Review: 13-inch Touch Bar MacBook Pro

While I seriously doubt Apple will ever merge macOS and iOS, there is no doubt in my mind that, hardware-wise, Apple’s laptops have decidedly become iOS-like. From the dearth of ports to the chime you hear when plugging into power to thinness and lightness, Apple is taking lessons learned from building iPhones and iPads and applying them to products like the 12-inch MacBook and, most recently, the new MacBook Pros.

From an accessibility standpoint, this transformation has many benefits. If you, like me, are visually impaired and have physical motor delays, the Retina display and the thinness and lightness of, say, a MacBook Pro, are wonderful. The Retina display is wonderfully bright and sharp, and the thinness and lightness makes it easier than ever to throw into a backpack and carry it around. In the time I’ve been testing this 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar—a review unit from Apple—the most striking thing about the hardware is just how iPad-like it is. Never mind the ports—as a person who writes words for a living, I don’t need an abundance of holes on the side of my computer—I’ve been very impressed at how easy it is to move this machine around. Even opening the lid is effortless and delightfully smooth.

In short: In hardware terms, the "iOS-ification" of Mac laptops is, to me, a welcome development for accessibility.

Hardware aside, using this MacBook Pro has been a learning experience in other ways too. It’s reintroduced me to macOS after being predominantly iOS-centric for quite a while. Furthermore, the Touch Bar and Touch ID has made the desktop OS more accessible than ever before. All things considered, the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar is the best Mac I've ever used.

Up Close with the Touch Bar

Every iPhone, every iPad, every Apple Watch, every Mac, even every iPod have accessibility features built into them by design. Apple’s ethos is to make products that enrich people’s lives. Apple's commitment to accommodating people with disabilities in its products is proof the company’s mission is not the least bit blustery or patronizing.

So it goes for the MacBook Pro’s marquee feature, the Touch Bar.

The Touch Bar’s accessibility support is bountiful. There is a lot of functionality built into that little strip, all of which makes using the Touch Bar easier. The one feature that stands out the most is Zoom. Zoom is where the magic happens, and it's my favorite Touch Bar accessibility feature.

What Touch Bar Zoom (System Prefs → Accessibility → Zoom → Enable Touch Bar Zoom) does is bring up a virtual Touch Bar on the bottom of the screen when you touch anything on the Touch Bar. Slide your finger back and forth, and the Touch Bar (real and virtual) moves accordingly. A circle icon follows your movement that fills in (think: iOS app updates in App Store) when you select an option, but Apple tells me you don’t need to wait for it to fill completely to select an item. In practice, I find Touch Bar Zoom to work great; animation is smooth and there’s no no lag between moving through and selecting options.

(For more on the Touch Bar and accessibility, including Zoom, I highly recommend watching this video by James Rath.)

Beyond its mechanics, the big takeaway from using the Touch Bar for some time is how it makes UI elements feel “closer.” I’ve said before that my issue with using a laptop is its form factor isn’t conducive to my need to get as close to the screen as possible in order to see. The Touch Bar compensates for that by bringing things to “eye level” so I’m not leaning in so far to see. Especially with Zoom, something like the Send button in Mail is easily accessible via the Touch Bar, as opposed to searching for it on screen. Likewise with emoji, which aren’t visually accessible as-is but shine when viewed on the Touch Bar. In this context, the Touch Bar actually makes using laptops a more accessible experience. There is more Apple needs to do to improve in this area (more on that later), but overall the Touch Bar not only is a tool of convenience but of accessibility.

The Touch Bar also alleviates the friction of using keyboard shortcuts. I can handle simple ones like ⌘-C/V for Copy and Paste, as well as ⌘-S for sending messages in Mail. More complex shortcuts involving more than two keys are problematic due to my weakened fine-motor skills. In fact, the Touch Bar’s utility as replacement for keyboard shortcuts was the first thing I thought of when I saw the demos at the press event.

One ancillary observation about the viewing the Touch Bar: It’s actually easier to see in low light. Counterintuitive, yes, but it’s really true. In my use, I find seeing the Touch Bar is harder with an overhead light because the glare seems to wash out the display. Turn off the lights and everything is vivid and easy to see. I’m sitting at the kitchen table as I type this, with the lights off and only the backlight of the keyboard to guide me. Believe it or not, I’ve found low light situations like this one to be the best for the Touch Bar.

Anecdotally, I remember the hands-on area at the October 27 press event was dark. Very dark. Not the best environment for me to be in in terms of navigation, but I distinctly recall being struck at how nice the Touch Bar looked under those conditions. Maybe Apple came to the same conclusion I did, but it’s funny that someone with low vision would actually prefer a darkened room to use his computer to a well-lit one. Like I said, counterintuitive. Your needs and tolerances may vary, but I felt it's worth a mention, if only for my own amusement.

