A little over a decade ago, a Russian design studio unveiled a concept keyboard that, as much as any gadget ever can, rocked the tech blogging world. It was called the Optimus, and it was the most interesting keyboard you'd ever seen: a standard QWERTY design, but with a screen on every key that could change in an instant, giving each app its own perfect layout.
The keyboard eventually shipped, and some other incarnations followed, but they never did make a dent in the real world — they were too expensive, too niche. Still, the idea was promising, and it seemed destined to make it into our keyboards eventually.
The MacBook Pro with Touch Bar is the first major laptop that tries to replicate that dream — not with individually reprogrammable keys, but with a thin touchscreen strip that can do even more. It adds touchscreen buttons and ever-changing digital controls to the familiar set of physical keys, and it has the potential to remake the keyboard in a way we've never seen before.
I've been using the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar for more than a week now, and I have mixed feelings about what it brings to the MacBook experience. In some cases, the Touch Bar’s usefulness is obvious and immediate. But in many others, it’s overly complicated or just plain unnecessary. It’s an addition that very much can improve every MacBook — but it’s going to take some time to get there, if it ever does.
First, a short aside: two weeks ago, my colleague Vlad Savov published a review of the 13-inch MacBook Pro without a Touch Bar. That computer is nearly identical to the one I’m testing here, save for a few significant differences: this one has more ports, more power, a smaller battery, a fingerprint sensor, and — of course — the Touch Bar. You should read his review for an in-depth look at this laptop’s fantastic hardware and ridiculous port situation. I’ll touch on some of that later on (spoiler: I agree with his assessment), but for the most part, I’m going to be focusing on the unique Touch Bar that you’re all really here to read about.
This is Apple’s vision of a touchscreen Mac
The Touch Bar arrives on the MacBook Pro with two objectives in mind: the not-very-lofty immediate goal of improving upon the function keys (how hard can that be?), and the more interesting goal of introducing a brand-new way of interacting with the Mac. Apple has been resistant to putting a touchscreen on any of its Mac computers, and if I had to guess right now, I’d say it’ll never happen — that is, aside from the Touch Bar.
Apple says we’re supposed to think of the Touch Bar as an extension of the keyboard, but in practice, it comes off like any other touchscreen interface. It’s very much not a series of digital buttons — it’s a tiny little sliver of iPad, chopped off and grafted onto the MacBook Pro, with the same potential for complexity.
But let’s start with the basics. The Touch Bar has to replace the useful function keys — brightness up and down, volume up and down, and mute — without causing any headaches, or it’s undone from the start. Apple does that by placing those controls in a set of always-present buttons on the righthand side of the Touch Bar.
Mute works as you’d expect it to. But you no longer have one-touch access to brightness and volume adjustments; instead, you need to tap the button and then dial in your changes on a slider that pops up beside — not beneath — your finger. I’d be annoyed by that, but fortunately you can move the slider without actually touching it, by keeping your finger held down on the bar. It’s surprisingly inelegant, in that you end up controlling a slider that you aren’t actually touching. But it is efficient, and I got used to the new control scheme within a day, able to operate it by muscle memory the same I would a physical key. I’m not sure that these buttons are better than physical keys, but they aren’t any worse either.
Muscle memory kicks in, just like with physical keys
You can also customize the Touch Bar’s set of four fixed buttons by swapping in some other macOS functions, like Spotlight, that you’d prefer quick access to. That means if you don’t want the Siri button that Apple places on there by default — and I really don’t — you can go ahead and remove it.
Oh, and as for the Escape button, which is (almost) always present on the lefthand side of the Touch Bar: it’s fine, too. You’ll get used to it.
So that brings us to the center of the Touch Bar, which is where the real action is: this is the area that morphs to display different buttons and controls depending on what app you have open.
Every developer will be able to customize the Touch Bar within their own apps. Future support has already been announced for Photoshop, Office, Pixelmator, 1Password, DaVinci Resolve, and quite a few more. Unfortunately, none of those are available just yet, so I’ve only been able to test the Touch Bar inside of Apple’s own apps.
It’s clear from these apps that Apple has quite a few ideas about how the Touch Bar can be used, from simple buttons to complex touchscreen controls. Some of those ideas work, but quite a few of them do not.
