Apple adds Touch Bar to MacBook Pro laptops

By Leo Kelion
Technology desk editor

Image source, Apple
Image caption,
The MacBook Pro gains a panel above its keyboard that displays graphics and can be controlled by touch

Apple has unveiled new high-end laptops that feature a thin interactive display above their keyboards and a fingerprint sensor.

The firm says the MacBook Pro's Touch Bar provides software-specific commands that are more "intuitive" to use than the function keys it replaces.

The announcement was not a surprise, however, because of an earlier leak.

Apple had not updated its MacBook Pro laptops since May 2015. Its MacBook Air models were two months older still.

That has impacted sales. Earlier this week Apple revealed that it had sold 10% fewer Macs in the year ending 24 September than over the prior 12 months.

Researchers suggest the wider PC market has also shrunk, but to a lesser extent.

Image source, Apple
Image caption,
The Touch Bar adapts to the different software being used

"The lack of updates was part of the problem, but it's also the case that the competition has got a lot stronger," commented Roberta Cozza from the tech consultancy Gartner.

"Over the past year we've seen more interest from both business customers and consumers in Windows 10 computers, which have benefited from both the new operating system as well as better designs and better pricing from their manufacturers.

"For some time, Apple's main focus has been the iPhone - which accounts for much of its revenue - and making the iPad a better productive tool. But there are still many users who want PC-grade performance, and they needed this Mac refresh."

There was no update to the MacBook or MacBook Air laptops, nor to the firm's iMac or Mac Pro desktop PCs.

The squeezed laptop and desktop market

Source: Gartner

The figures include desktops and laptops - including hybrid models with detachable touchscreens - but not dedicated tablets such as the iPad Pro

New interactions

Apple's software chief Craig Federighi gave several examples of how the new Touch Bar could be used, including ways to:

  • display and select bookmarks while using an internet browser
  • swipe through photos and then bring up sliders to tweak their colour and make other adjustments
  • speed up typing by auto-suggesting words that can be tapped on - a similar facility already exists on iPhones
  • scroll through and select emojis
Image source, APple
Image caption,
Craig Federighi said the Touch Bar could prove helpful when editing photos

The innovation helps address the fact the laptops' main displays are not touchscreens and cannot be used with a stylus, as is the case with many Windows 10 PCs as well as Apple's iPad Pro.

"It works as a miniature tablet built into the keyboard, allowing users to seamlessly move between keys and a much more nuanced touch interface without lifting a hand," commented Rhoda Alexander from the tech consultancy IHS Markit.

"By contrast, the beauty of a stylus is that it allows you to bring the fluidity of pen input across a myriad of applications, without having to use a particular graphics program to support it.

"The Touch Bar approach may lack some of the fluidity of the stylus solution but offsets that with convenience, the ability to seamlessly blend key functionality and touch input."

Analysis: Rory Cellan-Jones, technology correspondent

Image source, Reuters

Apple did deliver innovation. The Touch Bar is a smart way of giving users a new interface with their computers while differentiating the MacBook Pro from the touchscreen iPad.

But it took 90 minutes to unveil a new and rather limited TV app and an upgrade, albeit a significant one, to just one computer.

Apple surely needs to quicken the pace of innovation if it is to prove that Mac is still cooler than PC.

Ports overhaul

The new Touch ID fingerprint sensor is designed to be used as a way to authenticate payments as well as to quickly switch between different users' accounts.

Image source, Apple
Image caption,
The headphone jack remains but other types of ports found in earlier laptops have been ditched

Apple also said the new 13in and 15in MacBook Pro laptops were thinner and lighter than before, and featured bigger trackpads.

New processors will improve handling of 3D graphics and both versions of the machines now feature four Thunderbolt 3 ports - into which USB-C cables can be plugged.

But there are no longer separate power, HDMI, SD card or USB 3 ports, meaning many users will need adapters to use old peripherals.

Apple did not, however, remove the audio jack, as was the case with the iPhone 7.

Image source, Microsoft
Image caption,
Apple's launch comes a day after Microsoft unveiled new laptops and all-in-one desktops of its own

The Touch Bar-enabled 13in MacBook Pro will start at $1,799 and the 15in version at $2,399.

In the UK they will be £1,749 and £2,349 including VAT - prices that reflect the weaker pound.

By comparison, Microsoft's new Surface Book laptop - which has a 13.5in detachable touchscreen - starts at $2,399, while Lenovo's Yoga 910 - which has a 13.9in detachable display - starts at $1,330.

TV app

Apple also revealed a new app for its TV set-top box, iPhone and iPad, which is simply called TV.

It brings together pre-recorded programmes and movies - available for free or purchase - from a variety of third-party services as well as Apple's own iTunes store.

Image source, Apple
Image caption,
The TV app brings together live broadcasts, pre-recorded TV shows and films into a single location

It is designed to provide an easier way for users to keep track of content they are already part way through viewing as well as discovering new show via recommendations from the firm's team of curators.

The idea is to save the user having to click in and out of other apps searching for content.

But the on-stage demo made no mention of Netflix being included, and it has only been announced for launch in the US at this point.

Tim Cook also revealed that Microsoft's popular video game Minecraft would be coming to the Apple TV before the end of the year.

Image source, Apple

He added that were now 8,000 apps on the platform, which launched a year ago.

However, the firm opted not to release a new version of the hardware to support 4K resolution video, as had been rumoured, putting it at a disadvantage to rivals including Amazon Fire TV and Roku.

Things that happened since Apple last updated the Mac Pro:

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A revamped Mac Pro was unveiled in June 2013 and put on sale six months later, but not been updated since

Apple released the last version of its top-end desktop computer way back on 19 December 2013, but opted not to update it at its latest event.

The "trash can" was targeted at video editors, 3D graphics artists, engineers and other professionals who wanted a powerful workstation.

But three years is a very long time to go without a refresh, and a lot has happened in both tech and beyond in the interim.

To give an idea of how long it's been, all the events below have occurred since the computer went on sale:

  • the European Space Agency landed a robot on a comet
  • Scotland voted no in its independence referendum
  • video game Flappy Bird was released, pulled and released again
  • Apple unveiled two generations of its smartwatch
  • the Ashley Madison infidelity site was hacked
  • the comedian Robin Williams died
  • celebrity photos were stolen from iCloud accounts and posted online
  • the Robocop movie reboot was released at cinemas
  • movie director Michael Bay quit the stage part way through a speech at a Samsung event at the CES tech show

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