The MacBook Pro and Touch Bar Experience

on November 14, 2016
Reading Time: 6 minutes

The Big Upgrade
Arguably, the new MacBook Pros are a noticeable boost for those who need to upgrade their Mac. My MacBook Pro is a 2012 and, while it works fine for most tasks, was starting to show its age in many ways. I’ve been using the new 15” MacBook Pro with the Touch Bar. When I first saw the screen, I felt like it was larger than my older 15” MacBook Pro — in part, due to the screen resolution but also the slightly smaller bezels on the left, right, and bottom. The new MacBook Pros are also noticeably thinner and more compact than the previous designs. The battery life, even for a pro machine, is similar to that of the MacBook Air even iPad Pro for continual use, both which get a solid full day 8+ hours of working computing time on a single charge. Lastly, the keyboard is one of my favorite features. I’m picky when it comes to typing because I am a touch typist. I write more than 5,000 words a week and how the keyboard feels is crucial to me. To be honest, I did not like the keyboard on the original MacBooks but the second generation butterfly mechanism is dramatically improved in my opinion, and I love not just the feel but the sound.

The Touch Bar
Let’s talk about the Touch Bar. Without question, the Touch Bar is an enormous feature upgrade from physical function keys. What was once a static and fixed 13 button function key space has become an infinite set of dynamic possibilities once the row of keys is displaced by a strip of glass and clever software. After just a few minutes of using it, you quickly wonder why this had not been done ages ago.

That being said, there is a learning curve. The Touch Bar represents a dynamic shift in workflow. You have to begin the journey of discovery to understand all that it can do. This learning curve is short but, since the Touch Bar is capable of so much, I found myself experimenting quickly with all it could do to understand how to use it to enhance my work.

One of the things that stood out quickly was how many actions the Touch Bar could absorb that usually required more work or Track Pad swipes. In fact, there are many times where you can see an application smartly take advantage of the Touch Bar and dramatically limit, if not eliminate, the need to use the Track Pad for many tasks. The power of the Touch Bar is in its ability to contextually understand what you are doing, or the app you are in and offer up the most common buttons or menu items. For example, while writing this post, common text formatting options are right above my fingers, instead of off to the side or on top of the application window.

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In this use case, formatting text still requires the Track Pad to select the text elements I want to format. But having the Touch Bar display the likely formatting actions is faster and more efficient — tap, select the text, then move the mouse over to the menu to the right or top of the screen to select my formatting option. I know this seems like a simple use case, but the efficiency of doing it this way is quite an improvement in workflow. This is particularly true in areas where options may be several layers deep in a menu. Actions like these highlight how much efficiency the Touch Bar adds to workflows when the software, or the user, customizes it to take advantage of the dynamic capabilities it offers.

After the experimentation stage where you spend time trying out and learning all the things it can do, there comes the new habits or new workflow phase. I’ve already found some use cases where my default behavior is tapping the Touch Bar for actions vs. using the Track Pad. A simple example of this is with Safari. I now use the Touch Bar exclusively to switch or open tabs, search the web, etc. Again, this seems simple, and it is but, regarding speed and efficiency related to the action you want to do, it is actually quite efficient.

Perhaps the best way to think about this, from a workflow perspective, is finger travel vs. mouse/trackpad travel. To accomplish some of the simple use cases I mentioned above — text formatting, selecting the text, scrolling over to the menu item on the top of the screen to select an option, scrolling to the menu on the right of the screen to further format — requires quite a bit of mouse travel up, down, left and right. The Touch Bar removes many use cases where the mouse has to travel distances on the screen and can be done with only slight travel of the fingers up to the Touch Bar. In all these experiences, the amount of time it takes to accomplish the task is less, thus making for more efficient workflows due to less travel of the hands or mouse.

Having used the iPad Pro as a primary computer for extensive lengths of time, as well as many Windows-based touchscreen PCs, the similar workflow benefits reveal themselves once you limit how much you need to use the mouse for scrolling or selecting. The speed to tap is often faster than the time it takes to move a cursor. The difference here, between a touch screen workflow and a Touch Bar workflow, is fundamentally limiting how far your fingers or hands need to go. This is why I believe Apple is holding to their philosophical viewpoint of not adding a touch screen to the Mac to limit the amount of travel that fingers, hands, or arms need to do to complete a task. Apple is focusing on keeping the action where the fingers are and limiting the amount of movement and time it requires to complete steps in your workflow.

To Touch Bar or Not
I started this piece saying the MacBook Pros are a big upgrade in many ways over their older designs for the display, speed and performance gains, more compact industrial design, and all the added perks and features a new machine brings. According to our internal Creative Strategies research, approximately 19% of Mac owners have a Mac that is five years old or older. This compares to roughly 21% of consumers with Windows PCs 5 years or older. There are undoubtedly many people in need of an upgrade and, for them, the new MacBooks are a solid one to consider. The question remains whether those folks spend the extra money to get a Touch Bar or non-Touch Bar version of the new MacBook Pros. Given the incremental price difference, I imagine this question is top of mind. Here is how I’d think about it.

From my experience, the Touch Bar adds significant value regarding efficiency and workflow, given how dynamic and predictive it can be. But, to truly make a case for this feature, you have to be willing to bet on Apple’s third party software development community optimizing their Mac-based apps, or creating new ones, to benefit from this feature. If you are willing to bet Mac software developers will take advantage of the Touch Bar, then I wouldn’t hesitate on spending the extra money. There are so many unique opportunities for software developers to make it faster and easier for their customers to get work done by integrating the Touch Bar into their software. I’ve already experienced this with Apple’s first-party software, and I’m excited to see what third parties do with the Touch Bar. It’s one of those features that, once you start using it, you want to use it with all your Mac software — but we just aren’t there yet. Many developers, like Microsoft and Adobe and others, have already committed to releasing updates which take advantage of the Touch Bar so clearly there will be apps beyond Apple’s. This is an experience that will only get better as software developers step up to the opportunity and create new experiences.

It will be interesting to see how Apple moves the Touch Bar forward as well. Given the predictive and on device machine learning features Apple integrates into iOS, so the software adapts and conforms to your unique needs, it is possible they apply this same approach to the Touch Bar. Perhaps, over time, macOS can learn my core behaviors and most common tasks and workflows and begin to have the Touch Bar adapt and become even more predictive and proactive in offering me the kind of software buttons or menu items I need in the context of my work. Right now, the developer is in control of applying the right contextual buttons to the Touch Bar, or the user does it through full customization. It will be interesting, in the future, if a form of artificial intelligence can play a larger role in showing me Touch Bar options when I need them based on my unique workflows.

Touch Bar vs. Touch Screen
Inevitably, any element of this discussion will shift to the difference in philosophy between Microsoft with Windows and touchscreen-based notebooks and desktops and Apple’s philosophy with touch-screen tablet computers and Touch Bar-based notebooks. Ultimately, in my opinion, the fact there are so many options is what matters and what is exciting. These companies are showcasing their best attempts to help you get more out of your computer and do your job more efficiently and more productively. What consumers need to decide is which style is best for them and their workflow.

In both the case of the Touch Bar and touch screen PCs, what matters is not the philosophical differences but what software developers do to leverage the unique hardware that will be on the market from Apple and Microsoft’s partners. A lot of jobs exist in the world that need something more than a smartphone or a tablet and, for those folks, they have more choices than ever to help them get their job done.