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macOS Mojave review: dark mode and a preview of the Mac’s future

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

If you own an iPhone, there’s good reason to look forward to the new version of iOS every year. It usually comes with meaningful improvements to the interface, useful new apps and features — like this year’s Screen Time option that monitors how much you use your apps — and even the occasional performance improvements.

But if you’ve owned a Mac in recent years, there’s been little reason to get excited for new releases of macOS. Some hidden corner of the operating system might get a new feature, a sharp edge or two will be rounded out, and maybe another feature from iOS will appear on the desktop.

macOS Mojave, the new version coming out today, is a prototypically 2010s macOS release: filled with minor improvements, some additions from iOS, and little to praise or complain about. I like it, and I think there are things that make it worth installing. But more than ever, it has me wondering: where is this platform going?

Our Mojave preview, based on the first public beta in June.

There are some changes inside Mojave that start to answer that Big Question. But in day-to-day use, they’re not actually fun or helpful updates, so I’m going to dive into those first. Among the things that do affect your day-to-day use are some real crowd-pleasers. First and foremost: there’s finally a dark mode.

I don’t know what it is that gets people going about dark modes, but everyone loves them. So including one in macOS has long been a popular request and low-hanging fruit for Apple. This year, Apple’s finally done it. You’ll be asked on startup whether you want to go with light or dark mode, and you’ll even be given a wallpaper to match.

Dark mode is not going to change the way you use your computer. And because developers need to add support to all of their apps, it won’t even work everywhere yet. But there’s really nothing bad I can say about it. If you’ve been waiting for it, it’s here.

There are some real crowd-pleasers in Mojave

I think the biggest quality-of-life improvement in Mojave is directly on the desktop. Apple has a new idea about how organizing files should work, and it’s actually really handy for keeping your desktop from turning into a complete mess. The feature, called Desktop Stacks, automatically groups items on your desktop into “stacks” (basically fancy folders) of similar types of things. So one stack collects images, another collects screenshots, another collects PDFs, and so on.

The categories generally make it quicker to find whatever file you need that’s been lost in the mess of your desktop. When you want to see what’s in each stack, you just click on it, and all the files will neatly pop open for you to look through.

Stacks being helpful.
Stacks being helpful.
Stacks being less helpful.
Stacks being less helpful.

I do have some minor gripes about how they’re displayed, however: opening one stack pushes all the other stacks around, and they don’t automatically collapse when you’re done, so you can end up right back with the same mess if you never close them. But by and large, it’s been convenient. And while I still need to remember to clean up all the junk I’ve left inside each stack, the feature has made managing my desktop much easier.

Another crowd-pleaser in this release is Apple’s change to screenshots. Now it works just like on iOS: your screenshot will linger momentarily in the corner of the screen, letting you immediately click to open it up and perform some basic edits on it. The editing options are a little clunky, but it’s a handy addition overall. I’ve loved being able to grab the screenshot right out of the corner of my screen and put it directly into a tweet. Those editing tools are also now built into Quick Look, so you can rotate or add a note to an image or PDF without fully opening it.

Then there’s all the other stuff. Dynamic Desktop lets you choose from one of two wallpapers that automatically change throughout the day. (One is nice; the other is not.) There’s a new Gallery view option in Finder, which seems like it could be helpful for photographers, but I don’t see myself using it. Oh, and Safari finally shows favicons. I’m still not switching from Chrome, but if you use Safari, this is a major improvement.

Safari is also doing more to block websites from tracking you around the web. And that’s just one of several security improvements in Mojave. Apple is also requiring apps to get your permission to use your Mac’s microphone and webcam, which is a really overdue change.

Insofar as there is a single “big” feature in Mojave, it’s the introduction of iOS apps to the Mac. It’s not in the way that’s happened in the past where Apple, for instance, coded a brand-new version of Notes for the desktop. These iOS apps are, we’ve been told, largely running off of the same code they use on iOS.

That’s all possible because Apple is working on a project that will, supposedly next year, allow developers to easily port their apps from iOS to the Mac. Developers don’t have access to that project yet, but Apple has been testing it out internally. And four new apps — News, Stocks, Voice Memos, and Home — let us see the results today.

As simple additions to macOS, the apps are convenient, if underwhelming. If you use any of them on your iPhone, having them here is great. I’ve always hated having to upload voice memos to Dropbox so that I can get them on my Mac. Now, I can just open up the app, and they’re all there (assuming I have enough iCloud storage, of course). Home is also a helpful addition if you’re like me, and you have a bunch of smart home gadgets around your house.

Controls in the Home app.
Controls in the Home app.

