Monday, August 7, 2017 [Tweets] [Favorites]

What’s Wrong with the Touch Bar

Josh Centers:

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.


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?

The next time I buy a notebook, I’ll likely get a less capable one since that’s the only way to get a full keyboard instead of a Touch Bar.

The most loved part of the Touch Bar seems to be Touch ID, but there’s no reason the two need to be bundled together.

Update (2017-08-14): Mark Bessey:

I hated the Touchbar pretty much right away, and I generally haven’t warmed up to it at all over the last 6 months. Even though I’ve been living with it for a while, I have only recently really figured out why I don’t like it.


With a very few exceptions [maybe worth exploring those more?], the Touchbar is designed to launch actions on finger-down. This is inconsistent with the rest of the user experience, and it puts a very high price on having your finger slip off of a key at the top of the keyboard. This is exacerbated by bad decisions made by third-party developers like Microsoft, who ridiculously put the “send” function in Outlook on the Touchbar, because if there was ever anything I wanted to make easier, it’s sending an email before I’m quite finished with it.


Failing that, at least some way to bail out of hitting the Touchbar icons would be worth pursuing - possibly making them less senstive to grazing contact, though that would increase the cases where you didn’t activate a button while actually trying to.


I find the Touch ID on my MacBook Pro to be vastly inferior to Touch ID on my 6S Plus. It works about half the time. 90% of the time I use an external keyboard so it is a bit of a reach to get to Touch ID but I find it frustrating enough that I only try 1 in 10 times anymore. I usually just type my passwords which for often used passwords can actually be just as fast (or faster if Touch ID fails). When in laptop mode I often find my computer beeping at me for "no reason" because I accidentally rested my finger on the escape key. I apparently sometimes rest my hands across the whole keyboard sometimes. I'm sure that is a habit I could break but since I rarely use my laptop as a laptop I never have time to get used to it.

Overall My opinions of the touchbar haven't really changed since I first saw it. It looks like a gimmick. It may be useful for some, but the $300 price jump was a waste of money for me. They escape key is worse than a real escape key. I wish it hadn't been the only way to get a new 15" MacBook Pro. I still feel like the Pro laptop is way less Pro than it could be. As far as I can tell apple continues to pursue form over function in its "Pro" devices.

@Mike Thanks for commenting. I hadn't heard that there was such a big difference in the Touch ID implementations. I honestly don’t see what’s so useful about Touch ID on the Mac, though I love it on iOS. With a real keyboard, it’s so easy to type the main account/keychain password, so I would think Touch ID couldn’t improve on the experience much.

I don't have a new MBP, but in theory Touch ID should make filling in passwords much quicker. My sense is though that apps haven't quite figured out using it. Much like for several years after the introduction of Touch ID on the iPhone applications still weren't letting me use it to replace their passwords. (A few apps still don't do it consistently -- looking at you Amazon store app)

Anyway, I suspect the utility of Touch ID on the Mac is less because people don't tend to password protect it in quite as extensive a fashion as we do our phones. If you're moving around a lot with a MBP -- using it at cafes most of the time -- then the option is quite nice. It should end up making more people have "lockscreens" that render stealing MBPs unappealing over time. Again though it'll take time for that to trickle down to thieves.

To your original point about Touch Bar, I think it's designed primarily for novice users. While there might be on screen buttons, I think the Touch Bar is most useful for the cases where there aren't. So yes for bold the Touch Bar isn't as compelling. But that to me highlights that developers haven't figured out efficient ways of utilizing the Touch Bar yet. My personal wish is that Apple would make it so that 3rd party utilities could access the Touch Bar. If I could put say Keyboard Maestro shortcuts in a graphical way on the Touch Bar it'd be far more useful. I'd add that the Touch Bar is useful for *seeing* shortcuts and then getting a "location" for ones finger. The problem with function keys for most users is that they can never remember what they do.

@Clark I don’t have a Mac with Touch ID, so maybe I’m missing something, but can you explain how it would make this “much quicker”? I just don’t see how that would work given that you have to take your hand off the keyboard. Do you mean for people who have super long passwords or don’t touch-type?

And how does this relate to Mac apps? Isn’t the alternative to prompting for a password to use the keychain, which normally requires no user interaction at all?

