The Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (13-inch, 2016) review, published in November 2016, follows.
Apple's taking big swings with the new MacBook Pro. Some land square, some miss their mark. Altogether, this is a beautiful, powerful machine that almost everyone will want, but consider the trade-offs carefully.
This MacBook Pro is thinner and lighter than its predecessor, with a flattened keyboard and expanded touchpad. It has a newer selection of Intel processors, faster flash storage and a brighter Retina screen. The new MacBook Pro has also dropped all its legacy ports for Thunderbolt 3-powered USB-C -- a controversial move that requires you to buy a truckload of dongles, but also a move that many high-end Windows laptops are following. Apple even threw in the pleasing and very useful TouchID fingerprint sensor, imported almost whole-hog from the iPhone and iPad.
But you know all that already. What you really want to learn about is the new MacBook Pro's headline feature: the Touch Bar, a tiny 1cm tall touchscreen that replaces the function key row on the top of new Pro's keyboard, and also jacks up the price for this high-end machine.
We've already extensively covered the basics on the new 13- and 15-inch Pros, which were unveiled at Apple's headquarters on October 27 and are available for sale as of early November. That includes our exclusive early hands-on with the new MacBook Pro, as well as our review of the entry-level 2016 MacBook Pro model (which keeps its traditional function key row, and doesn't include TouchID). Start with both of those stories if you want an exhaustive overview of the design changes, component upgrades and port-related compromises of this MacBook Pro -- which is essentially the 10th anniversary edition of the original 2006 MacBook Pro.
Here, however, we're focusing on that Touch Bar. How does it work? Is it useful? Can it replace the iPad-like touchscreen Mac we're not likely to get in the foreseeable future, according to our recent exclusive interviews with Apple execs?
I've lived with the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar for almost two weeks. Here's what I learned.
A tiny slice of iPad on your MacBook
The Touch Bar is a long, skinny OLED touchscreen that sits above the keyboard, replacing the traditional F1-F12 keys, as well as the escape key and power button. On the far right end of the Touch Bar is a fingerprint reader, similar to the one found on the iPhone, which enables Touch ID and Apple Pay for secure system log-ins and online payments.
By default, the Touch Bar displays system tools, including screen brightness and volume control. But when using select apps (for now mostly Apple-created apps such as Safari, but more third-party support is on the way), new contextual commands appear on the Touch Bar, and the system tools roll up into a condensed version on the right side of the strip. You can still access volume and brightness controls, but to get the full default list of commands back, you'll have to tap on a small arrow to expand it (which also hides the contextual commands for the app you're currently using).
Having spent some serious hands-on time with the Touch Bar version of the new 13-inch MacBook Pro, and testing its capabilities with a wide range of apps, it feels like a tool that can enhance your computing experience, but won't revolutionize it. It does less than a full touchscreen might, but Apple has found a way to use it to cut down on keystrokes, streamline tasks and add additional levels of fine control.
Some who've seen the Touch Bar only from afar call it a gimmick, but I almost immediately started finding little things it did better than traditional keyboard and touchpad input, and after a very short time I was using a handful of these Touch Bar functions instinctively, without even thinking about it.
If you spend a bit of time trying it out in different apps, you'll end up with maybe a half-dozen or so shortcuts you love the Touch Bar for, while your computing experience remains otherwise unchanged.
That makes it harder to justify as an expensive add-on to the new MacBook Pro line. The least expensive Touch Bar system is the one reviewed here, at $1,799 (£1,749 or AU$2,699). That's a $300 jump over the more mainstream $1,499 entry level MacBook Pro (£1,449 or AU$2,199), which lacks the Touch Bar. But in addition to the Touch Bar, this version also has a faster processor (a 2.9GHz Intel Core i5, versus a 2.0GHz Core i5), marginally better integrated Intel graphics (Iris 550 versus Iris 540), and it doubles the number of included USB-C Thunderbolt ports to four. So at least you're getting more for your $300 than just the Touch Bar.
Previously, the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro cost $1,299 (£1,249 or AU$1,999), but that model had half the storage of these new ones, only 128GB. Note that if you're kicking yourself for missing out on the older Pro (which was excellent in its own right), with its lower starting price and wider variety of ports, Apple is still selling a single 13-inch and single 15-inch 2015-era configuration, at least for now.
Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (13-inch)
|Price as reviewed||$1,799, £1,749 or AU$2,699|
|Display size/resolution||13.3-inch 2,560 x 1,600|
|PC CPU||2.9GHz Intel Core i5|
|PC Memory||8GB 1866MHz LPDDR3|
|Graphics||Intel Iris Graphics 550|
|Storage||256GB PCIe SSD|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.2|
|Operating system||macOS Sierra|
One bar, many versions
The Touch Bar is is filled with possibilities, but like the branching menus within menus it's supposed to replace, some of its functions can remain buried under additional taps and swipes, depending on which apps you use it with. There's only so much one can fit into a 2,170x60 display.
Actual instructions for how to use the Touch Bar are sparse. Instead, it's up to you to eyeball the new buttons that pop up contextually in each supported application and figure out how to use them. In most cases, it's presented logically, but some on-screen buttons have layers within them, and navigating deeper in and then moving back out isn't always intuitive (as in the case of Photos, Apple's photo organizing and tweaking app). In other cases, the Touch Bar buttons are a perfect distillation of the most important functions in an app (such as Safari or Messages), and easy to pick up and use immeidately.
Each Touch Bar series of commands has its own visual and organizational language. That's easy enough to translate when only Apple-created programs are supported, but we'll have to wait and see how other software makers handle the Touch Bar. Windows PC makers have struggled for years with how to properly present proprietary software interfaces, asking consumers to learn and relearn new behaviors for apps they may already be familiar with, or for programs and features that may disappear or change radically in the next version.
Adobe is one company you really want to watch in this space. A key partner for Touch Bar support, Photoshop will add Touch Bar controls later this year. It'll be very interesting to see what they do, and if long-time Photoshop users take to it. That's especially important because Adobe is a master of extreme usability and platform continuity. (As an example, I took a single-semester Photoshop tutorial course as a college undergrad way back in the 1990s. All these years later, and through countless versions of Photoshop, and I can still sit down in front of the latest iteration of the software and have a basic idea of what I'm doing.)
Microsoft has also pledged to add Touch Bar support for Office. But until those companies and others deliver, it's all about Apple's in-house apps, including Mail, Messages, iTunes and Safari. I found the Touch Bar added something useful to each of these, but that's predicated on actually using those apps. If you prefer Spotify to iTunes, or Chrome to Safari, there's not much the Touch Bar can do for you from within those apps, besides the basic system functions previously mapped to the Function key row, such a volume controls.
One interesting comparison to make is to Microsoft's new Surface Dial. That physical control knob works on many Windows PCs, but is specifically designed with the Surface Studio desktop in mind, and it covers a lot of the same ground as the Touch Bar. Both the Bar and Dial offer easier access to specific menu items in select apps. Like the Touch Bar, the Dial provides basic system functions, including volume controls, when not in a supported app.
Both are very early in their development, and both call out for wider app support (neither has a Photoshop-specific set of controls yet). For illustrators and animators, I can see the real appeal of the Surface Dial and its big, analog-feeling wheel. For more efficient general computing, so far I find that Apple's Touch Bar is the more immediately useful of the two ideas.
The initial thing you'll want to do with the Touch Bar is set up Touch ID. That uses Apple's custom T1 security chip, which is built into the system, and the fingerprint reader that sits on the far right side of the Touch Bar. Setup is similar to an iPhone, with repeated fingertaps on the sensor recording fingerprint data. Unlike an iPhone and iPad, Macs support multiple user profiles, so each person using the machine can set up fingerprint access to their profile.
User switching via fingerprint is especially impressive, and nearly instantaneous. I set up a "CNET" profile linked to one finger and a personal profile linked to a different finger. Just by placing each finger in turn on the Touch ID and clicking down (it's both a fingerprint sensor and a physical button), the profiles switched on the fly.
After setting up the fingerprint access, which can also be used for Apple Pay purchases from supported merchants, you might also want to change the default lineup of buttons available on the Touch Bar. That menu is a little hard to find, tucked away in System Preferences under Keyboard > Customize Control Strip (oddly, it's called Control Strip here, and not Touch Bar).
From that menu, new buttons can be dragged down to the bottom of the screen, where they'll appear on the Touch Bar, and from there, can be moved left and right. For example, I swapped out the Launch Pad button for a Show Desktop button. The default setup is the logical choice for most, but customization options are always welcome.