Touch ID on iOS > Touch ID on the Mac

The accessibility benefits of Touch ID on macOS are the same as on iOS:

The security aspect of using the fingerprint sensor is an obvious one, but I can imagine it also being beneficial to users with visual and/or motor issues (e.g., seeing the keypad and/or having dexterity to tap said keys) who have trouble touching their iPhone’s screen. (Apple has anticipated such a dilemma by including the AssistiveTouch feature on iOS.) What I see Touch ID doing is helping people with the aforementioned acuity/motor issues by allowing them to simply use their thumbprint (or other finger) to unlock their phone, password-free. More specifically, Touch ID would free users from the struggle of manually entering in their passcode.

In my use, I find Touch ID more handy when unlocking 1Password or using Apple Pay in Safari. The experience on this MacBook Pro is every bit as good as it is on my iPhone and iPad. As for unlocking my Mac, I prefer Auto Unlock with Apple Watch. It’s more accessible to me, as it requires no physical interaction with the keyboard, which may be a hinderance to people with certain motor delays. Touch ID could be faster, but for my needs, I think the difference is negligible. Besides, I love the “magical” feeling of logging in without touching anything.

One thing to note about the Touch ID sensor is it’s a clickable button. If enabled in Accessibility, triple-pressing it will invoke the Accessibility Shortcut as it does on iOS. I have it set to turn on/off Zoom, but truth be told, I leave it on all the time. Still, the possibility is there. I didn’t know at first Touch ID was an actual button to be pressed.

Playing on ‘Team Both’

This 13-inch MacBook Pro is thin and light, has a fantastic keyboard, and the Touch Bar. I enjoy the machine very much, so where does that leave the iPad?

Generally speaking, I maintain the iPad is the more accessible computer solely for the Multi-Touch interaction model. Despite the fact I grew up in traditional (i.e., keyboard-and-mouse) computing environments such as Windows, the advent of touch-based interfaces revolutionized how people with disabilities used computers, myself included. Thus, I can't foresee the Mac supplanting an iPad Pro as my primary workhorse. And as the iPad grows and becomes ever more powerful and capable, its accessible nature will be the icing on the cake. Plus, iOS is fun to use, growing pains be damned. Touch is just cool.

But I think there's a place for the Mac in my workflow. There is a sense of comfort and familiarity with using macOS's point-and-click paradigm, insofar that it hearkens back to my first exposure to computers. I can use a Mac with relative ease, thanks to tricks like a ginormous mouse pointer and the double-tap-to-zoom gesture on my Magic Mouse. And, of course, dealing with files and performing tasks like podcasting is infinitely easier on the Mac than on iOS. As someone who wants to get back to actively podcasting this year, it's tempting to keep a Mac around for this reason alone.

So, although I often say tap-and-swipe beats point-and-click, the fact is I've been pleasantly surprised at how effortlessly I've switched between devices, and how I've been able to adjust to the accessibility of the respective OSes. There's the ecosystem advantage (iCloud, Messages, etc), but more to the point, macOS Sierra is good and I want to use it.

There is one thing, however, that I feel would improve my Mac experience exponentially: Large Dynamic Type. Between it and the Touch Bar, I suspect it would address many of the visual problems I have with using laptops and seeing the screen. It's a joy on iOS, and it's frustrating it hasn't yet made its way to macOS. Nothing would make me happier at this year's WWDC than to report that Dynamic Type is supported in 10.13.

I Still Miss MagSafe

Inserting and removing dongles from the USB-C port still is worse, accessibility-wise, than it was with MagSafe. Over time, though, it seems to have gotten easier. Maybe these dongles need to be "broken in" like a baseball glove, but they don't seem to hold on with the jaws of life as they did when I first got it.

Overall, I would ideally like magnetic USB-C ports, although I don't know how technically feasible it is. Nonetheless, I've grown accustomed to USB-C as-is and don't have any problems.

Bottom Line

As I said at the outset, the Touch Bar MacBook Pro is the best Mac I've ever used.

I’m impressed by the Touch Bar all around. Technologically, it’s essentially a computer-within-a-computer, powered by a custom, Apple-designed ARM chip. To my eyes, color is bright and text and icons are razor-sharp. I adore the bits of whimsy too, like how the arrow “points” when prompting you to authenticate with Touch ID. It’s the closest thing to iOS on a Mac I think we’ll ever get. Accessibility-wise, it follows in the footsteps of Apple's other products by being accessible out of the box.

The Touch Bar is a feat of engineering, and I'm excited to see it mature. It'll be interesting to see how Apple propagates the Touch Bar throughout the rest of the Mac product line.