Why I just ordered the 2016 Mac book pro with function keys

Hardware & Accessories

My 2011 mac book pro has been slowly rotting for a while now, and a timely hard drive failure made me decide to, once again, give Apple too much of my money. Apple's 2016 mac book pro lineup has caused a lot of anxiety and confusion, so I thought I would outline the reasons for my decision. Before I go on I just want to say that everything you are about to read is just my opinion, and I would love to hear from people who have different opinions.

The keyboard

I'm going to get to the touch bar, but I want to start with the biggest concern I had going into this decision, the new, flat, butterfly style keyboard. Most of the reviews I have read about Apple's anorexic little keyboard have been lukewarm at best. Lots of people believe that the keyboard feels uncomfortable, offers poor tactile feedback, and takes time to get use to. As a voice over user, who almost exclusively interacts with computers through the keyboard, I thought this poorly regarded keyboard could be a show stopper for me; so when I walked into the Apple store yesterday, to try out the butterfly keyboard for the first time, my hope was that it would be something that I could live with and get use to.

However, to my surprise I believe I like the butterfly keyboard better then the traditional mac keyboard. I have always preferred keyboards with little key travel, I can't stand typing on the old windows keyboard I sometimes use in Pro tools , because I feel like I'm trying to type into a pillow. I also tend to like smaller keyboards, I don't like the monsters that you will find on Apple's 15 inch laptops. I just love how quickly my fingers can fly over the butterfly keyboard, and I like it's consistent clicks. I know I am in the minority with this opinion, and I think the bottomline is that you really need to go try the new butterfly keyboards for yourself and come to you're own decision.

Now that I have praised the 2016 mac book pro keyboard, let me say a few negative things about it. The arrow keys are not ideal. The up key seems to be smaller then the rest, and other keys are tightly packed around all of the arrow keys. This is very different when compared to my 2011 mac book pro, which has lots of empty space on both sides of the up arrow key. The new arrow keys are going to be a little harder to distinguish, from the surrounding keys, such as the right option key. Also, all of the keys are flatter and more tightly packed together, so it may be slightly harder to distinguish keys in general. These concerns are largely hypothetical in my case; within five minutes I believe I was almost as comfortable on the new keyboard as I am on the keyboard I have been using for the past five years, and I'm pretty sure I was typing faster then I ever have before.

In short the new butterfly keyboard is one of the things I am most excited about when it comes to the new mac book pro.

The touch bar

Now it's time to talk about the touch bar; Apple's newest shiny thing. I was pretty open to the idea of the touch bar last week as I watched the Apple event. I felt pretty confident that Apple would make sure that this new interface worked with voice over. In the days after the event I hungrily tried to find any information about how exactly Voice Over accessibility would work with the touch bar. Ironically when I did come across some specifics they both encouraged me, and at the same time helped me decide that I have no interest in the touch bar. The best info I have found so far about Voice Over and the touch bar comes from I accessibility, here is a link to the relevant article.
The main takeaways are, you can use the number keys as function keys, there are keystrokes for raising and lowering volume, and to interact with sliders on the touch bar you have to double tap and hold, wait for a tone, and then slide your finger. I think the volume keystrokes, and the number keys acting as function keys makes a lot of sense, and I'm really glad Apple is doing things that way. However, as soon as I realized how relieved I was about these changes, I realized the relief was based around me being able to avoid using the touch bar.

Basically I do not believe that the touch bar is going to make many things more efficient or easier for voice over users. Take the sliders I previously mentioned. I would much rather turn down brightness by simply holding down a key, instead of the three step process voice over users will have to navigate.

To some up my thoughts about touch bar and accessibility, I believe the experience will be fine, but I do not think it will be better then what we already have.

I know this post is getting very very long, but I want to now get into the primary reasons I have decided to pass on the touch bar, and they have little to do with voice over Accessibility.

1. I do not believe the touch bar will offer anything to power users who know there keystrokes.

If you are an IOS user who wants to get into the mac, the touch bar might be a good way for you to uncover features you didn't know about. But as a long time mac user who knows the keystrokes by heart, it doesn't seem like the touch bar is going to do much that keystrokes can't already do. One of the best list of touch bar features I know about comes from I more.
I have gone through this list, and almost everything in it is either doable with keystrokes, or does not interest me. Here are a few examples of touch bar features and the corresponding keystrokes.

Activate Siri, hold down command space, activate dictation, hit function key twice, new folder in the finder, shift command enter, Reply to email, command r, compose new email, command N, send email, command shift d, new tab in Safari command t, Etc. Etc. Etc. you get the picture.

Now if you read the entire I more list, you might accuse me of cherrypicking features to make my point. It's true that I'm leaving out a lot of features, but that is because it would be tedious for me to list them here, and rotating photos or using final cut do not matter to me. Just to be fair, the one and only feature of the touch bar, that we do currently know about, and does interest me is predictive typing. I have long believed that the native mac spell checker is a joke, and I struggle with spelling, so predictive typing on the mac could be great for me. However, that one feature is not enough for me to want the touch bar, and there is nothing inherent about predictive typing that necessitates a touch bar; it could easily be accomplished through keystrokes.

