Apple’s new MacBook Pro Touch Bar is powered by a variant of WatchOS

apple macbook pro touch bar watchos eos front image
During Apple’s press conference on Thursday, we were rather dazzled by the new Touch Bar in the MacBook Pro, a touch-enabled OLED-based “strip” embedded above the keyboard that extends from one side of the keyboard to the other. It essentially keeps both hands in the keyboard area, with one hand using the huge trackpad and the other accessing tools on the bar, eliminating the mouse. But how does this strip work?

Touch Bar is powered by WatchOS

Naturally, Apple isn’t going to come forth to reveal all of its secrets. However, Irish programmer and developer Steven Troughton-Smith took a close look at the hardware and software to determine it’s one huge Apple Watch monitored by Apple’s new T1 security chip. This chip is supposedly a variant of the S1 system-on-chip (SoC) processor used in Apple’s wearables.

In a nutshell, MacOS will send information about the current frame stored in memory (before it’s flashed on the screen) to the Touch Bar, which relies on a special version of WatchOS. This data is sent over an internal USB connection, and WatchOS will relay multitouch input events back to MacOS to render on the stored screen state before it’s displayed.

At one point, rumors suggested that the T1 chip would control the Touch Bar for power reasons outside the security features. Troughton-Smith believes that this is still possible, allowing the strip to remain functional when the processor and MacOS are in sleep mode, possibly even turned off. Overall, the chip is used to manage the security of input devices like Touch ID, the camera, the Touch Bar, and so on.

“From the file system, even though it’s a variant of WatchOS, it seems to be called e[mbedded]OS. Or just ‘eos’, sans marketing capitalization,” he writes. “The ‘Bridge’ code name seems to make a lot of sense, considering it’s bridging between the iOS and MacOS worlds in one product.”

The variant of WatchOS used in the Touch Bar supposedly can’t run stand-alone WatchOS apps. The Touch Bar itself is backed by a 25MB “ramdisk, a virtual hard drive stored in memory for booting up the OLED strip and controlling its hardware. The Touch Bar will also only be capable of handling one active program at a time, thus programs running in the background will be unable to take control of the bar.

The long and skinny on resolution

As for the actual hardware specs of the Touch Bar, it supports 10-point touch input. The bar replaces the typical row of function keys on the keyboard, so its physical size is roughly the same from front to back. Physically, the OLED strip measures 2,170 pixels wide and 60 pixels high. It’s a high-resolution Retina screen, so with UI scaling, it equals out to a perceived resolution of 1,085 x 30. This does not include the Touch ID sensor, which is technically part of the Touch Bar device.

To break the three regions down physically, the System Button has a dedicated 128 pixel area, the App Region has a dedicated area of 1,370 pixels, and the Control Strip has a maximum collapsed area of 608 pixels. These three areas are divided by two gaps measuring 32 pixels each. Apple goes even further with the app control design, stating that the default width between controls should be 16 pixels, the small fixed space should be 32 pixels, and the large fixed space should be 64 pixels.

For instance, the definition of a “fluid” layout in the App Region would be buttons measuring 144 pixels wide separated by gaps measuring 31 pixels wide. Or, in the case of document editing, a list for possible words would appear in a field measuring 890 pixels wide, a button measuring 144 pixels wide next to it, and two additional controls measuring 151 pixels wide.

“In a @2x graphic, one point equals two pixels. For example, an icon that’s 36px by 36px translates to 18pt by 18pt,” Apple explains to developers. “Append a suffix of @2x to your image names, and insert them into @2x fields in the asset catalog of your Xcode project.”

Some of the standard inputs and displays offered by the Touch Bar include buttons to initiate app-specific actions, toggles such as turning on underlining while creating a document, candidate lists that show suggested words, character pickers, color pickers, labels that describe a control (“add location” etc.), and popovers. This latter function appears as a stacked icon in a collapsed state, but when touched, will expand across the entire App Region to the right. Customers will also see sliders, scrubbers (like the ability to slide through open Safari tabs), segmented controls, and sharing service pickers.

Does Touch Bar pave the way for more iOS features and apps in MacOS?

Again, there’s indication that the T1 chip and Touch Bar are tied together outside the security envelope. As previously mentioned, Troughton-Smith theorizes that the Touch Bar could remain active when the processor and MacOS are in low power, perhaps even turned off. This could lead to iOS features and apps on MacBook Pros in the future.

“Perhaps someday it could run a higher class processor, like Apple’s A-series chips, and allow MacOS to ‘run’ iOS apps and Extensions, like iMessage apps, or manage notifications, system tasks, networking, during sleep, without having to power up the x86 CPU,” he speculates.

