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.
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.
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.