Function keys are out. A new, glimmering multi-touch OLED display is in. Apple’s new MacBook Pro line — announced in October 2016 — introduced the world to the Touch Bar, and despite the initial ooh‘s and aah‘s, the tech world seems polarized on whether such a thing is actually worth it. It adds an extra $300 to an already expensive machine. The 10 hours of web browsing and movie playback isn’t great (and, in some cases, not true). Plus the Touch Bar is only compatible with a select number apps — and Chrome isn’t one of them. Three staffers at Gear Patrol — an editor, photographer and tech writer — tested the new 15-inch MacBook Pro, for a week each, to see if they Touch Bar was a good fit for them. Their thoughts are below.
Matthew Ankeny, Deputy Managing Editor
There are times you know you don’t need something but you want it anyway. Lust, we call it, and it’s our most bedeviling vice. Apple — an arbiter of plush pragmatism, in most cases — doesn’t always tap into the lusty side of our tech-souls, but more recently they’ve dabbled (hello, Hermés Watch). The Touch Bar is exactly one such offering, and it’s held at a carrot stick’s distance away from a justifiable purchase. For everything I do, I don’t need the Touch Bar. I also don’t need the extra processor horsepower on the MacBook Pro Touch Bar version or its two bonus Thunderbolt/USB-C ports. And I definitely don’t need to spend another $300 on a laptop where my most commonly used program is TextEdit. But damn do I want it.
In testing the new MacBook Pro, I identified two notable experiences: one, I converted back to more Apple apps (formerly known as “programs”). The bar encourages you to stay in the Apple software ecosystem and definitely encourages you to use Siri (though she’s unresponsive when not connected to the internet, discouragingly enough). Despite the forced prodigal return, I actually enjoyed it. I re-discovered Reminders, found Safari to now compete with Chrome, and started using Notes to take, uh, notes. On the flipside in my experience, I also noted that the Touch Bar made the sixth row of the keyboard a bit less functional. The expanding and contracting of the buttons, I found cumbersome — when I reached for them I wanted to hit buttons once, not twice. The anticipatory text was a tiny bit helpful, but I found it no faster than typing the word on the keys like a conventional, old-fashioned writer.
Yet despite my lack of WOW! factor, I still wanted to be a part of the Touch Bar world. I center this mostly in the dream that the Touch Bar is the future. I don’t know what that future holds or why I need that future, but the Bar’s smoothness and dynamism and full spectrum of color (it is well built, I’ll give Apple that) seemed like something dreamy from five years from now (it reminds me of, 13 years back, when I splurged for backlit keys on my first Powerbook — then also the seeming future). At the end of my trial week with the computer, I didn’t fall in love with the Touch Bar, but those beguiling geeks from Cupertino definitely had me — despite my most logical efforts — falling in lust.
Sung Han, Motion Photographer
From the outside, it’s a beautiful machine — the most beautifully designed laptop, in my opinion. I hate hopping on the bandwagon, but, admittedly, it was a little frustrating to use. Let me start with the Touch Bar. I like the idea of it, and I see it evolving into something more interesting in the future. But for now, it felt a little unnecessary. It added extra steps to things that used to be a click away, like using Exposé, or adjusting volume, or brightness. And at the time of testing (mid-December 2016), it wasn’t compatible with any of the software I use daily, so it was just a novelty.
I let out a big sigh when I realized I no longer had easy options to view photos on my SD card, connect my external monitor via HDMI, as I had to connect all my hard drives with the laptop’s USB-C ports. All six drives sitting on my desk became useless. The upside is that it comes with the headphone jack.
Once you get over the eccentricity of this update, it’s a nice to use. It’s light, fast and pretty powerful. Also, unlike with other journalists, the battery life wasn’t an issue for me. Creative professionals will sure love the performance upgrade but won’t love the need to carry around four or more dongles. Do I recommend it? Not yet. I was in the market for a new laptop, but after a quick test drive, I decided to wait for the next iteration of MacBook Pro.
Tucker Bowe, Associate Staff Writer
Full disclosure: Prior to testing the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, Apple loaned me the Touch Bar-less 13-inch MacBook Pro, and I had been playing around with that for a few weeks. It was a welcome upgrade to my five-year-old MacBook Pro. Heck, I loved it enough to purchase my own when my loan ended.
The MacBook Pro with Touch Bar was the evolved form of the same beast. Its Touch Bar posed a challenge, however, as I had to change my habits to use it. I forced myself to use Safari, as Chrome isn’t compatible; and though the bookmarked pages in the Touch Bar looked nice, they required my hand to spend more time away from the Track Pad — it was easier for me to just click the links in the browser.
Another thing, on the far right of the Touch Bar are the Siri button and the fingerprint reader. Using the fingerprint reader to unlock the laptop was nice, even though I don’t use it for Apple Pay. The Siri button, on the other hand, was a bit frustrating; I accidentally hit it numerous times when trying to hit the delete button and had to exit out of the subsequent pop-up window. (Engadget‘s Dana Wollman had a similar problem.)
In truth, I’m a simple computer user. I don’t use fancy Photoshop or Lightroom, which have Touch Bar support. I mainly just browse the web, write in Google Docs and listen to music. (Spotify works with the Touch Bar, which was nice.) Throughout my testing, I couldn’t help but feel like I wasn’t fully utilizing the Touch Bar. But I didn’t need to. The MacBook Pro by itself had everything I already wanted. It was lightweight, fast, beautiful and familiar. The Touch Bar was just a bonus.