6 ways the Touch Bar is improving my Mac workflow

Macbook Pro Touch ID
Macbook Pro Touch ID (Image credit: iMore)

Touch Bar is Apple's new experiment in adding multitouch to macOS without adding touch screens to the Mac. Whether or not the experiment is ultimately successful remains to be seen but anyone with a higher-end 13-inch or any 15-inch MacBook Pro 2016 can try it out right now and decide for themselves.

I was originally skeptical. I'm not a huge fan of context switches, be it reaching up from the Smart Keyboard to tap the screen on my iPad Pro or looking down from the MacBook Pro screen to tap the Touch Bar. Hands on one plane eyes on the other is simply how I've learned to compute and how, I think, it makes both ergonomic and cognitive sense. Anything else feels like it's simply an interruption to my workflow. And that makes it unwelcome.

But, over the course of the last couple of weeks, I've realized something — I already interrupt my workflow and change context by either switching to the trackpad and pointer or simply stop and struggle to remember or figure out what I want to do next. That gap already exists and it's into that gap where I'm finding the Touch Bar fits.

Safari tab skimming

When you're using Safari, and you have multiple tabs open in the browser window, the Touch Bar shows you thumbnails for each tab.

They're so small that, unless there's a really distinctive design, it's difficult to simply glance at them, find the one you want, tap it, and instantly bring it up. That led me to ignore them at first. But then, as I was hunting and pecking through my browser tabs with the trackpad and pointer, trying to find an article I was editing, I had an idea.

I placed my finder on the browser tab icons on the Touch Bar and swiped. Right away Safari began switching through each tab in turn and, watching the screen, I quickly saw the one I wanted, stopped swiping, and got to work.

I know I can use a key combo to tab through the tabs but I often have to stop and remember or look up what it is. It's just never become muscle memory for me. The Touch Bar is a visual interface, though, and I don't have to remember it. Any time I get stuck for a tab, I see it, and I swipe. I just wish there was a way to swipe through windows as well.

CMD-T is a reflex for me, so I don't need the new tab button on the Touch Bar, but for switching, it's become my go-to.

Touch Bar-assisted memory

Keyboard shortcuts are wonderful and horrible. For any app you live in, they let you move around almost as if by magic. For any app you use occasionally, they're frustrating to remember. That's especially true when even apps made by the same company assign keyboard shortcuts differently between their apps. For example, Adobe's Creative Suite or Apple's Final Cut X vs. Logic Pro X.

For some commands, I'm fine — I type them without even thinking about it. For others, I'm lost. I have to either stop typing and switch to the trackpad and pointer to start digging through the menu system or, worse, start searching in the help menu.

With Touch Bar, though, I've gotten into the habit of looking down and, most of the time, the shortcut I want is sitting right there.

It's not faster than the keyboard shortcuts I know, but it's a damn sight faster than the many more shortcuts I blank on during the day.

Spelling suggestions

English is a horrible language. It has so many influences and adoptions that spelling and grammar can often feel like a Vegas card game requiring massive amounts of memorization or a lot of luck. When I first saw the predictive suggestions offered on the Touch Bar, I thought they were useless. I type fast enough that I'm finished half the sentence before I even notice the suggestions.

When I blank on a word or spelling, though, that all changes. Either I start typing and then hope auto-correct or replacements fix it or I have to start Googling for a word. That all takes time.

Predictive suggestions, however, sometimes have the word I want ready and waiting. I say "sometimes" because it's nowhere near often enough yet, though I'm hopefully it's learn and improve as I use it. Even so, it's already saved me several trips to the spell check and Google.

It's especially useful when you have auto-correct turned off, which I often do. (It's not always great with technical writing.)

Interface de-cluttering

I've often been annoyed by toolbars and palettes covering my work. Sometimes I want to see what''s beneath them while I use them. Sure, if they're not multi-layer modals, I can drag them away, but that takes time and inevitably covers something else I want to see a few moments later. (Murphy made terrible, terrible laws.)

What I've noticed with Touch Bar, though, is that by putting the controls above the keyboard they're no longer covering up what's on my screen. It can be something as simple as styling text to something as fun as picking a suggested emoji without having to call up the emoji picker.

