The Touch Bar seemed more like a gimmick than a useful tool when it first appeared in MacBook Pros years ago. Now it's a common feature on all models and is supported by a multitude of Mac apps. It adds convenient, touch-based controls similar to mobile.
● Adds touch input to Mac apps
● System controls
● Virtual Function keys
● Relies on Apple's T1 or T2 Security Chip
● Now available on all MacBook Pro models
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Apple's Touch Bar is a MacBook Pro feature that adds touch-based controls to Mac apps and system controls. It relies on an OLED panel covered by a thin glass digitizer that allows users to tap, swipe, and more – just like on an iPhone or iPad. It's supported by a long list of apps.
What is the Touch Bar?
The Touch Bar is an OLED "Retina" display that replaces the physical Function keys on a MacBook Pro.
This feature first appeared in October 2016 on the fourth-generation 13-inch MacBook Pro and 15-inch MacBook Pro. The entry-level 13-inch model did not have this feature, opting instead for a traditional line of physical Function keys.
In July 2019, Apple added it to the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro. It was also on the 16-inch MacBook Pro,which replaced the 15-inch model in November 2019.
According to Apple, it's optimized to be viewed at a 45-degree angle. It also reproduces the wide DCI-P3 gamut with a "Retina" resolution. It's powered by Apple's bridgeOS platform – based on watchOS – residing in Apple's custom silicon for Macs.
This feature adds touch-based capabilities to Mac apps and provides native touch-based system controls. All native Mac apps support this feature, like Mail, Messages, Apple Music, Photos, Safari, and more. Siri has a dedicated button on the OLED strip as well.
Some of the prominent third-party apps that support it include:
- Adobe Photoshop
- Final Cut Pro X
- Google Chrome
- Microsoft Office
This display strip supports tap, touch and hold, horizontal swipe or pan, and multi-touch gestures.
Touch Bar hardware
This feature is comprised of two main components.
At the top is a thin digitizer glass layer that converts analog touch to digital signals. This layer connects to the OLED screen underneath using a flex cable. At the end of this cable is a touch controller chip.
To the left of the OLED panel is its hardware-based display driver. This screen plugs directly into the motherboard, secured in the MacBook Pro chassis using a heavy adhesive.
The Touch ID sensor is not integrated into the Touch Bar itself. Instead, it's a separate hardware component that resides on the power button located immediately to the right of the OLED screen. A separate sapphire crystal cover protects the Touch ID sensor while the OLED screen's Control Strip section displays Touch ID prompts, giving the appearance of one continuous strip.
However, there is a narrow gap between the digitizer and the sapphire crystal cover on the fourth-generation MacBook Pro models, as shown above, presenting a unified appearance despite the two separate components underneath. Apple widened this gap in the fifth generation to better separate these two features.
Apple's T1 or T2 Security Chip controls the Touch ID sensor and OLED strip, varying depending on the model. It runs independently from the MacBook's processor. The Apple T1 Chip debuted alongside the OLED strip and Touch ID sensor for Macs and runs bridgeOS 1.0. The T2 Security Chip first appeared in the iMac Pro in 2017 and runs bridgeOS 2.0.
On Intel-based MacBooks, the main CPU sends rendering information to the T1 or T2 chip, telling it what needs to be displayed on the OLED strip. In turn, Apple's custom silicon assigns the appropriate pixels to be displayed on the OLED strip.
When the user touches the digitizer layer, Apple's silicon forwards that information to the main processor. That means the path would be App > MacOS > Intel CPU > T1 or T2 > Touch Bar. Reverse that path for user input.
Second generation (2019 - present)
The newer, second version resides in Apple's fifth-generation MacBook Pros with the Magic Keyboard. These are:
- 13-inch MacBook Pro (mid-2020, late-2020)
- 16-inch MacBook Pro (2019)
This version measures 1,004pt x 30pt (13.94 x 0.42 inches) and has a standard configuration of two areas divided by a single 16pt gap: A maximum app region (685pt) and a maximum collapsed Control Strip region (304pt). This version is narrower than the 1st-generation setup due to the physical Esc button now present in the top left corner of the keyboard area.
First generation (2016 - 2019)
The first version, shown above, appears in fourth-generation MacBook Pros released before November 2019:
- 13-inch MacBook Pro (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019)
- 15-inch MacBook Pro (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019)
The 2016 and 2017 entry-level 13-inch models with two Thunderbolt 3 ports do not have this feature.
This version measures 1,085pt x 30pt (15.07 x 0.42 inches), which translates to a 2,180 x 80 display. It has a standard configuration of three main areas divided by two 16pt gaps: a system button (64pt), a minimum app region (685pt), and a maximum collapsed Control Strip region (304pt).
Overall, the Control Strip provides system-level controls for performing actions, like adjusting the volume. This first appeared in the PowerBook 500 series in 1994 and other devices but was eliminated as part of moving over to Mac OS X.
The app region provides app-based controls while the system button provides functions like Escape, Cancel, and Done.
To customize the Control Strip buttons, click the Apple icon followed by "System Preferences" on the drop-down menu, or click the "System Preferences" icon on the Dock. Select "Keyboard" and then the "Keyboard" tab to access the "Customize Control Strip" function. Users can also click "View" within any app to edit the Control Strip layout.
In both cases, you can drag items displayed on the main screen into the Control Strip and then drag items left or right on the OLED strip as needed.
To change touch buttons in apps, click "View" on the menu bar followed by "Customize Touch Bar." Users can then rearrange, remove, or add buttons within the app.
If users need to keep the function keys for specific apps, click the Apple icon followed by "System Preferences" on the drop-down menu, or click the "System Preferences" icon on the Dock. Select "Keyboard" and then the "Shortcuts" tab. Choose "Function Keys" listed on the left and then add the apps listed on the right using the "+" symbol.
Finally, to have MacOS read related touch-based commands aloud, hold the Command key while pressing the Touch ID / Power button three times. This toggles on the VoiceOver function.
Use Case Examples
While composing a message, suggested words and emojis will appear on the OLED strip. Tap them to enter those words into the message body. To quickly change the text format, select it on the main screen, and then tap the formatting options on the OLED strip.
When listening to music, playback controls appear on the OLED strip. Users can drag horizontally on a line marker to scrub through a song, use standard functions like Play/Pause, Back to restart the song, and press Next Track to skip to the next one. It offers similar features for video in the Apple TV app.
With Safari, thumbnails appear on the OLED strip when more than one tab is open — these are grouped together if the pages reside on the same website. Open a new Safari window or click within the address bar, and site suggestions appear on the OLED strip based on recently visited websites.
The Photos app provides swipeable thumbnails on the OLED strip to easily move through the user's gallery. Volume and Siri buttons reside to the right on the Touch Bar while a Like button resides to the left along with basic editing tools like Auto, Rotate, and Crop.