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Hands-on: An accessory that gives the MacBook Air a touchscreen

If you've been dreaming of a MacBook with a touchscreen, the odds are slim-to-none that Apple will ever indulge your fantasy – apart from a controversial Touch Bar. That leaves room for products like Neonode's AirBar to fill in that gap. We took the new MacBook Air-compatible AirBar for a spin at CES 2017.

AirBar is a long device that sits below a laptop's screen, emitting an invisible light field across the display. Connected to the laptop's USB port, the system then senses your touch gestures as if it had built-in touchscreen tech.

The MacBook Air model we demoed was running beta software and wasn't yet reading multi-touch gestures. Its single-finger touches, however, worked fairly well (its aim was slightly off, which a rep also explained away as being due to beta software). A Windows machine next to it, running retail software, worked startlingly well: Apart from the AirBar sitting below its screen, you'd be hard-pressed to know it wasn't a touch-native model.

The company promised us that, when it ships, the final MacBook Air model will have that same level of performance we saw on the Windows laptop.

Currently the 13-in MacBook Air is the only model of Apple notebook officially supported. I asked if the same model would support the previous-gen (pre-Touch Bar) 13-in MacBook Pro with Retina Display, given it has the same USB 3.0 ports and display size, and a representative said that it has less room below its screen: While it would technically work, the device would physically cut off some of the macOS dock at the bottom.

The company is also interested in creating a smaller model that works better with the rMBP, as well as USB-C versions for the 12-inch MacBook and 2016 MacBook Pros.

In addition to the not-fully-working prototype we demoed, there are other reasons to apply healthy skepticism. Unlike Windows 10, macOS isn't designed for touch input. Many target areas will be difficult to precisely select, given the system's cursor-oriented nature. There's also the fact that the MacBook Air, with its last-gen display resolution, is growing more obsolete by the day: You may find you'd rather take the money that would go towards an AirBar, and invest it in a newer machine with sharper screen and native touch input.

AirBar for the 13-in MacBook Air launches in early March for US$99. You can currently buy a model for Windows-based 15.6-inch laptops ($69); a version for 13.3-in and 14-in Windows notebooks will arrive alongside the MBA version in March.

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