Is the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar a touchscreen replacement? [Friday Night Fights]

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Would you prefer a touchscreen?
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Apple’s new MacBook Pro has arrived with its exciting OLED Touch Bar, giving users a brand new way to interact with macOS. It’s the closest we’ll get to a touchscreen on a Mac — at least for the foreseeable future — but is it a suitable replacement?

Friday Night Fights bugThe Touch Bar is already supported by all of Apple’s own apps, and the company says developers are quickly adapting their own software for it. It’s only going to get more useful over time, but would a Mac touchscreen be even better?

Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight as we battle it out over the Touch Bar and whether it can help macOS users forget all about touchscreen computers.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke Dormehl: So yesterday’s Apple event was certainly interesting. As predicted, the star of the show was the MacBook Pro, complete with Touch Bar (no additional “Magic” in its name). Personally, I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get an iMac update, and there were a few other conspicuous absences, but it’s clear that Apple’s very excited about the MacBook Pro — and it’s definitely a nice piece of kit. (Although I have no idea who’s going to buy the version with function keys!)

I’m interested to use the Touch Bar, and I’m excited that it’s going to be open to developers, which I think greatly increases it chances of becoming a ubiquitous part of our keyboards in the years to come. With that said, you proposed a subject for Friday Night Fights this week I’m not sure that you can honestly hope to win: that the Touch Bar can effectively replace a touchscreen for those who have been clamouring for one to ship with the Mac.

To get things out of the way early, no, I didn’t expect a touchscreen Mac. Unlike Microsoft, Apple has consciously kept iOS and macOS (i.e. its mobile and desktop operating systems) separate, realizing that combining them will do nothing more than water down the experience of using each device. Different form factors have different requirements, and I’ve never truly understood the idea that we should want our desktops to work like our phones. It seems a bit like those crazy Apple Watch hacks that put Windows 95 on a smartwatch.

But I don’t think the Touch Bar offers close to the same functionality. The idea of a touchscreen started out as, essentially, the same metaphor as a GUI — only with the finger replacing the mouse cursor. But it’s so much more today. Anyone who has used an Apple Pencil for drawing or editing an image will know that it is a specific use for a touch display that can’t be replicated by what amounts to an intelligent menu bar.

If you had argued that the Touch Bar was going to replace function keys, I’d totally agree with you. If you’re saying that it’s something that’s able to replace the majority of what makes a touch display good… well, you’re out of your Friday mind!

Killian Bell FNFKillian Bell: I’m a little disappointed we didn’t see more yesterday, but I am super excited about the new MacBook Pro. I think the Touch Bar looks incredible, and yes, I do think it’s an ideal alternative to a touchscreen on a notebook computer. It gives you the best of both worlds.

I can see why some users might want a touchscreen on their laptop, but I don’t think it’s practical. It’s uncomfortable to lift your arm and touch a vertical display for extended periods, and it’s much easier to use a keyboard and mouse for the vast majority of computing tasks.

The only way to make the touchscreen comfortable to use is to turn it into a 2-in-1 that allows the display to be detached and used as a tablet, or to use a hinge that makes it possible to fold the display behind the notebook’s keyboard. We know Apple doesn’t want to do this.

One of the main reasons why you’d want a touchscreen is for drawing. But creatives who use Macs for that purpose are already using drawing tablets from the likes of Wacom. Even those who buy touchscreen Windows PCs often buy a dedicated tablet to go with them because drawing on a display just isn’t as good.

Apple will almost certainly be aware of this, and it probably doesn’t see the point in providing a touchscreen — and having to make big changes to the MacBook Pro’s design and software to accommodate it — when it will only be used casually, and probably not very often.

But the Touch Bar is a great alternative. It doesn’t just provide useful shortcuts that adapt to the software you’re using; it has a long list of use cases, and they all seem like a terrific idea. And thanks to an API, developers will be able to make it even more beneficial.

The DJ demo we saw from Algoriddim during yesterday’s event is a great example of how touch input can be useful on the desktop — and there are plenty of others. The Touch Bar allows you to interact with the app in new ways, without sacrificing everything else in the process.

The Touch Bar compliments your keyboard and mouse — it doesn’t attempt to replace it in the same way a touchscreen does.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke: Okay, so you’re no longer arguing that — in your own words in advance of this conversation — “whether [the Touch Bar] can replace a touchscreen”? You’re clear that we’re talking about a separate technology that can’t do what a touchscreen can?

Personally, I’m fascinated to see how well the Touch Bar takes off. It’s certainly a beautiful concept, but I do wonder whether it’s a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist. Apple spent part of the presentation yesterday talking about how function keys are a thing of the past (so, again, why release another version of the MacBook Pro with function keys?).

I don’t think the reason they’re outdated is because they’re physical buttons, though — it’s because virtually all of their functionality can be carried out with a single mouse click on your display. Add in keyboard shortcuts, and there’s been no reason for function keys to exist for years. Best of all, this functionality doesn’t require you to constantly take your eyes of the screen to look at a (now constantly changing) input device in front of you.

In a world where so much attention is heaped on making devices smarter and more proactive, it seems oddly backward to make us focus so much on the input device again. That’s the other reason the touchscreen was so revolutionary: it combined input and display into one object. This does the opposite.

Will I still enjoy it as a neat bit of stylized futurism brought to life? Almost certainly. But I’m not convinced by folks like yourself selling this as an innovation of touchscreen proportions.

Killian Bell FNFKillian: Yes, but my point is, you don’t need a touchscreen on a laptop. Who really uses them? And what do they really bring to the table? I think the fact that Mac users continue to buy MacBooks — and not Windows PCs with touchscreens instead — proves that they’re not a necessity we’re all desperate to get our hands on.

Like I said, the Touch Bar is a great alternative. It allows Apple to maintain great design, the physical keyboard and Force Touch trackpad we all love, and deliver touch input that does just enough to enhance our software without totally changing the way we interact with a Mac.

I know you’re concerned the Touch Bar isn’t necessary, but in a few short years, we’ll wonder how we ever lived without it. We’ve already seen some of the incredible things it can do with Apple’s own software, and as I keep mentioning, developers will make it even greater. We’ll see uses we couldn’t even imagine, and they’ll blow us away.

We’ve already argued over whether or not the Touch Bar was needed at all in a previous Friday Night Fight, so I don’t think we need to go over it again. The point is, Apple is pushing the notebook forward with new technology and trying something new. Only time will tell whether it was worth it, but I don’t see too many people complaining about it.

Let’s hand this over to the readers now. What are your thoughts on the Touch Bar, and would you have preferred a touchscreen?

Friday Night Fights is a series of weekly death matches between two no-mercy brawlers who will fight to the death — or at least agree to disagree — about which is better: Apple or Google, iOS or Android?