On November 21, 2016, I picked up my new MacBook Pro from Best Buy. It has 512GB of storage, 8GB of ram, the Touch Bar in place of function keys, and the low end of the available processors (a still-respectable 2.9GhZ Core i5). I have only owned one other Apple laptop in the past: an 11-inch Air with just 64GB of storage, from 2012. I also have a Mac Mini from 2011, which I've since upgraded with more ram and a solid state drive to make it faster. All that to say that this MBP is the newest Apple computer, by four years, I have ever owned, and its next oldest cousin is hardly able to hold a candle to it.
Needless to say, it's fast. The drive is quick, VO is as responsive as I've ever seen it, the speakers are better, and on and on it goes. Since we all know that the new Pros are fast and powerful, I won't be focusing on those aspects as much here. Instead, I'll be talking about the everyday usage from a VoiceOver user's perspective. How's the keyboard? Is the Touch Bar a help or a hinderance? Does the new, larger trackpad matter? In short, is the Touch Bar Pro a machine VO users should consider, or are they better off sticking to the 2015 models?
This MacBook uses the same keyboard found in the 2016 Retina MacBooks: a second-generation "butterfly" keyboard, meant to be as thin and space-saving as possible while still being usable for typing. How is it if you can't see the keys, though? Can you type on it for a long time?
First, my experience with keyboards is all over the place. At work, I use a mechanical keyboard (blue switches, in case you're wondering). At home I use a $15 USB keyboard connected to my Mini, meaning mushier keys with less response than my mechanical ones. The Air, of course, has the same kind of keyboard as all of Apple's recent laptops (save the Retina MacBooks) up until this new Pro series. Coming to the new Pro, with its keys that don't travel very far and that feel oddly spaced at first, made me nervous. But with so many keyboard types in my life, I've come to find that I can type relatively well on pretty much anything I try, if I have to. To truly test myself, though, I determined to use the 2016 Pro keyboard for this entire review, not typing or editing a single character outside of this computer, and not connecting an external keyboard.
So far, I have to say that I kind of like this keyboard. I'm typing faster than usual, or at least I feel like I am, and am making no more mistakes than normal. The automatic spell checker in macOS is very good, and over the years, I've come to rely on it to fix my typos and reversals, but it doesn't have to kick in that often on this machine. While the keys are indeed closer together, they feel larger under my fingers, as though the empty space between them had been filled with extra plastic to type on. This gives me more room to type, rather than the keys being the same size but squeezed closer together. They travel (that is, move down) less than any other keyboard I've ever used, but I'm learning to simply give them less push. If I type more lightly, the travel doesn't feel so foreign. Already, I find I'm getting used to the feel, and I suspect that before long I'll be comfortable with this keyboard. So far--just four days in, and only able to use this machine in the evenings due to work--I am no worse on this keyboard than any other and find it no less comfortable. Better than any other? Probably not, but neither is it any worse. Keep an open mind, and I don't think this keyboard should be a concern for potential buyers, even VO users. The only thing to get used to is how the up and down arrows are squeezed between the normal-sized left and right arrows, but that's a minor point to me. Like most anything else, you get used to it and forget to even worry about it after a short time. At least I did.
One big feature of the 2016 MacBook Pro is the addition of the Touch Bar. This is a strip of screen as thick as the row of keys it replaces. It sits above the numbers on the keyboard, with a TouchID/power button on the right side above the delete key, just where the power button is on the Air. The idea is to offer a row of contextually appropriate controls instead of a static row of keys most users rarely need. In Finder, you get viewing options, search, and more; Mail offers buttons to reply, forward, switch to favorite mailboxes, etc; you get the idea. Does the loss of these keys (including the escape key) hurt VO users enough to make the new controls not worth it? Is the Touch Bar faster than hotkeys and/or does it offer items not available via hotkeys? If you have a Touch Bar Mac, can you do anything to get around relying on the function keys?
