MacBook Pro with Touch Bar: Gimmick or Productivity Tool?
In late 2016, Apple announced their new MacBook Pro models with a slim OLED touchscreen called the Touch Bar, replacing the traditional function key row. In addition to the sleek, multifunctional touchscreen, the Touch Bar models come with two extra Thunderbolt 3 ports for better connectivity and with Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint reader.
Even tough Apple’s standard configuration might suggest that the Touch Bar models also feature better and faster internals, we can still configure a non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro with almost the same internals for less. So, is it worth to pay a premium for the Touch Bar?
While the Touch Bar is highly customizable, the standard setup is an “escape”-key on the very left, an expandable media and system controls tray on the right, and a middle section which is application specific. We can adjust the Touch Bar’s standard appearance in “Settings > Keyboard” to access our most frequently used modifiers faster.
Apple did a good job at integrating the Touch Bar into the whole operating system and all commonly used native applications. In Safari, for example, the Touch Bar gives us immediate access to favorites, opened tabs, search, and backwards/forwards controls. In Finder, we can quickly adjust the appearance and sorting of our files, and it provides shortcuts for creating and moving folders and files. Similarly, in Mail we have options to move and flag, as well as respond to and forward e-mails.
In Calendar, Reminders, and Contacts it is mostly used for better access to shortcuts for creating events, and entries or to modify existing ones.
In typing applications such as Notes, Apple’s Office Suite Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, the Touch Bar enables us to conveniently change font style, color, paragraphs and so on.
In most of the places where we input text, we can also show typing suggestions and corrections. In addition to that, we have the option to send our beloved Emojis directly from the Touch Bar. The Emoji-picker is an awesome way to see the Touch Bar’s OLED display in all its colorful and crispy glory.
The Touch Bar also offers a refined screenshot mechanism, displaying options and storage location. Moreover, we can cancel and act on alert dialogs and control currently playing media such as videos and music, regardless of the source application. The Touch Bar’s advantage over conventional media control keys is a more intuitive representation of volume and other control data. Scrubbing is a lot more accurate and somehow Apple managed to let you fast forward through Youtube commercials by using the scrubbing feature on the Touch Bar; neat, but most likely not the most important thing in the world.
To summarize the Touch Bar is a very responsive touchscreen and is well built in a typical Apple fashion. It is thoroughly integrated into the system and Apple tries to take advantage of the Touch Bar whenever possible.
Microsoft has adopted the Touch Bar well into its Office applications. In Word, changing text style, colors, paragraph formatting, switching viewing modes, copying and pasting of previously used formats, or browsing the edited files history is all possible using the Touch Bar. For simpler documents, this should enable one to almost never use the mouse while working on a text.
Excel and PowerPoint implement the Touch Bar in a similar way. The Touch Bar also changes its appearance depending on where the focus is within the application, showing different shortcuts in a text field compared to when an image is selected.
Adobe’s Creative Suite
Another widely used software suite is Adobe’s Creative Cloud. Adobe has implemented the Touch Bar very well into its software and even did a stage presentation, when Apple first introduced the Touch Bar. Without going into too much detail of the many ways we can use the Touch Bar, here are some ideas of what to expect: Adobe’s applications are full of sliders and pickers, many of which can now be interfaced via the Touch Bar. For example, when editing photos, we can adjust exposure settings via sliders on the Touch Bar and thus see the image change as we adjust the value. It is a very natural editing experience in comparison to using a mouse but it doesn’t obscure the screen as using a touchscreen would. Besides that, we have the option to save favorite shortcuts and other quick access controls in the Touch Bar.
Apple’s guidelines for the Touch Bar state that it should be used as an extension to an existing application and only provide a more convenient way of doing something also achievable differently within the application.
However, there are many developers out there who have released software for the Touch Bar outside of Apple’s guidelines. Many of them are shortcut applications (for example Rocket by Julian Thayn), which could possibly replace the traditional Apple dock by providing direct access to applications and favorite folder locations. Another application takes this approach one step further: BetterTouchTool lets one create shortcuts to literally anything which can otherwise be done using a mouse and keyboard by letting you define macro keys for the Touch Bar. Turning on and off Wi-Fi, selecting bookmarks, or ejecting drives, are among the many possibilities.
Naturally, there are also games for the Touch Bar. Ranging from Pacman, over Nyancat, to a simple Dino jump and run, and many more.
A small selection is summarized here in this Cnet article.
To conclude we can say that there are many ways to use the Touch Bar, but any productivity gains strongly depend on our personal workflow. Being a very new and uncommon type of interface, most of us are not accustomed to working with the Touch Bar. While it might be fun and sound useful at first, it will need quite some time to really change our muscle memory to using the Touch Bar instead of our usual ways of doing things in our workflows. Even more so, the Touch Bar being, well, a touchscreen, we are forced to look at it to use it and this is exactly what many people who try to optimize their workflow try to eliminate by using keyboard shortcuts, or mouse gestures.
The Touch Bar is a nice piece of hardware, but for it to be useful one has to adjust to the new tool and therefore it really isn’t a must-have but rather a nice-to-have. The Touch ID button on the other hand offers a great plus out-of-the-box and together with the two additional ports, the Touch Bar might just be the small argument to justify the higher price in comparison to the MacBook Pro without Touch Bar.
Origin of photo material: cover picture from Apple website;Touch Bar screenshots are made by the author