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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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