TidBITS: What’s Wrong with the Touch Bar

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TidBITS: What’s Wrong with the Touch Bar

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What’s Wrong with the Touch Bar

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What’s Wrong with the Touch Bar

By Josh Centers
http://tidbits.com/article/17377

Last October, when Apple unveiled the redesigned MacBook Pro, I wanted one immediately (see “New MacBook Pros Add Context-sensitive Touch Bar,” 27 October 2016). Practically speaking, I needed a second Mac, and a portable one at that. But I was mostly lured in by the Touch Bar, both for its novelty factor, and because, as a technology writer, I like to have experience with each unique Apple device to inform our articles.

Alas, closing in on a year later, I’ve found that I don’t use the Touch Bar much. I was forced to confront this unhappy fact when Adam suggested that I write an article about interesting uses of the Touch Bar. After some research, Adam and I agreed that there wasn’t enough there to warrant an article. Although there was a flurry of fascinating developer projects after launch, nothing significant ever shipped.

I’m not saying the Touch Bar is useless, because that isn’t true. At least in theory, it’s more capable and more flexible than a row of physical keys. And Touch ID is fantastic for logging into my MacBook Pro and authenticating 1Password. But if you were to ask me today if you should spend the $300–$400 extra on a MacBook Pro with a Touch Bar, I would say no for two reasons:

  • Per Apple’s own Human Interface Guidelines, no functionality should be exclusive to the Touch Bar. That makes sense because Touch Bar Macs are a small minority, but the flip side is that the Touch Bar provides no additional functionality apart from Touch ID. That wouldn’t be terrible if using the Touch Bar was faster than using other interface elements, but it’s not, because of the second problem.

  • The Touch Bar offers no tactile feedback, and it’s impossible to use it without looking, as you can do with the function keys. On my iMac, my keyboard of choice is the Apple Wireless Keyboard. If I need to adjust volume or pause audio playback, I just tap the appropriate key, generally without looking. On my MacBook Pro, I have to take my eyes off the screen to find the right button on the Touch Bar, and then in the case of volume (as of macOS 10.13 High Sierra), adjust the slider accordingly.

Those two factors alone make the Touch Bar largely pointless. Here’s a simple example: in Microsoft Word, the Touch Bar offers shortcuts to items in the toolbar. Let’s say you want to bold some selected text. On a Touch Bar-equipped MacBook Pro, you have three main (there are others, but they’re even slower) ways to do this:

  • Press Command-B on the keyboard, which lets you keep your hands on the keyboard and eyes on the screen.

  • Click the Bold button in Word’s toolbar, which takes your hands off the keyboard but keeps your eyes on the screen.

  • Tap the Bold button on the Touch Bar, which takes your eyes off the screen and your hands off the keyboard.

In most cases, the Touch Bar is the slowest way to perform an action! It’s a cool-looking racing stripe that slows you down in many cases, and even worse, eliminates useful physical keys that you probably reach for reflexively, like Esc.

That’s not all. The screen is too small to be useful in some cases. For instance, you can use the Touch Bar to switch tabs in Safari, which looks cool, but you can barely make out what’s in each tab.


The upcoming macOS 10.13 High Sierra doesn’t do much for the Touch Bar. You can double tap its volume button to mute your Mac’s audio, and you can swipe to adjust both volume and display brightness. It also adds buttons to activate Night Shift and send audio and video to an AirPlay receiver (most likely an Apple TV).

Should Apple abandon the Touch Bar concept? I’m not ready to go that far, but Apple needs do some work if it’s to become useful.

Making the Touch Bar Useful -- There are a handful of potentially useful Touch Bar applications, but they’re hampered by Apple’s restrictions. As far as I know, and this is backed up by Keyboard Maestro’s Peter Lewis, there’s no Apple-approved way for an app to add actions to the Touch Bar without being in the foreground. Eliminating that restriction would go a long way toward making the Touch Bar more practical.

If background apps could present Touch Bar icons, automation utilities like Keyboard Maestro could allow users to trigger custom macros from the Touch Bar without requiring a potentially obscure key combination. Was it Command-Shift-Option-M or Control-Shift-Option-M?

I always struggle with this, because it’s challenging to create memorable keyboard shortcuts that don’t conflict with existing shortcuts. Here at TidBITS, we have a Keyboard Maestro macro that runs a BBEdit Text Factory in any app to fix things like non-curly quote marks. Another macro we use combines iPhone screenshots. But I often have trouble remembering the key combinations, particularly for the second one, which I use much less frequently. Being able to activate those from the Touch Bar would make the Touch Bar instantly useful for me.

