Since it's launch was announced last month, I had been keen to spend some hands-on time with Apple's latest MacBook Pro.
I was curious to find out just how much thinner, lighter and faster it would be compared to my current MacBook Pro; and to test the ‘improved’ keyboard and larger trackpad. But, what I most wanted to try was the Touch Bar; the multi-touch enabled display which has replaced the physical function keys on all but one model in the 2016 MacBook Pro range.
Today I finally had that opportunity, as today was the day that my local Apple Store received display models.
Having now had that hands-on time, I wanted to share some of my experience and immediate thoughts on using the Touch Bar with VoiceOver.
Some Caveats Before I Begin
Everything that follows is based upon just 20 minutes spent with a 13 inch MacBook Pro in a busy Apple Store. It’s possible that I may have missed some things; mistaken others; or that some functionality and features are not available in demonstration models.
For the purpose of this article, I am only going to be talking about my impressions of using the Touch Bar with VoiceOver. If you are looking for a more complete and in-depth review of the new MacBook Pro, here are some from mainstream sources to get you started: Wired, TechRadar and Engadget.
I am going to keep things fairly brief, as I know that others on here are planning to buy a new MacBook Pro, so they will be able to offer more informed reviews and walk-throughs in due course.
So, Just What Is The Touch Bar?
Apple tells us, that the Touch Bar:
… replaces the function keys that have long occupied the top of your keyboard with something much more versatile and capable. It changes automatically based on what you’re doing to show you relevant tools you already know how to use — system controls like volume and brightness, interactive ways to adjust or browse through content, intelligent typing features like emoji and predictive text and more.
According to The Verge, the Touch Bar is powered by a modified version of watchOS. On that basis, it should come as no surprise that the implementation of VoiceOver support on the Touch Bar makes it feel and work much like VoiceOver on an Apple Watch or an iOS device - it utilizes interaction and gestures that any existing user of VoiceOver on those platforms will know and be comfortable with.
So, What Does That Mean In Practice For VoiceOver Users?
Sitting at the MacBook Pro for the first time, enabling VoiceOver is as simple as ever. Yes, the method has changed, but is still quick and easy. Instead of using Command+F5, you now press and hold the Command key whilst triple-clicking the Touch ID button located to the right of the Touch Bar.
Once VoiceOver was enabled, the Touch Bar was transformed from a strip of glass displaying things that I could only guess at, to something that appeared to be completely accessible. I could touch and swipe, and VoiceOver would tell me what it had found and provide the type and level of feedback that we would expect on iOS and watchOS. If I moved to another application, touching and swiping would typically result in VoiceOver telling me that the available buttons and controls had changed to ones more appropriate and useful for the new context. In all cases, whatever I tested appeared to behave as expected.
If I wanted Function keys, pressing and holding the FN key would have VoiceOver tell me when I touched the Touch Bar that this was what was now on the display (note that VoiceOver users can always use the numeric keys in conjunction with the FN key and the VO modifier keys).
In short, the Touch Bar appeared to be completely accessible with VoiceOver. And, even in the space of just 20 minutes, the way that I was using it changed and became a little more efficient. I had started with using the same finger for touching, swiping and double-tapping; but this quickly changed to using one finger for touching and swiping, and a second for the double-tap. This felt more natural, comfortable and efficient. Given more time, I would have been curious to see if using two hands would have been even better.
So, Using The Touch Bar With VoiceOver Is Great, Yes?
Well, this is where things take a turn.
As I have said above, the Touch Bar appears to be completely accessible with VoiceOver. For anybody with experience of iOS, it should offer no barriers in terms of accessibility. For those without that experience, the learning curve shouldn’t be too steep.
However, in regard to switching from physical Function keys to the Touch Bar, I could personally see no benefit as a VoiceOver user. In fact, my 20 minutes served only to confirm my main concern since first hearing rumors about the Touch Bar … not only could I find no immediate benefit, but for my use case and workflow it actually threatens to be a retrograde step.
Tasks such as changing the volume level or pausing playback now take more steps if using the Touch Bar … hence more time. Quick and easy taps on physical keys have been transformed into something a little slower and more involved. Perhaps this would improve as I became more familiar and comfortable with the Touch Bar; perhaps things would improve as I adjusted to the alternative methods that allow VoiceOver users to still use physical keys for tasks that rely on Function keys (such as using the FN key in conjunction with the VO modifier keys and numeric keys); perhaps I sat down with a preconception that it was going to be worse. But, for now, using the Touch Bar to do anything that I previously did using one of the physical Function keys simply left me feeling frustrated. Without exception it was slower and a far less satisfying experience.
