OS X Yosemite Beta Tested: A Smarter Post-PC Vision

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While Microsoft plans to merge its multiple operating systems into one, Apple wants the mobile and desktop experiences to complement each other — without mashing them together. OS X Yosemite crystallizes that vision. Start composing an email on your iPhone, and you can pick up where you left off on your Mac. Or, dial that restaurant you just searched for right from your MacBook. Apple calls this sort of integration continuity, and it’s a brilliant idea.

Starting July 24, Apple will open its OS X Yosemite beta to the public, enabling Mac owners to kick the tires and provide feedback ahead of the fall launch. Based on our testing of Beta Version 3, there are a lot of things we like about this release, but the best stuff will have to wait until iOS 8 debuts.

We also couldn’t try iCloud Drive, which lets you drag documents to a folder and then access them from your Mac, iOS device or Windows PC. But there are tons of other enhancements that were ready for a critical look, including a fresh new design, a more powerful Spotlight feature, a new Today view, and a leaner and meaner Safari.

Editors’ Note: We have updated our impressions of the developer preview of OS X Yosemite for this beta preview. Apple granted Laptop Mag permission to capture screenshots of the OS. 

OS X Yosemite Public Beta Tips

Apple has provided some guidance on how to participate in the public beta by providing the following tips.

  • Visit Apple’s OS X Beta Program website to sign up for the beta if you haven’t already. Apple says it will limit the beta to the first one million people.
  • Install OS X Yosemite Beta on a secondary Mac. Although the performance on the latest version is more stable than the last, it’s probably best not to use Yosemite as your primary OS for mission-critical work.
  • Make a backup of your Mac before installing. You’ll want to make sure you’ll be able to get everything back should something go wrong.
  • Use the built-in Feedback Assistant app to report any issues. The easiest way to call up this app is to type into the Spotlight search field.

OS X Yosemite Feedback Assistant

  • Expect periodic updates to OS X Yosemite Beta. Apple says you will be upgrade to the final version of the OS when it ships this fall.
  • Note that some apps and services may not work as expected. Because this is beta software that is still in development, it’s possible that you may encounter some compatibility issues with Yosemite.
  • Although you’ll be given the option to install and use iCloud Drive, we suggest that you hold off until you upgrade to the final build of Yosemite in the fall. Any files you create on iOS devices wont’ be able to sync to iCloud Drive until you upgrade your iPhone and iPad to iOS 8.

Design

Flatter, cleaner and chock-full of translucency, OS X Yosemite gives the Mac the same sort of extreme makeover the iPhone and iPad received with iOS 7. The icons in the dock look tighter and more modern — making them easier to spot — and every app has a much more spare-looking aesthetic. However, in some cases, the changes create problems were none previously existed.

MORE: 10 Tips Every iPhone Owner Should Know

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We’re glad that Apple revamped the Toolbar controls at the top of windows. In the top-left corner, you’ll find the same red, yellow and green stoplight buttons as before, but they’re flatter. More important, Yosemite axes the separate full-screen button, instead making the green button serve that purpose. No more redundancy. Another nice touch: As you hover over the buttons, they reveal their functions.

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Another big theme of Yosemite is translucency. Apple didn’t just add this effect to make OS X look fancy; it’s designed to provide a sense of depth, making it easier to identify one app from another when they’re stacked on the desktop. Some apps also have a translucent sidebar, allowing you to see through to the desktop wallpaper. The same translucent treatment applies to the toolbars for apps; when they drop down, they take on the color of what’s in the background.

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The translucency effect isn’t always great. The background color of an app can interfere with the dock at the bottom of the screen, should they overlap, which can make it difficult to discern the icons.

We do give Apple credit for improving Yosemite’s design since the developer build. For instance, before the lines between open tabs in the Safari browser were so fine that it was tough to distinguish them. The beta version of the OS uses shading to tell you which tabs are not being used.

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Today View

If you’re looking for evidence that the design teams for OS X and iOS are collaborating, look no further than the new Today View in Yosemite. Swiping in from the right with two fingers on the touchpad launches a dashboard with two tabs: Today and Notifications.

MORE: 15 Must-Have Mac Apps 2014

At a glance, you can see upcoming appointments, birthdays, reminders, the latest weather, stocks and more. You can also quickly update your LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter status, or start composing an iMessage. We’re particularly excited by the Today View’s support for widgets. For example, you can add a calculator to this screen for easy access.

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Things will really get interesting when Apple allows users to download widgets from the Mac App Store. The company showed an ESPN ScoreCenter widget during Yosemite’s unveiling, as well as an eBay widget that will let you monitor auctions or up your bid. The latter option was shown for iOS 8, but we suspect it will make its way to Yosemite as well. (For now, clicking on the App Store button from the bottom of the widget bar results in an error message.)

