Today, Apple held a press event it called "Hello Again". The company announced a new accessibility website, a new Apple TV feature, and a long-awaited update to its MacBook computers. It may have missed the back-to-school shoppers, but today's announcements arrive just in time for the holiday shopping frenzy. There are some major changes to the MacBook line-up on the way, and while much of what you're about to read is awesome, you may not like all of it. But there's a great deal to like about the latest offerings from Apple, and I yell at articles to quit rambling in their intros and get on with it just as much as you do, so let's get on with it!
To my surprise, Apple started the presentation with a video highlighting accessibility features of its products. This led to Tim Cook's announcing a "whole new website" focused on Apple's accessibility efforts. As of the time of this writing, we haven't had a chance to fully explore this new website, but it's always great to see the spotlight shown on all the work Apple does to make their devices as usable, to as many people, as they can. It’s also great to see that the AppleVis Community is featured on Apple’s new Accessibility Portal as somewhere people should go to obtain more information and support. Thank you, Apple!
Get Entertained on Apple TV
No, there's not a new Apple TV coming out, but there is a new way to find something to watch on the box you already have. It's a new app from Apple, called--appropriately enough--TV. Yep, just those two letters. Interestingly, Apple offers this app on not just Apple TV, but your iOS devices as well, letting you browse and play content on any of your devices. But what, exactly, does the app do?
TV pulls together any shows or movies you're already watching on your video apps, as well as offering the next or newest episodes in TV series. This isn't just iTunes, either; it can work with ShowTime, CBS, HBO Now, and others, which makes it simple to keep up with any entertainment you're watching. The app also shows you your iTunes purchases or new video apps. It can even play content without you needing to know which app the content is in; tell Siri to play a particular show or game and that's all you need. But don't get too excited, because while the app is free, it won't be here until the end of the year.
Prose about the Pro
The MacBook Pro was the star of the show today. It got a major makeover--the first since the 2013 model dropped the disk drive--and there's a lot of great stuff on and inside it. Yet, there's also a change you may not like.
First, the fun part: the updates we all expected, and that Apple almost had to make. The Pro is now slightly lighter and thinner, while the battery life remains at ten hours; no surprise there. It's also adopted the USB-C ports we first saw in the Retina MacBook last year. The new Pro includes four of them, and any of them can be used to charge the machine, which is a great touch if your outlet is opposite the power jack of your Mac. The audio jack, fortunately, hasn't gone anywhere, so there's no need to worry about getting USB sound cards or mics plus a bunch of adaptors. Those four USB-C (also called Thunderbolt 3--same thing) are all the ports you get, though. No standard USB, no Mini Display, no card reader, and, sadly, no more MagSafe.
Speaking of audio, the speakers are louder and, Apple claims, sound better than ever. Oh, and the storage is twice as fast as before, while the ram has gotten faster, too. Overall, the new Pros are anywhere from half again to more than twice as fast as the models they replace, depending on the category (gaming, graphics, or storage) you're interested in. Between the faster storage and ram, the better CPUs, and the improved graphics cards, these machines are powerhouses that manage to be smaller than any Pro to date.
One unexpected bit of news: the trackpad on the Pro is now twice as large as in previous models, and, of course, uses Taptic feedback to simulate a click. This lets you click it anywhere, not just on the bottom, and provides a much better experience with its larger surface area that can still click when pushed.
Not at all unexpected is the screen. It is 67% brighter, can show much better color, and draws even less power than the 2015 MacBook Pro screen. Yet it is as thin as that of the Retina MacBook, Apple's smallest computer ever.
Finally, in keeping with the storage trend it started with the iPhone 7, Apple is upping the base storage for all its Macs. 256GB is now the minimum for all MacBook models, which is where the Retina MacBooks have always been. The amount of ram across the line has not changed, to my knowledge.
Aside from the new ports and altered dimensions, the major new feature on the Pro models is the removal of the entire top line of keys. Escape, F1 through F12, and Eject are all gone, replaced by what amounts to a touch screen. This "Touchbar", as Apple is calling it, is a multi-touch, retina-quality screen that runs in a strip along the top of the Mac's keyboard. The Bar offers context-sensitive controls and suggestions, plus emulates function keys when necessary.
