This fall, the 11th consumer version of Mac OS X will be released, for free. OS X 10.10 is better known as Yosemite, and the main thing you need to know about it is that it’s a big visual redesign. All of the features and functionality we’ve come to expect from Macs are still here, but they have a new look that’s closer to the redesign we saw last month on iPhones and iPads with iOS 8.
Every year since the release of the iPhone, we’ve wondered how Apple would negotiate the fact that it has two big, important operating systems. And every year, there are small signs that the two are coming closer together, but they never quite merge, and Apple has so far been adamant that they never will. With Yosemite, that strategy is clearer than ever. Instead of making the Mac ape the iPhone and iPad, Apple is making sure that they all can work together both functionally and aesthetically.
It’s easy to say that Yosemite does to the Mac what iOS 7 did to the iPhone, but that’s not quite right. The design principles in iOS 7 and many of the ideas that make iOS 8 so exciting are lurking behind the semi-translucent interfaces on Yosemite. But they’re not simple copies; this is Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite — emphasis on the Mac.
Stay tuned for Continuity
The best parts of Yosemite aren’t available for users in this beta because they rely on iOS 8. Once both operating systems are released, the idea of Apple’s unified ecosystem will turn into real, tangible benefits for people who have both Macs and iPhones.
You’ll be able to take calls on your Mac directly, and both iMessages and text messages will work across the Messages app on both platforms. There’s also going to be a feature called "Handoff," which lets you start an activity on one platform — like looking at a webpage or composing an email — and then continue it on the other. Also, AirDrop will (finally!) work across both iOS and OS X, making shooting files across devices much easier.
My favorite feature will probably be "Instant Hotspot," which lets you turn on internet tethering directly from the computer so you don’t have pull out your phone and dig through the settings. Heck, it even shows you your phone’s battery life.
It all works through a combination of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and your iCloud account — you’ll need to be signed in for all your devices to work together. iCloud Drive is also going to be a big deal in Yosemite, syncing files from your Mac and iOS devices into the cloud just like Dropbox.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to test any of this and if you sign up for the beta, you won’t either. But if Apple applies the same quality and polish to Continuity that it has to the rest of Yosemite, it’ll be worth waiting for.
Inspired by iOS 8
The first thing that strikes you when you log in to Yosemite is how much brighter and cleaner everything is. First impressions matter, and Apple makes a good one. The dock is a simple, rounded rectangle filled with colorful icons. They’re bold yet detailed, but they come right up to the edge of looking cartoonish, which could put off some people. But they’re not as extreme as the icons in iOS, and no fooling, that new Trash icon is gorgeous.
The next big change is the menu bar — specifically the font you’ll find both there and throughout the rest of the OS. It’s Helvetica Neue, and this design choice has faced its share of criticism. I won’t delve into the minutiae of kerning and apertures in fonts, but I will say that it makes a better first impression on me than the old Lucida Grande font. Especially on a Retina display, text feels more balanced and easier to read.
Open an app like Safari and you’ll be struck by the next big change in Yosemite: the toolbars and other "chrome" that surround apps has all changed — usually for the better. Although Apple didn’t go all-out with mimicking iOS 8, there’s nevertheless a "flatter" look across the board. The different pieces of the OS aren’t as stark as iOS’ flat white; instead the gradients are subtler (and thus cleaner) than they were before, but not so much so that they feel antiseptic. The buttons are cleaner overall, but some, like the share button, feel a little unbalanced. The classic Mac "stoplight" buttons are flatter too, and they only reveal their purpose when you hover over them. One of them, the green button, now maps to full-screen instead of to maximizing your window — but you can double-click in the toolbar area to get the old behavior.
So far, so good, but we haven’t gotten to the most divisive part of Yosemite yet. The part that, like it or not, is going to have critics making comparisons to Windows Vista until they’re blue in the face.
Translucent is the warmest color
In Yosemite, many of the UI elements are translucent, which means they show what’s behind them in a gauzy, blurred-out way. The theory is that it will help give you some sort of spatial "context," a hint about what’s behind whatever window you’re currently using. In practice, I found it mostly distracting, especially in app sidebars.
The translucency is even more prominent in the toolbars you see at the top of every app window. For example, as you scroll down the page in Safari, the colors and elements of the web page show up as ghostly colors in the toolbar area. It’s the same effect we’ve seen on iOS, but on the Mac it’s much more distracting to see moving colors in a spot that’s meant to be static. Unlike Vista, Yosemite at least only shows it on the active window, which prevents everything from turning into a muddled mess of see-through windows.
Throughout its history, even Apple has shown that it is not immune to the temptation to create eye-candy effects just because it can. I don’t really believe that’s what’s happening here, but I’m also far from convinced that the information conveyed by translucency is worth the experience of seeing all these hazy colors. I let out a sigh of relief when I found the "Reduce transparency" checkbox hidden away inside the "Accessibility" settings. I haven’t checked that box yet, but probably will before the beta is up.
The new Notification Center in Yosemite is great. It’s split into two simple views, "Today" for your widgets and "Notifications" for, well, your notifications. The latter works basically as it has since Mavericks: you can reply to some pop-up notifications inline, and everything is aggregated into app buckets with a small "x" button to clear them.