How It Works With VoiceOver
It will come as no surprise that Apple has made the new addition to the MBP as accessible as possible. If you use VoiceOver on iOS or watchOS, and/or use macOS' Trackpad Commander, you'll feel right at home. Any button or slider under your finger will be spoken aloud by VoiceOver, but not activated, as you touch it. Double tap to activate buttons, double tap and hold, then slide your finger, to move sliders, and swipe a finger left or right to move from item to item. That's all there is to it for now; no multi-finger swipes or taps, no pinching, nothing but one finger tapping, sliding, or swiping. There's no room for up/down gestures, but multiple fingers could be used in tapping or left/right swiping in the future. Currently, there's also no function tied to touching--but not pressing--the TouchID sensor multiple times.
What It Takes Away
The Touch Bar removes all the function keys and the escape key. This means all VO and system commands that rely on these keys will now work differently. For long-time macOS users, this will be an annoyance until, and possibly after, you get used to it, and is worth considering. The escape key is a big one--getting out of Vo menus or spell check suggestions just got less automatic. It's still very doable, but it will take some adjusting.
What It Gives
In place of physical keys, you have fully accessible versions of menu items and on-screen buttons. In Safari, for instance, the Touch Bar lists an escape key, back/forward buttons, the names of my open tabs, a search button, and a "new tab" button. As I type this in Text Edit, my Bar shows buttons for picking emoji, decorating and aligning my text, and--of course--the escape key.
Yes, most or all of these have keyboard equivalents, and it's often faster to hit the hotkeys instead of finding and double tapping an option on the Touch Bar. However, I find I really like immediate access to open tabs in Safari, without having to press cmd-shift-backslash and find the group of tabs I want. In Text Edit, I can use the emoji selector on the Touch Bar, without having to deal with the on-screen emoji interface. I can review my text, not opening a popover, and still choose an emoji using my Touch Bar. It's also sometimes easier, in Mail, to tap the favorite mailbox I want if I forget which number it is, or to hit the 'Forward' button if I forget whether the hotkey to forward an email has a shift or not.
It's also important to realize that many apps let you customize the Touch Bar's items. In Finder, you can add any of a large number of options, removing ones you never use and substituting those you do. Similarly, the Touch Bar itself has several customization options, including deciding to have it always show function keys instead of contextual controls. Finally, you can set what the function key does when held down.
All this isn't to say that your favorite VO commands and other hotkeys are gone forever. Apple has done a couple clever things to help ease the transition, and those are before we even touch VO commanders.
First, you can hit the function key (bottom left corner of the keyboard) to bring all your function keys back. While holding down the function key, explore the Touch Bar; you'll find F1, F2, etc, up to F12. They are all software buttons, but they work. Hold function, command, and the VO modifier, double tap F5, and you will execute vo-cmd-f5. Similarly, if you rely on the macOS hotkeys like ctrl-F5, just hold down control and function, and double tap the virtual function key you want. As mentioned above, you can also set the Touch Bar to show function keys by default, and only show contextual options when you hold the function key down. This lets you have easier access to the f-keys, if you find you need them more often than the new options the Touch Bar offers.
The function key has one more trick up its sleeve. You can use the number row in place of function keys, simply by holding down function and pressing the number you want. For example, our vo-cmd-f5 command from the previous paragraph would be the VO modifier, command key, function key, and the number 5. It is important to note that this extends to the accent key, above the tab key; pressing this with the function key is the same as pressing escape. It's two keys instead of one, but this does mean there is an easily accessible, physical escape key available. I find myself hitting the function key with my pinky and the accent key with my ring or middle finger, and that seems to work well.
