Opinion: Every now and then, a high-concept gadget launches ahead of its time, and I think one of Apple’s most controversial innovations falls squarely into this category.
Microsoft must still be bitter about its failure to make the tablet popular in 1999, even though Apple saw huge success with the iPad eleven years later. And let’s not forget the 1995 Nintendo Virtual Boy flop, which failed to promote virtual reality unlike the recent success of Meta Quest 2.
Thanks to the power of hindsight, we now know that these manufacturers were working on something with such high-concept hardware but in the end there was something holding back the success of the products, whether it was because the software wasn’t quite ready or there simply wasn’t a specific need for such tools at that moment in time.
Now that might be a controversial opinion, but I’m starting to think that Apple’s Touch Bar for the MacBook Pro might fall into the same category. For those unfamiliar, the Touch Bar is essentially a digital touchpad that replaces the row of function keys at the top of the keyboard.
Having a digital touchpad instead of physical keys has a lot of obvious benefits, such as allowing for customization and allowing app makers to add their own tailored shortcuts. It looks great on paper, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, it never turned out that way. Very few manufacturers cared about Touch Bar support, which is understandable because it would have taken a lot of work for a feature that only MacBook Pro owners could take advantage of.
It’s also likely that people will have a hard time adjusting to the Touch Bar, since they’ve been accustomed to using physical function keys since they first started using the keyboard. Humans are ordinary creatures, and you need to offer a lot of clearly useful features to convince them to embrace unfamiliar technology.
In the end, Apple decided to separate the Touch Bar from the 16-inch MacBook Pro, so it’s now only available on the 13-inch model. But it seems likely that the Touch Bar will disappear from the smaller Pro as well, once the laptop is finally addressed.
As a result, the general consensus now is that the Touch Bar was a flawed concept and unlikely to ever work in any laptop. Previously, I would agree but since using the new Dell XPS 13 Plus laptop, I’ve started to change my mind.
For the latest 13-inch laptop, Dell has ditched the top row of physical function keys and replaced it with a touchpad that covers the entire width of the device. looks familiar?
Unlike Apple’s Touch Bar, Dell’s way of technology actually has minimal configurability. It can only be switched between two layouts, and it lacks support for individual apps.
In its default state, you can access some useful shortcuts. You can change the volume, mute the microphone, pause a video, or change the screen brightness. Of course, all this is very standard, as the vast majority of Windows laptop keyboards offer the same functionality. The difference here is that the Dell XPS 13 Plus has a cleaner look because the shortcut icons aren’t squeezed into a single space next to the function key labels.
But don’t worry, the function keys haven’t been abandoned. Instead, when you hold down the laptop’s function key in the lower left corner, all the shortcut icons will be replaced with a row of function keys like F1, F2, F3, etc. It’s a cute little trick and feels far more intuitive and dynamic than traditional function keys.
Will it change the way you use your laptop? No – but that might not be a bad thing. As I said before, humans are habitual creatures, so expecting them to change their behavior will always be risky. With this in mind, Dell has been able to deliver the benefits of the Touch Bar while providing an experience similar to a regular laptop.
Personally, I would have liked the Dell Touch Bar to offer more functionality. I love the idea of having specific shortcuts for the likes of Gmail, Microsoft Word, and Slack that automatically pop up on the Touch Bar when needed, or even letting me customize the bar with my own choice of shortcuts.
But as Apple’s Touch Bar has failed, it’s best to stick with small steps for now. If enough laptops embrace this technology, it might convince the likes of Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Netflix, and more to offer software support.
I may be on my own here, but being able to copy and paste simply by prodding the shortcuts on my laptop’s Touch Bar sounds more attractive than doing finger exercises to find the right combination of keys. It would also be great to forward an email (or even delete it if it’s spam) with a single tap on the touchpad. These are not groundbreaking changes, but they will be some welcome improvements in quality of life.
Until these software giants get started, laptop manufacturers like Dell are best to stick with the basics. This may be the starting point for the popularization of the Touch Bar, or you may face the same fate as Apple’s Touch Bar. Only time will tell, but I’m starting to feel optimistic about the future of this previously under-appreciated technology.
Ctrl + Alt + Delete is our weekly computing-focused opinion column where we delve deeper into the world of computers, laptops, components, peripherals, and more. You can find it in Trusted Comments every Saturday afternoon.