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OS X Yosemite Beta Feature Preview
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OS X Yosemite Beta Feature Preview

We take Apple’s upcoming OS X Yosemite Beta for a spin and detail its biggest new features.

Apple’s next big desktop operating system upgrade is almost here, and thanks to a generous beta program even non-developers like myself get to taste what the future of the Mac desktop will look and play like.

Yosemite, the 11th consumer edition of Mac OS X, will be a free download this Fall for most Mac users (check your compatibility before getting too excited). But it won’t come alone, as Apple will also be releasing its brother, iOS8, as an equally free upgrade to those compatible iDevices. The plan is to let the two play together, each relying on its strengths without compromising the other.

While Mavericks introduced several iOS’ apps like Maps and iBooks to Mac users, Yosemite goes further than ever, splicing iOS’ design and aesthetic DNA straight into the beating heart of Apple’s desktop environment. Their goal would be to create not just a visual symmetry between the two but a logically productive one as well.

While this interoperability sounds great, the fear is that Apple would compromise the Mac’s powerful functionality in favor of the streamlined access of iOS devices like iPhones and iPads. After all, we watched Microsoft do this very thing with Windows 8, stripping away features and even familiar interfaces in favor of touch-friendliness and a fairly shameless appeal to mobile users. The blend didn’t work there and it wouldn’t work with Yosemite had Apple taken the same quixotic approach.

This won’t be an actual review because, well, OS X Yosemite isn’t finished yet. It’s a beta, albeit a very well-made beta. I’ll just touch on the features I found most interesting and what they could mean for hardcore Mac users come Fall.

Those curious – and impatient – enough to want to install Apple’s next OS should remember that individual experiences will vary, and it would behoove them to backup their current system before setting out into the wild Yosemite.


Visual Overhaul: Sharp and Transparent

Let’s clear the air: Yosemite is, without question, the most substantial visual overhaul to a major operating system since Windows Vista. That’s not a slur against Microsoft’s maligned 2006 update; issues aside, it was a genuinely beautiful upgrade from the aged Windows XP. In good time Windows 7 may have smoothed things over, but it was Vista that first took the boxy Windows into the future.

This is still very much the OS X environment, just sharper and a whole lot prettier, especially for users who love iOS.

Nearly everything in Yosemite is flatter, more dynamic and easier to take in. Front and center is the default font change from Lucida Grande to Helvetica Neue, the same one made standard in iOS7. It’s a huge improvement; Helvetica Neue is wider, easier to read, and just feels better on these tired old eyes.

Yes, there are plenty of iOS inspired flourishes that help create visual parity with its mobile cousin, but not at the expense of functionality. Taskbar icons are easier to see and click than ever before and make clicking through them somehow more joyous than before. Just look at the familiar red/yellow/green buttons and you’ll see the difference (and feel, as the green button now blossoms into full-screen by default).

Apple’s own app icons have been scrubbed completely and look great, matching their iOS brethren, while carryovers from third-party developers sit comfortably alongside. Take a look at Microsoft’s ‘Metro’ desktop to see how mix-matched icons can dampen a modern interface if not handled correctly. Yosemite handles this correctly.

Another big visual change is that Yosemite employs translucent shading to add dynamic blurring to background images, again like Vista, only more effectively. How useful this ends up being is anyone’s guess, but the effect is certainly very pretty.

One caveat is that the much-touted “Dark Mode’ theme needs fixing, as Apple clearly has their work cut out for them to make this new aesthetic function correctly. Flipping over to the Dark side yields nearly illegible icons, fonts, and in extreme cases, obscures small details entirely. I really hope Apple can fix this before launch as I’d love to see an option for a darker theme on my desktop that actually works.

iCloud Drive Integration: Use What You Have

While users looking to move their trusted files to the cloud have largely been satisfied with services like Dropbox, Box, or even Google Drive, Apple sure hopes you’ll start using a service you probably already have: iCloud Drive.

Yes, Apple’s cloud service now comes fully baked into Yosemite from the start, meaning you’ll be able to do more than backup your contact list and Safari passwords now. Apple touts that sharing files in iCloud Drive is simple and “just as it should be”, and this is true. It’s also exactly what Microsoft does with OneDrive and Google with Google Drive. The new iCloud Drive folder appears right there in Finder, and with little fuss you’ll be uploading, sharing, and using files across all your compatible devices in no time flat.

