MacOS Monterey Public Beta Hands-On: Apple’s Ecosystem Grows


Last year’s update to Apple’s Mac operating system, MacOS Big Sur, was the largest and most significant refresh in years. This year’s iteration, dubbed MacOS Monterey by Apple’s “crack marketing team,” is more of an update compared to 2020’s behemoth. That’s not to say it is a dull, pedestrian affair, but it is more refinement than revolution despite Apple opting for the MacOS 12 nomenclature rather than MacOS 11.1.

So, what can you expect when you get your hands on it in the fall (or right now if you signed up for the public beta)? Well, expect a lot of bugs for one thing. Apple released the public beta just a few days after the second developer beta came out. That’s a quick turnaround, and it shows, with some features looking a little creaky right now.

But beyond that, is MacOS Monterey actually any good? And how do the new features work in practice? We took the new public beta for a spin to see what it had to offer.

A familiar design

Safari in Apple's MacOS Monterey public beta.
Safari’s tab bar gets a redesign, and it now takes on the colors of the active tab.

MacOS Big Sur was a complete overhaul of the Mac operating system’s visual style, with new-look buttons, sidebars, menus, and much more. It was a huge improvement and helped bring MacOS kicking and screaming into the modern design era.

Don’t expect that level of makeover in MacOS Monterey — this year’s iteration is far more restrained in what it changes. There are some tweaks here and there, though. Notifications in particular have been spruced up, with user profile shots and larger app icons now showing next to the alert text.

One of the largest visual revamps comes to Safari. Here, almost everything has been streamlined to fit Apple’s minimalist aesthetic, resulting in a stripped-down top bar that is a little confusing to navigate at first. You get used to it, but you also get the feeling Apple is getting a bit carried away and implementing changes that no one really asked for just to make Safari a little prettier. Apple would do well to remember Steve Jobs’ maxim that “design is how it works,” not just how it looks. In this case, perhaps it isn’t working so well.

Here’s how Safari looks now. The URL bar and tab bar are now merged instead of being two separate rows sitting one above the other. If you have multiple tabs open, the active tab is now by far the longest. Click inside it, and you can start typing — this is where the search bar now hides. Websites in the active tab lend their colors to Safari’s entire top bar. It’s a nice touch of visual flair, and it seems pretty good at picking out an appropriate color.

If you’re like me and have an ever-expanding smorgasbord of tabs open at once, Safari’s Tab Groups come as something of a relief. It’s a feature already included in Google Chrome, but Apple’s take is slightly different. You can still group tabs together though and name each group to keep them organized. Opening a group shows only the tabs it contains, no others. Managing these groups is fiddly and confusing at the moment, and it’s very easy to accidentally delete a tab group or struggle to find the command you need. But it’s a start.

Continuity gets serious

Quick Note in Apple's MacOS Monterey public beta.
Adding Quick Note to a Hot Corner means it’s always available with a swift swipe.

One of the main themes of MacOS Monterey is an emphasis on cross-platform integration. A standout feature from the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) reveal of Monterey was Universal Control, a system that lets you seamlessly move between an iPad and a Mac (or two), controlling each device with the same mouse and keyboard. It looked like a piece of Apple magic in the WWDC demo, but how does it work in reality?

Well, unfortunately we cannot yet answer that question. At the time of writing, Universal Control had been absent from both the developer and public betas of MacOS Monterey. We will update this article as soon as Universal Control becomes available and we have a chance to test it, but for now we are going to have to hang tight on this one.

Another feature making its debut on the Mac in Monterey is AirPlay to Mac, but unlike Universal Control, this is actually available to test. Using your Mac as an AirPlay destination has been a long, long, long time coming, but now that it’s finally here, we can say the wait has been worth it.

AirPlay thrives on larger screens. Apple users have been able to send video to an Apple TV for years, using an iPhone or iPad as a remote, but the Mac has been strangely exempt. Now that it is enabled, you can enjoy content from your phone — like videos captured with an iPhone — on the big screen. It works just as AirPlay normally does: Open a video, tap Share, then the AirPlay button, then select your Mac as the output. It’s a small change to MacOS, but a significant one.

Notes also gets a dose of cross-system goodness, although this is focused more on collaboration than with making it work across your devices. You can now mention colleagues and see their edits in shared notes, and notes can be categorized with tags to aid organization. Small steps, but they add up.

As well as that, the Quick Note feature that Apple showed off on iPadOS 15 also comes to MacOS Monterey. You can select any image or text on a web page, for instance, right-click it, and add it to a Quick Note. Next time you’re on the web page, a tiny thumbnail of the Quick Note appears in the bottom-right of your screen, letting you see whatever you noted down before.

My favorite thing about Quick Note is its integration with Hot Corners. These are shortcuts that can be triggered by moving your mouse pointer to one corner of your screen. I set the bottom-right Hot Corner to launch Quick Note, and now creating a new note is just a short swipe away. As great as that is, though, like many of the new features in Monterey, it’s useful without being earth-shaking.

Share and share alike

Apple News and Shared With You in Apple's MacOS Monterey public beta.
Shared news articles show the name of the person who sent it to you at the top.

Shared content and experiences figured prominently in Apple’s WWDC show, and there are plenty of new things here in MacOS Monterey. Unfortunately, not everything worked as planned at the time of writing and will presumably be fixed or updated in upcoming beta releases.

