You may be a little confused at this news, seeing as recent updates to the MacBook Pro 14-inch and 16-inch models ditched this thin touch screen that takes the place of the row of function keys at the top of the keyboard. To be sure, the quirky touch interface never quite got the traction that Apple wanted. And if you thought that the Touch Bar had been relegated to the dustbin of other features that Apple tried and failed to press upon the public, then you’re probably wondering what’s going on now.
The Touch Bar is back on the Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch…if it was ever gone. Why is it still present on the 14- and 16-inch models? picture (Photo: Paul Maljak). When Apple unveiled the M2 CPU at WWDC this week, much of the focus was on the new MacBook Air, which gets a significant makeover to go along with the new technology. However, another M2 Mac was shown with less fanfare: an upgraded 13-inch MacBook Pro that not only appears identical to its predecessor, but also has a feature we didn’t expect to see on an Apple laptop again: the Touch Bar.
In 2016, Apple introduced new MacBook Pro designs that featured a thin OLED strip just above the keyboard. This stripe of display included touch capability, and offered a dynamic replacement for static function keys. Using that Touch Bar, you could adjust volume, access tools in programs, and more. (Check out our guide to cool things you can do with the Touch Bar to get a better idea.) To say that the public reaction was mixed would be an understatement. For some, it was a solution to a non-existent problem and a poor alternative to touch-enabled screens on Windows laptops. Many app makers ignored the dynamic functionality entirely. Longtime Apple users missed having dedicated function keys, and were irritated at the change.
Explaining the change at the product unveiling, the company said “Users value the full-height function row on the standalone Magic Keyboard. And we’ve brought it to the MacBook Pro.” The shift led many to think that the end of the Touch Bar was imminent. But this week, Apple announced that a new MacBook Pro 13-Inch was launching with Apple’s latest M2 processor, and that the overall design was staying unchanged. Keeping the circa-2016 design of the 13-inch model means the Touch Bar isn’t going anywhere just yet. Though Apple didn’t highlight the Touch Bar at this week’s launch, there are several explanations that could be behind it.
MacBook Pro Touch Bar. (Photo: Zlata Ivleva By 2018 you could get the MacBook Pro with a Touch Bar, or without one if you preferred. But when the first Apple Silicon-based MacBooks were announced in 2020, the MacBook Pro 13-Inch still had the controversial touch controls. Then last year Apple introduced redesigned versions of the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro that ditched the feature, switching back to a design that uses physical function buttons, along with bringing back a few physical ports.
MacBook Pro Touch Bar. The simplest one is economic. Apple could be sitting on a stockpile of 13-inch MacBook shells that have space for the Touch Bar milled out, and a corresponding pile of touch-sensitive OLED strips, just waiting to be assembled. Or maybe the financial realities of retraining production teams are high enough to warrant keeping the older design relatively unchanged.
There’s also the possibility that Apple doesn’t want to ditch the software support that the Touch Bar requires in macOS, and is slow-rolling the change to make good on that initial investment. The research and development costs for bespoke hardware and software aren’t cheap, after all.