How do I use the Touch Bar feature on my MacBook Pro? Can I customise the functions that appear on the Touch Bar?
Last October, Apple unveiled its MacBook Pro 2016, and foremost among its list of upgrades and new features is something called the Touch Bar, a thin touchscreen display sitting along the top of the keyboard in place of the function keys. The company has since launched updated models for 2017 (covered in separate articles: MacBook Pro 15-inch 2017 review and MacBook Pro 13-inch 2017 review), and these retain the feature.
In this article we show how to use the Touch Bar on recent MacBook Pro devices: how its functions change on various commonly used apps, and how to customise the Touch Bar so it displays and performs exactly the functions you want.
The Touch Bar's default function set in Safari features back and forward buttons, a 'new tab' button and a set of thumbnails showing the tabs you currently have open - it's very easy to switch between open tabs by swiping across this section of the bar.
From left to right: Esc; back and forward buttons; a 'search' button, which opens the URL bar and turns the Touch Bar into a series of icons showing your favourite sites (tap the X on the left to close this and go back to the default controls); a set of thumbnail icons showing open tabs (tap or swipe on these to switch to another tab); a new tab button, which again brings up thumbnails of favourite sites; and then finally the condensed Control Strip, beginning with a left arrow which expands the Control Strip, followed by buttons for brightness, volume, mute audio and Siri. Read next: How to get the MacBook Pro Touch Bar on any Mac
(Whereas the controls and functions that are specific to the app you're using are called the App Controls, these generic, non-app-specific controls are called the Control Strip. Jump to the customisation section if you'd prefer to just view App Controls, or just view the Control Strip - but the default is a mixture of the two.)
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An eagle-eyed Reddit user has spotted an additional function of the Touch Bar in Safari.
"In Safari, the [Touch Bar] will pop up a scrubbing control whenever a video begins to play," writes RomansFiveEight. "Amazingly, you can use that to scrub THROUGH an ad, even a non-skippable 30 second pre-roll ad; and begin your video right away!"
This feature seems almost too good to be true - certainly in its ability to blitz past unskippable adverts - and may not survive for long, but we're going to enjoy it as long as it lasts.
How to answer phone and FaceTime calls with Touch Bar
The Touch Bar will change dynamically if the Mac detects an incoming FaceTime or phone call (on a linked iPhone, in the latter case). Simply tap the green Accept button to take the call, as usual, or the red Decline if you're not interested.
How to make a FaceTime call
It's sort of possible to initiate FaceTime calls from the Touch Bar, but you have to set it up so the correct contact is displayed there.
Launch the FaceTime app on your Mac as usual: select a contact you'd like to call and view the full contact card. Now you can tap the person's name on the Touch Bar to call them via FaceTime.
Once the FaceTime conversation starts, the Touch Bar changes: it shows how long the conversation has lasted, and gives you options to end the call or mute audio.
Photo's default feature set is dominated by a swipeable gallery of image thumbnails: handy for rapidly jumping to the image you want to work on. Like Safari, Photos also includes the volume and Siri buttons at the right.
On the left there are some interesting buttons, including a button to Like an image in your library and an edit key: tap this and the Touch Bar changes entirely. Now you've got crop, auto edit and other editing functions. Our favourite is the rotation tool in the centre: swipe this to rotate the image to your preference. Tap Done to go back to the default Photos Touch Bar layout.
The default App Controls for Apple Maps are very simple. You just get icons for restaurants, cafes, shops and cinemas: tap one of these and Maps will run a search for nearby businesses answering that description.
Once you get stuck into Maps, however, the Touch Bar becomes far more interesting. Select any of the businesses found in that initial search, for instance, and you get a button to bring up directions to it, as well further controls to go to the firm's website, call (don't worry - a further confirmation is required before the call is actually placed through FaceTime audio, so you're unlikely to call by accident), favourite (or unfavourite) it, get more information and (very usefully) send the details to a contact.
Mail is a really strong example of the Touch Bar's power, essentially bringing the convenience of iOS's QuickType predictive keyboard to Mac. As on iPhone, suggested words and emoji appear just above the keyboard, enabling you to rattle out emails more quickly.
There's also, inevitably, an emoji button - which we'll look at in the next section - a second button, and the usual generic controls on the right.
If you tap the smiley face in Mail (or in Messages, for that matter), Touch Bar transforms into a swipeable menu of emoji: most frequently used, by default, but you can tap the button on the left to select a different menu of images. Tap the emoji you want to include in your message.
How to access the Function keys on Touch Bar
The Touch Bar replaces the row of Function keys, but don't worry: it's easy to bring them back.
All you need is to hold down the Fn key on the MacBook Pro's keyboard (it's the bottom left key), and the Touch Bar will promptly display the old Function keys.
By default, the Fn button brings up the Function keys on the Touch Bar. However: if you open the keyboard section of System Preferences and explore the options related to the Touch Bar, you'll see that you can customise what the Fn button does. Jump to the section where we discuss customisation options if you want to change what the Fn button does to the Touch Bar.
