Roben Kleene

The Touch Bar

The new 16” MacBook Pro still has a Touch Bar, but it now has a physical Esc key. I think this will quell most of the complaints about the Touch Bar, the touch Esc button was a particularly lousy replacement for a couple of reasons:

  1. Esc is a commonly used key, especially for dismissing dialogs.
  2. As a physical key, Esc is easy to type without looking because it’s in the upper left corner.

The remaining keys in the function row are also commonly used, but they were never easy to type without looking: Brightness, Mission Control, Launchpad, rewind, play/pause, fast forward, mute, and volume. For those keys the Touch Bar feels like a wash: The physical keys were slightly easier to type, but the Touch Bar is significantly cooler. So with the physical Esc key back, I suspect the complaints will die down, but why wasn’t the Touch Bar more successful?


Function keys have their proponents, but they’re rarely used on the Mac. They’re much more common on Windows because the Windows key, unlike the macOS command key, isn’t a modifier1. This means application and user-defined shortcuts2 end up in the function row. But function keys are worse than modifier-based keyboard shortcuts: They aren’t mnemonic and they’re too far from the home row to type easily without looking3.

Unfortunately, the Touch Bar is usually just used to add buttons, which effectively means it’s used as function keys, but with visual indication of each buttons purpose. Here the Touch Bar ends up stuck between the mouse and the keyboard, if you know the modifier-based keyboard shortcut, than that’s going to be easier to type without looking, and, if you don’t, using the mouse to click on something is easier because you’re already looking at the screen.


An ideal use case for the Touch Bar would appear to be selecting from a range of values. Choosing exactly the right color, or adjusting the many sliders in Lightroom Classic’s Develop module. Here the keyboard is clearly deficient, the keys have to move the value by a fixed increment, which might be much larger or smaller than the size of the intended change. The mouse fairs much better, but it’s still not a great fit because the mouse works best when you know in advance exactly what you want to click on, it works less well if you want to warm an image up and stop when it looks right4. The proliferation of custom controllers with knobs and faders for audio, photo, and video editing speaks to a need that isn’t being met by the keyboard and mouse.

Unfortunately, the Touch Bar isn’t a great fit for this use case either. Touch has lousy fidelity, it’s difficult to select a precise value. The Touch Bar’s minimal screen real estate exasperates the problem. It ends up being worse than the mouse and keyboard used as a pair: The mouse to get close, and then making fine-grained adjustments with the keyboard.


The last issue with the Touch Bar is that it isn’t on the desktop. This conflicts with the essence of what a laptop is: A desktop that you can take with you. Contrast this with an iPad, which is a truly mobile device. The applications we run on a laptop are not designed to preserve battery, handle intermittent internet, and startup quickly like mobile apps are. And the touch form factor itself trades the accuracy and ergonomics of the keyboard and mouse for being easier to use quickly with touch.

The Touch Bar doesn’t work with an iMac, or with an external keyboard, or when the laptop is in clamshell mode. It doesn’t work with desktop workflows. Selecting a value from a range comes up often in creative apps, and while the keyboard and mouse do come out on top for those adjustments, it’s still one of best use cases for touch. But audio, photo, and video editing are desktop tasks that take advantage of desktop workflows, the people doing these tasks often use external peripherals that makes the Touch Bar inaccessible5.


In summary, the Touch Bar’s problems are:

  1. The Touch Bar is usually used for touch buttons, but keyboard shortcuts are better than touch buttons because they’re easier to type without looking.
  2. When selecting values from a range, the Touch Bar is worse than the keyboard and mouse because touch has poor fidelity.
  3. Even if the Touch Bar did have better fidelity for selecting values from a range, most of use cases for those types of edits are desktop workflows, and the Touch Bar isn’t available on desktop.

Touch in general hasn’t had the impact many of us expected and hoped for. Its main advantage has turned out to be that integrating the display and input method is an efficient use of physical space, which is at a premium when computing on the go6. There have been some interesting attempts at using touch-based controls in creative fields. When iPad was first released, it seemed like Lemur7 would gain traction in music production. But the software hasn’t turned out to be very popular, and the app is rarely updated. Instead the industry has gravitated towards control surfaces with physical buttons and knobs, and that integrate with desktop software, like Native Instruments’ Maschine and Ableton Push.

It’s hard not to wonder what Apple themselves think the advantages of the Touch Bar are. My suspicion is that Apple, like a many of us, overestimated the promise of touch based on the success of the iPhone and iPad. But touch is a mobile technology. Outside of mobile, when space isn’t at such a premium, the tactile benefits of physical controls win every time.

  1. The Windows key not being a modifier causes problems with copy and paste at the Windows Command Prompt. Window standard copy and paste shortcuts, ⌃C and ⌃V, can’t be used because those keys are used to send signals to the shell, most notably control-C to abort the current task. The Mac sidesteps issue by using the command key for copy and paste. ↩︎

  2. Many of the differences in keyboard shortcuts between Excel for Mac and Windows are moving shortcuts from the function row to modifier-based shortcuts on the Mac. Reliance on function keys on the Mac is a common tell for a cross-platform application that’s primarily developed on Windows. ↩︎

  3. On a full-size keyboard with a dedicated function row (of which Apple hasn’t made in over a decade), function keys do have the benefit over modifier-based shortcuts of only requiring one key to be typed, they don’t require also holding down a modifier. ↩︎

  4. To use the mouse to select from a range of values, you can hold the mouse button down, and then drag until you’ve selected the correct value, but this a more strenuous way to use the mouse, and you lose fidelity when releasing the mouse button. ↩︎

  5. Sidecar might be Apple’s strategy for bringing the Touch Bar to the desktop. It shows a Touch Bar by default, and pairing it with Apple Pencil is interesting to also serve as a precise input device. ↩︎

  6. As I’ve written before, illustration is a great use case for integrating the display and input method. ↩︎

  7. Lemur is available as an iOS app from Liine. ↩︎