So, perhaps those contextual buttons and controls could offer me some hint of a benefit from the Touch Bar? Unfortunately not, as my immediate observation was that much of what I was offered is already available as keyboard shortcuts.
I can see a benefit for any sighted users who typically use the mouse pointer to navigate to the menu bar; click; navigate to a menu item; and then click again. Reaching for the Touch Bar has the potential to be quicker and easier. But, I am fairly sure that I won’t be the only person on here who has keyboard shortcuts firmly stored in their fingers’ muscle memory. So, how many of us will be reaching for the Touch Bar to open a new Safari tab, move back/forward, compose a new email or expand a folder view? My guess is that muscle memory; speed and convenience will keep us using those keyboard shortcuts.
If you aren’t using the Touch Bar regularly and routinely, it’s likely that you won’t automatically think of reaching for it or remember what buttons and controls are available and when. This means that when you do decide to reach for it, it’s likely that the time and energy spent finding out if what you want is actually there and to activate it if it is, will continue to frustrate. To get the most from the Touch Bar, my view is that using it will need to become second nature to you. As it stands right now for me, I don’t see that coming easily or naturally.
I should stress that this is certainly no criticism of how Apple has implemented VoiceOver support. It’s just the reality of the difference between a sighted user taking a quick glance at the Touch Bar compared to how I currently feel that it would work for me as a blind user relying on VoiceOver.
I did wonder at one point whether things would have been different had I been sitting down at a Mac for the first time. Without muscle memory and dozens of keyboard shortcuts steering my fingers in established directions. Would the Touch Bar quickly become second nature with none of that to get in the way. Over time, it will be interesting to see if that proves to be the case for those making the switch to a Mac.
On a more positive note, one feature of the Touch Bar which I thought might potentially be of some benefit and was something that I would have liked to have spent more time exploring, is the ‘Control Strip’. This is an area on the far right side of the Touch Bar which offers quick access to some basic system controls.
According to a very comprehensive review of the Touch Bar by Jason Snell on Six Colors, the Control Strip is:
… available at all times. It consists of four user-configurable buttons (by default it’s Brightness, Volume, Mute, and Siri), a fifth Now Playing button that appears if media is currently playing, and at its far left edge, a narrow button that you can tap to expand the Control Strip to take over the entire Touch Bar. The expanded Control Strip features even more system controls, including keyboard backlighting controls, and is also customizable.
Depending upon the level of customization available and whether my fingers could be trained to find the controls located here without needing to swipe, I do see some potential for this to add something to my use case. I will be interested to hear if this does prove to be the case for those who end up owning a new MacBook Pro in the coming months.
Although it was not something that I could see in action, I did have the Apple Store briefly enable Zoom so that they could tell me a little about how this works with the Touch Bar. Apparently one option is to have a representation of the Touch Bar and the location of your finger displayed on the main screen of the MacBook. I don’t know how well this will work for low vision users, but the description was certainly very positive and encouraging for those who rely solely on Zoom.
From my limited experience, VoiceOver support on the Touch Bar on the new MacBook Pro is as good as we have come to expect from new Apple products; and is no doubt the result of much thought, time and effort from Apple’s engineers.
However, in terms of real-world usability in regard to my use case and workflow, I came away from the Apple Store thinking that my current MacBook Pro will have to last me for many more years. Not only does the prospect of having to adapt to the Touch Bar not excite, but it genuinely makes me feel that the experience for me as a VoiceOver user would be less efficient and less satisfying.
For this reason, I cannot stress enough how much I would encourage anybody thinking of buying a new MacBook Pro to spend some time using one beforehand. From my experience, knowing that the Touch Bar will work with VoiceOver is not the same as knowing that it will work well for VoiceOver users. I am not saying that you will reach the same opinion as me … mine is specific to my personal circumstances, use case and workflow. However, first-hand experience will enable you to make an informed and qualified decision that will be right for you.
Of course, there is still that one MacBook Pro in the 2016 range which doesn’t have a Touch Bar. However, that brings in other considerations which are beyond the point and scope of this post (hint: ‘entry level’ model, price point for an ‘entry level’ model, and does not offer the same connectivity, CPU and drive choices available from other models in the range).