Apple's Touch Bar Idea Was Cool, but Didn’t Work Out

What could replace it?

Key Takeaways

  • The Touch Bar is gone from all Macs but one—the 2020 13-inch MacBook Pro.
  • The Touch Bar was harder to use—and easier to trigger accidentally—than regular F-keys.
  • Some of Apple’s pro apps made great use of the Touch Bar.
The new Magic Keyboard comes to the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar

Apple

Apple has all but ditched the MacBook Pro's Touch Bar. What went wrong?

In 2016, Apple added the Touch Bar to the MacBook Pro, a touch-screen strip that replaced the regular F-keys row at the top of the keyboard. From day one, people didn't like it. That's normal—some people don't like change. But while the dislike never reached the level of hatred felt for Clippy and Comic Sans, it continued until Apple did away with it. 

Why was the Touch Bar so controversial? Could Apple have saved it? And what could replace those tired old F-keys in the future?

"The Touch Bar is one of the most useless additions to the MacBook Pro. Sure it looks cool, but it's super unintuitive—adjusting things like volume and brightness requires extra taps, and it's not even optimized for all apps," MacBook Pro user, Touch-Bar-denier, and coffee lover Yurii Brown told Lifewire via email. 

What’s Wrong With the Touch Bar?

The Touch Bar seemed like a way for Apple to add touchscreen tech to the Mac without actually adding a full touchscreen. The strip is actually a little iOS-like computer, a miniature iPhone with its own operating system. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, he praised the touch screen for its flexibility. Unlike physical keys, which have a fixed layout, screens can be endlessly reconfigured. 

And the Touch Bar had some useful tricks. For example, it enabled one-touch TapBack reactions in the Messages, and in Apple’s own Logic Pro and Final Cut apps, it had some genuinely fantastic functions, like scrubbing an audio timeline. 

Close up of the Touch Bar on the 2020 13-Inch MacBook Pro

Apple

But from the beginning, app developers mostly ignored the Touch Bar. And so did Apple. It got no significant new features throughout its lifetime, and Apple even shrunk it to add back a physical escape key. 

The advantage of physical keys is that they do the same thing every time you press them. A screen is more configurable, but it comes with a cost. You can't just tap a key without looking. Imagine if your light switches forced you to look at a tiny screen and aim your finger at an icon every time you wanted to turn a light on. That's the Touch Bar.

"Sure it looks cool, but it's super unintuitive..."

"It was especially bad on a professional machine. It might have made sense on the cheap beginner machines, but professionals (programmers, graphics-heavy users) don't look at the keyboard," Shai Almog, Touch-Bar skeptic and CEO of software company Codename One told Lifewire via email. 

"Removing the keys essentially degraded usage," Almog continued. "[The Touch Bar] was constantly frustrating, requiring multiple taps to do things I could do with one tap on the function keys."

Another constant problem was accidental input. I used a MacBook with a Touch Bar for just a few weeks, and it drove me nuts. The Touch Bar was too close to the number key row and easy to hit accidentally. 

Alternatives?

The F-keys are fine, especially in their current, familiar form; there are media keys, brightness keys, and even a new Do Not Disturb key. But couldn't we do better?

One option might be to have both physical F-Keys, and a touch strip above them or along the bottom edge of the main display. And this strip could have its own physical on-off key, so you could choose whether to use it or not. 

Another alternative has been around for a while. How about keeping the keys but adding a tiny OLED screen to each one? That was the gimmick of Art Lebedev's Optimus Maximus, a keyboard on which every key was a screen and could be configured individually. The advantage is that the keys are still physical but can be switched to match the current app. See also: Elgato's Stream Deck MK.2

Optimus Maximus keyboard in black and white

Art Lebedev

Or how about something more radical? E-ink keycaps would offer the same configurability but without the battery drain. E-ink is visible in sunlight and only uses power when the display changes. And while we’re looking at e-ink, how about a panel on the outside of the device? A discreet status strip with battery level and maybe notifications, visible at all times. It would be pretty neat to check if that important email has arrived without opening the MacBook’s lid. 

For now, though, probably nothing will change. Apple keyboards have had a rough half-decade between the Touch Bar and the MacBooks’ disastrous butterfly keyboards. But the keyboard on the new MacBook Pro is almost perfect, with easy-to-feel inverted-T arrow keys, a full-sized F-key row, and a huge escape key.

Maybe it’s better to quit while we’re ahead?

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