Here’s an example. Apple has always promoted the interconnectedness of its ecosystem, and it’s trying to do so again in MacOS Monterey with things like Shared With You. This highlights items that have been sent to you in Messages and then surfaces them in relevant apps. For instance, news stories sent to you via Messages will appear in the News app.

At least, that’s the theory. When we tried it, many apps did not have functioning Shared With You sections — not that we could find, anyway. The News app has a dedicated Shared With You area in the sidebar, as does Safari on its start page, but in apps like Photos and Podcasts it is nowhere to be found.

Apple News and Shared With You in Apple's MacOS Monterey public beta.
The organization of Shared With You articles in News is clunky, but it works.

When it does work, Shared With You is a handy way of collating everything that has come your way, similar to how Messages gathers together all the photos, links, and files from your contacts. Shared With You is a little more basic because each app it works in only collects files that it can play or open rather than everything. But as with Quick Note, it is a welcome, if minor, addition to MacOS.

The other major sharing update in Monterey is SharePlay. The idea behind this is that you can share your screen (or the content you are watching on your screen) with other people during a FaceTime call. In a pandemic world where being together is difficult, it is not hard to see Apple’s motivation.

At the moment, it’s a pretty basic feature, as it only works with Apple’s Music and TV apps out of the box. Even Apple’s other content-consumption apps like Podcasts and Photos don’t work with SharePlay right now. Apple says it will make the SharePlay API available to third-party developers, but I’m hoping it hasn’t forgotten about its own apps.

Using SharePlay is a pretty fiddly at the moment. Let’s say you’re listening to a track in Music on an iPhone while you’re on a FaceTime call. A small alert temporarily appears at the top of your iOS screen saying, “SharePlay Music,” but SharePlay hasn’t actually started yet. You need to tap the alert, then tap the unnamed, unlabeled icon underneath the Leave button, then finally tap Share My Screen. It’s all very ambiguous and unclear.

You can let Music or TV automatically enable SharePlay to save yourself time and tapping, but the first-time experience is not great. The results, though, are good, and the ability to share a movie-watching experience has a lot of potential. But Apple needs to make SharePlay much more intuitive if it is to take off.

It’s not the only new tool in FaceTime. You can now add a Portrait Mode filter to blur the background, and this looks much smoother in the latest MacOS Monterey beta than in earlier versions. Well, it looks good when you can enable it. FaceTime is still very buggy, and the Portrait Mode button often simply disappears at random.

Lots of things in FaceTime aren’t quite ready, in fact. You can send invite links for FaceTime calls (finally!), but pinging it via Messages is broken and AirDrop links are extremely hit-and-miss. Joining a call sent via a link displays everyone in a square, and you can’t change your own camera to be landscape or portrait. In a call made without a link, it’s the opposite, and the grid view doesn’t work. Microphone modes like Voice Isolation and Wide Spectrum aren’t available at all.

Mapping the future

Apple Maps in Apple's MacOS Monterey public beta.
Apple Maps now has better traffic information, including more detailed hazard warnings.

Shortcuts is one of the most powerful native apps on iOS, as it lets you create automated sets of actions that perform complex tasks with a simple trigger. Now, it’s on the Mac, and it’s actually better suited to this platform than the iPhone.

That’s because, like on the iPad, the Mac version has a right-hand sidebar that lets you drag and drop actions into place, creating a visual flowchart that is simple to follow. For many people, the Mac is also where they are likely to perform the most complex tasks, making Shortcuts on MacOS a powerful addition to their arsenal, if one that is also long overdue.

Elsewhere, Apple Maps gets a more detailed look and a slate of new features. Major cities are more detailed, with rich 3D models of major attractions and buildings, there’s a new globe view of the whole Earth, and public transit directions are more helpful and informative. Driving maps give more info on hazards and traffic conditions, too. Maps now also lets you set a time to leave or arrive on a car journey, not just on public transport. That feature’s arrival is years behind Google Maps, sure, but it’s here on the Mac at last.

The Coit Tower in Apple Maps, shown in Apple's MacOS Monterey public beta
Some buildings now have detailed 3D models for you to explore

And if everything gets a bit too overwhelming, there’s a new tool called Focus that aims to cut out the barrage of notifications and distractions by only allowing certain people or apps to buzz you. What is interesting is that it allows you to set different Focus modes, each with different rules for different scenarios. For instance, Focus loads up with Do Not Disturb, Driving, and Sleep modes. The latter integrates with the sleep schedule you set in the iOS Health app, for example.

Adding your own is simple. The Automation section is where you set how the Focus mode is activated: At a set time or when you arrive at a specific location. So, you could set a location-based automation that activates when you arrive at the gym, letting you concentrate on pumping iron without distraction. There’s also an app-based automation, but it’s not clear if this refers to apps that will trigger Focus mode or apps that are allowed through. We’d bet on the former seeing as blocked apps are already covered in Apple’s Screen Time tool, but Apple has not made it very clear.

As with so much in the MacOS Monterey beta, there is a lot of potential in something like Focus, but it’s not quite ready for prime time. We will keep testing everything in the MacOS Monterey public beta and will add to this article as Apple updates the beta going forward.

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