 15" 2016 MBP on an elevated stand, attached to an extenal monitor and wired keyboard - when used like this, the touchbar on the MBP is not much more than eye-candy.....

However there is one situation when my hand will reach for the touchbar, and I really do find it useful. When developing large spreadsheets in Excel I use named areas a lot, and Excel will show a list of the available named areas in the touchbar at appropriate moments as you write a formula. These areas can then be selected directly from the touchbar. This helps avoid typos and seems to make the idea of named areas a bit more useful.
Bob Stern  2017-08-08 06:52
Better Touch Tool is far more capable than you state. It can add an entire suite of buttons to the Touch Bar which can be displayed in lieu of an application's buttons, along with a button for toggling between the two sets of buttons. The buttons can be labeled with text and/or icons and color.

The buttons can run dozens of included commands, sequences of commands, or user-defined AppleScripts and shell scripts (directly, without FastScripts), eliminating the need for obscure keystroke shortcuts.

The buttons also can include "widgets" that display a value that is refreshed at user-specified intervals, such as the track currently playing in iTunes.
I don't use my MacBook Pro much, and I agree in general that the TouchBar has not yet found its killer app. However, I do find that in some cases, such as Apple's Calendar or Reminders apps, the TouchBar makes some functions more readily available (e.g., adding a reminder time) than they otherwise are.
Much like Force Touch/3D Touch, I think TouchBar shows Apple's hardware being ahead of its software. It would be nice if the OS teams would come up with more useful applications of these features. Apple puts these increasingly giant trackpads on its machines, and you still can't use them to switch between tabs in a browser without a third party application. Better Touch Tool is amazing, but its functionality should largely be built into the OS.
J Osborne  2017-08-08 11:37
I think the problem is the MBP is marketed to Pro users, who tend to know the functionality of the programs they use, and frequently the keyboard shortcuts.

The people that would most benefit from the touchbar are people that don't know the common functionality in given contexts, because the touch bar can hilight it for them.

Sadly the touchbar is expensive so it is hard to jam into the inexpensive Macs.
Chris Adamson  2017-08-08 11:51
I could have sworn someone posted a picture of the Touch Bar session at WWDC, reporting that barely a dozen developers showed up for it, but now I can't find it on Twitter.
Steve L'Heureux  2017-08-08 20:00
Yeah, when I first heard about the Toolbars I thought it was a stupid idea. After using one I haven't changed my mind, and I'm an Independent Apple Computer Consultants for 27 years now, so I've seen a few things. I'd prefer Apple Think more practically. Make things easier not harder! Stop hiding menu item and toolbars. Who's brainstorm is that? Jony, stick to hardware and get your fingers out of the interface business. Furthermore making Macs impossible to service by other than Apple is anti consumer and you ought not be so frickin' greedy when you have 250 Billon in cash on hand. Rant off
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2017-08-10 07:00
James Webster  2017-08-11 00:15
If Apple insists on keeping the Touch bar, they either #1 should put back physical function keys as well (maybe easier on the 15" than the 13"), or give us 15" SKUs that don't include the Touch Bar (Touch ID can stay if possible!) but will have quad-core CPU and 4x TB3 ports.

I'd really like a 13" quad-core without Touch Bar, with Touch ID and with 4x TB3 (and without discrete GFX, I'll use an eGPU for that).
Chris Sedgwick  2017-08-11 08:27
I often accidentally touch the Siri button on the Touch bar when I mean to press the delete key which is located just below it. This is really irritating since I have no use at all for Siri and have to keep pressing the Cancel key on the Siri box that pops up.
Curtis Wilcox  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2017-08-11 14:04
You can customize the buttons on the Touch Bar. Go to System Preferences > Keyboard, click Customize Control Strip. If you want to remove the Siri icon, drag it all the way to the left to a trash can icon that appears.
Chris Sedgwick  2017-08-12 06:19
eilfurz  2017-08-28 19:54
i think it's worth noting that applepay does not work in the majority of markets and that - at least in my personal experience - most people don't have their mac set to require a password on startup. so, while touchID on the mac might be nice, it's just a waste of space for most users.

as for the touch-bar... it makes sense to replace the function keys with something like that, especially for low-power users who can't type properly and don't use any keyboard shortcuts other than cmd-c & cmd-v (probably the majority of users). but without tactile feedback and on a "pro" mac it's sort of misplaced.

plus, it's pretty ugly, looking way better on pictures than in real life.
salitt  2017-08-30 19:21
I don't like to talk smack about the Mac, but I agree with the sentiment of the article. - The advent of the Touch Bar is evident of spectacle supplanting substance. It's an attempt by Apple to bring limited Microsoft Surface parity to the MacBook Pro, and a mitigating effort to forestall the consumer's want of the presentation of a pointer and synchronization of a Bluetooth mousing peripheral in iOS, so that iPads can be used as a productive desktop asset as opposed to paleolithic Cro-Magnon man-esque consumptive one. Egads...all of these maneuvers, just because Apple doesn't want to erode Macintosh product share/base.
You know what they say........."imitation is the sincerest form of flattery". So which Windows based laptop manufacturers are quickly looking to build their own version of the touch bar? Let's see, um, um......Bueller.....Bueller?
salitt  2017-09-04 21:12
None. Maybe not even Apple...
salitt  2017-09-04 21:15
salitt  2017-09-04 21:17