The Touch Bar’s simplest uses are often its best
For all the complexity that the Touch Bar is capable of, its simplest uses are often its best. Mail has Archive and Spam buttons that are great for burning through all of the bad Kickstarter pitches I get. There’s an emoji button when you’re typing that lets you swipe through the entire library of icons (it was the favorite Touch Bar feature of everyone I showed the laptop to). And I love having a button in Photos that lets me flip back and forth between my edited and original picture.
There really is a lot of good stuff here. But for every smart use of the Touch Bar, there’s another that’s too complicated or entirely meaningless. Often they’re even within the same app, all present on the Touch Bar at once.
Take Mail, for example: I love those quick-firing Archive and Spam buttons. But for some reason, the biggest button on the Touch Bar is used for… folder management!? It’s a puzzling decision; and while you can edit the Touch Bar’s layout in Mail, not every app lets you do that.
Why are there menus on my keyboard?
The word suggestions that pop up while you’re typing are another strange inclusion. This is a feature that makes complete sense on mobile, where typing is difficult and slow. But on the desktop, I type fast enough that these suggestions don’t appear until I’m already done typing a word. And anyway, I’m not looking at the keyboard as I type — I’m looking up at the screen, as (ideally) we’re all taught to. I realize that’s not the case for everyone, but it seems to me there are few instances when removing your fingers from the letter keys so that you can tap a word you’ve already half-typed would be much faster.
Those are the simpler issues. The Touch Bar gets worse when Apple tries to do too much with it. In Pages, for example, the Touch Bar displays at least five types of buttons: one that slides out with a keyboard, one that pops up new formatting options, two that drill down into scrollable menus, one that drills down into a static menu, and several more that are just toggles.
Complicated Touch Bar options ended up slowing me down
The difference between a menu opening left or right or up or down may seem slight, but the effect is very disorienting. There were times I felt lost in the Touch Bar, unable to return to the screen I wanted. These moments didn't last long — but any length of time that I’m stuck in a menu on my keyboard is too long.
This is a recurring problem throughout Apple’s apps. The Touch Bar is often used like a menu, rather than a quick set of controls. Having those menu options exposed so clearly can be helpful at times — I’m bad at finding formulas in Apple's Numbers, for instance, and the Touch Bar makes them easy to access — but mostly it’s not. These apps don’t need more menus; they need better context for people just starting out in them, and a streamlined way for experienced users to get stuff done.
The good news is that the Touch Bar’s interface is all software. It can be updated and refined and improved. I suspect it’ll take a little while before Apple and third-party developers find the best use for each of their specific apps, but I hope they’ll learn quickly that there’s a fine line between presenting helpful options and overwhelming their users.
"I felt like a kid learning how to type again."
Apple and developers will also have to decide who the Touch Bar is for: pros or amateurs. Many of us are already familiar with keyboard shortcuts in the apps we’re using, and so far I’ve found that forcing myself to use the Touch Bar tends to slow me down. That was true too for Verge director and editor Miriam Nielsen, who’s been testing out the new 15-inch MacBook Pro.
"While editing in Final Cut, I used the Touch Bar exactly zero times," Nielsen says. "When I tried to intentionally use the Touch Bar, I felt like a kid learning how to type again. I had to keep looking down at the bar instead of looking at the images I was actually trying to edit. That could get better with time, but it seems harder since there aren't any actual keys for my fingers to find if I was just editing along not looking at my hands."
People who learn on the Touch Bar from the start might have a difference experience. But Nielsen pointed out that can beget another problem: learning on the Touch Bar means you can’t work as efficiently on any other computer, since it won’t have the same controls and interface that you’re used to. It’s a weird form of ecosystem lock-in. And even within Apple’s own ecosystem, it’s limiting given that Apple doesn’t offer a Touch Bar keyboard for its desktop Macs. Maybe it will all make more sense as products are introduced over time, but for now, it’s a whole new skill set you have to develop for just one device.
I think the Touch Bar really can help people, once many of these early problems have been smoothed out. But I don’t think it’s going to revolutionize the Mac, and I suspect the future looks a lot more like a dull-but-useful row of virtual buttons than a strip of fancy DJ controls.
I also have some outstanding reservations about the Touch Bar that I’m unable to test, specifically around aging.
