Thoughts on the New MacBook Pro with Touch Bar

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I’ve been thinking about the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. I haven’t used one yet, but it will be interesting to see if and how my thoughts change between now and when they hit the shelves! Outside of programming, I tend to use creative apps such as Photoshop and Logic the most, so my views expressed below are based on how I expect to use my laptop for the types of works I create.

About the Touch Bar…

The Touch Bar seems like a solid middle-ground where Apple doesn’t have to incorporate a touchscreen on the main display of the laptop. This has a many advantages to the user experience, in my mind.

The thing with touchscreen laptops is that the displays tend to wobble every time you touch them. Now, even ignoring the cheap feeling and annoyance of distracting glare with a wobbly screen, using one creates fatigue if you’re constantly lifting your arms to reach it. Integrating the Touch Bar into the keyboard is therefore a clever move, in my opinion.

Even if the MacBook Pro did have a touchscreen, macOS isn’t optimised for that kind of interaction. We’ve all seen how Windows has attempted to be a one-size-fits-all offering, and I personally think that effort, although ambitious, has only made the user experience more complicated. I would hate to see that happen to macOS.

When I was a kid, I had always wondered what the function keys were for. They had no clear meaning until I started learning various shortcuts, and it seems the Touch Bar solves this with a very human perspective. It offers a far more user-friendly, understandable, and powerful interface that features some of the benefits of a touchscreen, without having to lift your arms.

One of the cooler demonstrations of the Touch Bar was the ability to adjust the colour of a brush in Photoshop on the fly. Interestingly, that reminded me of the Microsoft iPod Click Wheel… err, I mean… the Microsoft Surface Dial accessory. In all seriousness, it’s interesting that both companies have made a new controls dedicated to extending software capabilities at the same time.

However, I think the Touch Bar is far more versatile - it’s not limited to strictly artistic use cases, and even then I think the Touch Bar will trump the Surface Dial for artistic use cases, and I’ll explain why…

Since Touch Bar has a fairly customisable display (and multi-touch), there are many different interfaces which can be provided. The Dial, on the other hand, has a very specific interaction - rotation. You can’t go from 0% to 50% to 100% without first visiting every point in-between. The Touch Bar, however, you can jump to any value. This means you can use Touch Bar with far more artistic freedom. One aspect that remains to be seen is how precise you can select, for example, a colour on the Touch Bar vs the precision of the Surface Dial.

The Touch Bar is also built-in to the MacBook Pro and is unobtrusive. Reports state that the Touch Bar matches fairly well with the brightness of the physical keys, so it doesn’t look out-of-place. Using the Touch Bar also doesn’t block your display, which has benefits when screen real estate is so valuable, especially with a laptop form factor.

Update: It turns out that the new MacBook Pro will automatically turn itself on when the laptop is opened, even when fully shut down. This is incredibly cool, and renders my criticism about the power button below moot! I saw this in action in a video by EverythingApplePro and another video from MobileTechReview.

The only thing I would alter about the Touch Bar is the Touch ID/power button. In my opinion, it’s unclear where the power button actually is on the keyboard. Sure, Mac users all have the learned behaviour that the power will be in the top-right, but it’s not immediately obvious to a new user. I also dislike that the Touch Bar has to point an arrow towards the Touch ID sensor when you want to use Apple Pay. That said, I’m sure in future iterations, Touch ID will eventually be incorporated directly into the Touch Bar.

About the Ports…

As with every technological transition, there are teething issues. Moving to pure USB-C/Thunderbolt is no exception, but the simplicity of having four universal ports will be fantastic once I upgrade my accessories too. It also looks strikingly elegant.

One thing that surprised me was the inclusion of the 3.5mm headphone jack. What surprised me was not so much that the headphone jack was retained, but that the optical output was dropped! If anyone was going to use optical out, it would be a Pro user. That said, I’m looking far more forward towards a wireless future with the extremely powerful I/O that Thunderbolt offers when you need it.

Truly, the one thing I am quite sad to see go is the MagSafe port, but I guess it was only a matter of time with how thin devices are becoming and thus the cost of ever-shrinking space increasing. At least it’s still possible to achieve the same functionality with third-party accessories.

About the Display…

I am so excited that we finally have vibrant wide-colour P3 displays across all of Apple’s major product lines. That means I can shoot a photo in P3 on my iPhone with P3 display, edit it on my P3 MacBook Pro, and show it to my friends on my iPad Pro with P3 display. That’s a lot of P3, and everything will now look more vibrant than ever no matter what Apple device I’m using!

The glowing Apple logo on the rear of the display has been removed. It truly is the beginning of a new era! I can only speculate that this was inevitable with MacBooks becoming so thin these days.

About the Trackpad and Speakers…

The trackpad is huge! I hope it has some fantastic palm rejection software. That said, I am a huge fan of Apple’s trackpads. Having the entire surface area clickable is something I wanted before Apple even implemented it. The haptic feedback, though, gives an amazing illusion of a press, and it purely feels stronger and made to last.

The speakers are said to be significantly improved. I’m glad Apple hasn’t forgotten audio. Audio has been improved across all of their range, now - iPhones, iPads, Watch, and now Mac. Sound is often a hidden aspect of computing devices that’s not immediately noticeable when you’re window shopping.

Conclusion

Overall, I’m extremely happy with the direction Apple is taking with these new MacBook Pro’s. The insanely fast solid state drives are going to be incredible. I’m a little sad that MagSafe is gone, and I do miss the iconic backlit Apple logo, but I understand why they had to be cut. The ability to power four 4K displays with the 15” MacBook Pro is really impressive. That’s four times as many as my 2013 topped-out MacBook Pro can power!

I look forward to seeing them in-store, and I will post a followup if any of my thoughts change!

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