Crying on the touchpad

Apple killed the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and with it the Touch Bar panel

Apple's latest update to its Mac lineup this week features a victim — The 13-inch MacBook Pro, and with it something we're sorry to see: the much-maligned Touch Bar.

While there have been rumors and some speculation that Apple might update the 13-inch MacBook Pro, in retrospect it seems like an obvious sacrifice. Apple's line of laptops had become quite complex and needed improvement.

Apple is positioning the MacBook Air as a value leader, with the 13-inch M1 series model starting at $999, the M2 models available in 13-inch and 15-inch colorways, and the MacBook Pro now available in 14-inch versions. and exclusively 16-inch models showcasing the M3, M3 Pro and M3 Max processors.

With the MacBook Air encroaching on the MacBook Pro in terms of screen real estate with the 15-inch model, something had to change. The 13-inch MacBook Pro seems odd, so we're not surprised it's been dropped from the lineup entirely.

Touch Bar debuted in Apple's updated model in 2016. It was a thin strip of OLED panel covered with a thin glass digitizer that allowed click and swipe reconfigurable controls instead of the traditional row of keyboard function keys.

By replacing physical function keys with a reconfigurable display, Apple aimed to deliver the first new keyboard on a Mac since its debut more than three decades ago. The touchpad was a dynamic and reconfigurable area that could change depending on the context, giving users easy access to features that they would otherwise have to learn menu bar operations or key commands to access.

It's a great concept, but even during its presentation it became obvious that Apple itself does not fully support the Touch Bar. It was only unique to certain MacBook Pro models and never graced other Mac systems. Desktop Macs and MacBook Airs have never had a Touch Bar.

This severely limited the ability to program Touch Bar support into applications, although some did. We're always surprised and delighted when we launch a new app with Touch Bar support. But they were few and far between.

Apple made a critical mistake by replacing the physical Esc key with the equivalent of a touchpad — problem they fixed. But by then, Apple and its critics had already made up their minds about the Touch Bar, and it never saw any changes or innovation after its debut. Adding haptic support seemed like an obvious route to take, but Apple never went in that direction.

The Touch Bar was a victim of poor timing. This came out around the same time that Apple introduced an updated keyboard for its laptops that used a butterfly switch mechanism that Apple said was thinner and more stable than its predecessor.

Apple's butterfly switch keyboard design was undeniably terrible. Keyboards were prone to breaking and malfunctioning if even the slightest debris got under the keys.

Apple repeated this design for several years and even secured replacements for these keyboards through extended service programs and a $50 million class action lawsuit settlement. Apple abandoned this design entirely around the same time it replaced the Intel chips inside the Mac with its own silicon chips.

Of course, all this is not the Touch Bar's fault. But by then, Touch Bar will only be available on the 13-inch MacBook Pro. It survived the evolution of this model from M1 to M2, but that was the end of the line.

We suspect that the Touch Bar is a significant cost driver for Apple when it comes to after-sales service. For example, service technicians typically replace top case components when Mac laptops experience keyboard and trackpad problems. The MacBook Pro with Touch Bar adds complexity and increases parts costs for Apple.

Mac users who touch-type may find the Touch Bar an unnecessary distraction. Accidental contact with the touchpad is a major complaint for many, and we've had to unlearn it.

But for visual typists and those who need special tools for efficient typing, the Touch Bar can be a real godsend. We found this particularly useful for some games and utilities, freeing us from having to free up limited executive functions to remember new command key combinations and complex menu operations.

Ultimately, we admit that the touchpad had shortcomings. Apple's own inertia regarding support and the limited scope of its rollout doomed it almost from the start.

Touch Bar was a bold experiment in redesigning the keyboard, a fundamental part of the Mac user interface that has remained virtually unchanged since the first Mac debuted in 1984. We might even see a similar innovation on the iPhone someday.

We just hope it doesn't take another three decades for Apple to take another chance and come out with something new.

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