I’ve already experienced hang-ups and glitches (hang-ups rarely, glitches quite frequently in Safari) with the Touch Bar. I worry that it’ll grow slow and unresponsive over time, as the MacBook Pro, like all computers, inevitably dulls with age. I don’t mind digital brightness and volume buttons now, but if in three years I can’t immediately mute the auto-playing video ad that just started blaring into my headphones because the button has become slow to respond, I’m going to be frustrated. Obviously there’s no easy answer to this concern — I asked Apple; it declined to comment — but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re considering buying generation one of an experimental product and plan on hanging onto it for several years to come.
Okay, so that’s the Touch Bar, but there’s still an entire computer to talk about. Two computers, actually, since the MacBook Pro comes in a 13-inch version, which starts at $1,799, and a 15-inch version, which starts at $2,399. I tested the 13-inch model while Nielsen tried out the 15-inch.
Like I said before, you should read our review of the MacBook Pro without a Touch Bar for an in-depth look at the laptop’s build, but I’ll give a quick overview of my own thoughts and then dive into some of the differences.
Don’t worry: the keyboard looks awful, but it feels great
Both laptops are impressively small compared to their predecessors; the 13-inch even sizes up favorably to the MacBook Air, with the same weight but much smaller display bezels and overall footprint on your lap or desk. The new Pros feel fantastic, look sharp, and have great speakers. The display is also a step up from the old Pro display; it’s much brighter and noticeably more vibrant.
I know a lot of people are concerned about how shallow the new keyboard’s keys are — I was, too; I’m pretty picky about keyboards — but this keyboard isn’t a problem at all. I don’t even mean that in an "it’s an acceptable compromise for the size" kind of way; this is simply a great keyboard with nice, clicky keys. I didn’t need to adjust to it at all, and in the moments I’ve gone back to type on my old Pro, I’ve found myself missing the new one. (The keyboard is also much improved from the similar one introduced on the 12-inch MacBook last year.)
Aside from the Touch Bar, there are four other differences on this model of the MacBook Pro. Perhaps the most interesting of those four is Touch ID, the little fingerprint sensor resting above the Delete key.
It’s a nice addition to the Mac, and it’s definitely faster than entering a password or waiting for an Apple Watch to pair. It works well, though I’m continually confused at how macOS decides to use it. There seemed to be a 50-50 split between times I’m prompted to enter my password to log in, install an app, or change a setting and the times I’m able to do all of that through Touch ID. Maybe there’s some sort of time limit, but it’s not clear; the system rarely tells you. Likewise, the ability to switch user accounts at the touch of Touch ID seemed to work only on a "sometimes" basis.
So here’s the part where we talk about ports. The cheaper MacBook Pro (which isn’t particularly cheap at $1,499) only has two USB Type-C ports, but this model has four of them. If you’re not familiar with USB-C, that’d be because the standard is very new: it’s almost certain that you’ll need adapters and new cables in order to plug anything you already own into them. Your flash drive? Need a new one. Your external hard drive? Different cable. Getting photos off an SD card? Better buy an adapter. Even your iPhone will need a new cable or adapter.
USB-C is the future, but the MacBook Pro is in the present
If I’m being generous, I’d say that having four do-anything ports makes this laptop’s accessory situation fairly flexible, since you can simultaneously charge the computer and plug in a series of displays, drives, readers, and so on to suit your specific needs. With a USB-C hub that integrates all the lost ports, you could get away without too much extra to lug around.
But the truth is that not enough of those hubs and cables are out there in regular use yet, so these ports mostly end up being a hassle. The first day I was testing this computer, I ran toward it with an SD card outstretched in my arm excited to edit a photo I had just taken. I felt like an idiot. And in the end, I just pulled out my five-year-old MacBook Air and edited the picture there. It was easier.
Apple is right to push toward a future with USB-C. But it’s wrong to do it like this. Pros need ports that can do things today; and if you’re not going to give them that, at least give them a cable or two to work with. (Apple has a sale on cables right now, but it only lasts through December; after that, Apple’s high margins return.)
Aside from the Touch Bar and the ports, the other big story of this laptop is its performance. For the past two weeks, Apple’s pro users have been extremely vocal about their issues with this computer’s specs: its last-generation processors, lack of graphics power, and 16GB RAM maximum. Those complaints are more valid for the 13-inch model than the 15-inch, which has a discrete GPU from AMD, but photographers, video editors, and web developers alike all expected more from the refresh of Apple’s main Pro computer.
