Commentary: One year after Apple launched the feature, CNET's Stephen Shankland finds the touch-sensitive strip slows him down and causes errors.
A year ago, Apple overhauled its high-end MacBook Pro laptops with something the computing industry had never seen before: a touch-sensitive strip with a programmable display called the Touch Bar.
Its flexibility shows the function keys it replaces to be relics from computing's dark ages -- specifically 1971, when IBM added them to mainframe terminals, Apple said. "This is crazy, keeping 45-year-old technology around," marketing chief Phil Schiller said during the MacBook Pro launch event exactly one year ago.
To which I respond: Bring me back to the dark ages. Because for me, the Touch Bar is slower when I need to use it and causes serious problems when I don't.
When I bought a $3,000 15-inch MacBook Pro nearly a year ago, it was for the big screen, the big trackpad, the fast processor and the durable chassis. I kept an open mind about its Touch Bar, which seemed clever and something that could dramatically change how we use our computers. It could provide the tools you need at any given moment, reveal features you didn't know about and bring intuitive adjustment sliders to software like Photoshop. "The Touch Bar adapts to whatever software you're using," Schiller said. "It is incredibly useful, intuitive and really fun to use."
Alas, I don't see those benefits, and I find myself shying away from the Touch Bar instead of embracing it as I have with touchscreens on Windows and Chrome OS laptops. My displeasure is a personal reaction, and yours will depend on how you use your Mac, but I'm not the only dissatisfied Touch Bar customer.
The first thing I noticed with the Touch Bar was that it's slower to adjust speaker volume and screen brightness, something I do many times a day. The old function keys were fixed in place and part of my muscle memory, but with the Touch Bar, I have to look down to aim my finger, and then there's a delay after the slider pops up to let me change it. Even though the volume and brightness icons are easy to understand, they're right next to each other, and still I often tap the wrong one.
My experience is the polar opposite from Schiller's boast a year ago: "If you want to set the volume or brightness, it's easier than ever before -- just a slide or a tap."
Happily, Apple updated the volume and brightness controls in its new MacOS 10.13 High Sierra software, letting you flick your finger right or left on the Touch Bar button to adjust settings a couple notches. That's an improvement, but I still have to look to see what I'm doing, and the adjustment isn't precise. I also don't always swipe just the right amount to get it to work. The old function keys were much more reliable.
The second thing I noticed is that I often hit the Touch Bar when I don't want to, triggering actions I don't want. Worse, because it happens with just a gentle brush against the very sensitive strip, as opposed to the deliberate tap on a keyboard key, I'm not always aware I've done it.
For example, Safari shows open browser tabs in the Touch Bar, and I sometimes inadvertently switch tabs when trying to type a number on the keyboard. Or now that Google's Chrome has Touch Bar support, I mess up web forms by hitting the Touch Bar reload button. Thank goodness some websites warn me I might lose information I've typed in.
One common situation: I'll be saving a document with the date "2017" in the filename. When I overshoot on the 7 just a bit, I hit the Touch Bar "save" button. Now I have to move over to the MacOS Finder and manually rename the file.
Another gripe is that there's no tactile feedback. I'm a touch typist who rarely looks at my fingers, but I've discovered with the Touch Bar how much that relies on constantly feeling my way around the keyboard. The smooth Touch Bar strip has no indication of where one button starts and another ends, so I have to look down to use it. There's no haptic feedback, either, which could be very helpful.
The virtual escape key is still a step backward for me. No longer can I rest my finger on it, ready to dismiss a dialog box.
Chris Pick, a mobile developer I met taking the train into work, also struggles with the escape key. "I have found that the Touch Bar is pretty useless for most of what I do," he said. Remapping the escape function to another key, like caps lock -- something several people recommended -- can help. But you have to reprogram your muscle memory, too.
Compounding my irritation is the knowledge that the Touch Bar added some significant cost to the premium I paid for this Mac. And that little screen down there is constantly shortening my MacBook's battery life.
Apple says the Touch Bar is the beginning of a journey, but some think it could be the end.
"It was a weird gimmick that didn't really work. I expect they'll remove it at some point," Endpoint Technologies analyst Roger Kay said. Steve Jobs was rightly concerned about the awkwardness of touch-screen laptops, he said, "but he didn't account for how useful touch would become. Kids just naturally pinch and zoom on screens when they see them and are disappointed when it doesn't work."
The Touch Bar has been a chore for me. By contrast, I've found the touchscreens on Chromebooks and Windows laptops to be intuitive and useful. I'm inclined to see things the way HP's PC chief, Ron Coughlin, does.
"We listen to our customers, and customers say they want a touchscreen. There is no piece of research that will lead you to a Touch Bar," he told me in a recent interview. "It feels to me like there is a dogma [at Apple] that says thou shalt not put touch in, and the Touch Bar was a way around that dogma."
There are Touch Bar fans, though. "Once you get used to it, it's great! I love the customization you can do with BetterTouchTool, mostly adding shortcuts for apps and actions," tweets Frédéric Harper.
Apple has higher hopes for Touch Bar technology, and I do see its potential in some areas -- for example, as a replacement for multiclick menu navigation options. The Touch Bar is great for picking emoji from hundreds of options, since it's a natural visual search and you can swipe through the list fluidly. Indeed, I wish Apple would make emoji search a default Touch Bar option, not one restricted to its Mail and Messages apps.
I also like the Touch Bar for controls when I'm using my Mac in full-screen modes, like fast-forwarding through YouTube videos in Safari, or turning the webcam on and off in Skype. I could see the Touch Bar as a useful replacement for the Mac's menu bar as Macs drift closer toward iPad interfaces. Perhaps if web apps like Facebook or software like Adobe Lightroom supported it, I'd find more bright spots.
These moments of satisfaction are one reason I'm cautious about declaring the Touch Bar dead to me. Apple isn't done with the technology.
"We unanimously were very compelled by [the Touch Bar] as a direction, based on, one, using it, and also having the sense this is the beginning of a very interesting direction," Apple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive told CNET when the machines launched. "But [it] still just marks a beginning."
So despite my displeasure, I'll keep an open mind. Maybe a year from now it really will help me get get more out of my Mac instead of less.
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