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.