To be fair, unless you’re wanting to pay for larger storage space (whose pricing changes often) you’ll probably be happy with the given allotment of 5 GB. This is more than enough to handle all your iWork, smaller files, and other work that criss-crosses between your Mac and iOS devices.

Apple further integrating iCloud into the very core of Yosemite is the right thing to do, much like Microsoft tying OneDrive into Windows 8 was beneficial. I’m not sure that having iCloud storage readily available will make anyone drop competitors like Dropbox but it certainly adds even more functionality to a service that’s largely been restricted to contacts and passwords.


Notifications: How’s The Weather?

Say goodbye to the pancake flat Notification bar Apple introduced a few iterations ago and hello to the iOS cribbing alternative. Those coming from iOS7 will feel right at home as it’s pretty much the same exact screen, right down to the new Today tab that houses widgets and functionality like Weather, Calendar, and other goodies from supported third-party apps (provided developers start supporting it). Having such easy access to data like weather may sound simplistic, but I use these things all the time and love the new Notification bar.

Frankly, this new Notification bar will make the stale Dashboard obsolete for most users, and you won’t see me shed a single tear.

Spotlight Search: In Your Face

Remember how unobtrusive and sidelined the old Spotlight feature was? Say goodbye to simple and hello to comprehensive. Spotlight now feels like a silent Siri, displaying results from just about every source it can cull info from, even internet searches, right in the middle of your screen.

Microsoft did something similar with Windows 8 search, adding Bing results to let users search outside the confines of their desktop environment. I didn’t care much for Bing results there and I don’t care much for the search results here. Thankfully, you can micro-organize what Spotlight will search from a sizable menu, and I strongly recommend clicking all the right boxes before settling into your pretty new operating system.

Also, I hope Apple is able to clean up how Spotlight displays its results in a future update, as the sheer glut of responses can feel overwhelming and disorganized. If they can harness the power of such a varied local search engine without intimidating casual users with so much info then the new Spotlight may transform into something great. Speaking of Siri, adding that voice-search in the new Spotlight would make perfect sense.


Mail + Safari: Better, But Not Necessary

Unlike Microsoft, Apple has maintained a relatively stable suite of default apps for many of the most common online functions, including browsing and email. Whether you’ll actually use them is another matter, but at least they’re readily available.

For whatever reason Microsoft has made using email on Windows machines more confusing and cumbersome than need be, splicing out default programs and requiring users to download inferior versions (the less said about Windows Mail, the better). This continued with Windows 8, which shipped with a nearly useless mail app that was laughably function-free for those not who using web-based Outlook. If nothing else Microsoft managed the impossible: making me long for the ‘good’ old days of Outlook Express.

Apple, on the other hand, has maintained their little Mail app through the ages, no doubt because of its interoperability with the iOS equivalent. And like that mobile version it’s an adequate default program, with full support for POP, IMAP, Exchange, and more. I don’t use them myself, having a strong attachment for third-party programs, but if you just need a simple email client without all the fuss than Mail is a great go-to solution.

Apple’s Yosemite upgrade is more than cosmetic as Mail now plays nicely with iCloud storage, a crucial component of the new operating system. Mail handles those extra-large attachments (up to 5 GB) by uploading them to iCloud instead of simply passing them along to your unfortunate recipient. If said recipient also happens to be using Yosemite they’ll be able to download from iCloud directly, reducing the dreaded ‘inbox clogging’ that’s brought down even the best email client.

Non-Yosemite users are still in luck, however, and will see a link to download the attachment directly from iCloud that expires after 30 days. In practice, this feature doesn’t seem to work all the time, and a few tests of messages over 100MB failed to send properly. This is still a beta, after all.

Mail’s most interesting new feature has to be Markup, which lets you add text, shapes, doodles, and even signatures (if you have the right equipment) to documents and images without third party apps right there inline with your message. The tools are similar to those found in Preview, meaning they’re simple and straightforward.

In practice, however, there wasn’t much here that would steer anyone familiar with programs to Apple’s Mail program. Frankly, as cool as some of the new tricks are I didn’t find anything that would convert me from my current mail client (Thunderbird) or those using others like Outlook. Like before, the Mail app remains a little buggy and slow, and definitely not for everyone.