Some developers have figured out how to hack an extra button into the Control Strip — the handful of controls that are always visible on the right side of the Touch Bar by default. BetterTouchTool, Mute Me, and TouchSwitcher all add a fifth button to Control Strip, but they’re ugly hacks. You can’t configure these buttons in keyboard settings, and if you have more than one of these apps running, they fight over which one gets that fifth spot.

Even most regular apps that support the Touch Bar now just replicate existing functionality in it, rather than allowing users to choose which commands to show there. Command-B is faster than tapping a Bold button, but if you were in a word processor and had defined a custom character style, accessing it from the Touch Bar might be faster than finding it in a contextual menu or palette that isn’t always visible. Apple should set an example here and implement some non-obvious uses of the Touch Bar in its apps.

Giving the Touch Bar some level of tactile feedback would help too. The near-mythical Optimus Maximus keyboard did this by putting little OLED displays on each key. I can’t see Apple doing that, but Apple might be able to use its Taptic Engine technology to simulate gutters between buttons while still letting a slider remain smooth as you run your finger along it. Given how convincing the software Home button in the iPhone 7 is, I think this could be an effective solution.

In the here and now, if you’re looking at a new MacBook Pro and can’t decide if you want the Touch Bar, I don’t think it, by itself, is worth the money. Of course, buying decisions are never that simple, since the Touch Bar-equipped models add a few other niceties, such as two more Thunderbolt 3 ports, faster CPU options, and faster Wi-Fi, that might make it worthwhile. And Touch ID is nice. But until Apple opens the Touch Bar up to developers, don’t assume that the Touch Bar will increase your productivity.

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Article copyright © 2017 By Josh Centers . Reuse governed by Creative Commons License.




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Re: TidBITS: What’s Wrong with the Touch Bar

Andy Affleck-2
I agree with Jeff’s article with one (two) exceptions: the one place where the TouchBar IS faster is in volume and brightness controls. It took me a week or two to figure this out but if you press down on the volume or brightness “buttons” on the touchbar (the far-right versions, not the full touchbar versions) you can immediately slide left or right to adjust them. So I can adjust volume/brightness where I need it quickly and easily with more fine-grained control than the multi-tap dit dit dit approach of old.

But I agree with everything else he wrote about it.

-A


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Re: TidBITS: What’s Wrong with the Touch Bar

Marc Zeedar-2
In reply to this post by TidBITS Articles

> On Aug 4, 2017, at 1:28 PM, TidBITS Articles <[hidden email]> wrote:
>
> The screen is too small to be useful in some cases.

This is one of the biggest problems with the Touch Bar. One of the main uses I love for the Touch Bar is for Emoji -- but the Touch Bar is so dang small (vertically) that I can't tell the difference between a winking face and a smiling one.

I usually use my MBP in my lap, which means my view of the Touch Bar is at an angle and good distance away, which makes it seem even smaller. I have to pick up the laptop and look down at the Touch Bar to see which Emoji I'm touching. Not fast, and could be worse than picking an Emoji from a menu on the screen (though I find the Touch Bar more fun and colorful).

(It also doesn't help that the Emoji shift around based on usage, so you can't even get used to a certain Emoji being in a certain place.)

Why Apple didn't make the Touch Bar the same height as the other keys is a mystery. Probably a cost-cutting measure, but it makes the Touch Bar much less useful.

The next biggest problem is just lack of third-party support. If programs I use a lot, like BBEdit, would add support I'd use the Touch Bar a lot more. (For instance, I'd pay real money to get BBEdit to let me add my many Clippings to the Touch Bar.)

Right now with the Touch Bar completely blank in so many apps, it's too easy to forget it's there.

I do like the Touch Bar for some things:

* for highlighting text in PDFs in Preview it's amazing (when text is selected, the Touch Bar shows you the highlight colors and you just touch the one you want -- and they're nice and big and easy to see and touch).

* for tagging files in the Finder it's pretty good, though you have to touch the Label button first, and then the colored label you want. But I find it's still faster than using the trackpad and choosing items from menus. (Since labels don't have keyboard shortcuts, I can key my hands on the keyboard and it's great for triaging files and labeling them.)


Excellent article overall. I agree with everything. When I got mine I envisioned using it for Macros and I was really bummed when I discovered I couldn't. That, to me, is the whole purpose of its existence! I've always hated function keys because their stupid numbers didn't have any mnemonic reference, so being able to create named buttons for macro seemed ideal -- except you can't do it.

(BTW, I did get a feedback survey from Apple right after I got my TB MBP asking me about the Touch Bar and I expressed these feelings in that. Hopefully others did the same and Apple will remove some of the restrictions.)


Marc Zeedar
Publisher, xDev Magazine and xDevLibrary
www.xdevmag.com | www.xdevlibrary.com







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