As developers spend more time with the Touch Bar, I'm hoping this aspect gets even better. There are already moments where I feel like a DJ, with one hand on the Touch Bar and the other on the keyboard or trackpad. And those moments are only going to increase.

Greater granularity

I didn't notice this at first but, when you use the Touch Bar controls, you often get greater granularity than when you use the keyboard.

For example, on older MacBooks, hitting the brightness button incremented the level by one each time. Using the slider on the Touch Bar, though, and you can visibly see the brightness increase or decrease even within levels. It's subtle and many people won't care about the difference, but I quite love it.

And yeah, you can access sliders with the trackpad and mouse pointer, but you need to switch to the trackpad first and then dig the slider out, which doesn't feel as fast. With the Touch Bar, you simply tap the persistent brightness icon on the right and you can start sliding immediately. Then, when you're done, you just go back to typing. No need to dismiss any on-screen windows or popups.

It's little things like this that, over time, add up to big increases in efficiency and experience.

Touch ID

Although technically a separate feature, since Touch ID is adjacent to the Touch Bar, I'm taking the technical foul and conflating it in.

Touch ID on the MacBook Pro

Touch ID on the MacBook Pro (Image credit: iMore)

Touch ID on the Touch Bar MacBook Pro is an absolute pleasure. Just like on iPhone and iPad, it makes everything from logging into the Mac to authorizing iTunes and App Store purchases to authenticating for Apple Pay and 1Password incredibly fast and easy.

I use my Apple Watch to unlock most of the time, but every once and a while it takes its time. Now I just touch the sensor and I'm in immediately. Likewise it was getting to the point where I'd avoid typing my 1Password master password so much I'd just copy and paste from iOS-opened-with-Touch ID. Now I have Touch ID on the Mac.

It's so good whenever I go go back to a Mac without it, typing in my password feels like a chore.

Time will tell

I'm using the Touch Bar MacBook Pro as my primary computer right now and I'm investing in making the Touch Bar part of my routine. It's the same process I used when I immersed myself in 3D Touch on the iPhone.

Because not all Macs have Touch Bar, just like not all iOS devices have 3D Touch, the feature can't be required. And if it's not required, it's easy to avoid making it a habit. So, it ends up being more of a bonus, if you let it.

A month from now or a year, I have no idea how good it will become or how much I'll end up using it, but I'm enjoying being part of the experiment for now. And yes, of course, I can't wait for it to get Taptic Engine support, background app support, and for it to start scaling out...

In the meantime, if you've been using the Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro 2016, let me know how it's working for you!