The same goes with Safari. It’s a nice update to a nice browser that I have little interest in using for my personal browsing or productivity. The new streamlined look and feel are definitely nice on the eyes, and I was shocked by how fast pages loaded. But there’s still the unsettling lack of plugins, extensions, and third-party support, which won’t help convert power users like myself from the competition.

That might change somewhat once Apple enables the Handoff feature with iOS8 (see below), but right now it remains the Mac equivalent of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer; a default option and little more.


iTunes 12: Sleeker Than Ever

One big update that few people are talking about is the all-new iTunes, which has been vastly overhauled to help usher in Yosemite. Whether you actually ‘use’ iTunes for more than syncing your iDevice or managing your library, it’s a default app on the Mac and you’ll definitely interact with it sooner or later.

Nearly everything about iTunes 12 looks and functions differently now, from the red icon to the way you’ll manage your libraries of music, videos, apps, books, and everything else. The name of the game is minimalism, though you might long for some hand-holding to help you navigate the cleaner, newer experience Apple has crafted here.

Say goodbye to the initial iTunes Store page, banished to its own tab, while the beloved sidebar is finally gone, replaced with a new row of mini icons that correspond to the type of media you’d like to play. The iTunes Radio link assumes a proper place on the music tab while Internet Radio stations are easier to find this time around.

Managing playlists seems a bit trickier now, as you’ll have to drag and drop songs or radio links dynamically; this means you won’t actually ‘see’ your playlist until you start dragging something. I found this confusing initially, but over the past few days I’ve grown accustomed to it and have no trouble navigating these much simpler tabs and menus.

I’m curious if/when Apple will roll out the new design to non-Mac users, as the vast majority of those using iTunes are Windows users.

Handshake + iOS 8: We’ll Have To See

Unfortunately, many of Yosemite’s most intriguing new features – chiefly those that will interact directly with mobile devices running iOS8 – weren’t available in the beta for an obvious reason – iOS8 isn’t available yet. The biggest new feature is Handshake, which lets your Mac play nice with your iPhone in strange, wonderful new ways.

For iPhone users this means being able to use your Mac to make/receive calls (with your phone relatively close by, I might add), expand your iMessaging prowess to include both iMessages and SMS texts, and even enable a handy WiFi hot-spot when the local coffee shop’s goes down yet again.

Of all the upcoming Yosemite/iOS8 features I’m really salivating over, though, has to be the new Handoff functionality that Apple is calling Continuity. This is where you’ll be able to start using an app, document, or other Handoff-supported program on your iDevice and be able to continue on your Mac, instantly. Videos show this feature creating a small icon of the mobile version of the app used on your dock, and with the simple click of the mouse you’ll resume on the desktop. It does look pretty cool, but we’ll have to wait until both Yosemite and iOS 8 are publicly released to try it out.

Keep in mind, tech types, that Handoff functionality will be limited to Macs and iDevices running Bluetooth 4.0/LE, so you may want to check your specs before dreaming of living in an entirely Apple-connected world.

Interestingly, I was able to get AirDrop working from Mac-to-Device but not the other way around just yet. It should go without saying that being able to easily transfer files from device to Mac has been one of the most sought-after features and a long, long time coming.


At this point, even in beta mode, OS X Yosemite has me excited. I’m a recent convert to the Mac universe, having joined the party just prior to last year’s Mavericks update, and the change here is substantial. What’s more, Yosemite seems to be a inoffensively big upgrade to the Mac workspace, meaning it adds big ideas without compromising the core functionality of the desktop that came before. This is something that Microsoft has struggled with in recent times, bending to the rising tide of mobile apps and tablets, pleasing neither group in the process. At this stage it appears Apple isn’t take the same route, so that’s one less thing to worry about.

I’m sure we’ll see the full power of Yosemite once Apple unleashes iOS8 to the masses, though I just hope that many their more promising features, like Handoff, won’t be limited only to those playing in Apple’s ecosystem. Google has made great strides bringing its cloud and productivity suites to nearly every platform that can support them. Even Microsoft has been making OneDrive available to competitors, and I’d love to see Apple share the fun as well.

Regardless of what they end up doing, OS X Yosemite will be a free upgrade for just about everyone when it launches, so you can’t argue with the sticker price. Just remember to keep that Time Machine backup handy.

About the Author: Nathan Evans