Apple killed a laptop that had a lot more fans than I expected last week. Around the Gizmodo office, my colleagues groaned when news broke that following a refresh of its laptop line, there would no longer be a standard MacBook Pro without a Touch Bar. Apple, in their eyes, was going all in on the little touch-sensitive OLED strip above the number pad, and it was a travesty.
Someone complained that the only time they used the Touch Bar was when they activated the Siri touch button by accident several times a day. Another person bemoaned the fussiness of the touch volume controls that replaced the old physical keys. But I saw the development as a sign that Apple would get serious about the Touch Bar. The Touch Bar bums me out too, but not because I think it’s as worthless as many people contend. The Touch Bar is an opportunity for great things, and Apple’s wasting it with lousy stewardship.
If you clicked on the piece having no idea what the Touch Bar is or why it’s a point of contention for me and a big chunk of the people I work with, let’s recap. Typically, a computer will have a strip of keys directly over the number keys. They’re called function keys. Traditionally, they were programmable keys that could execute a user-defined series of characters. Companies eventually started pre-programming the keys so they had default settings. On a Mac that included stuff like volume control and brightness.
In 2016, Apple opted to kill the strip of physical keys on some models of its redesigned MacBook Pro and replace them with an OLED touch display. So instead of having only the 12 pre-programmed function keys, a user would have options. There’d be the contextual buttons created in apps, by app developers, as well as the Control Strip, a row of up to 12 buttons users could configure from 21 options Apple provided.
When Apple announced the product, the thought was that the Touch Bar would be capable of a lot, and Apple suggested there could be more possibilities down the road, though, it was unclear in the beginning how deeply Apple was willing to let users and developers go. I know I hoped for a lot! Like buttons for a pre-defined list of gifs to drop in Slack or iMessage. Or maybe the ability to completely control iTunes or Spotify from the Touch Bar without pulling up the app. Or perhaps the bar could catch notifications instead of having them take up a corner of the main display.
The problem is that after the initial launch, Apple didn’t iterate the product. It hasn’t really touched the bar at all since 2016 and has given the average person little reason to do so either. I’d hazard that the main reason people navigate to System Preferences then Keyboard and click the Customize Touch Bar button tucked out of the way is that they want to deactivate the Siri key. That key is programmed into the Touch Bar in a highly trafficked area, right above the Delete key and next to the button that does double duty as the Power and Touch ID. If your finger even glances across the Siri key, the whole system will become unresponsive as it waits for you to say something. So if you’re furiously deleting and accidentally tap it, you’ll find yourself with a keyboard that doesn’t work until you hit the Siri key again.
It’s annoying, and Apple hasn’t done much to make it less annoying. It doesn’t even prompt you to customize it when you first set up your laptop.
Beyond giving users readier control of the Touch Bar, Apple could also encourage developers to take advantage of the strip better. Compare my Chrome Touch Bar to my Safari one.
The Chrome Touch Bar wastes a considerable amount of space replicating onscreen browser functions, like the back, forward, and refresh buttons—not to mention the address bar. It’s also got buttons for creating a new tab and favoriting the current URL you’re on. These last two functions are accomplished easily with widely-used keyboard shortcuts, so dedicated buttons seem redundant. The Safari Touch Bar could be better, but at least easy access Bookmarks are useful.
Other apps don’t fare much better. Occasionally you see a good use, like QuickTime’s ability to scrub through a video file to find the exact frame you need. But the useful Touch Bars are just reminders of how pointless others are, like the blank Touch Bar you find in Sonos, Slack, and even Apple’s Voice Memo app.
Even the really good implementations of the Touch Bar, such as the ones used by Photoshop, Ulysses, and AirMail, aren’t sufficiently customizable. You get the options suggested by the app maker, and that’s it.
While I won’t fault an indie app maker, or even Google, for failing to do better with the Touch Bar, I can lay blame at Apple’s feet. The company introduced a cool new feature and then has just let it sit there. It has provided no incentives nor has it led by example with the Touch Bar. Beyond some useful implementations in Apple-built apps right at launch, Apple has done nothing with the Touch Bar.
So yeah, of course, it makes sense my coworkers hate it. Mercifully, you don’t have to be like Apple or all my co-workers. There’s handy software that lets you better take advantage of the Touch Bar right now.
BetterTouchTool (free to try, $7.50 for a standard license, and $21 for a lifetime license) is a ridiculously powerful app that lets you customize the Touch Bar, as well as other touch inputs for the Mac (like the Magic Mouse, trackpad, and Apple Remote. You can program scripts and customize button appearances relatively easily.
If you don’t need to customize everything about the Touch Bar, you can try TouchSwitcher ($5). It turns the Touch Bar into an easy to program application launcher. Just swipe, and you can launch any of your regularly used apps with a tap. Another swipe and you can close one.
They’re both solid alternatives and give a peek at what would be possible if Apple bothered to care.