Finally, there are commanders. If you really don't like using the function key for commands you need a lot--and who can blame you, with all the keys some commands already need--use commanders. I find myself keeping the Trackpad Commander on all the time nowadays, since a two-finger scrub will act like the escape key for nearly everything. I've also started mapping commands to it, even ones that don't necessarily have to do with the function keys, because I have it on so much more now. Command-two finger swipe up is sure easier than vo-fn-left arrow, and because I need the Trackpad Commander more often due to the Touch Bar, I have access to this and other--easier--commands than I would otherwise have. This is old news to those who use the Trackpad Commander a lot, but coming primarily from a Mac mini with no trackpad, it's a change for me. Of course, you also have the Keyboard and Quicknav Commanders if you want to use them as well. The point is that VO lets you customize commands so much that, with some adaptation, losing the function keys isn't a big deal in day-to-day use. Not for me, at least.
How it Works with Windows
I'll start by saying that I've only used a virtual machine of Windows under Fusion 8.5. I have not yet tried, and have no immediate plans to try, Bootcamp on this system. My VM is running 64-bit Windows 10 Home, and my screen reader is NVDA.
With VoiceOver off, the Touch Bar does what many of us had feared. Touching a virtual key inputs that key right away, with none of the screen reader support you get with VO on macOS. The escape key isn't a problem, because you know it's in the left corner, but the rest of the keys are harder to find. I can get close by using the top row of physical keys, but that's the best I can offer.
With VoiceOver still enabled, however, the native Touch Bar support kicks in. The Bar is empty apart from the right-hand controls that are normally there, plus the escape key. But hold down the function key, and you get all the f-keys where they should be, read aloud as you touch them and activated only by double tapping. Of course, it is VO that does this, not your Windows screen reader, but it works. If you hold function and option, then double tap f4, you get alt-f4 on your Windows VM.
Bottom line: for those who need access to Windows, keep VO on and you should be okay, if slightly slower when using the f-keys. If you need to have VO disabled, get ready to guess. Don't forget, though, that VMWare lets you remap keys, and even has alt-f4 mapped to cmd-w by default. Just remap the f-key combinations you need, and you can still make Windows work.
Bootcamp users may have a harder time of it, without VO's support to fall back on, but again, I haven't tested it. In theory, as the entire Touch Bar runs a modified version of iOS, Apple could build in a simple version of VO to function in Bootcamp. Whether they've actually done so I don't know, but they may be able to. Anyone who uses Bootcamp on a Touch Bar Pro, try holding the command key and hitting the power button three times, just to see what happens.
Touch Bar: Bottom Line
From what I've found so far, the Touch Bar will require MacBook users to adapt some, but doesn't hinder the average user enough to make the 2016 Pro a bad idea (unless you constantly use Windows in Bootcamp). If you don't want to get used to a new way of doing things, don't get it. If you don't mind making some changes, you're fine. TouchID is only available on this new Pro, and it's a very nice feature to have. Plus, the 2016 Pro that still has physical function keys lacks two USB-C ports and starts with lower specs. That said, the Touch Bar isn't an improvement for VO users either, at least not right now. I'd call it a step sideways; not forward or back, just a different way of doing the same things. Again, that's only as of right now, just a few weeks after launch.
Obviously, the final decision is yours. If you can get used to using an extra key and/or a commander, don't let the Touch Bar stop you from getting the newest Pro. If you just don't want to put up with such a major change, look elsewhere. For now, the Touch Bar on its own isn't a reason for most VO users to upgrade.
My Vision for the Future
When the first iPhone came out with VoiceOver, was it better than a smartphone with physical buttons? I doubt it. But after a few years, it became hugely useful and usable, and led the way for touch screens to become fully accessible.
With the Touch Bar, it feels like a similar thing is about to happen. Right now, it's just a few simple gestures and VO speaking what's under your finger. But what about next year? A two-finger double tap anywhere on the Touch Bar could play/pause, while two-finger left/right swipes could control music or volume. Even without a rotor and vertical movements, there are a lot of gestures open to Apple's engineers that are currently not used. If Apple opened up these gestures to developers, imagine what kinds of apps we could see…
Other Thoughts on the MacBook Pro
In this last section, I'll go over my other thoughts about this machine, whether specific to accessibility or not. Each paragraph is a new topic, and these are in no particular order.