But the big new change is the addition of widgets in the Today view. Instead of being scurried away in the ill-fated Dashboard space, they’re now available in a single, scrollable pane on the right hand side of your screen. It’s the same basic idea as the widgets that are coming to Notification Center in iOS 8, and they’re wildly more useful than I expected them to be.
Apple has created a few default widgets for you to use (in Apple’s parlance, they’re actually called "Extensions"). There’s a basic "Today" view that shows the weather and upcoming appointments, a great little calendar view, a world clock, weather, and even a calculator. More will come when third-party developers are able to release them in the App Store, and you can manage them with a simple drag and drop.
Apple’s search tool now appears smack in the middle of the screen as a big, pop-up search box. We’ve seen this interface before — both Alfred and LaunchBar do the same thing — and it’s a much better user experience than the old menu-style drop-down, giving Apple more space to present detailed search results.
In addition to showing full previews of a file you’re hunting down, Spotlight can show you some intelligent web results for certain searches. If you type a name that you don’t have in your contacts, for example, you can get a tiny Wikipedia preview. You can grab movie showtimes, maps, and even recent news results. Most of these little previews are interactive, too: if you search for a contact, you can email or call them right from Spotlight.
All those extra features are great, but sometimes Spotlight feels a little inconsistent. Yes, you can get information from the web, but searching for something like "Skype" is more likely to give you contact info and less likely to allow you to just open up Skype’s website. Spotlight is super powerful as an app launcher and for local search, but it’s not going to obviate launcher apps like Alfred and LaunchBar anytime soon — they still are more extensible and more powerful.
Safari is receiving its biggest visual overhaul in a long time. Apple has minimized the size of the toolbar, going to extremes to cut out visual clutter and leaving you with a view that cuts out tabs and bookmarks in favor of a simple address field and just a few buttons. Even the address bar has been simplified, showing only the top-level domain of the site you’re visiting until you click it.
But hidden beneath that sparse exterior is a lot of power. When you click on the address bar, you’ll see a small drop-down with your top bookmarks and most frequently visited sites. The autocomplete is also enhanced — in addition to history, bookmarks, and search results, you can also search Wikipedia, Maps, and iTunes, just like Spotlight. Safari’s Reader button has been moved to the left, thankfully distant from the page-refresh button, and there’s a condensed "add" button for bookmarks and your reading list.
Tabs get some attention, too. When you have a ton, you can now scroll through them horizontally — though unfortunately you still can’t "pin" them as you can in Chrome and Firefox. The "show all tabs" button is also much nicer — giving you grouped thumbnails of all your open tabs up top and a list of other tabs from your iCloud-connected devices underneath.
But the best thing about the new Safari is that it’s just stupid fast. I haven’t run it through a full suite of benchmarks, but in my day-to-day browsing it feels like it’s running circles around other browsers. I’ve been a Chrome user for some time now, but it’s increasingly hard to justify using it when Safari just feels this much better on OS X.
Along with a slightly updated look, Mail gets access to a new cloud service called "Maildrop" which is an optional place to store large attachments for a month rather than email them directly. A new feature called "Markup" lets you annotate images and PDFs directly within the Mail app. It’s neat to draw circles and arrows, but the best part is that you can directly sign PDFs with the trackpad. Messages has a couple little features like the ability to rename group chats and send short voice messages. Both are nice, but probably not enough to convert you if you’re not already an iMessage user. One thing that might: you’ll be able to send regular old SMS texts once iOS 8 comes out.
The Calendar app finally has a proper day view, showing you more detail about what’s going on in your daily events in a side panel instead of in a pop-up. Plenty of other apps and settings have received tweaks, too: Facetime has been slightly redesigned, you have more granular control over sharing options throughout OS X, and there’s even a "dark mode" for the entire OS that should please photographers, video professionals, and goths.
In any giant visual overhaul, you’d expect there to be places that the designers missed, little corners of the OS that are easy to forget. But by all appearances, Apple has been sweating the details in Yosemite. Sure, there are a few system apps whose icons have yet to be updated and there’s a handful of rough edges, but there are just as many small, pleasantly surprising graceful touches.
This isn’t just a cut-and-paste of the design aesthetic of iOS layered on top of the Mac, it’s taking that aesthetic and making it feel native. It doesn’t lock you into using Apple's devices, but the features that work hand-in-hand with the iPhone are probably the most exciting ones.
Yosemite is Apple at the height of its powers
More than anything else, Yosemite is an example of Apple at the height of its powers. It takes part in an ecosystem of devices that ensures each one feels distinct and appropriate to its use, but nevertheless is recognizably Apple. When somebody takes a cheap shot at Yosemite by comparing its translucency to Windows Vista, just smile and start up your iPhone’s hotspot from your menubar.
Yosemite will be out this fall as a free upgrade for most Mac users. If Mavericks’ upgrade numbers are any guide, more than half of the entire Mac install base will be using Yosemite in relatively short order — and they’ll be better off for it.
Photography by Michael Shane and Sean O'Kane