We actually prefer having widgets in this location than on the desktop, as they’ll be easier to access. However, the Today View can get pretty long vertically the more options you add. Perhaps Apple could consider adding a second swipe to the left to see all your widgets at once, sort of like a Mission Control view.

Spotlight

Spotlight is one of the most underrated features of OS X, so it was smart for Apple to put it front and center in Yosemite. Tapping the little magnifying glass in the top-right corner now launches a window in the middle of your desktop (or you can type Command-Space). Spotlight doesn’t just look better, though — it’s now so much more powerful that you may use Google less.

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Similar to the Smart Search feature in Windows 8.1, Yosemite can suck info in from the Web, depending on the search. For instance, as we typed “San Francisco,” Spotlight displayed a snippet from Wikipedia that provided a description and key faces, as well as a link to the full article. Yosemite’s Spotlight interface isn’t as immersive as Microsoft’s version, but we suspect Apple would prefer that this tool not take over your display. 

(Editors’ Note: Wikipdedia seems to be missing as a source for Spotlight in Beta version 3. We’re assuming it will be available again for version 4, which will be available to the public.)

MORE: iOS 8: Top 10 New Features

Some Spotlight results are interactive, but we wish more had this feature. For example, you can dial a friend (once iOS 8 is live), send her a message or locate her in Maps. You can also get directions to nearby places, look up what movies are playing and see the trailers.

However, although you can preview iTunes results from music albums (and other content), you can’t play the content within the Spotlight window. You’ll be shuttled off to iTunes Preview in the browser.

Our favorite feature is unit conversion, something we usually leave to Google. If you’re previewing an email message in Spotlight and there’s a link in the thumbnail, you can click on it to launch Safari. We wouldn’t mind if Apple added the ability to copy and paste text from these previews, though.

Safari

With OS X Mavericks, a lot of the new enhancements were behind the scenes, such as a boosted performance and a revamped Sidebar that let you see what your friends and followers are posting to Twitter and LinkedIn. Get ready for a huge change. OS X Yosemite represents a complete design overhaul, starting with the toolbar.

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To make more room for websites, Apple doesn’t display a bookmarks bar by default. Instead, you’ll see a grid of your favorite sites every time you tap the address bar. While we appreciate the slicker look, it’s one more step.

It also takes an extra step to share URLs now if you go the manual route, as Safari displays just the domain by default; you’ll need to click in the bar first and then select it. Fortunately, clicking the bar automatically selects the whole URL. Those who use Safari’s Share button will be able to share directly from the browser to Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, as well as Messages, Mail and AirDrop.

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For those who tend to have too many tabs open (like us), OS X Yosemite offers a new tab view that displays them in a grid. Pages from the same site are stacked on each other. If you’re still having trouble locating a tab, you can find it just by typing on this screen. Speaking of search, the address bar doubles as a Spotlight suggestions bar.

Concerned about privacy? Safari now lets you open a separate Private Browsing Window, and it supports DuckDuckGo searches, which does not track users or store your queries or info.

Mail

Have you ever wished you could sign a document using your touchpad? The improved Mail app enables that neat trick, along with other goodies, via a new Markup and Annotation feature. It took a few seconds to figure out the menus, but we liked how we could draw a circle around an image attachment —Yosemite smoothes out the shapes — as well as add a text box. We could even zoom in on a part of the image we wanted to highlight via a virtual loop.

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MORE: 10 Best Mac Productivity Apps

Not a fan of zipping large files before you send them as attachments? Yosemite’s mail app handles that for you. You can send ginormous videos or other items of up to 5GB. iCloud takes care of the rest. A recipient will receive a link to download the item, keeping them from maxing out the allotted space in their email accounts. We successfully sent 188MB of files to our Gmail account. 

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Messages

Sometimes, words and pictures don’t say enough. That’s why Apple is offering a new Soundbites feature in the Messages application. Just tap the microphone button to capture your clip, and then send it off. A nearby friend played our message right through the Messages app on his iPhone.

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Taking a page from WhatsApp and other messaging apps, Yosemite also improves the group messaging experience. You can name conversations to make them easier to follow, mute notifications from them or drop out at any time. (iOS 8 will get a similar functionality.)

Continuity: Handoff, Phone Calls and Instant Hotspot

This is the one area where OS X Yosemite truly stands out versus Windows 8: devising new ways for smartphones and PCs to interact.