First, Apple disappointed me by not including any USB-C to normal USB adapters in the box. I just got a computer worth over two thousand American dollars, and they can't even toss in a couple $10 adapters so I can use my existing peripherals? It feels like a cheap move with no practical reasoning behind it. I get that Apple is trying to push the world toward USB-C, and I agree with that goal. But Apple knows that nearly all users will need to connect a thumb drive, printer, iPhone, microphone, SD car reader, or something. Leaving it up to the user to separately purchase the means to make those connections is a baffling and stupid decision I wish Apple hadn't made.
The screen is gorgeous. I showed it to my mother, who does photography, and I didn't think I'd be getting my computer back. She fell in love with that screen and had to try very hard to not resent the screen on her 2012 Pro. I say that because Zoom users, or those who use their Macs to view enlarged photos, should realize that this screen can render that sort of thing quite well. I'm not a Zoom user, but I'd also think that the enlarged trackpad would help when panning a zoomed-in display. You have more room to move before you have to reposition your hand, so can pan further with less effort. Zoom users, please correct me if I'm wrong.
One more note on the Touch Bar. While it may be annoying for those who already know keyboard shortcuts, consider how it can be for those who have only ever used an iOS device and/or have trouble remembering hotkeys. Instead of trying to remember that cmd-shift-d sends an email, or looking through the menus to find the command, they can simply touch the Touch Bar, double tap the 'Send' item, and that's it. Assistive technology trainers should consider the benefit of a system like this, as should anyone who just likes touch over hotkeys.
VoiceOver's Trackpad Commander is very useful, but it does mean getting used to typing differently. Resting your palms on it won't do anything, but brushing the trackpad the wrong way will change your focus or issue commands you didn't mean to give. This problem is nothing new to the 2016 MacBook, and there's not much Apple can do about it. I only bring it up because, with its larger trackpad, the issue is a little more pronounced on this Mac than on others with their smaller trackpads.
As to the escape key, my biggest problem for the first couple days was rejecting spellcheck suggestions if I know I don't want the Mac to make a correction. This got better, though, once I realized that hitting the up arrow will do the same thing for such suggestions as the escape key, a trick I never realized until I had to find a new, just-as-easy way of closing these suggestions. With the revelation about fn-accent being escape, this problem pretty much went away. Same for exiting menus or popup buttons; I was annoyed about the escape key being gone until I realized I could hit fn-accent. Of course, double tapping the escape key on the Touch Bar is always an option, as is a two-finger scrub with the Trackpad Commander, but I find those to take more time and feel more awkward.
As I said, this computer is fast, and TouchID is great. However, I'm still seeing a bit of lag in some areas with VoiceOver. I think it's safe to conclude that Apple needs to look at source code, not spec bumps, to get VO as responsive as it should be. With the world's fastest laptop hard drive, very fast ram, and a 2.9GhZ processor, only coding can explain how VO isn't able to respond almost before I touch the keyboard. This isn't to say that VO is slow overall, or slower on this machine than on others. It's just that you still notice that tiny pause while browsing file lists or mailboxes, Nuance voices can sometimes still slow things down, and so on. Basically, VO isn't any more responsive on this MBP than on my Mini, though it should be if hardware were truly the problem.
That's a Wrap
There you have my impressions and thoughts of the late 2016 MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. I hope you found this review to be helpful, and that you get your hands on one of these computers before rejecting or purchasing it. The Touch Bar is a great addition for sighted people, and has the potential to be a similarly helpful feature for VO users. It isn't the latter yet, but neither is it such a serious hinderance that no VO user should buy a Mac that includes it. There's a little more work in it for you if you get a Touch Bar Mac, yes, but there's also TouchID, more ports, and the chance of future improvements that will expand what VO and the Touch Bar can do together. But today, the Touch Bar alone isn't worth upgrading for VO users, in my opinion.
Leave a comment with any questions you might have about this new MacBook. I've only had it for a little while, so I don't claim to know everything about it. But I can test things, and I can try to answer questions. See you in the comments!