The MacBook Pro might have been Apple’s best opportunity yet to put a touchscreen on a Mac, and yet it didn’t.
Chromebooks, Surface laptops, Windows laptops—it’s hard to find a laptop these days that doesn’t have a touchscreen, unless it’s a Mac. Apple’s line on this has been that if you want a touchscreen computer, you should buy an iPad, and that the Mac just isn’t suited for touch. But Apple also said nobody wanted to watch movies on an iPod, and that stylus input was suboptimal. Then we got the iPod Video and the Apple Pencil. But when it comes to touchscreen Macs, there are good reasons why we really will never see one.
“As a software engineer, I think the main reason the Mac doesn’t have a touch screen feature is that it will make using it inconvenient,” software engineer Michael Peres told Lifewire via email. “If it has a touchscreen, your hands will be working against gravity most of the time. This can lead to a muscle strain in the hands and arms that might even lead to a more serious concern.”
The main argument against touch in a laptop is that it’s plain uncomfortable to use. Touching the screen of a phone or a handheld tablet is easy, because it’s right there. But a laptop screen forces you to reach up and hold your whole arm in the air. It’s fine for a quick tap, but not for extended use. There’s even a name for the pain you get when you try: gorilla arm.
Another reason is that touch and mouse input require very different user interface designs. The mouse is accurate down to the pixel, whereas a finger is a blunt sausage. That’s why the tap targets on the iPad are so big. If you ever tried to use a remote-desktop app on your iPad, to control your Mac, you’ll know how hard it is to tap those tiny mouse targets with a fingertip.
“I think the main reason the Mac doesn’t have a touch screen feature is that it will make using it inconvenient.”
The iPad can handle mouse input, but the Mac cannot handle finger input. At least, not without a major interface redesign that would compromise the experience for mouse and trackpad users.
John Ternus, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering, told The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern that the iPad was built from scratch to be a touch-first device, whereas the Mac is optimized for “indirect input.”
Even if Apple updated its Mac apps to work better with touch, you’d still have to deal with third-party apps. It could get very messy.
Aside from the human and UI barriers, there are technical reasons not to put touch in a laptop. One is size. Those MacBook lids are thin. Really thin. Much thinner than an iPad or an iPhone. That’s one reason why we don’t have Face ID in a MacBook yet—it just wouldn’t fit.
Obviously, it’s possible to fit the touch layer inside the lid—other manufacturers manage it just fine—but it seems Apple has decided to spend the “thickness budget” of its MacBook lids in other ways. In the new MacBook Pros, for example, that budget goes to the micro-LED display.
And to make the screen truly useful, it might have to fold around the back of the MacBook’s lower shell.
The Pros and Cons
There are some great counter arguments for adding touch. One is that you don’t need to interact fully with the UI via touch. Sometimes you might just want to tap something, or to scroll through a web page. But anyone who has followed Apple for more than five minutes knows that it doesn’t do this kind of half-baked design.
“If it has a touchscreen, your hands will be working against gravity most of the time.”
Another is that we already can run iPad and iPhone apps on the Mac, and these really do work better with touch. Especially apps that require multitouch gestures, which are impossible with a mouse, and absurdly tricky with a trackpad.
For someone who uses and loves both the Mac and the iPad, a hybrid device is tempting. Imagine flipping the screen around the back of your MacBook Air and using it like an iPad, with actual iPad apps. That’s the dream, but in this case, it really does seem like Apple doesn’t want to make a touchscreen Mac.