Does The Apple Touch Bar Have A Future? – The ‘Book Mystique

The previous generation MacBook Pro and still current MacBook Air were both examples of some of Apple’s best ever notebook computer engineering. Ironically, in October 2016 Apple went from having one of the best engineered laptop lineups in the industry to one of the most compromised, in my estimation. Actually, the transformation had begun back in April, 2015 with the release of the 12-inch MacBook with Retina display. That unit’s compromises are well-documented, notably its underpowered processor, its lone and oversubscribed USB-C port, and its noisy, uncomfortable, “butterfly’ action keyboard rendered necessary by its extremely thin form factor which also limits battery capacity.

Unhappily, the anorexic Macbook was also a trial balloon for engineering features of the long-awaited new MacBook Pro that was unveiled in October, 2016, which was slimmed down substantially compared with the already svelte preceding MacBook Pro, with diminished battery life, and USB-C-only connectivity, including for charging, so goodbye to one of Apple’s all-time better ideas, the MagSafe connector. At least you get either two or four USB-C ports (depending on model) instead of just one — still few enough and of course requiring the purchase and implementation of dongles by most users. The new slimmer form factor also required replacement of one of the industry’s best notebook computer keyboards in the outgoing MacBook Pro with what Apple claims is an improved version of the butterfly keyboard, although its physical limitations remain.

Happily the new Pro models are not underpowered, with seventh-generation Kaby Lake family Intel Core processors available at Turbo Boost frequencies up to 4.1GHz.

The new MacBook Pro did not get the touchscreen option that’s available on most of the Windows PC Laptop competition, nor was it expected to. Apple doggedly insists that those who want a professional grade Apple device with a touchscreen need an iPad Pro. What the new MacBook Pro did get as its marquee feature on high end models and the answer to a question nobody asked is the Touch Bar, a small OLED touchscreen strip that occupies the top row of the keyboard, replacing the traditional row of function keys on computer keyboards. The Touch Bar is described by Apple as “a Multi-Touch-enabled strip of glass built into the keyboard for instant access to the tools you want, right when you want them.”

Unless the tools you want happen to be standard function keys. Apple says the Touch Bar is much more versatile and capable, changing automatically based on what you’re doing, but that will only work if software developers step up with Touch Bar support, and incentive to do so is not great as long as the Touch Bar feature is only available on the high-end models of one particular Mac line.

Shifting and changing control content in the Touch Bar is also not going to be popular with strongly spatially oriented users like me for whom the stay-put positioning of the function keys often makes it possible to select a key function without looking or at most a guiding glance, is a valued attribute. With the Touch Bar you have to look, which slows things down and interrupts work flow.

The tactile feedback you get with the F-keys is also not there with Touch Bar selections, a deficiency analogous to that encountered with the touchscreen fad in automobile controls. With traditional vehicle system controls based on physical buttons, switches, and levers, drivers could usually select and adjust based on physical position and tactile feel without looking, as opposed to the necessity of taking eyes off the road to manipulate controls via a touchscreen.

Another Touch Bar deficiency is that the narrow OLED strip is simply too small to satisfactorily support tasks like displaying and switching tabs in Safari. It’s more efficient and quicker to just use the tabs in the browser window than to try and identify tiny tab images repeated on the Touch Bar.

Even some people who were initially enthusiastic and positive about the Touch Bar are questioning its usefulness and whether it has a future. In a column titled “What’s Wrong with the Touch Bar’,” TidBits’ Josh Centers says he was initially lured by its novelty factor, but closing on a year later he finds that he doesn’t use the Touch Bar much, and while there was a flurry of fascinating developer projects after the feature launched last fall, nothing significant ever shipped, and he finds that its most attractive capability is Touch ID for logging into his MacBook Pro and authenticating 1Password. Consequently, he says that if you were to ask him today if the $300-$400 greater cost of a MacBook Pro with Touch Bar is justifiable, he would say no.

Blogger Chuq Von Rospach in an essay titled “The Life And Death Of The Touch Bar: Revisiting The MacBook Pro,” says that when he recently switched from his Touch Bar MacBook Pro to a new iMac 5K as his primary computer, he didn’t miss the Touch Bar at all and the TouchID sensor a lot less than he’d expected to. However Von Rospach unlocks his Mac and uses Apple Pay with his Apple Watch which only a minority of the Touch Bar/TouchID equipped minority of Mac users will have. That said, he notes that having lived with the Touch Bar and Touch ID sensor for months and then migrated away from them, he’s found that they seem to be solving problems he doesn’t really have.

Von Rospach says he doesn’t know what the future holds for the Touch Bar, and he’s not sure Apple does, either, noting he was fascinated that Apple released new iMacs earlier this year without a word about Touch Bar or TouchID support via an updated keyboard or trackpad, which indicates to him that the lackluster response that greeted these features on the MacBook Pro have sent Apple back to the drawing board. He suggests that Apple fell in love with the Touch Bar technology and expected all of us to fall in love with it as well, while failing to demonstrate how it would solve problems we care about being solved for us, such problems being few and far between so far. He says Apple needs to make a decision whether to support the entire Mac Line with Touch Bar/TouchID via a new keyboard, or expand MacBook choices with a new line of Touch Bar-less notebooks.

I have no clue as to what Apple is going to do with the Touch Bar either, but IMHO they would probably be better advised to just quietly drop Touch Bar development, letting it wither away at the end of the current MacBook Pro’s tenure, and extend Touch ID support across the entire Mac line, either built-in or via a new external keyboard.

I would not favor making the Touch Bar, which is likely to remain an expensive niche feature, standard on all Macs, and would definitely opt for the base MacBook Pro which retains the traditional F-key row, rather than the Touch Bar model in the unlikely event I was  to buy one of these machines. The late 2016 MacBook Pro is one of the very few Apple notebook computers over the past quarter-century that I have no desire to own. What I would favor is for Apple to get back to applying its energies and development resources to designing notebook hardware that leads rather than trails the PC competition in solid engineering. The current MacBook Pros are just not very inspiring, lacking as they are so many of the features and functionality that have traditionally characterized Mac notebooks, making them productivity powerhouses and consumer favorites.

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