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • I'd like to hear from an accessibility group or person that requires it. This seems to totally remove all necessary functions from that part of the keyboard, essentially.
  • I don't get you? I don't see what necessary functions it removes, the Function keys and Esc key can be enabled on the Touch Bar. The Esc key shows by default in apps that do not support the Touch Bar
  • Are you blind Danny? Or just too self absorbed to think about anyone else's needs?
  • Well if he was, he wouldn't be able to use this inaccessible laptop! Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Apple is actually one of the best companies for supporting accessibility, they even have their own dedicated page on their website
  • Show me where they describe the touch bars use here:
  • The Touch Bar doesn't add any additional functionality, it's for you to look at to access shortcuts at a quick glance to greatly increase productivity. I'm not really sure what you could do to make it more accessible, it's already high contrast, with big buttons. The Touch Bar doesn't affect any existing accessibility features
  • i have to think at this point you're just trolling, cause you can't really be dumb enough to think contrast is an accessibility feature for the blind.
  • I never mentioned high contrast for blind people, I just said as an accessibility feature, not everyone with visibility problems are blind. Quoting my previous comment: "it's for you to look at to access shortcuts at a quick glance" This would be pointless for blind people, they can't quickly skim over all the options, it would make more sense to just use the existing VoiceOver with what's on the Mac's monitor
  • It would help if he explained how this "removes all necessary functions" since I just explained how it doesn't
  • If you really need to be walked through how a touch bar, that replaces hard keys that have specific functionality for people that have accessibility issues than you are summer than I already think you are.
  • As I have already said, the keys are still there, you can customize the Touch Bar to display said keys… If needed for accessibility, other keys can be mapped for these functions without any issue
  • your comments show the lack of understanding on this topic that is required to carry a convo.
  • Your comments show a lack of understanding on accessibility as a whole. As a developer myself, I have to take accessibility into account, and obviously I've not only studied Apple's documentation but other companies' as well. The Touch Bar does not break accessibility in any way. Nor would it, Apple are praised year after year for their tremendous accessibility support, they have their own large team constantly working on and researching this every day. If you seriously think a company as large as Apple and one that puts accessibility as one of their top priorities, have broken accessibility on the new MacBook Pro, then you are the one that's deluded here.
  • "The Touch Bar does not break accessibility in any way." Ok. I'll take you're word for it, you seem to know everything. <smh>
  • I don't know everything but I'm very knowledgable on the subject, especially being a developer myself where I have to take this into account.
  • It’s good to hear how useful the Touch Bar is already. Hopefully developers can really exploit its potential in the future. I am glad that Apple are insisting that developers use it as a configurable input device instead of as an additional mini-display. It would be confusing if apps show information on both the screen and the bar - users would get into the habit of looking in both places, which is inefficient. I guess there may be a few exceptions where the app takes up the whole screen (such as when playing video and showing time remaining etc on the bar), but generally it should be used for input only.
  • I know video games aren't exactly one of the aims of the Touch Bar or Mac in general, but it would be really cool if in games, an in-game HUD could be displayed on the Touch Bar instead of the screen, to allow you minimal distraction in the game yet still have the information available. I'm not sure whether this would be of any use in normal apps, except something like video like you said
  • Then it would be a heads down display instead of heads up. Counter-intuitive sounding to me. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • There used to be a keyboard which had this kind of functionality for Windows, it seemed like a neat idea to me, each to their own. And yep, it would be a Heads-down Display, good point
  • re: tabs in Safari, I came to a similar conclusion while futzing with an Apple Store display unit. On my own system, I have had the keyboard brightness keys remapped to next/previous tab for a few years now, and was worried as this has become central to the way I use all apps. But while playing with the bar, I realized that I rarely use this next/previous motion with any precision — I'm really just banging the key until I get to the place I'm looking for. Replacing this with a broad swipe motion works really well. However, that won't work for apps that don't have "tabs" as a touch bar "drop-in". I’m hoping that Apple expands the number of options that are globally available as customizable actions…
  • Would really like to see if Keyboard Maestro will support the Touch Bar. I think that could be the killer app for it.
  • Apple doesn't want a touch screen based Mac,,, so how is this better ? Your hand is skimming over the touch bar but your eyes are focus on the screen...... I know what Apple is trying to archive,, a mid-way point, and while they're probably pulled it off ok.... i still would prefer the iPad just because of the distinct vision in two places is kind of...well different. The tough bar itself looks good, but i would have preferred it not being limited to to a small section to skim.
  • Command-Tab cycles through your open apps. Control-Tab cycles through your, uh, tabs in Safari. Easy-peasy.
