When our resident tech guru Kim Komando got the new MacBook Pro, she said she was pleasantly surprised to discover what the touch bar and touch ID reader at the top of her keyboard could do. Not much gets by our Digital Goddess, so when she showed us how these features work, our minds were as blown as hers. We knew we had to immediately tell you, our audience, about it.
Replacing the top-most keys found in most Apple laptops and keyboards, the touch bar gives you those missing keys in an interactive screen, plus many more. You can customize all of the buttons and keys to your liking, and combined with the touch ID reader, the touch bar is a really interesting feature that enhances the MacBook Pro and what it can offer you right from the keyboard.
Learn everything the touch bar can do in our comprehensive guide below. The feature is currently available only on the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pro, but it may stick around and become a more usual addition, so it’s worth watching. Like this Apple tip? Subscribe to Kim's Apple newsletter and get great advice on iPhones, iPad and all things Apple, delivered to your inbox twice a week.
Basic functions of MacBook Pro touch bar
The touch bar replaces the top of the usual Apple keyboard. The top of the regular keyboard includes buttons for screen brightness, computer volume, plus the escape key, and buttons for controlling iTunes playback.
The touch bar has all of these buttons, just in touchscreen form. The escape key lives on the left, available in almost every touch bar display. The brightness slider, volume slider, and muting keys are always available in the default display as part of the “Control Strip,” a section that also has a button that summons Siri, Apple’s question-answering virtual assistant.
Generally available only on iPhones and iPads, Siri enters the world of laptops via the touch bar, and having her there to search things for you, or set timers, can be surprisingly convenient, and allow you to multitask more than usual.
Tap on the arrow part of the Control Strip, and you can access more buttons that you might recognize from an Apple keyboard. You can increase or decrease the brightness of your keyboard, tap a button that shows you all the windows you have up on your display at once, and tap another to see all of your apps listed.
The iTunes play, skip forward, and skip backward buttons are all there too, and you can also add or remove keys and commands to the Control Strip via customization that we’ll go over in another section.
Function keys (F1, F2, etc.) exist within the touch bar as well. Press the “fn” key on your MacBook Pro, and you’ll summon the Function keys to your touch bar, where you can tap them and use them as you would on a standard keyboard.
The general, default touch bar works as an extension of your keyboard, covering what an average keyboard would but with more control on things like volume and brightness, as the sliders offer more options than just clicking up or down one level in a button, and giving you even more.
With Siri, plus customization that can change the default buttons, and offering special functions in certain apps, the touch bar expands your keyboard farther than it could ever go if it was all buttons and keys. Read on to see how these functions create shortcuts that can make you more efficient on your laptop, even with things like unlocking it for your use.
Touch ID reader
Apple has allowed its phones and tablets to be unlocked via fingerprint for years now (the newest iPhones even have facial recognition). The small, black square in the right corner of the MacBook Pro touch bar now lets laptops be unlocked with your fingertips as well.
You can set up touch ID for your laptop when you first get it, or later by going to System Preferences and clicking on “Touch ID.” You can have up to five prints saved in your computer, and with any of them, you can unlock your computer once it’s gone into sleep mode, or once it’s been turned on again, without using your password.
Touch ID greatly speeds up accessing your computer, and it can be used to speed up paying for things as well. If you make a purchase in the App store, or in iTunes, or want to use Apple Pay while shopping online, you can put your finger on the touch ID square rather than input your password and card information into a web form.
So the touch ID reader makes your computer more secure (you can learn a password, but it’s hard to fake a fingerprint), and it makes use of it speedier. And it’s just one part of making your computer experience more efficient via the touch bar.
Using the touch bar in apps
Different applications on your MacBook Pro have unique menus they’ll display on your touch bar. This can allow for shortcuts to certain functions within the app, like easy ways to switch between or add windows and tabs, or bolding or italicizing text.
You’ll have to play with applications yourself to see the full range, but we’ve chosen to highlight some of our favorites to give you an idea of what to expect.