Why do this? Apple's reasoning is rather compelling, when you think about it objectively. What is the top row of keys for most users? Keys used mostly for media or brightness control. When you aren't doing those things, those keys are wasted space. Instead of simply taking them out, Apple has decided to update them. Now, they can be your media controls in iTunes like normal, but they can also be the buttons or tools you need at any given moment, in any given application. In Mail, you have favorite mailboxes, message controls, and quick actions all available at the top of your keyboard. In Safari, you have tabs, favorite websites, and more. While typing, you have QuickType suggestions, just like in iOS. Best of all, you can customize the bar to show the controls you want, and touch one key to quickly bring up your standard function keys at any time. Plus, being a touch-sensitive display, you can perform gestures on the TouchBar. It wasn't clear what gestures are supported, but we know for sure that up to ten simultaneous touches will be recognized. That means dragging, pinching, swiping, and more, all with one or more fingers.
The TouchBar is Apple's first attempt to marry a touch-enabled display with the keyboard- and mouse-driven world of macOS. No, it won't be perfect right away, but it speaks of exciting things to come. Even in this first iteration, I have to admit I'm eager to try it out for myself. It's not the access to functions for which hotkeys already exist that I like, but rather the customization possibilities I can envision. Combined with gesture input, the TouchBar could significantly raise the bar on computer interfaces. I apologize for any mental injury caused by such a terrible pun.
Of course, this means that VoiceOver users lose the hardware keys we use all the time--escape, f1, f2, and f5 come to mind immediately as keys I use many times a day for various VO commands. The big question, then, is how to perform these commands if all the virtual keys on the TouchBar have configured themselves for the currently open application? I wish I had the answer, but all I can say is that we at AppleVis have reached out to Apple about this issue. Thus far, we haven't heard, but we will let you know when and if we get a response. Still, with the Apple TV, Apple Watch, boot sequence with File Vault enabled, and even complete macOS re-installs all offering VoiceOver support, I have no doubt that the new TouchBar won't be a problem. Who knows; there may even be a whole new commander to play with.
UPDATE: As you have likely seen already, Apple has confirmed how the TouchBar will work with VoiceOver. To toggle VO on or off, you hold down the command key and press the TouchID button three times. This is easy to remember; the command key is the traditional modifier used on macOS for VoiceOver, while hitting the TouchID button three times is just like iOS. Once VoiceOver is enabled, the rest of the function key commands will move to the number row. For instance, vo-f1 turns into vo-fn-1. Note the addition of the function key to the command. There is currently no word on how third-party keyboards that lack a function key will manage this. Last, but not least, the TouchBar itself is fully compatible with VoiceOver. Items under your finger are spoken, and the left/right swipes and one-finger taps we all know and love will work on the Bar just as they do on iOS or the Trackpad Commander.
A Touchy Addition
Ever since the iPhone 5s in 2013, TouchID has been a staple of iOS devices. If you bought an iPhone or iPad, you knew you'd get the ability to unlock it, or authorize payments/purchases/apps, with your fingerprint. However, no Mac has ever had this hugely convenient ability. Apple partly addressed this shortcoming in macOS Sierra, allowing users to perform authentication on their Macs through iPhones or Apple Watches.
Now, though, the MacBook Pro can do it all; the power button is also a TouchID sensor. Logging into your Mac, entering your admin password, using Apple Pay, and other security-centric tasks just got a lot more convenient. Simply place a finger on the power button, and that's it. Just like on iOS devices, the Mac reads your print, authenticates you, and you're all set. If you share a Mac with someone else, you can even use TouchID to immediately switch to your own user account, simply by touching the reader.
Getting Butterflies Over the New Keyboard
Now I have to give you the bad news. When the Retina MacBook came out, it included a keyboard that Apple naturally called "revolutionary". The keyboard took up less space, and gave a whole new feel to typing due to its "butterfly" switches. Apple may love the new design, but many reviewers found it odd and not as nice as the old keyboards.
When I went down to a local outlet store and tried the keyboard myself, I had to agree; the key travel was less, and--more importantly--the space between the keys was almost non-existent. This made it very hard for me to feel where the keys were. I imagine this would have gotten better with time, so I'm not willing to condemn the keyboard based only on that first impression.
I say all that to say this: a new version of that new keyboard is now standard on all MacBooks. The good news is that Apple specifically mentioned key travel as an area of improvement in this new generation keyboard, so I'm happy to try out the latest model and be proven wrong. I do recommend getting over to an Apple Store or other shop where a demo MacBook is displayed so you can get your hands on the new keyboard before you make any purchase, if possible. However, the mention of an updated design gives me hope that Apple may have gotten it right this time. Only time and experience will tell.