This keystroke issue is not really a voice over accessibility issue. Many sighted power users also heavily rely on keystrokes. I spend a lot of my time editing audio in apps like Pro tools, Amadeus pro etc. and if you don't know your keystrokes in such apps you are not working as effectively as you could, no matter if your eye balls work or not. Some quick googling will lead you to lots of sighted power users who don't see the utility of the touch bar, because they already know there keystrokes. What is more, it is much easier to build up reliable muscle memory with real keys, when compared to slim touch bars that have lots of dynamic elements and no tactile indicators.

2. Windows

The second main reason I have no interest in the touch bar is that it will not offer any value in windows if you run bootcamp or Fusion. I tend to use Mac OS for almost everything, but I do keep windows around on bootcamp, and I am hoping to use my new mac to dust off my windows skills. At best there will be some way of using the touch bar as normal function keys in windows. We already know that sighted people will have that option in bootcamp.
However, I do not think this function key touch bar will work with screen readers, and even if it did, real function keys would be better. Of course you could get around this with some fancy key remapping, which I am all for, I always remap my mac keyboards, but once again the touch bar is a problem to overcome, not a practical feature.

3. the price

After we way the pros and cons of any technology we always have to come back to the real world and consider price. All of the 2016 mac book pros are two expensive. Apple has raised the price across the board by at least two hundred dollars. The base model mac book pro with function keys is already towards the top of my price range at 1500 dollars, and I would need a very very very good reason to spend 1800 dollars for any computer, especially if its flagship feature is one I don't want. I decided to grit my teeth and go for the base model, but I upgraded the ram to 16 gigs, which I believe is the best way to future proof a computer. If you wanted to get the touch bar model with 16 gigs of ram you would pay at least 2000 dollars, and I am not about to do that.

In conclusion I am not trying to talk anyone out of any decision. I am simply trying to explain the decision I have come to after a week of anxiety and frustration. I hope that my thoughts may help you come to your own decision with a little less difficulty then I experienced. As long winded and rambling as this post has been, I have still left a lot out. There are the two lighting ports to contend with, but I am ok with dealing with dongle's and USB hubs. There is an argument to be made that the function key mac book pro is under powered with it's 2.0 dual core I5 processor, which is the 15 Watt U model meant for ultra books. After a lot of research I am hoping that the computer will offer me enough power, but I would love to hear from people who don't think so. Once again I will say if you disagree with any of my opinions I would love to hear your thoughts; I still have time to cancel my order after all.



Submitted by Brian Giles on Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Good timing! I just got home from my college campus, and while there I decided to drop by the bookstore to see if they had the new MBP so I could look at it. Surprisingly they did. I spent a little bit of time playing with it and was going to write a post with my initial impressions, but you hit on many of the things I was going to say and added things I wouldn't have thought of.

As with many new shiny things apple, the new MacBook Pro's design is cool. With the lid open, it's only about as thick as the iPhone 5 series (I uncased my SE to see. Yeah I know, I'm a geek). The track pad is huge! I already inadvertently bump the track pad on my current MBP, so if you use track pad commander, you'll probably be doing that a lot more.

I'm in the majority who don't like the new butterfly keyboard. In my little time playing with it, I didn't notice any difference between the keyboard on the new MBP and the MacBook. The keys don't have enough travel, and they're way too close together. I hoped a new keyboard design like that would cure me of typing like a lot of blind people I know do, where we're hard on our keyboards because we all grew up on Perkins Braillers.

I love the new speaker placement though. I didn't get to test out playing any music, but VO seemed noticeably louder and easier to understand. I would even easily distinguish VO positional audio, like when you move from the left side of the dock all the way over to the right.

Submitted by Mani on Wednesday, November 2, 2016

I am in the market for my first Apple laptop and I was going to decide between MB Air and the Base model 2016 MBP Have you looked into the Air before settling down on the MBP? Or did you already decide you wanted only a Pro? I am also fanatic about the keyboard and would like one with a tactile feedback (I use a DAS keyboard with my iMac and love the feel and sound of the keys). How did you resolve the issue of the two USB-C ports only? I have a lot of USB devices that I don't want to part with.
Thanks and any help in resolving my decision will be appreciated.

Submitted by Tree on Wednesday, November 2, 2016

In reply to by Mani

I have nothing against the mac book air, and at 1000 dollars I think it could make a lot more sense for some people then paying an extra 500 dollars plus for the new pros. There are two main reasons I didn't go for the air. The first reason is that I am a power user, so I think the pro will better suit my needs. I deal with really large files and intense tasks in pro tools, Garageband, etc, and have run virtual machines in the past with VM where. I'm not the most knowledgeable when it comes to processor speeds and other technical specifications, but I think things like the 6th generation Skylake processor in the new mac book pros, and the super fast SSD drive will be better equipped to give me the power I need.