  • Yeah, these demonstrate the mostly-a-gimmick status of the touch bar. Touch on MacOS may not be simple or obvious like on iOS - but it doesn't mean it has no place or could never work - Microsoft are proving them wrong. Certainly no UX reason to not enable a stylus on Mac OS at least (though hardware would need modification.
  • Microsoft haven't fully proved them wrong, there's still many apps on Windows that do not have touch-optimized interfaces. Someone on iMore stated how they used the touchscreen on their Surface only 20% of the time. If people are using it that little, it seems Microsoft haven't really proved them wrong here.
  • Why is using the touch screen as input 20% of the time proving Apple right? It means they are finding it useful to use under certain circumstances. Thats proving Apple wrong, IMO.
  • Under certain circumstances would be around 40-50% usage. 20% makes the touchscreen almost abandoned and thus basically pointless
  • No that would be half the time, iow - significant. If you use your camera on the phone 5% of the time does that mean it's abandoned too? Just a rediculous comment and threshold of no basis.
  • A phone camera function is a completely different situation. It's one of many functions on the phone, obviously you're not going to be using it all the time, the percentage of its usage should be accounted to how much it's being used as your primary camera, and you'll find that with that percentage, it's a very highly used feature of the phone. The touchscreen is supposed to be the primary input device for the Surface AFAIK, if not, then it's supposed to be used in tandem with the trackpad, which should either be a 50/50 split between using mouse/touchscreen, or something like 40/60. However, 20% for the touchscreen and 80% for the trackpad makes it an almost obsolete form of input, at that percentage it's not being used in tandem with the trackpad, so they aren't proving Apple wrong.
  • While using the touch bar, Just imagine how beautiful a touch screen is. Sent from the iMore App
  • All those fingerprints and smudges over the high quality screen. Beautiful.
  • Right, cause thats a big knock on the iPads and iPhones. smh
  • It's a necessary evil on the iPads and iPhones.
  • We interact with tablets and smartphones at different sight angles than desktop/laptop screens, so that the fingerprint smudges aren't as visible on the portable devices. I cringe when someone touches my laptop/desktop monitor...
  • It's also easier to wipe a portable device, you can just use your shirt or pants to easily wipe the screen. Try doing that with a Mac, you'll have to have some cleaning cloth nearby
  • From the guy that thinks carrying around a bunch of dongles is no big deal, but keeping a cloth next to your desktop mac is an inconvenience. Classic post, should be in the archives for preservation.
  • I never said it was an inconvenience, just that it's easier to clean the screen on a portable device, not necessarily that it's inconvenient to do it on Mac. But I'm glad you like my post :)
  • Is it possible for web sites and web apps to utilize the TouchBar or only native apps?
  • As a web developer I've not been able to find anything about accessing the Touch Bar, though that would be really neat to have. Usually Apple are keen to implement their own proprietary web implementations for their unique hardware functions (like force touch), so it'll probably be added to the next version of Safari
  • If you're a serious web developer you should know that you don't have access to the touchbar via a web site/web app.
  • I've been a professional and "serious" web developer for over a decade. I don't have a new Mac with a TouchBar though, so I've been asking those who do in the hopes that my assumptions are incorrect. Thanks for mansplaining though steviet02.
  • Of course, a professional developer would read the Apple Developer Docs instead of you know, asking around on iMore forums... Nice try though, Nancy.
  • You say that as if experimental Web APIs are not snuck in undocumented and behind flags. Happens all the time.
  • Well, I'm not sure who you work for, but the company that I work for, and as a contractor, I would not be producing professional code to undocumented, experimental Web API's. I'm not sure which Apple Web API's you are referring to, but I'd be interested to know which ones you've used in the past.
  • Who said anything about integrating TouchBar with a browser being exclusive to Apple Safari? TouchBar integrates with Native apps. Yes? Browsers like Chrome or Firefox are native apps that could ship experimental APIs. I expect they will. And if they do, I'd be much more inclined to pick up a new MBP so I can start working with them "hands on". Also who said anything about client work? I mostly do open source and teaching now with a focus on accessibility. I think the TouchBar is great for accessibility, but I was disappointed when watching the Keynote to not see anything about using it with web sites. I'm always looking to stay up on bleeding edge APIs regardless of if they'll ever be "stable" enough for "professional code".
  • You made it a point to let me/everyone know you were a Professional. I didn't just bring the topic up. Are you ok? Your original question:
    "Is it possible for web sites and web apps to utilize the TouchBar or only native apps?"
  • Yes, and what I mean by that is have any browsers added APIs to allow you to utilize the TouchBar within a web page (obviously via the native app the page lives within) or is it something you can only use if you make your own native app?
  • It doesn't look like there's anything anyway. Also jpdevries if you want to "try out" the Touch Bar with a non-Touch Bar Mac, you can download Touché which puts the Touch Bar on your screen to be accessed with your mouse:
    https://red-sweater.com/touche/ It also makes the Mac think there's a Touch Bar, so Touch Bar related settings (e.g. in Keyboard) will appear if you open System Preferences with Touché running
  • "Workflow"... what a nauseating word. Sent from the iMore App
  • …why?