Take Handoff, which lets you pick up where you left off on your Mac or iPhone using a combination of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. For example, you could start typing an email on your iPhone, walk up to your Mac and instantly start finishing up the message on your desktop. Conversely, you could create a presentation on your Mac and then access it on your iPad as you walk toward your meeting.

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To signal that a Handoff is waiting for you, your Mac or iOS device will display an icon on the bottom-left corner of the display. Note that this service will only work with Apple’s own apps (at least at launch). The list includes Mail, Safari, Maps, Messages, Reminders, Calendar, Contacts, Notes and the iWork suite.

MORE: 10 Things You Didn’t Know Your iPhone Could Do

OS X Yosemite integrates with iOS 8 devices in other clever ways. You can make and answer calls right from your Mac — and not just with contacts, but also businesses you might search for online or in Spotlight. Our favorite feature: You can click to dial a conference-call number right from your calendar.

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Messages will also benefit from iOS-Yosemite integration. You’ll finally be able to send texts to friends and business contacts who don’t use iOS. This includes MMS messages.

AirDrop, too, now works between iOS and OS X devices — a long-overdue feature. Even better, you won’t need iOS 8. We were able to send photos back and forth to an iPhone 5s running iOS 7 on the same network.

Last but not least, Instant Hotspot lets you use your iPhone as a hotspot without having to touch the phone itself. It will appear in the Wi-Fi network menu just like any other network.

Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until we can formally test iOS 8 devices to get a better feel for how well all of these continuity features work.

Performance

When we tested the developer preview of OS X Yosemite, we encountered all sort of bugs and instability. But things ran much more smoothly this time around with Beta version 3 of the software, which we ran on a 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display.

We easily streamed full-screen video from ESPN.com, edited photos in Pixelmator and switched between tabs in the Finder without lag.

We did encounter a few hang-ups here and there. For example, after entering my iCloud account info, a dialog box for Don’t Merge or Merge for calendars and reminders remained stuck on the screen. Closing System Preferences and re-opening it fixed the issue.

MORE: Apple OS X Yosemite: Top 7 Features

iCloud Drive

It’s about time. The new iCloud Drive feature in OS X Yosemite finally brings a folder structure to iCloud. You’ll be able to drag documents to it and organize them, just as you would with anything else in Finder. (iCloud Drive will be its own folder on the Finder sidebar.) The difference is that everything will stay in sync across your iDevices.

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Apple says that iCloud Drive is available from the Open and Save panels in various programs, and that you’ll be able to access iCloud Drive from within apps on iOS 8. It will work like a file picker. iCloud Drive will show up as another option on Windows PCs too, right in Windows Explorer. Similar to Dropbox, you can access your files while offline, which are then synced when you’re back online.

The one weakness we see in iCloud Drive is that it doesn’t present all of your synced photos from your iOS devices. Apple will use a separate new Photos app in OS X Yosemite for accessing your images. In other words, your photos and videos aren’t accessible via the Finder tool. We’d rather seem them in both places.

Bottom Line

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OS X Yosemite represents a bold new look for the Mac, but what’s more important is how Apple is approaching the post-PC world. Those who prefer a more familiar desktop environment are still going to have it, but Yosemite weaves in mobile experiences where it makes sense. Features such as Handoff and the ability to make calls from your Mac go well beyond the iCloud bridge Apple has used up until now. We just wish we didn’t have to wait for iOS 8 to see how well it all works.

In the meantime, those who decide to take the plunge with Yosemite will enjoy a much cleaner and more modern interface, a beefed-up search in Spotlight and a Today view you’ll use more often, especially once developers get their hands on it to deliver widgets. The ability to annotate images and send large files in Mail without zip headaches is another plus.

As much as we like Yosemite, though, there are also some things we wish Apple had tackled with this release. Mission Control is still not the best way to multitask, as you can’t close apps from this view. And we wonder how much value Launchpad has now that Apple has modernized the dock; it feels almost vestigial. We also wish that your photos automatically showed up in the Finder, instead of being siloed in the Photos app.

Overall, though, OS X Yosemite proves that Apple’s innovation juices are still very much flowing.


AUTHOR BIO
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
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  1. Jay Hu Says:

    As well written and thoughtful this piece is, you would think the poster is biased from the heading. Just an observation.

  2. David Maydew Says:

    But if both of those aren’t what you want, there’s always Ubuntu 14.04LTS or Linux Mint 17!! Both are good OS’s and for what it’s worth Linux is growing in strength.
    Valve have bought new life, and users to the system, and making it easier for developers to develop games etc.
    I’m a staunch Linux advocate, but if users prefer to use Windows I tell them to stick with 7!

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