Touch bar for minimalists

Three tips for making the touch bar a little less painful

I didn’t want the touch bar, but there it is, glowing above my keyboard. The only way to get the fastest MacBook Pro, with the biggest harddrive, and the most ports is to also get the touch bar. So let’s learn to live with it.

It’s fascinating that Apple has pitched the touch bar as a pro feature. I’ve personally found it to have no value[0]— it’s far simpler (and more “pro”) to learn the keyboard shortcuts for common commands than shift focus down, find a button (that doesn’t feel like a button), and then shift focus back up to the screen. And navigation, for example, by tiny-scrubbing in, is more complicated than scrubbing or scrolling with the trackpad; a part of the laptop you’re probably already touching (and is much easier to hit without looking).[1]

That said, the touch bar is a brilliant addition for non-pro users. For example, my mother will never learn how to flag a message in via a keyboard shortcut (or even hunt for it through menus or notice it up in the menu bar), but that function is now clearly revealed, beautifully, in color. I guess there’s something intuitive about that. Same for and photo editing. Currently, the touch bar seems to best operate as a replication of the most useful interface elements already on the screen — a kind of UI editorial slant saying, These are the most important things you could be doing right now. Golden for a novice user, largely redundant for a pro.

I look forward to being surprised by a breakthrough touch bar use. Something that makes us all go, Oh! That’s useful.[2] But until then, I wanted to find a way to make it feel more minimalist, less distracting, and less of a burden. Here’s what I did.

  1. Reverse the way the touch bar works. Make the “F-Key” version of the control strip / touch bar[3] the default. The application specific touch bar is activated only by pressing the fn key.
  2. Remap the escape key to caps-lock.
  3. Add space to the left and right edges of the touch bar.

On reversing

After about a week of using the new MacBook Pro, it was clear that the touch bar — always changing, shifting, flickering — was going to be a distraction on the periphery of the eye. Thankfully in System Settings → Keyboard you can reverse it — make the “fn” keys the default, and the application specific touch bar appear only when you hit “fn.”

On remapping the esc key

It’s not that hitting the esc key on the touch bar is difficult, it’s just that it’s so unsatisfying. It provides no joy of what I like to call esc smack — the smack we lay upon the esc key with our pinky finger to get the hell out of something. So I remapped it — much to the chagrin of ctrl — to the caps lock key. It takes a few days to get used to it, but the dare I say, the satisfaction of smacking the giant caps lock to esc is maybe even more satisfying than hitting the tiny esc button ever was.

Which brings up something tangential: I love this new keyboard. After having typed tens of thousands of words over the last month, I’d say it’s the most satisfying keyboard I’ve ever used. It feels almost mechanical in the haptics of the keys, and yet doesn’t require any of the strained effort of a mechanical keyboard. If you’re feeling wrist / hand pain while using it, it may be because you’re overcompensating, pressing down too far with too much force. I felt a little bit of pain in the first few days, but once I acclimated to the light touch of it, all is now well.

Add space to the edges of the touch bar

I soon noticed that I was frequently activating screen brightness controls accidentally. It turns out that after almost thirty years of typing in my cobbled together way, I like to rest my ring and middle finger on the number row when I’m thinking. And sometimes, these fingers like to creep up into the touch bar, activating some of the non-buttons.[4] Rather than try to break my weird habit, I simply edited the default spacing on the fn-key version of the touch bar:

You can edit the spacing in the same System Preference panel:

I padded both the left and right sides, and reduced the functions to media controls, screen brightness, keyboard brightness, and volume.

Even this basic functionality of the touch bar — replicating the buttons that used to be there — feels underdeveloped. For example, I can’t glance at my touch bar to see if my sound is muted or not. And yet there’s a “mute” button in my touch bar. Why not change its state?

Having done these three things — reversed functions, remapped esc, and padded the bar — I’ve found life with the touch bar has become less irritating. Of course, I’d rather have had the option of getting the fastest MacBook Pro with four ports, minus the touch bar, plus a few extra watt-hours of battery. And like I said earlier: I think we’re all looking forward to being delighted by this thing, sometime, perhaps, in the very distant future, by something other than a beautiful Nyan Cat.

For now it Just Works: a touch bar for this minimalist.


[0] Aside from this:

[1] Each time I have to reach out and touch the touch bar feels like a small burden — requiring just a little too much effort (it’s always changing, therefore immune to muscle memory), and the hitspace is very tiny, smaller than any of the other keys on the keyboard. In it’s present state, it feels more like a C-level piece of theory foisted upon the MacBook team than something born from genuine necessity. Even picking a smiley using the touch bar is decidedly more complicated than hitting ctrl-cmd-space and choosing from the pop-over list.

[2] The DJ example during the MacBook Pro unveiling was painfully forced — I’m not a DJ but there must be a better interface to do what he was doing than the thin, tiny strip of the touch bar:

[3] Why are these two different names? I mean, I think I get it — the hardware component (Touch ID inclusive?) is the touch bar, and the fluid, dynamic set of buttons on it are called the control strip? For simplicity’s sake, I just called it “touch bar.” But this is a great example of being user antagonistic — what normal, non-apple employee user is going to intuit the setting for “control strip” means touch bar on first blush? It’s details like this — unfinished edges, subtle tolerance faults that, in aggregate, make it easier than ever to dish dirt upon Apple’s software divisions, a company for whom these faults would be unshippable or unthinkable in hardware.

Update: Ludwig Wendzich correctly points out that “control strip” is for the system-wide default actions. I still feel that naming it: “system touch bar,” something intuitively connected to the touch bar itself makes more sense here.

[4] I take issue with any kind of button that doesn’t require force to activate — you see them on car dashboards, on coffee machines in airport lounges, and now on the touch bar. The problem is that we intuitively like to rest our fingers on things as we make decisions. By removing force from the usability equation, it turns the entire surface of the the object into something brittle, something you have to be unnaturally aware of and careful around.

This issue is most abhorrent on devices that aren’t touch screens — like a coffee machine. When you are using a touch screen it’s obvious that the whole surface has to be lightly considered, but on a coffee machine, say, where the surface looks like buttons, and has always — up until now— been composed of real buttons, the shifting to what are essentially masked touch screens makes for a lot of accidentally brewed coffees, spills, mistakes.