- Surf with Safari: In Safari, Apple’s web browser, the touch bar lets you switch between tabs in a window, plus open a new tab, and select one of your bookmarks as the site to open within it. You can tap to go back or forward a page, and if you tap the magnifying glass button, you’ll be placed in the address bar, where you can type in a website, or again select a bookmark from the options beneath.
- Video controls: When you play a video in Safari as well, whether using Netflix or YouTube, the touch bar will give you a controller showing where you are in the video. Use it to scroll back and forth and play or pause what you’re watching. We find the scrolling feature to be more effective and precise than clicking around inside of the video’s time bar, and you get the same functionality if you watch a video in iTunes or through Quicktime.
- Write notes: In Notes, an app that can share files between your iPhone, iPad and MacBook, you can create a new note from your touch bar, as well as add a checkmark circle to start a list, and bullet points. You can set the text to be bold, or italicized, or underlined from the touch bar, and you can have the touch bar suggest words to you to save you time on typing.
- Use Microsoft Office: Text-altering shortcuts are available in the touch bar in Microsoft Word 2016. Earlier versions of Word don’t have touch bar functionality, but the Microsoft Office subscription service does, and you can use it to make text bold or add a bullet list quickly, as well as turn on a “focus mode” which removes toolbars and the ribbon from the top so you can just type as much as you need, and quickly return to a normal mode after.
- Insert emoji: The touch bar is also highly usable in Messages, where you can text people right from your desktop, with that full keyboard instead of the small one on your phone. Once again, you get the suggested text keyboard option, but you also get the emoji library, accessible by tapping the smiling face icon next to the pen and paper one that lets you open a new message. You can scroll through the emoji library to your heart’s content, and much like on your phone, your most used emojis will be the first you see on the touch bar, letting you access them quickly, and type faster too.
You can also use the touch bar to quickly move to a particular month or date in the Calendar app, depending on if you’re in day, week, month, or year view. You can scroll through pictures by date in Photos with the touch bar, or quickly add slides and change font colors in Keynote.
The touch bar has a lot of different functions with different applications. Play around with them all, and find your best workflow in the process! And read on to see how to customize your touch bar so you can always be super efficient.
Add custom buttons and functions to the touch bar
To change your touch bar by adding or removing buttons, go to System Preferences, then Keyboard. Next, click on “Customize Control Strip…”, and you’ll end up in a menu where you can click and drag buttons to and from the touch bar to get certain functions and reorder things so you can reach certain functions faster.
You can remove the brightness slider altogether if you like how the laptop naturally reads the light where you are and adjusts itself. You can add a screenshot button to the touch bar, as well as one that automatically puts your computer to sleep, or pulls up your screensaver.
You can move the Input Sources button where the Siri button goes on the Control Strip if you use it more often, and you can put a blank space if you want an area around an icon so you don’t hit it by accident trying to reach something else.
The default Control Strip you see wherever you are in your computer has four slots, and the expanded Control Strip has 14. You can plan your buttons accordingly and set your "Fn" key to expand your control strip whenever you want to reach certain buttons (instead of opening the Function keys. To set this, go to System Preferences >> Keyboard, and set the "Press Fn key to" drop-down menu to “Expand Control Strip").
You can also set the Control Strip to always be open (System Preferences >> Keyboard >> “Touch Bar shows” menu to “Expanded Control Strip”), but you lose the app controls when you do that.
If you prefer only app controls, you can select “App Controls” in the “Touch Bar shows” menu, but we recommend the default of “App Controls with Control Strip” to get everything you can out of the touch bar and its functions.
The touch bar may initially be a little hard to see or appreciate, but once you know everything it can do, it easily makes your laptop use more efficient, and more fun.
With customization allowing you to reach some of your favorite functions and adjusters with one tap, and app controls that change how you use these apps for the better, you’ll be so happy you went for the 13-inch or 15-inch MacBook Pro over another laptop.
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