Before You Go All In on Apple’s Touch Bar, Think about This

Apple’s new Touch Bar, on the company’s updated MacBook Pros – thinner, lighter, more expensive – is a very attractive input tool. It looks good, has colors, and stands out well. But before you go and spend your money on that new, increased-price MacBook Pro, think about this.

How often do you use the function keys on your laptop? When you do use them, how do you feel?

Every time I need to use the function keys on any keyboard, I have to look down at my keyboard (I touch type), then find the key I’m looking for, then press it. This is the case even if I use the Mute key, or the brightness keys; I never remember where they are. This is because we use them so infrequently compared to other keys that their positions don’t stay in memory.

And, every time I do that, I realize that it’s uncomfortable. This Mashable article even suggests that it’s an “ergonomic nightmare.” Of course, this is based on a few moments using it, and a whole lot of tweets from people who have never used it, but it’s a valid point. The Touch Bar is tiny; about the same thickness as the F-key row on a keyboard. So hitting the right key won’t be easy. You’ll need to look down at your keyboard, then up at your display as you see what happens, then back to the Touch Bar, and so on.

Also, a lot of people work with a laptop on a stand, using an external keyboard; until Apple makes the Touch Bar available on their standalone keyboard, these people won’t be able to use it. Reaching up to touch the last row of keys on a laptop on a stand will be an ergonomic nightmare, if you do it often enough. (Repetitive stress injuries in the shoulder occur from that type of repeated movement; that’s why Apple won’t make a touch-screen computer.)

I found the Touch Bar idea quite interesting during Apple’s presentation yesterday, but I immediately thought about how small those keys were. If Apple really wants this to be a useful input row, why didn’t they make it a bit wider? Look at the Magic Keyboard; the keys on the top row are the same size as the rest of the keys.

Magic keyboard

But on the MacBook Pro, those keys are about half the size:

Touch bar keyboard

And it’s not that there’s not room to have keys that size; it’s just that historically, the function keys on Apple’s laptops have been smaller.

Apple clearly had nothing new to offer in their laptop line, and came up with this new input tool. I think it’s laudable that they’re trying this, but I’m not sure how useful it will be as long as it’s only available on their most expensive laptops. I’d recommend that anyone interested in this think about the ergonomics before rushing into a purchase. And I hope Apple brings this to a standalone keyboard soon; though we know they’ll wait several months, to get people to buy the new MacBook Pro first, alas.

20 thoughts on “Before You Go All In on Apple’s Touch Bar, Think about This

  1. The problem with Apple’s F-keys always was the lack of space: On traditional keyboards, the F-keys are grouped in fours, which is MUCH easier for your muscle memory to learn. This is something that has always bugged me with Apple’s (otherwise great) keyboards – even the external ones.

  2. The problem with Apple’s F-keys always was the lack of space: On traditional keyboards, the F-keys are grouped in fours, which is MUCH easier for your muscle memory to learn. This is something that has always bugged me with Apple’s (otherwise great) keyboards – even the external ones.

  3. Oh the horror of having to look down at the keyboard. Over the course of a couple decades this will add up, with disastrous consequences.

    Only kidding Kirk. You raise some good points that take the luster off this new shiny object.

  4. Oh the horror of having to look down at the keyboard. Over the course of a couple decades this will add up, with disastrous consequences.

    Only kidding Kirk. You raise some good points that take the luster off this new shiny object.

  5. I’m assuming that Apple will eventually put this on all their computers (although the fact they introduced the low-end MacBook Pro without one may contradict that assumption). Otherwise, I agree that it will be limited use (most software developers may not bother to support it). I’m very curious to see the next iMac keyboard. That should reveal their intentions.

  6. I’m assuming that Apple will eventually put this on all their computers (although the fact they introduced the low-end MacBook Pro without one may contradict that assumption). Otherwise, I agree that it will be limited use (most software developers may not bother to support it). I’m very curious to see the next iMac keyboard. That should reveal their intentions.

    • Right, I have a MacBook as well. The F keys are very small; half the size of the other keys. The Touch Bar reproduces that size. I think that’s what I said…

    • Right, I have a MacBook as well. The F keys are very small; half the size of the other keys. The Touch Bar reproduces that size. I think that’s what I said…

  7. I can’t help but think Apple is getting bored with computer hardware, in general, but specifically with the Mac. I get that PCs are a declining market, anyway, but that shouldn’t mean they only get after thoughts. They are still a necessity for many work flows. Or maybe there just ins’t that much more left for the PC. That would be a shame. I hate to think this is as good as it gets.

    (For the record, the F keys on my full sized Apple keyboard are also half size.)

    Joe

  8. I can’t help but think Apple is getting bored with computer hardware, in general, but specifically with the Mac. I get that PCs are a declining market, anyway, but that shouldn’t mean they only get after thoughts. They are still a necessity for many work flows. Or maybe there just ins’t that much more left for the PC. That would be a shame. I hate to think this is as good as it gets.

    (For the record, the F keys on my full sized Apple keyboard are also half size.)

    Joe

  9. I don’t see what the complaint is here. You don’t use the Function keys often enough for them to move into muscle memory. You have to look down at the keyboard to find them. This is uncomfortable for you.

    So far, none of this has anything to do with the new touchbar.

    So, how does this new touchbar make things any worse? If you don’t use the Function keys because they’re not useful, maybe the touchbar will allow you to put things there that ARE useful. And if you’re already looking down at the keyboard anyway, how will using this be any different? And yes, people who use external keyboard won’t get the advantages of the laptop keyboard.

    I fail to see how any of this is a criticism or a complaint about the Apple keyboard implementation.

  10. I don’t see what the complaint is here. You don’t use the Function keys often enough for them to move into muscle memory. You have to look down at the keyboard to find them. This is uncomfortable for you.

    So far, none of this has anything to do with the new touchbar.

    So, how does this new touchbar make things any worse? If you don’t use the Function keys because they’re not useful, maybe the touchbar will allow you to put things there that ARE useful. And if you’re already looking down at the keyboard anyway, how will using this be any different? And yes, people who use external keyboard won’t get the advantages of the laptop keyboard.

    I fail to see how any of this is a criticism or a complaint about the Apple keyboard implementation.

  11. Personally, I never use the F3 and F4 keys, but I use every other one, as media keys and for brightness. However, those keys usually sit unused. It makes some sense to me to replace those keys with something more usable.

    • Maybe you need to be an old guy to like this.

      If you aren’t an old guy you may not know that back in the day, you’d have a few of these paper bits that mapped out what the functions keys did in particular programs–one for lotus, one for wordstar, etc. The interesting thing here is the buttons can label themselves. And Sky is right, if I can put menu functions I use some but not all of the time there (things I haven’t got a keyboard shortcut or macro for), it will be very useful.

  12. Personally, I never use the F3 and F4 keys, but I use every other one, as media keys and for brightness. However, those keys usually sit unused. It makes some sense to me to replace those keys with something more usable.

    • Maybe you need to be an old guy to like this.

      If you aren’t an old guy you may not know that back in the day, you’d have a few of these paper bits that mapped out what the functions keys did in particular programs–one for lotus, one for wordstar, etc. The interesting thing here is the buttons can label themselves. And Sky is right, if I can put menu functions I use some but not all of the time there (things I haven’t got a keyboard shortcut or macro for), it will be very useful.

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