Here's how the Touch Bar works in a few key apps:
The very first thing I instinctively started doing with the Touch Bar rather than a keyboard command is jumping to the address bar in Safari. Instead of hitting a two-finger Command+L keyboard combo, I just tapped the magnifying glass icon on the Touch Bar. It's one tap versus two keyboard inputs, and a perfect example of a small bit of clever streamlining that the Touch Bar does.
Switching between tabs is another cool Touch Bar trick. Each tab you have open in a Safari window is represented by a tiny thumbnail image. They're too small to really see much detail, but tapping on each one switches the browser to that tab, and it's probably my favorite overall new Touch Bar feature.
Apple's messaging app already got a big upgrade in MacOS and iOS 10, adding bigger emojis, drawing input and "hidden" messages. The Touch Bar adds a couple of new features, one more interesting than the other.
Predictive text is now supported, but honestly doesn't seem that useful, unless it's suggesting correct spellings of misspelled words. Reaching up to tap a word while you're already typing doesn't seem like a real time-saver to me.
More interesting is the emoji button, which gives you a long scrolling collection of everyone's favorite non-verbal communication tool. Scroll over to one you want, tap on it, and it's added to your message thread. It's even easier to use than the emoji menu on the iPhone version of messages.
Apple's long-lived music and media app, which combines a media library with a storefront, gets some basic but useful tools. A tap can add a song to a playlist and there are play, pause and skip controls, but the really interesting part is a Touch Bar timeline for your song or video.
Just place your finger on the widget and drag it along to any point. There's a timestamp that follows your finger, so you can follow my test example and jump to exactly 0:59 where the full band comes in on Burt Bacharach's "Make it Easy on Yourself."
A touchpad or mouse can do exactly the same thing in iTunes or any other media playback app, but the finger response is excellent and allows for a greater sense of control than you get with a touchpad on a tiny onscreen playback bar.
Until we get Photoshop support, Photos offers the most in-depth example of Touch Bar features. You can scroll through tiny thumbnails of a photo gallery right on the Touch Bar, similar to the tabs in Safari. There are also buttons for favoriting a photo or rotating it in 90-degree increments. But the real key features are hidden behind the edit button, which dives into a submenu of image-tuning tools.
There's a control wheel for rotating a photo as you crop it, and it's an example of exactly the kind of analog-style control the Touch Bar excels at. You can also run through all the built-in photo filters with a finger-tap, or adjust brightness and color, again by running your finger across a very analog-feeling control bar.
The biggest confusion I ran into was when I had to awkwardly switch back to the touchpad to mouse up to the top of the Photos app and hit the Revert to Original button in order to undo all my changes.
More apps, please
These examples are predicated on you using, and being generally familiar with, the Apple-made apps that currently have Touch Bar support. If you prefer Chrome to Safari or use web-based mail instead of the desktop Mail app, you might be out of luck (or stuck with a very limited set of generic Touch Bar tools), at least for now.
I had mixed results using some other media sources besides iTunes. Netflix in Safari supported basic play/pause controls, but the transport bar crashed my playback when I tried to scroll back in time. YouTube in Safari had better support, and the timeline transport worked when I scrubbed back and forward during a video. SoundCloud in Safari and Spotify's Mac app both offered no support, besides the basic MacOS volume controls.
Keep in mind we're in the first weeks of this product's public availability, and we expect more support from Apple and from third-party software makers later this year.
The ultimate MacBook, for now
The Touch Bar is an interesting way to tackle the idea of adding touch control to a laptop without actually adding the touch screen many Windows laptops have adopted. It's genuinely useful in a handful of cases, and I instinctively started using it for simple tasks like web surfing and logging in.
But support is limited to a handful of apps, and to a handful of functions within each app. Like many new tech products, it has great potential for future growth based on software updates (much as the Amazon Echo went from a odd experiment to an amazingly useful product based entirely on updated software).
I suspect it's the less expensive version of the MacBook Pro, without the Touch Bar, that will be the default mainstream choice. And unless you're already buying this higher-priced model for its better CPU and additional ports, the Touch Bar itself isn't a must-have right now.
Between the different options, we've tested both the Touch Bar and non-Touch-Bar 13-inch models, and have just started testing a 15-inch model. Performance was as expected, with the quad-core Core i7 in the very expensive 15-inch model being much faster than the dual-core Core i5 CPUs in the two 13-inch models, which performed largely similarly.
Battery life is the big question here. The 13-inch MacBook Pro with the Touch Bar ran for 10:07 on our streaming video playback test, which matches up with Apple's predicted 10 hours of battery life. The lower-end 13-inch Pro without the Touch Bar ran for an even more impressive 11:36 in same test, beating Apple's estimates. The 15-inch model, which has a larger screen and more powerful components, but also a larger battery, ran for almost exactly Apple's predicted 10 hours.
Interestingly, there's a new contender for best battery life out there. The updated 2016 version of Microsoft's Surface Book ran for 11 hours and 49 minutes in the same test, but keep in mind that combines the primary battery in the tablet half with a secondary battery in the keyboard base.
Plenty of virtual ink has also been spilled on whether or not these new MacBook Pros are "pro" enough. Beyond "dongle-geddon," some photo and video pros have lamented the fact that these machines are limited to "only" 16GB of RAM, reportedly to conserve battery life. That's been a disappointment for the cadre of Mac-loving design professionals who feel that life begins at 32GB -- and that they're being driven to Windows machines as a result. (Apple's desktop machines, the iMac and Mac Pro, did not get updates in 2016.)
But for the other 95 percent of the laptop market, the MacBook Pro remains a compelling choice. It's far and away Apple's most-advanced laptop. The touchpad has double the surface area of the previous model, it's about as light as a MacBook Air but much thinner (14.9mm versus 18mm), and the flatter butterfly style keyboard has been subtly tweaked to work better here than it does in the 12-inch MacBook.
In the end, your decision may come down to something much more practical -- ports. Are you ready to move into the USB-C only future, where connecting a USB key, HDMI output, Ethernet cable, or nearly any other accessory will require a special cable or dongle?
It may seem daunting (and may be why Apple is keeping a handful of older models around), but most of the new ultrathin Windows laptops I've reviewed recently have also gone USB-C only, so there's a good chance we're all going to end up there eventually. To help with the transition, Apple is cutting prices on many USB-C cables through the end of the year.
|Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016)||Apple macOS Sierra 10.12.1; 2GHz Intel Core i5-6360U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 1,536MB Intel Iris Graphics 540; 256GB SSD|
|Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (13-inch, 2016)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.2GHz Intel Core i5-7Y54; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel HD Graphics 615; 256GB SSD|
|Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2016)||Apple macOS Sierra 10.12.1; 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-6820HQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 2GB Radeon Pro / 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 530; 512GB SSD|
|Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016)||Apple El Capitan OSX 10.11.4; 1.2GHz Intel Core m5-6Y54; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 515; 512GB SSD|
|Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015)||Apple OSX 10.10.2 Yosemite; 2.7GHz Intel Core i5-5257U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 1,536MB Intel Iris Graphics 6100; 128GB SSD|
|Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015)||Apple Yosemite OSX 10.10.2; 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-5250U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,536MB Intel HD Graphis 6000; 128GB SSD|
|Microsoft Surface Book (2016)||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6600U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz, 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 965 / 128MB Intel HD Graphics 520; 1TB SSD|
|Dell XPS 13 (2016, non-touch)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD|
|Razer Blade Stealth||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-7500U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD|