Monday, August 7, 2017

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.

Update (2017-08-21): Katie Floyd:

I’ve been using the MacBook Pro for nine months now and the truth is, I haven’t found much of a use for the Touch Bar.

Update (2017-08-28): Chuq Von Rospach (tweet, MacRumors, Hacker News):

It seems to me Apple fell in love with the technology of the Touch Bar system, which if you dig into it a bit is a stunning piece of engineering, and expected all of us to fall in love with it as well. The problem is: Apple rarely sells things to us based on neat technology, it sells us based on the stories of how that technology will solve problems for us, and right now, the problems a Touch Bar solves for us that we care about being solved are few and far between.


The current laptop line forces users to pay for the Touch Bar on the higher end devices whether they want it or not, and that’s a cost users shouldn’t need to pay for a niche technology without a future. So Apple needs to either roll the Touch Bar out to the entire line and convince us we want it, or roll it back and offer more laptop options without it.

Hoà V. DINH:

If you go with a new MacBook Pro, I wouldn’t recommend the touch bar. It has lots of usability/distraction issues.

Jonathan LaCour:

I agree, and the sad part is that the Touch Bar isn’t even the worst aspect of these new MacBook Pros.

Chuq Von Rospach:

If we assume that Apple is committed to using the Secure Enclave in Macs to enable user authentication and to secure Apple Pay, I think it’s okay to assume Apple will be including it in most, if not all, future Macs. If that’s true, then the economics of the Touch Bar are minimal.


If I’m right, future Macs will use the infrared facial recognition, and they can embed those sensors in the bezel of the monitor on both the iMac and the laptops. This simplifies the problem of needing to secure the communication between the sensor and the Secure Enclave; by moving those sensors into the device and off the keyboard, everything gets a lot cleaner. And they can build a much less expensive keyboard with a Touch Bar on it that doesn’t require the level of communication security that would be required if it also had the TouchID sensor.

Update (2017-08-29): Nick Heer:

But I also wonder if the very concept of the Touch Bar is far better suited towards some industries than others. I can see film and audio editors potentially using it to navigate long timelines efficiently, but it’s probably not solving any problems for programmers. I’m almost certainly writing more based on what I want rather than what is logical, but I’d love to the Touch Bar become a simple configuration option for any MacBook Pro. Users who don’t need or want it don’t have to equip it, and could have all the performance they need with a traditional keyboard.

Benjamin Mayo:

Apple probably needs to re-think some of the dynamic interfaces — even a year later, I can’t train myself to use it when I’m flitting between so many different states and applications.


Pushing Touch Bar into lower-end MacBooks will be a big win for Apple. I strongly believe that the Touch Bar is better suited for novices than professionals; it is far more useful to people that have to stare down at the keyboard to type.

Wojtek Pietrusiewicz:

Either way, the Touch Bar is neither the future of keyboards, nor is it a sensible stop-gap to on-screen keyboards. In my use case, where I can’t even see it without moving my hands off the keyboard, it’s just an annoyance and I consider it to be bad design.

See also: The Loop.

Update (2017-09-01): John Martellaro:

I think the reason for this inattention by Apple may be related to the dark years of the Mac: 2015-2016. That’s when Apple got distracted and stopped updating its Macs on a timely basis. But one technology seemed to be dwelled on, and that’s the Touch Bar. Because a lot of engineering effort was put into the Touch Bar (and its follow-on technologies) my guess is that some executives believed that the Mac was being properly attended to.


Perhaps the lesson in all this is that any company must be mindful of the technical needs of users and not dismiss them because it thinks it has something really cool up its sleeve, ready to come to fruition in a few years. Keeping us excited in the here-and-now while the future pieces are being put into place is a job for clever engineering and marketing.

Update (2017-09-04): Greg Hurrell:

If Apple goes with an all Touch Bar laptop lineup, my next machine will either be an iMac or bloody PC laptop running Linux.

Update (2018-10-26): Ben Lovejoy:

That brings me to the second thing: there are times when it the Touch Bar is actively counterproductive.

There are a number of ways it can slow me down. For example, if I want to use the music controls, and the Touch Bar isn’t expanded, it’s two touches in two places rather than one keypress. Or if the bar is expanded and I instead want to mute the machine, it’s again two touches in two places.

Then there are the mistakes. I can’t count the number of times I’ve reached for the backspace key and either hit the Siri button instead, or caught it with the edge of my finger so I get both the backspace and Siri popping up. I then have to touch it again to close the window.

Update (2019-01-23): Dave Nanian:

A Full and Complete Accounting of the Benefits of the TouchBar

13 Comments RSS · Twitter

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.

When I got my TouchBar MBP 2 months ago I also found it pretty useless. Bit then I discovered that I can customize it with BetterTouchTool and things have changed.

Currently I mainly use it to resize/move/order windows, or to move windows to the next Space with the built-in BTT functions, but the possibilities are endless.

You can assign icons ("buttons" if you want) to any available shortcut or menu item in any app. Of course I will not assign an icon to ⌘B, since ⌘B is an unerasable part of my muscle memory, but I'm not very good when it comes to remember other, more sophisticated shortcuts (one of the reasons I use LaunchBar), so the TouchBar in conjunction with BTT is pretty good for me.

Out of the box the TB then is pretty lame, that's true.

My main preoccupation was the missing hard-Esc key. But this turned out to be insignificant (I could say it's even better now because before I always confounded the Esc key with the Backtick).

– Tom

[…] Previously: What’s Wrong With the Touch Bar. […]

Leave a Comment