Is the Touch Bar useful? Or just a gimmick?

One of the questions a lot of people had when Apple first announced the current incarnation of the MacBook Pro design was: is the Touch Bar a gimmick?

Last time I discussed this, I concluded it wasn’t worth the premium it likely adds to the price of the machine – and the majority of you agreed with me. But today I go further and wonder whether it adds any value at all … ?

I tried to keep an open mind when I first saw it.

From a gadget perspective, it’s impressive. However, some of the demos Apple gave seemed to be rather silly. Why on earth would I want to swipe through microscopic photo thumbnails on a tiny strip that I’m covering with my fingers when I could be doing the same thing in a decent size on that lovely display without obscuring anything? The video timeline example struck me as even more ridiculous.

I’m also not terribly convinced about the idea of using them for toolbars. Again, the screen and trackpad seem a more natural way to do things than to be moving my hand back-and-forth between two different touch surfaces and my eyes up-and-down between the Touch Bar and the screen.

But I’ve been wrong before, and I’m quite prepared to be proven wrong again. Perhaps, like the Apple Watch, it will demonstrate its value when I actually use it.

A week in, I wasn’t exactly sold, but I could at least see some small benefits – and I could get the thinking behind it.

I did initially wonder whether Apple had done the same thing with the Touch Bar [as the Apple Watch]: invented a cool piece of tech and then tried to figure out what it’s for. That impression wasn’t helped by me considering that many of its uses were either gimmicks – like auto-correct (pointless as you’re looking at the screen, not the keyboard, while typing) – or downright silly, like microscopic Safari or photo thumbnails.

However, glitches aside, I haven’t yet found any downside. And there are a few things I like about it. None of them are big deals. In fact, individually, they are all really trivial, but they do add up to a feature which is beginning to make sense to me.

In fairness, all of the minor benefits I described are still valid today. But after using the machine on a daily basis for 22 months, two things strike me.

Number one, some 80-90% of my usage of the machine is sat at my desk, using a separate monitor, trackpad and … keyboard. So the built-in keyboard with its fancy tech is over there to my left.

I’m never going to reach awkwardly across my desk to use the Touch Bar, so the tech is entirely wasted for the majority of the time.

But what about the times when I’m using the built-in keyboard? That’s still 10-20% of the time – in other rooms in the apartment, when working away from home, and when travelling.

That brings me to the second thing: there are times when it the Touch Bar is actively counterproductive.

There are a number of ways it can slow me down. For example, if I want to use the music controls, and the Touch Bar isn’t expanded, it’s two touches in two places rather than one keypress. Or if the bar is expanded and I instead want to mute the machine, it’s again two touches in two places.

Then there are the mistakes. I can’t count the number of times I’ve reached for the backspace key and either hit the Siri button instead, or caught it with the edge of my finger so I get both the backspace and Siri popping up. I then have to touch it again to close the window.

If I balance out the times when it has been of some tiny benefit – like the slider controls for volume and brightness, which I prefer – to the times when it has slowed me down in some way, I’d actually guess that it’s probably a wash. Site owner Seth Weintraub thinks that, for him, it’s worse than that.

If I counted all of the false Siris and back buttons, I’ve probably lost a day of my life.

Touch ID is nice, but that’s a separate button, so you could have that without the Touch Bar. And, speaking personally, Touch ID on a Mac is largely irrelevant to me as I use my Apple Watch to unlock it automatically. Besides, Apple will replace that with Face ID in the next major upgrade.

So, would I pay a single penny extra for a MacBook Pro with a Touch Bar versus the exact same machine with physical function keys? Honestly, no.

Which is the very definition of a gimmick: something which is technologically impressive but actually adds zero value.

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