We take a look at the next OS X
The instant that iOS 7’s striking new look was revealed last year, it felt inevitable that the Mac would follow in the same direction. Though in many ways Yosemite’s new look is a less dramatic change from Mavericks than iOS 7 was from iOS 6 (Apple was already making its apps’ windows simpler aesthetically on the desktop), it’s still the biggest change OS X has seen since its release – at least visually. It’s also one of the best changes.
Though the design language is the same as iOS 7, Apple hasn’t just translated the look to the desktop. There are flat buttons and frosted glass, yes, but it all hews closer to its predecessor than iOS 7 did – the icons have a little more texture, there’s more allowance for elements such as button edges. And, crucially, it all works the same as Mavericks. Parts of iOS 7 were a change in how you interacted with the device as well as a visual change, but Yosemite just looks different, for the most part; there are new features, and Spotlight is more interactive, as we’ll come to. This means that Yosemite’s most obvious change isn’t a big learning experience – but is it a big upgrade?
On the Retina MacBook Pro we had running Yosemite, we found it much more pleasant to look at, and ultimately to use because of this. The smaller space of laptop screens feels like it may have been a particular consideration – elements such as toolbar buttons being collapsed into the title bar of apps (freeing up precious extra space for the content of apps) really helps at 15 inches or less. Not all of the interface changes have practical advantages like this – in most cases, it’s just… nice.
All that said, the new look currently has a few inconsistencies. The transparency effect feels like it’s applied a bit haphazardly – you wonder why Maps and Safari have the ‘frosted glass’ toolbars, but Preview isn’t deemed worthy. In Messages, the left-hand pane (the list of conversations) is translucent, while the right-hand one (the conversation) is solid, with the divide between the two stretching through the toolbar. Then you have Mail, which also has two panes (your list of emails and the email content), yet both are solid – you only get translucency if you open up the Mailboxes pane – but that doesn’t divide the entire app like it does in Messages.
A more actively confusing inconsistency is in the green traffic light button. Its normal use in Yosemite is to make an app fullscreen, but in some apps, it still does its old behaviour – making the app fit its content. The only sign as to which it will do is whether it becomes a ‘+’ or two triangles when you hover the mouse over it. We suspect Apple is still planning some ironing out of Yosemite’s interface, even if it largely works well so far.
It’s also worth saying that Yosemite isn’t quite as pretty on non-Retina screens. It’s easily usable, and is mostly just as strong, but the new font in particular is just better suited to the higher-res screens.
Substance over style
Of course, the new design isn’t all there is to Yosemite. There are new features both in the OS itself and in its apps – though the most interesting are the new ways it can connect with iOS 8 devices. Apple calls this ‘Continuity’, and it includes the ability to receive and send text messages (rather than just iMessages) and make and receive phone calls from your Mac, and send files between iOS and Mac using AirDrop.
Most impressive, though, is a feature called Handoff. This lets you start a task in an app on your Mac – say, writing an email – and then pass that task to your iOS device, to continue from where you left off. It means you don’t need to worry about finishing tasks at your desk when you’re tight for time – you can just send it to your iPhone and continue on, say, your commute. It works the other way too, so you can send something to your Mac from your iPad. Most of Apple’s built-in apps will support it, and third-party apps will
be able to include it, too. It will only work with newer Macs with Bluetooth 4.0, though.
iCloud Drive turns iCloud from an invisible, inscrutable storage option to one you can browse like any other. Files can be divided into folders based on the app they work with. Files created on iOS are stored here as well, so they’re easy to find, at last! Sadly, we weren’t able to test these features in our version of Yosemite. We’ve seen them all in use in the flesh, though, and they look incredibly slick, even if still works-in-progress.
We could, however, try out Yosemite’s other features. Spotlight has seen some of the biggest changes, moving from a small search box in the corner to a large source of information in the middle of the screen. You still hit Spacebar] to invoke Spotlight, but it now searches local businesses, Wikipedia and things like movie times, bringing the results up right in its window where you can interact with them like an app in its own right. It can also do live conversions (instead of just sums), and is smart enough that you don’t even need to type in what you want to convert to – just type in ‘30cm’ and it will instantly bring up ‘=11.8 inches’ after (with other measurement options underneath). It’s really slick, and very useful. It feels like the principles of Siri, applied in a way that makes sense for the Mac – information available instantly, accessed in the fastest way. On the iPhone, Apple considers that to be your voice; on the Mac it’s your keyboard.
Notification Center is also updated to put useful information at your fingertips. The new Today view includes widgets to give you a customisable overview of what’s going on. Apple’s defaults include things like calendar appointments, reminders and weather, but it’s also open to developers, so there will probably be everything from sports trackers to server status notifiers. It feels like a reinvention of good ol’ Dashboard in many ways, but being less intrusive and more concise, it also feels more useful.
Handoff: you can start a task on your Mac and then pass it to your iOS device to continue working
Safari is usually one of the apps to get a lot of attention from Apple, and Yosemite is no different. The search/URL bar has been tweaked, with a new way to quickly activate Reader view, and the useful ability to see your Favorites whenever you click in the URL search bar, making them more accessible.
One key addition to Safari is the new tab view. This arranges all your open tabs into stacks based on their site, making it much easier to sift through them if you tend to keep dozens open at once. It’s not perfect, though: you can’t actually see thumbnails of the sites at the bottom of the stacks, only snippets of their titles. Hopefully Apple will add a Quick Look-like option for browsing through these.
Mail gets two new features in Yosemite. We weren’t able to test sending huge files as download links, but the ability to annotate images or sign documents from within a message is a nice touch. That said, Preview has all the same abilities (and a few others), so it’s more of a timesaver than something you can’t do elsewhere on your Mac.
The Messages app also gets new features, to bring it into line with its iOS 8 equivalent. There are more fine-grained controls for group conversation (including, crucially, muting them), and support to receive and send Soundbites, which are short audio clips you record to send to someone. Not everyone will get much use out of Soundbites, but we like the idea – sending a quick audio message to someone can be fun, and at times actually quite convenient.
We’ve loved using Yosemite even without taking advantage of its biggest new features. It looks fantastic, and things like the new Spotlight make it genuinely more useful – after only a few minutes, Mavericks seems old-fashioned in comparison. This could be one of OS X’s most important releases yet.
Mail’s annotation tool is brilliantly easy to use, and saves you having to jump in and out of Preview if you want to add notes to an image or PDF.
Safari’s revamped Smart Search Bar brings up more information directly now, starting with your Favorites when you click on it.
Notification Center’s new Today tab includes customisable widgets. Apple provides a few, but more will be available through the Mac App Store.
You can name group conversations in Messages, easily add new people into a conversation, and silence notifications for noisy threads.