How to get the Escape key on Touch Bar
This depends on which app you're using. In most of the main apps Esc is present on the far left; this includes Photos, Mail, Safari and Keynote. If the app you're using doesn't include Esc, check the customisation palette and see if it's available to add so that it shows up in that app in future.
At any time, too, you can click somewhere on the desktop and the Touch Bar will revert to its standard default layout, which includes Esc.
It's also possible to reassign one of the hardware keys to act as Escape on a system-wide level. Open System Preferences and select Keyboard. Select the Keyboard tab and click Modifier Keys at the bottom right. Below the keyboard dropdown (make sure you pick the right one), you should see a list of four keys: Caps Lock, Control, Option and Command. We'd avoid reassigning Control, Option or Command and opt for reassigning Caps Lock as you can achieve the same effect by typing while holding the Shift key. Whatever your decision, select the key of your choice and select Escape from the drop-down window. Click OK to save your preferences.
How to customise the Touch Bar
It's pleasingly intuitive to customise the functions that appear in the Touch Bar. In fact, it operates essentially like the Dock in macOS or iOS - you just drag functions down to it and they'll appear there instantly. Bear in mind, however, that this is done on an app-by-app basis, and Apple says only that "some apps" allow you to customise the way Touch Bar works.
First of all, let's look at some global settings and preferences for the Touch Bar.
Display App Controls, Control Strip or both
Open System Preferences then open the Keyboard section. Make sure you're in the Keyboard pane - the word Keyboard on the left should be highlighted in blue. You'll see two dropdown option menus in the centre which relate to the Touch Bar: 'Touch Bar shows' and 'Press Fn key to'.
In the first of these dropdowns, 'Touch Bar shows', you get to decide on a global level whether the Touch Bar will show just App Controls (the functions specific to the application you're using), just an Expanded Control Strip (brightness and volume controls, media buttons and the like), or - the default choice - a mixture of the two.
The lower of the two Touch Bar-related dropdown menus in System Preferences > Keyboard, 'Press Fn key to', selects what the Fn key will do to the Touch Bar. The default here is to bring up the Function keys, but if you selected 'App Controls' or 'App Controls with Control Strip' in the menu above, you can make the Fn key show or expand the Control Strip. And if you selected 'Expanded Control Strip', you can make the Fn key show the app-specific controls.
I've made that sound complicated. Basically, the Fn key can be made to display either the Function keys, or whichever Touch Bar element you didn't pick as the default.
Customise controls that the Touch Bar displays for each app
Now let's look at how to customise the controls and icons that the Touch Bar displays for each application.
Selected apps will let you bring up a palette of functions onscreen - and you do this within the app itself, not in System Preferences.
Open Finder, for instance, then select View > Customise Touch Bar, and you'll see the options below. All you need to do is click-and-drag your chosen function down to the bottom of the screen, whereupon it will appear in the Touch Bar. The existing controls will wobble very slightly to indicate their are open to editing - just like app icons in iOS when you're moving apps around.
To change the Touch Bar controls in other apps, open each app in turn and find the option to customise the Touch Bar. It won't necessarily be located in the same section of the menu as in Finder, but looking under View, or in the app's preferences, would be a good place to start. Remember, however, that not all apps allow Touch Bar customisation.
Make sure you're customising the right set of controls
Bear in mind, finally, that you need to make sure your chosen app is displaying the default Touch Bar controls at the moment you select the customisation option, and hasn't switched to some other set of controls because of an unusual context; otherwise you'll just customise the controls for that context, not for general use of that app.
We tried to customise Touch Bar in Safari, for instance - more on that in a moment - but initially made the mistake of doing this while open on a tab running Gmail with a new email currently being composed. So the Touch Bar was displaying QuickType suggestions, emoji and things like that, rather than the normal Safari controls. And when we opened the customisation menu, it tried to change those controls.
Having ensure, first of all, that the default Safari controls are displaying (back and forward buttons, open tab thumbnails etc - you may have to open a new tab on Wikipedia or a similarly straightforward page if this isn't currently the case), we can change the Touch Bar settings for Safari.
To customise the controls displayed by the Touch Bar in Safari, go to View > Customize Touch Bar. New options you can add include Add Bookmark, Reader, Share, Tab Overview, Home, History, Favourites Bar, Autofill and Sidebar.
You can sort of change the Touch Bar controls in Notes, but currently there aren't any additional controls to add - so all you'll be doing is moving the controls around, removing ones you don't like (you can turn off typing suggestions here), or adding spaces between them.
Open Notes and select View > Customize Touch Bar, then drag-and-drop the controls you want into the positions where you want them.
At the 2017 Pwn2Own hacking contest, two participants named Samuel Groß and Niklas Baumstark were able to hijack the Touch Bar display on a MacBook Pro and make it display the following witty message:
We understand that Groß and Baumstark were able to access the display through a flaw in Safari which allowed them to gain root control of macOS.
It probably isn't worth worrying about - any hacker who has access to your Mac and the skills which would let them break into the Touch Bar can do a lot more damage than displaying a funny message, and Apple will plug the flaw in a software update - but it's an interesting and impressive demonstration.