A first look at macOS Catalina (public beta now available)

Apple today opened up its macOS Catalina Public Beta Program, so I thought it useful to share some first impressions of the new Mac OS.

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Apple officially opened up its Public Beta Program today for its newest deskop OS.

So I thought it might be useful to share some first impressions of macOS Catalina. I’ve spent a little time with it since its introduction at WWDC

You can try macOS Catalina for yourself

Mac users who want to test the beta themselves can sign-up to join Apple’s Public Beta Program.

These instructions may help you install the OS on your Mac.

My advice before you do:

  • Don’t install the OS on a Mac you must rely on.
  • Backup all your data before you install.
  • Check software compatibility before you install, particularly for third-party applications that may be essential to your work.
  • Remember this is beta software and sometimes things go wrong.

First steps with Catalina

Some of the best features – such as Sign in With Apple or Find My – aren’t yet fully realized, because services haven’t adopted it yet. But I imagine that since public testing has begun, we’ll see some of those features enter wider deployment.

However, once I installed Catalina I was impressed with how quickly I became familiar with it.

While there’s lots of new additions buried inside the OS, Apple has protected the familiar Mac UI, so nothing feels too different – even though in some ways, it really is.

Get to know Voice Control

Voice Control in macOS Catalina is possibly my favorite feature.

I have found some pronunciation challenges and Voice Control (beta) has sometimes been a little buggy, but not critically so. For me, it has been a real delight figuring out how to use my Mac with just my voice, though for many users it means so much more than that.  

I’ve also found the system to be quite responsive when I want to add custom words.

Making corrections – while a little cumbersome – is pretty easy, too. I mean, saying “Move up two lines. Select previous word. Capitalize that,” still feels awkward to me, but it’s a lot less awkward than speech-to-text systems used to be – and it’s wild that this is now a free feature on every Mac.

Using Voice Control to navigate the Mac is another revelation. Using a combination of on-screen labels and grid references you can direct your Mac mouse to precisely where you want it to be. I think this is superb.

macos catalina pro display xdr IDG

Photos: It’s not an app, it’s an intelligent curator

Across all its supported platforms, Apple’s vision for Photos is that the application acts more as a smart curator to help you get the best out of your images than merely as a simple photo archive.

Back when Photos was first announced earlier this century, Steve Jobs likened it to a digital shoebox for all your old images that made them easier to sort through and enjoy.

These days it’s a smart shoebox.

It will find images for you, sort them, assemble them into useful albums, and is capable of intelligently analyzing your images to find the best shots you’ve got.

Photos is a brilliant illustration of how Apple wants to pour AI into your devices.

Not only can the application identify great images, but when it generates a Memory (a curated collection of images around a topic, place or subject) it can figure out how to enhance an image to make it better using a combination of machine intelligence tricks and analysis.

Better yet, it does all of this work on the device itself.

Your information is not shared and any data that does need to ship between your devices is heavily secured, anonymized and so forth.

Apple doesn’t know what your images include, but your device (including your Mac) knows how to present them to you and make them better.

All the young Apps

Catalina promises to bring a mass migration of iPad apps over to the Mac.

There are lots of people promising to use this to bring apps across, but right now we have Apple’s TV, Music and Podcast apps, which work in much the same way as their iOS equivalents.

One of the biggest changes most Mac users will experience is in syncing an iOS device with their music and media library:

While before you connected your device to boot iTunes to engage in the task, now you will sync devices in the Finder. And it works in exactly the same way.

macos catalina tv app Apple

The TV app is where you'll find your movies and TV shows now.

All the old apps

Some apps just won’t work on Catalina.

This didn’t impact me, but anyone relying on 32-bit versions of apps (such as older versions of Adobe Creative Suite or Office) will find the Catalina demands they upgrade the app.

The workers demand more: Mail and Safari

Safari is faster, smarter and more secure in Catalina.

I’ve always tended to ignore browser start pages as these always seem to end up becoming quite cluttered – it’s ended up being easier to just type the URL I need.

With this in mind it’s a pleasant surprise that the new (smarter) Start Page in Safari is actually really good, mainly because AI/Siri works pretty hard to populate the page with sites you go to. It also works to provide you with a route to where you may need to go to, based on websites in your browsing history, bookmarks, reading list, iCloud tabs, and links sent to you in Messages.

Mail works a little better, but I still think it needs more attention – a large mail database shouldn’t hang your Mac. (Here’s what to do if it does).

I do like the new features that let you mute threads, block senders and unsubscribe from messages, particularly all those messages from websites you're not interested in.

Notes: Smarter and better at handling lots of items

I’m a fan of Notes. I use it a lot.

I like it as it lets me work busily away on projects across all my devices, so I’m pleased with the improvements Apple’s introduced in Catalina.

One focus of these improvements is to make it easier to use and find notes – Gallery view is good if you like to find notes visually, while the new search tool will recognize objects or scenes within images in your notes and find specific text in scanned items.

Notes also provides suggested searches, which may sometimes save a little time.

I get the impression Apple is swimming with the tide here – I think it recognizes that as people make more use of Notes it must ensure the notes people take are easy to find.

Apple has also thrown in a bunch of collaboration improvements across both iOS and macOS platforms, and these extend to Notes, which now shares Folders as well as individual notes.

macos catalina itunes store Apple

Yes, that's the iTunes Store. It lives!

Sidecar and other stories

You’ll be able to use an iPad as a second screen in Catalina, and also as a connected graphics tablet.

The iPad can be connected wirelessly or via its cable to your Mac to operate in this mode. The following iPad models are compatible with macOS Catalina and Sidecar:

  • iPad Pro (12.9in, 11in, 10.5in iPad Pro, 9.7in 2016-2018)
  • iPad (6th and 5th generation, 2017-2018)
  • iPad mini (5th generation and iPad mini 4, 2015-2019)
  • iPad Air (3rd generation and iPad Air 2, 2014-2019)

In this mode you can mirror Mac apps on your iPad – this lets you use your tablet as a kind of control surface, though it isn’t actually running the app on the iPad. You’ll also find a Touch Bar appears on your iPad, even if your Mac lacks one.

You can also use Apple Pencil with your iPad to draw pictures or annotate items on your Mac – effectively, Apple gives most iPad-owning Mac users a free graphics tablet for their Mac with Catalina.

wwdc ios13 sidecar Apple

Overall impressions

While most attention will be given to iPad apps migrating to Mac and Sidecar, for me, this release is primarily about applied machine intelligence on Macs.

You see, every other feature seems to rely on this, from improved sets of data detectors to intelligent recommendations and smarter search features and beyond.

Photos is the poster child for Apple’s approach of delivering real convenience to users while also working to protect their privacy – and what I’ve seen of the operating system so far makes me feel pretty confident that the long-term vision turns the Mac into an active smart collaborator to help you get things done.

That’s an augmentation that makes sense – not only will you continue to be able to do everything Macs ever have been capable of doing, but you’ll also find your Mac becoming an increasingly personalised and trusted advisor, helping you make better decisions and offering advice when you hit the wall.

I’ll be interested to learn other people’s first impressions of Catalina during the beta process. Please let me know what you find.

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