I agree about cases like Keyboard Maestro where the alternative is having to find and remember a suitably obscure shortcut that doesn’t conflict with anything else. That would be solving a real problem. Or imagine if system services showed up on the Touch Bar.

Even worse, I use my MBP in clamshell mode, connected to an external (mechanical) keyboard, pointing device (Trackpad), and (4K) monitor, about 70% of the time. The TouchBar is a total waste of money to me, as it would be completely useless the majority of the time. I'm really hoping that Apple comes to their senses by the time I'm ready to buy again, and gives me a 15" option without it.

This Tidbits article is so typical of pretty much every critical article about Macs, ever.

The template for such articles is this: a poweruser complains about a feature not being right for them, and everybody else agrees. The article goes viral.

What these articles don't get is that Macs aren't made for powerusers. Macs are made for ordinary people. This is Apple's thing. This is what Apple does best.

Let's take the issue of how to turn on bold text in Word, as quoted in the article. We know you can Cmd+B, or click a ribbon icon. But the archetypical mom and pop might not. However, they see a nice large illuminated button on the toolbar that says BOLD and they tap it. Wow! That's so useful! Apple thinks of everything!

It's immensely helpful to them.

Mom and pop don't touchtype. They don't have keyboard macros. They don't have 100 browser tabs open. They don't have an instance of Xcode running in the background.

They just use their computer for everyday tasks. Often they are maddeningly inefficient in doing so – and it's for them that Apple created the TouchBar.

But, but, but... Apple has also had a habit of throwing scraps of food to the powerusers too. I can list hundreds of little tricks I use everyday – everything from right-clicking a filename in the titlebar, to Option-clicking the Wi-Fi icon to get technical details. And THAT's the issue this article identifies. It's the fact that the poweruser has no use for the TouchBar. And to be fair, this article does realise this when it talks about how background apps can't take control of the TouchBar, so this makes things like keyboard macros impossible.

Will this kind of poweruser functionality come soon to the TouchBar? It would've certainly done so around five or 10 years ago. Nowadays... Well, I'm not too sure. Looking at tools implemented recently, such as Siri on the Mac, there isn't anything above and beyond what you see – functionality really is WYSIWYG! No clever option-clicking to get a secret feature. No further options on right-clicking. And I think this is the modern Mac culture now within Apple. The "table scraps" culture of throwing powerusers a neat set of less obvious tools has gone. The iOS guys have taken over the asylum and they just don't know about this kind of thing – or they just don't care.

And that's a real shame.

@Keir I think you’re right that the problem is thinking Touch Bar (as it currently stands) is for the power user. But, given that, it’s curious that Apple only includes it on their Pro laptop, and that the demos focused on using it in Pro apps. And Pros, whom it’s least likely to help, can’t buy a laptop without it. Apple has a history of introducing features first at the low-end, where they can benefit Mom and Pop, but that’s not what they did here.

@michael Pros ≠ powerusers! Pro video editors, pro musicians, pro photographers, pro writers... I know from my own experience that I can sometimes tell these people super-basic tricks for Macs and they'll be blown away.

Word is a poor example since it has a toolbar with one gazillion buttons.
Let's take instead.
There is no toolbar button for bold text. It (together with Word) also don't have a toolbar button for emojis.
At the moment the touch bar is fantastic for non-techies that don't memorize all shortcuts.
But I think today is like the iOS App Store was in 2009, just filled with fart apps. Within a few years all pro apps will have productive(!) touch bar capabilities.

"Pros ≠ powerusers! Pro video editors, pro musicians, pro photographers, pro writers... I know from my own experience that I can sometimes tell these people super-basic tricks for Macs and they'll be blown away."

I think both folks like us and Apple, (traditionally at least) used Pro not to refer to "professional use", but instead as a broader catch-all for power users.

(Curently, Apple seems to be using "Pro" to simply mean "more expensive".)

IMHO, the reason Apple introduced Touch Bar in the first place has almost nothing to do with giving grandma a better UX for using bold in a word processor, and instead has everything to do with what looks shiny in an Apple Store or an advertisement.

And tangentially, I tend to strongly doubt that the improvement of letting a background process like a macro app take control of Touch Bar would actually make it a preferable UX for power users over a full keyboard.

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