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How to get a Touch Bar on your old Mac

Not sure if you're going to like using the Touch Bar on the new MacBook Pro? Here's how you can test it out on your old Mac before upgrading.

Sarah Tew/CNET
Now playing: Watch this: The easy way to try Apple's Touch Bar on your old Mac
Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple's long-awaited update to the popular MacBook Pro series laptops was met with mixed reactions. While the 13- and 15-inch models come with thinner, lighter chassis, a much larger trackpad, improved specifications and four USB-C ports, the biggest talking point was the missing row of function keys.

In its place you will find a touch-sensitive area called the Touch Bar, which replaces the physical keys with controls that adapt to what is currently being displayed on the screen.

If, like many, you're not sure if you'd ever even use the Touch Bar, you can take it for a test drive with your existing Mac, and you can get an even better feel for it if you have an iPad lying around. Here are two ways to install a Touch Bar on your old Mac.

How To customize your MacBook Pro Touch Bar

Option 1a: TouchBarDemoApp

Obviously, you're not going to be replacing the function keys with a touch panel. Instead, you can virtualize the Touch Bar software right on your Mac's desktop.

To get started, you first need to make sure you are running the latest version of MacOS Sierra, version 10.12.1 build 16B2657. Earlier builds of 10.12.1 do not contain support for the Touch Bar. If you're not sure which build you are running, open the Apple menu in the top left of the menu bar, click About This Mac and click on the version number.

You can download the necessary update here.

Next, go to the GitHub page for the TouchBarDemoApp source code and download the ZIP of the latest build. (Version 1.3 of this demo app was scanned and found to be free of malware) Extract the ZIP and drag the TouchBarServer.app icon into your Applications folder.

Screenshot by Taylor Martin/CNET

After installing the app, pressing the fn key will launch a virtual Touch Bar on-screen, near your cursor. The information displayed will differ based on what app you currently have displayed. After opening the Touch Bar, holding fn will display the function keys, and pressing it once more will close the Touch Bar.

From an empty desktop, you can insert emoji, launch Siri, change the display or keyboard brightness, change the volume and access media controls.

Option 1b: Just add iPad

If you've got an iPad on hand, you can use it instead to make the Touch Bar experience more like the real thing...sort of. It's not nestled right above your Mac's keyboard, but it is touch-sensitive, at least.

However, the iPad Touch Bar requires a little more work to get it up and running.

First, you need Xcode installed on your Mac and a free Apple Developer account. Next, download the latest Source Code ZIP from the TouchBarDemoApp releases page on GitHub. Extract the contents of the ZIP and locate the file titled TouchBar.xcodeproj. (This file will appear as a folder if you do not have Xcode installed.) Double-click the file to launch Xcode and load the project.

Next, click on the TouchBar project in the left navigation pane. This will load the project information. In the middle pane, change the name of the Bundle Identifier to something unique. In the Signing section under Team, click the dropdown menu and select Add an Account... and login, or select your existing developer account.

Connect your iPad and select it from the devices dropdown in the upper left, and click Run (the play button in the top left). The app should build and install on your iPad, which should take just a few minutes.

Should the process fail or you get an Untrusted Developer popup on the iPad, you will need to go to Settings > General > Device Management, select the email used for your Apple Developer account and click Trust [your email].

Screenshot by Taylor Martin/CNET

After the Touch Bar app is installed on the iPad, launch the Touch Bar Server on the Mac.

When you launch the Touch Bar app on your iPad, you will see a mostly black screen. At the bottom, there will be a virtual Touch Bar, which will control the connected Mac and display relevant controls or information based on the app in focus.

To use the Touch Bar app, your iPad must remain connected to your Mac via USB, which is a bit inconvenient. And having the Touch Bar on a separate device altogether does sort of muddy the experience a bit.

Option 2: Touche

If you don't want to engage in GitHub gymnastics, there's an easier way to try out the Touch Bar. Simply install the free Touche app from Red Sweater to put a virtual Touch Bar on your current Mac. Touche doesn't offer an iPad option; it adds a digital version of the Touch Bar to your Mac's display. And the app requires the same build of MacOS 10.12.1 (version 16B2657) as the TouchBarDemo app.

Like TouchBarDemoApp, Touche a great way to take the Touch Bar for a spin and see if you think it might be useful for your workflow or something you would rather not have on your next MacBook.