Getting My Hands on Some Butterflies
I need to update this section. On October 30, I got some hands-on time with the new MacBook and its keyboard. I am delighted to tell you that my primary concern--space between the keys--was addressed in this version. The keys feel clearly differentiated, albeit with less space between them than you'd find on an Air or 2015 or lower Pro keyboard. The layout is unlike the smooth feel of the 2015 Retina MacBooks in that I could easily tell where keys were, and had no trouble typing. Yes, the key travel is lessened, but even that is improved over the first generation of this keyboard. The travel isn't anything like Apple's older keyboards, but it isn't terrible either.
For those wondering, the layout is similar to the Retina Macbook. The function keys along the top (this was the low-end Pro, lacking the TouchBar) are half-sized, while the arrows are just like those on the Retina MacBook. That is, the left and right arrow keys are full-sized; the up and down arrows are between them, and are each half-sized. Picture three keys in a horizontal line, but the center key is actually two smaller keys, as though a larger key had been bisected horizontally. That's the arrow layout.
In short, don't let the key spacing stop you, as a touch typist, from considering this machine. Please still try to get some hands-on time before you buy, but if you can't, I would say you can trust that the keyboard will still be usable.
The New Line-Up (Or: Bye-Bye to the MacBook Air )
For years, the choice of Macs has been simple: an eleven- or thirteen-inch Air, or a thirteen- or fifteen-inch Pro. In 2015, Apple shook things up with the introduction of a twelve-inch MacBook with a retina display, dubbed the Retina MacBook or, confusingly, simply the MacBook. Despite its larger screen, this device was about the size of the eleven-inch Air, and rumors swirled that Apple would drop the smallest Air from the line- up. As the Retina version lacked more than one USB port and used a less powerful processor, though, there was still a valid use case for the Air.
Despite all that, the Air is no more. It has been replaced with the twelve-inch Retina model for those wanting the smallest computer, and a basic version of the 13-inch Pro for those wanting a little more. Again, though, both devices are about the same size, so you don't have to worry about getting a physically larger machine. In fact, the 13-inch Pro is twelve percent thinner and thirteen percent smaller in overall volume than the 13-inch Air. Note that, at least for the moment, the 13-inch Air remains available, while the 11-inch Air has been pulled. No one knows how long this will last, though, just as there's no telling for how much longer the 13-inch Pro from 2015 will continue to be sold.
The Airs are all but gone, and in their place are the 12-inch MacBook we already know, and a 13-inch Pro to take the place of the 13-inch Air, While it so far has no official name, this Pro lacks the TouchBar and TouchID of its more expensive sibling, and includes two USB-C ports to the four that come on the "real" Pros. If you're looking for a new Mac, here are your options. All of these come with 256GB of storage and 8GB of ram, except the 15-inch Pro which has 16GB of ram:
- 12-inch MacBook: one USB-C port, fanless design, smallest and least powerful MacBook available. $1,299, 2 pounds.
- 13-inch "basic" Pro: two USB-C ports, no TouchBar, no TouchID, 2GhZ dual core Core I5 processor. Identical to base model 13-inch Pro in all other ways. $1,499, 3 pounds.
- 13-inch Pro: four USB-C ports, 2.9GhZ dual core Core I5 processor, includes TouchBar. $1,799, 3 pounds.
- 15-inch Pro: four USB-C ports, 2.6GhZ quad core Core I7, includes TouchBar. Again, starts with 16GB of ram to the others' 8GB. $2,399, 4 pounds.
Until Next Year
That's it. Apple isn't expected to release anything new until sometime next year, so go forth and shop with confidence that you're getting the newest machines for months to come. Or, wait for deals on the "old" models, which are still extremely powerful and capable computers. Whatever you decide, today's announcements gave you a lot to choose from.
As of today (the day of the event), pre-orders are open for all models, though some won't ship for a few weeks while others will go out today. Please don't rely on this article for final prices, specifications, and upgrade options. Use Apple's website, or the Apple Store app, for that. I'm just giving you the basics, as given out at the presentation.
Let me know what you're thinking. Is the incredible reduction in size, and increase in power, enough to make you want a new Pro? Will you snatch up an Air while you can (no one knows if they're officially being discontinued)? Are you intrigued by the TouchBar, or do you want to stay far away from it? If I had the money, I'd get the 13-inch Pro with TouchBar in a heartbeat. The possibilities of a second touch/display surface are exciting, and I use peripherals rarely enough that going all USB-C wouldn't bother me. My only concern is the keyboard, but having seen this new generation in person, I doubt that will be an issue. Let me know what you think!