I like the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar, Apple’s baby step toward a touchscreen Mac that may never happen. It can be helpful (scrolling through a filmstrip of photo thumbnails) and fun (playing Pac-Man).
But the thin touch-sensitive screen that sits above the keyboard will remain a curiosity for most until it can partner with our most-used productivity applications, like Microsoft Office. Well, that's happening. Microsoft released a public update to Office that includes Touch Bar support on Thursday.
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SEE ALSO: MacBook Pro with Touch Bar banned from bar exam in multiple states
For those of you unfamiliar with Microsoft’s productivity suite on macOS, it’s just as powerful and smooth as it is on Microsoft’s Windows 10. If you’ve ever used Word, Excel, PowerPoint or Outlook on Windows or even on the web via Office 365, the macOS version will be instantly familiar.
Test-driving Touch Bar support in Microsoft Office for Mac. Kind of fun. pic.twitter.com/EyxchoskWX
— Lance Ulanoff (@LanceUlanoff) February 14, 2017
Similarly, Touch Bar integration works just as you'd expect it to across the Office suite. On the beta version of the software I tried, I didn't have to do anything to activate Touch Bar controls. As expected, the Touch Bar's OLED screen adapts to the the specific app, but it also varies quite a bit within application tasks.
The limited screen real estate means you won’t find all the control you gain through the ribbon on Word or Excel, but that's kind of the point. The Touch Bar is there to surface what Microsoft assumes are your most often-used features. It’s sort of a visual manifestation of the 80/20 rule (80% of people use 20% of an app’s features).
Test driving Touch Bar integration in Microsoft Excel for Mac. I like the chart controls. #[email protected]/2g6l41Wvb0
— Lance Ulanoff (@LanceUlanoff) February 15, 2017
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While you use the Touch Bar, the onscreen ribbon disappears, , since the actions you need are still there, and you get an bit of screen space back. For example, as I wrote this review I considered underlining the words “which is fine” in the previous sentence. That option, along with Bold, Italic, Highlight, Bullets, Text Color and even the Clipboard are all still a touch away. Additional menu choices like Comments and adding Hyperlinks are on the Touch Bar, too, but you'll need to slide to the left to see them — still faster than hunting it down with your trackpad or mouse.
I’m also pleased with how the Touch Bar transforms for specific tasks and, especially, how it can take some features in new directions.
Follow: If you insert a photo in Word or PowerPoint, the Touch Bar now gives you access to a real-time rotation slider. To rotate a photo incrementally, you just slide your finger back and forth on the Touch Bar. It’s a smart feature and fun to use.
In Excel, the Touch Bar supplies access to expected formatting options, but also extends to chart creation and editing. With the Touch Bar, I can do everything from selecting the kind of chart I want (bar, fever, area, scatter) to switching the data axes — each action takes a single tap. The Bar can handle Excel functions, too, but access to them is somewhat non-obvious. First, you need to type an equals sign in a cell, then a scrollable list of functions appears.
PowerPoint may have the best Touch Bar menu. I think I could almost create an entire presentation without accessing the traditional menu. The integration includes text formatting, bullet lists, the creation of new slides and text boxes. It even offers the ability to move objects back and forth in the object stack.
When it’s time to present, the Touch Bar shows you a presentation button. Tapping it transforms the Touch Bar into a thumbnail view of your presentation that you can slide through and tap on to bring any slide into view on the main screen. I also appreciate that Microsoft chose to add a clock on the Touch Bar so you can keep track of how long you’ve been presenting.
Test-driving @Microsoft PowerPoint with Touch Bar support on a MacBook Pro. The presentation mode is pretty cool. pic.twitter.com/BJcSLV5JTr
— Lance Ulanoff (@LanceUlanoff) February 16, 2017
I would like to see Microsoft add access to presenter notes on the Touch Bar.
There are other limits, possibly imposed by Apple, on what Office for Mac can do with the Touch Bar. I was, for instance, surprised to see that when I tapped the insert image icon that, instead of seeing a film strip of image thumbnails on the bar, it just launched an on-screen dialogue box where I could access my image files.
Maybe future versions of the Office will let you customize your Touch Bar experience.
Word for the Mac’s Touch Bar also lacks QuickType word suggestions (oddly, Outlook for Mac has them). And despite Microsoft’s efforts to surface my most-used features, it did miss a big one: The ability to convert ALL CAPS TYPING to lower case, upper and lower, or sentence case. This is something I really, really need.
You cannot currently change any of the Touch Bar menus. Maybe future versions of the Office will let you customize your Touch Bar experience.
To get the most out of this Office for Mac Touch Bar support, you must use it, consistently, which, for many, will be the biggest hurdle. I still find myself forgetting that the Touch Bar is there, mostly because I stare at the screen when I type. Perhaps if I use the MacBook Pro more often, tapping on the Touch Bar will become second nature. If that does happen I could see Touch Bar saving me some serious time in the Office for Mac suite.