The essential MacBook Pro Touch Bar Guide

Almost everything you need to know now

Apple, OS X, macOS, Mac, PowerBook, MacBook Pro, Touch Bar, Human interface guidelines
Credit: Apple

Apple has confirmed all the pre-event speculation, new Apple TV software, new Macs, no desktops, and the all-new MacBook Pro Touch Bar.

What is the Touch Bar?

Touch Bar replaces the Function keys at the top of the keyboard. It’s a Multi-Touch Retina Display, just like an iPhone screen, which means it offers dynamic virtual controls that dynamically change in reaction to what you are doing and the apps you are using. Apple CDO, Jony Ive, says the Touch Bar means, “Commands, once hidden, now more accessible.” Touch Bar also integrates a TouchID sensor, so you can open your Mac with a fingerprint and purchase products online.

touch bar 2x Apple

How it works

Tapping the Touch Bar activates the available contextual control or item; touching and holding an item activates any secondary action and panning moves elements, so you can slide volume controls, images or a video time line.

The right hand side of the Touch Bar offers an expandable Control Strip for system level tasks, such as Siri. The area to the left of the Control Strip zone is for app-specific controls, and an Esc button may appear to the left of the app region. Users can configure the Touch Bar, adding and removing items from the Control Strip or hiding the App region as they choose. Here are some of the things I've already learned it does.

How do you customize controls?

Tap View>Customize Touch Bar from the Finder menu, and you can take a look at all the available buttons you can use. Just drag them down to the Touch Bar if you want them.

What that means

Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines provide a clear account of what this means in practice: “When the user types text in a document, the Touch Bar might include controls for adjusting the font face and size. When the user views a map, the Touch Bar could give quick, one-tap access to gas stations, lodging, and restaurants near the displayed location.”

How can I use Touch Bar today?

You can take a look at the Touch Bar today at your local Apple Store, but if you aren’t near a store you could download the latest Xcode 8.1 release, which offers a Touch Bar simulator so you can get a sense of the thing. (Personally, I think Apple should create an interactive webpage to give users a sense of the thing).

Wait, what about the Esc key?

The Esc key should still be available on the Touch Bar, but if you really need one you can set your Caps Lock key to act as a physical Esc key following these instructions.

Who supports it?

Some developers have been working with Apple to bring Touch Bar support to their products. Pixelmator Labs, Serif, BlackMagic Design, Microsoft, Adobe, Algoriddim , Sketch, and (of course) Apple have all announced plans to support the feature, and the first apps that do support it should ship at around the same time as the new MacBook Pros begin to be delivered. Apple has also released Xcode 8.1, which offers the tools developers need to support Touch Bar in their apps. (When developers get hold of a Touch Bar Mac they will also benefit from Xcode shortcuts that use the bar).

Do’s and don’ts

Apple has set a series of limits to what developers can do with Touch Bar, which means you should not expect games, widgets, scrolling messages or other distracting elements to appear just above your keyboard. Developers have been told:

Thou shalt not: Use Touch Bar as a second display; Should not display alert messages, scrolling or static content, or anything that distracts user attention; the Touch Bar shalt not display animation and color must be tasteful and minimal.

Thou shalt: Use Touch Bar as an extension of the keyboard and trackpad; Controls and buttons to be similar in appearance to those on the physical trackpad.

Apple wants to make sure users can focus on what they are trying to do. However, I think Apple may need to relax one set of rules, which demand that “in general” the Touch Bar shouldn’t include controls for well-known keyboard shortcuts, such as undo, copy, or save. I have this feeling developers will find compelling reasons to relax the restriction. I do think it’s a little odd that widgets aren’t yet permitted here, though Apple is correct in attempting to protect and improve existing workflow patterns, rather than forcing users to change how they get things done. Incremental innovation is the watchword here.

What Apple thinks

Senior VP, software engineering Craig Federighi said, “I think there will be this next wave – you can create the control for whatever you want to do next in your app…..We know inherently this is a device with so much potential because it's just a versatile Multi-Touch display. When you get it in the hands of these developers and it's like, ‘We didn't think of that, but that's just awesome.’" This means we can expect some interesting WWDC Award winners in 2017.

What the critics think

“The coolest part of the Touch Bar is how quickly it changes as you switch apps.” Macworld

“What’s neat about dragging buttons down from the screen to the Touch Bar is that you can keep moving them with the mouse on the second screen.” Verge.

“One thing’s for sure, though: the tech is solid. The slightly raised platform is remarkably responsive, and the screen is so vibrant it almost looks like Apple slapped a sticker over it. There’s virtually no lag…” Wired.

“Touch Bar looks like the kind of thing that those who spend all day on a laptop will grow to really love.” Recode.

When can I get one?

Apple originally promised that Touch Bar-equipped MacBook Pros would be available in 2-3 weeks. They were, but only briefly: at this point the new models are showing a 4-5 week shipping estimate as initial inventory is sold out. Apple also surprised Brexit Britain with a 20 percent price increase this morning.

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