The 15-inch performed better and could edit small 4K videos without issue
In day-to-day use, the 13-inch Pro is snappy and without hiccups. It also performs well in some more challenging tasks, like editing 1080p video in Adobe Premiere. But throw 4K video into that same program, and the results become unworkable. The 13-inch MacBook Pro can handle small 4K files smoothly in Final Cut Pro, but that isn’t the app that most editors use. It’s not a win where it counts.
Performance was better on the 15-inch. Nielsen saw it as a step up from older 15-inch Pros, capable of handling smaller 4K projects in Premiere and Final Cut without issue. But on a larger project file, like the one made for the seven-and-a-half-minute "How to manufacture fear" video she edited last month, "the computer starts lagging pretty seriously," she said. The performance was better than the 2014 Pro she has at home, but not on par with the 2013 iMac she uses at work.
Ultimately, Nielsen said, "I don't know if the slightly less amount of lag in the Premiere file makes up for the fact that I just spent 20 minutes rooting around for a cable I never use in order to get my Thunderbolt hard drive to work."
It turns out, however, that the bigger issue with these machines isn’t the performance, but the battery life. Apple promises 10 hours, but our tests fell far short of that.
Battery life averaged around five and a half hours while I used the 13-inch unit to do my work, which consists of keeping open Slack, Safari, Mail, TweetBot, and TextEdit, watching the occasional YouTube video, and opening various Apple apps here and there for testing. That’s worse than the new Surface Book, which got between six and eight hours of battery life in our use, and it’s significantly worse than last year’s MacBook Pro, which our reviewer got around 10 hours out of on a charge.
Battery life was longer on the 15-inch model
That all said, there are some inconsistencies around battery life here that I’m not quite sure how to explain. The Verge’s battery test, which sets the screen brightness to 65 percent and cycles through a series of popular websites, clocked a much higher figure: 10 and a half hours, which is just over what Apple’s web test claims. It’s worth noting, though, that the Touch Bar turns off when the keyboard isn’t in active use, so that second screen had no impact on battery life during the rundown.
I don’t know what accounts for the dramatic discrepancy, though. Apple was so sure that my five-or-so-hour battery life was wrong that it sent me a second 13-inch MacBook Pro unit to test out. But I got very similar numbers on it — closer to six hours on average — and that was while using fewer apps. Other reviewers I’ve spoken with tell me they’ve seen higher figures, around 7.5 to 8.5 hours, but I’ve only once cracked the seven-hour mark. Maybe my "typical use" is more demanding than others, but I doubt it. I think the battery life on this laptop is just low.
As with performance, the 15-inch model did better on battery. Nielsen got 6 to 7 hours during her typical use of the computer (which, she qualified, included watching a lot of videos at high brightness), while the laptop cut down to about five hours of battery when she was editing video. Those numbers are "basically the same" as what she gets on her older Pro; they aren’t amazing numbers, she said, but they aren’t bad either.
Pros are well aware that battery life disappears fast while using professional apps, but a computer should still have a strong baseline of battery performance. The 15-inch model seems to hold up fine — though it still falls short of Apple’s estimates — but the 13-inch very much does not. One reason this might be happening: Apple has meaningfully reduced battery capacity from last year’s models, cutting the 13-inch model’s capacity by a third and the 15-inch’s capacity by a quarter. There are a lot of factors that come into play when it comes to battery life, but reduced battery size might be the whole story here.
I may come off sounding quite critical of the new MacBook Pro, but the truth is that I really do like it. The hardware is incredible, macOS is a joy to use, and I don’t want to give up this screen and keyboard. It’s a fantastic laptop on build alone.
But everywhere I look, it feels like this incarnation of the MacBook Pro is shooting for a future it can’t quite reach. One where it can be impressively thin and powerful enough for the pros. Where it can be super light and have all-day battery life. Where its ports and keyboard morph and adapt perfectly to the needs of every user.
I have little doubt that in a couple years, the technology Apple has been waiting for will arrive and this vision, or something closer to it, will be complete. Apple just released this machine too soon, or was too aggressive in the decisions it made.
That future is almost certainly out there. But it’s not in this machine. Not yet.
Photography by James Bareham.
Video by Max Jeffrey.
Additional testing by Miriam Nielsen.
Edited by Vlad Savov, Dan Seifert, and Dieter Bohn.
Filmed on location at Anomaly.
Correction November 15th: The Touch Bar layout can be edited in Mail; this article originally said that it could not.