However, he also points out the link between the T1 chip and the Touch ID sensor. They’re both tied together like the way Touch ID is linked to the security chip in Apple’s latest iPhones. If the sensor goes out, both the sensor and the security chip will need to be replaced. And based on Apple’s Touch Bar guidelines, the Touch ID sensor appears to be physically part of the OLED device, so that indicates the whole section above the keyboard would need to be replaced if that’s the case.

One confirmation backing speculation that the Touch Bar can run without MacOS loaded was provided by Apple software engineering chief Craig Federighi. He acknowledged that the OLED strip provides visual function keys when running Microsoft Windows on a Mac. Apple provides what it calls Boot Camp, which allows users to install Microsoft Windows and boot either into MacOS or Microsoft’s platform on a Mac device.

Apple sets the Touch Bar rules

Apple now provides developers with an application program interface (API) and guidelines for developing Touch Bar support in their apps and programs. According to Apple, the Touch Bar is an input device, and not a secondary screen even though, technically, it is a screen.

“The user may glance at the Touch Bar to locate or use a control, but their primary focus is the main screen,” Apple states. “The Touch Bar shouldn’t display alerts, messages, scrolling content, static content, or anything else that commands the user’s attention or distracts from their work on the main screen.”

Some of the rules Apple is enforcing include concluding tasks on the Touch Bar that begin on the OLED strip, avoid using Touch Bar for replacing well-known keyboard shortcuts, avoid mirroring Touch Bar interactions on the main screen, provide controls that product immediate results, and more.

Product Review

You don't need a gaming phone, but the Red Magic 3 will make you want one

Gaming phones have arrived, and Nubia has pulled a tempting example from its top hat in the shape of the impressive Red Magic 3. A huge display, speedy performance, and more make this a dream phone for gaming.
Gaming

Magic: The Gathering SDCC 2019 panel reveals addition of Brawl to MTG Arena

Wizards of the Coast revealed at the Magic: The Gathering panel at SDCC 2019 that Brawl is coming this year to MTG Arena. The arrival of the Commander variant is part of a wider announcement on the new expansion, Throne of Eldraine.
Computing

Listen up Apple: Here’s how to fix the Touch Bar once and for all

If you’re wondering what the point of the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar is, you’re not alone. We know it’s got potential, but it’s never managed to hit the heights of what it promised. Here’s what Apple must do to change it for the…
Computing

Lost without Print Screen? Here's how to take a screenshot on your Mac

Whether you prefer to use keyboard shortcuts or applications such as Grab and Preview, this guide will teach you how to take a screenshot on a Mac. Once you know how, you'll be able to capture images within seconds.
Gaming

Wage war on a budget with these fun and free first-person shooters

We all know about Halo and Call of Duty by now, but what about quality titles that won't cost you upward of $60? Check out our picks for the best free first-person shooter games from Paladins to Quake Champions.
Computing

PDF to JPG conversion is as quick as a few clicks with these simple methods

Converting file formats can be an absolute pain, but it doesn't have to be. We've put together a comprehensive guide on how to convert a PDF to JPG, no matter which operating system you're running.
Computing

Google Chrome 76 will stop websites from seeing users in Incognito Mode

Google Chrome 76 will implement a fix that will stop websites from detecting visitors who are in Incognito Mode. Google acknowledged that the change will complicate matters for publishers who have metered paywalls on their news websites.
Computing

Gmail's unsend email feature is one of its best. Here's how to use it

Everyone has sent a message they wish they could take back. How great would it be if you could undo that impulsive email? If you're a Gmail user, you can. Here's how to recall an email in Gmail.
Computing

How to change your Gmail password whenever you want in just a few quick steps

Regularly updating your passwords is a good way to stay secure online, but each site and service has their own way of doing it. Here's a quick guide on how to change your Gmail password in a few short steps.
Computing

Converting files from MKV to MP4 is quick and easy. Just follow these steps

MKV files have their place, but if you would rather convert your videos from MKV to MP4, there are two methods we consider the best and most efficient for getting it done. In this guide, we'll walk you through them step by step.
Gaming

Be forewarned, these free MMORPGs will slay your spare time

Have ample time on your hands and an unquenchable thirst to beat, battle, and blast your way through worlds of fantasy and sci-fi splendor? Check out our picks for the best free MMORPGs.
Computing

Here's how to download a YouTube video to watch offline later

Learning how to download YouTube videos is easier than you might think. There are tools you can use both online and offline. This step-by-step guide will instruct you on how to use them.
Computing

Need to rip audio from a video? Here's how to download music from YouTube

Ripping audio from YouTube has never been easier, but with so many tools on offer, which is the best? Our guide will teach you how to download music from YouTube with two different tools. Just proceed with caution.
Computing

M4A is great for quality, but not for storage. Here's how to convert to MP3

Despite its remarkable ability to retain audio fidelity at a smaller size, M4A files aren't the best when it comes to compatibility. Check out our basic guide on how to convert M4A files to MP3.