Many people have been eagerly waiting for Apple to refreshed its entire MacBook Pro lineup with a thinner design, faster internals, Siri support, and more. A report yesterday said all of that is coming later this year in Q4, but added an additional detail: an OLED touch bar above the keyboard that would replace the row of function keys.
This is a new idea that hasn’t really been suggested for Apple’s MacBook Pro lineup before, but it has a variety of interesting possibilities. But with a significant change like that comes a steep, steep learning curve. The quick shortcuts we’ve all become accustomed to using throughout OS X would have an added twist, but could they potentially become easier to access in the long run? In the end, however, it would all come down to whether or not the OLED touch bar improved navigation enough to warrant a few weeks of relearning how to use your MacBook Pro’s keyboard.
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It’s still early on, so specific details on how Apple plans to integrate the OLED touch bar are unclear at this point, but there are already a handful of ideas that come to mind. One of the biggest ones for me is app specific shortcuts. Ben outlined some potential ideas in his piece earlier today regarding this, so definitely be sure to check his article out as well.
For instance, if you were using Safari, commands like opening a new tab or taking a screenshot of the webpage could be added to the OLED touch bar and would only appear when you were in Safari. Of course, these functionalities can currently performed with the CMD key, but perhaps a single tap of a touchscreen would make it easier than having to use multiple fingers with the CMD key.
Another possibility would be in iTunes. Instead of having to right-click on a song and find the “Add to Up Next” option, a button would appear on the touch bar that would seamlessly allow you to queue a song without right-clicking.
Many OS X users rely on keyboard shortcuts religiously, especially in apps like Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro. With a touch bar, however, the curve for learning those keyboard shortcuts would be much lower as Apple could intelligently detect what shortcuts were needed at any given time and display them in the touch bar. At the same time, however, those who have already learned the keyboard shortcuts would have to relearn using the touch bar.
Of course, traditional functions like controlling display and keyboard backlighting brightness would have to remain constantly in the touch bar, so that doesn’t leave too much room for app-specific shortcuts. But there’s still potential.
Another benefit of replacing the function row with an OLED touch bar is that MacBook Pros would be able to adopt new software features without Apple having to ship new hardware. Our own Mark Gurman noted of this, pointing to upcoming support for Siri as an example. Apple wouldn’t have to ship new hardware with a dedicated Siri button to add the feature. Instead, it could just rollout a software update that added a Siri button to the OLED touch bar.
This could also apply to Apple Pay. OS X could detect when you were on a webpage that supported Apple Pay and make an Apple Pay button appear in the touch bar. Tapping it could seamlessly allow for you to checkout without ever entering your billing or shipping information. This would be especially useful with Touch ID integration.
How much information would the touch bar be able to display? One thing that came to mind for me personally is having my Apple Music “Up Next” queue always appear in the touch bar, so I could rearrange it and delete songs without actually switching to the actual iTunes app. This may be a bit far fetched, but it’s something I would definitely use.
Personally, I’m very, very skeptical about replacing the function keys with an OLED touch bar. For one, the space is just so very limited that I think it would be nearly impossible for Apple to properly add shortcuts that would adequately make up for the learning curve that would come with removing the function keys.
You also have to consider the effect on battery life. With the new MacBooks Pros said to be thinner and lighter, I’m already concerned that battery life will jeopardized. Adding another screen, albeit small, definitely won’t help battery life at all.
Maybe Apple has something truly innovative up its sleeve that will make me less hesitant about such a dramatic shift in functionality. Maybe this will be the type of thing that once you switch to a keyboard with an OLED touch bar, you’ll never be able to switch back. There’s no doubt in my mind that Apple won’t do whatever it can to integrate the touch bar deeply into OS X, but I just don’t see it being worth it in the long run.
What do you think? Would you prefer an OLED touch bar over the traditional row of function keys? Let us know in the poll at the top of this post and justify your vote in the comments!