The other main reason I went with the pro was longevity. The air is a great computer, and it has served many people very well for a long time, but I do not believe it has been updated in a while, and it's place in Apple's lineup seems a bit precarious. That might not matter, but it makes me worry about future OS updates being supported. Apple is pretty good about supporting older machines, but sometimes their decision to cut off OS updates for older machines seems random. I have had my current computer for five years now, and it is still supported, but my wife's seven year old mac book pro is running better then mine, and it can not update to the latest OS. Of course, often it's fine to not be running the latest OS and sometimes it's even advisable. I know seven years is a long time to support a machine, but I am really hoping my next mac lasts longer then my current one. It has taken a lot for me to even keep this machine alive for the past five years.

I didn't really look at the air, because of the power user thing, so I'm not even sure when it was last updated, and what it's specs are, so I could be totally wrong about it. Also I just want to point out that Apple is also keeping around the previous model of the mac book pro from 2015, which you can get for 1200 dollars. If I didn't like the butterfly keyboard I was probably going to get that one and upgrade a bunch of the specs; however, Once you do those upgrades you start to approach the price of the new pro base model, and you have older hardware.

One possible advantage that the air has is it's ports. I have decided that my workflow and setup will be fine with the two ports, as long as I throw into a few dongles. The primary things I will plug into my machine are 1. my audio interface, 2, my external hard drive, 3, an external keyboard, and the power cable of course. I may want to have the power cable plugged in while I'm backing up to my drive, but I would not be recording with my audio interface, or working in pro tools with my external keyboard while I do that. The only time when I'm using three ports at once is sometimes when I record I use my external keyboard, power cable, and audio interface of course; However, the main reason I use the external keyboard in this set up is my 2011 mac's fan tends to run loud while it's recording, so I want it far away from the microphone, I'm hoping that will not be as big of a problem with the new mac. Even if it is a problem I can just get a USB hub, because from what I understand you can extend the two thunderbolt ports to run literally dozens of things if you have the right dongles and hubs. I plan to buy two type C to type A adaptors for the moment, and get a hub in the future if the dongles are not enough. The C to A dongles Apple sales are twenty bucks each, and you can get third party one's for less, so in the great scheme of things it's not a lot of money, as long as your ok with dongles. I think it's good that Apple is moving to an open,, flexible standard and I do think Type c is the future.

I hope I have answered your questions Mani, feel free to ask more.

Submitted by Siobhan on Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Ok I complain the new Pro is crazy, if I get one, it's gonna be with touch bar, waiting until next year. I'd rather throw five hundo into more HD space, knowing i won't be using it but haveit, reather then nothaving it when I want it. i'll see what the touch bar has to offer in a year. If I get it, Iwant touch bar, touch ID. and all that has to offer.

Submitted by Mani on Thursday, November 3, 2016

Thank you Tree. I think I will go for the 2016 MBP. I will try it out at the Apple store and hope I really like the keyboard. It looks like an extra USB hub will satisfy my connectivity needs.

Submitted by Tree on Thursday, November 3, 2016

I agree Siobhan that upgrading the storage was also tempting to me. It's going to take some adjustments on my part to only have 256 gigs to work with; on my current machine I have several partitions and hundreds of gigs in audio projects. I hope that I will be able to make due with external drives; I'm curious about trying to use my current mac book pro as a slow network server, once I get the new machine. I don't know if that would be practical, and I would welcome anyone's thoughts on the matter. I do believe that being able to hold off on buying a new mac right now is good, since the entire line is in flux, and prices are so high; I hope things will become more affordable in a year or two, but Apple's taking longer and longer to change anything about the macs, and some of us do not have the luxury of waiting.

Mani I think the bottom line of any technology purchase is what you can afford. If we can't reasonably pay for a product, that is ultimately more important then processor speeds, ports and even accessibility; after all, accessibility has a broader meaning then the compatibility of software, hardware, and screen readers. The new mac book pros are not accessible to many people because of how expensive they are.

However, in tandem with affordability is value. When you pay more for technology it can often mean that you are going to have a computer that will run better for longer and, perhaps save you money and annoyance in the process. I do not believe that any of the new mac book pros have amazing value for what you are paying, but I do think that the base line model will be a great machine for most people. The one caveat I would give to that assessment is the keyboard. If you have not personally used the butterfly keyboard, please get your hands on it before you buy a mac with it. I believe I am going to love it, but it is inarguably polarizing, and if you hate it then you should probably consider the 2015 mac book pros or the air. As long as you are ok with dongles and hubs I really wouldn't worry about the port issue, but everyone should do their own research and consider their own needs.

I'm really glad that you and Brian appreciate my posts.