As standalone apps, though, they’re not particularly exciting and often seem half-baked. Apple News might be the best example: it’s a very direct clone of the iPhone app, able to do most of the things you can do on the phone. But while it’s entirely functional, the experience doesn’t feel like something that was designed for the desktop. It is small, simple, and cramped. It works, but I can’t imagine this is what Apple would make if it had started from scratch with the goal of designing the world’s best desktop news reader.

The issues extend to how it feels to use these new hybrid apps: sometimes they behave in ways that don’t make sense for the Mac. On the desktop, for instance, I expect to be able to swipe back on my trackpad in order to go back a page. But in News, swiping back takes you to the previous article in a list. To get back to the main screen, you have to find an unadorned back arrow hidden at the far corner of the app. In the Home app, you’re greeted with iOS-style scrolling menus instead of drop-downs; I once had to drag a giant, full-screen vertical slider in order to set a lamp’s brightness.

These apps replicate the key functions of their iOS counterparts, but they don’t do it in a way that feels particularly native to the Mac. Instead, they feel like something in between: awkward, large, Mac-ish apps that occasionally make their origins abundantly clear. It’s definitely better to have these apps on the desktop than to have nothing at all, but they’re far from ideal.

It’s still early for this project. Apple seems to be using these apps more as a proof of concept than as proof that it can deliver an exceptional macOS Stocks app. As the tools improve, or as Apple spends more time with these apps, it’s possible they’ll change and warp into something that more closely resembles macOS. But I suspect those aren’t Apple’s priorities. Apple is likely more interested in allowing these apps to work cross-platform at all than it is in making them adhere to how the Mac has traditionally looked and felt. However, we won’t be able to judge that for at least another year — likely more.

Another interesting thing about these ported apps is that they use a style that’s a little bit different than a normal Mac app. All but one put a thick navigation bar on the left-hand side, and the app’s main area includes large, discrete boxes that contain individual items.

What’s notable is that this style isn’t limited to just the iOS apps. It also shows up in the redesigned Mac App Store, a fully native app that’s another big part of Mojave. I don’t particularly love or hate the new style (it’s kind of refreshing on something previously as busy as the Mac App Store), but what really stands out to me is how touchable it all looks. I’m not saying this is a sign of things to come, but it’s definitely a sign of... a lot of very touchable-looking iOS apps invading the Mac.

Anyway, the Mac App Store has been redesigned. The store has been on the decline basically since it launched, and in recent years, developers have even been abandoning it and choosing to sell their apps only on the web for a variety of reasons. Maybe it’s the lack of discoverability, but maybe it was also the bad terms for developers and the lack of flexibility in sales models. The success of web apps has surely contributed to the decline of native apps, too.

I doubt this will revive the Mac App Store, but it’s nicer to look at

I generally like the redesign. The front page looks more like a page in a magazine than part of an online store. There are big illustrations that draw my attention, editorialized lists, and even explanations of what some highlighted apps are all about. Everything is a bit bigger; and while there’s still a ton going on, it’s more spaced out and largely easier to read.

That being said, the App Store shares some of the same navigational oddities as the iOS apps. It’s not just that left-hand bar (which includes unfamiliar categories and icons that, for a while, made me mistakenly believe I had accidentally enabled some developer-focused version of the store), but the fact that clicking on anything editorial will bring you into a full-page pop-up, and there’s only one button (again, at the far corner of the app) that gets you out of the screen.

Will this revive the Mac App Store? I strongly doubt it. It can definitely help developers who are lucky enough to find their apps featured by Apple. But Apple is facing a much broader set of issues than just a messy store, and I suspect that the iOS app ports will likely play a bigger role in making the Mac App Store worth looking at again, whenever they actually start to arrive in 2019.

Popping in and out of Desktop Stacks.
Popping in and out of Desktop Stacks.

More than any release in recent years, Mojave is a clear sign of where macOS is going — not just toward iOS, but directly absorbing some of its code and sensibilities. There may be technical reasons for this. Apple, it has long been speculated, wants to switch the Mac over to its self-designed processors, which are designed to run iOS code. But it also feels somewhat like it’s coming out of necessity. If Apple wants the Mac to thrive as a platform, it needs desktop apps to be built for the Mac instead of the web. This upcoming project could make that a lot easier for developers.

Still, I wonder what would macOS look like if Apple were truly focused on it. Would those great iCloud features from a couple years ago be further built out? Would the Mac App Store offer more enticing terms for developers? Would Apple News look completely different?

I don’t know the answer to those questions, and I don’t think Apple knows either. Instead, it feels like macOS is destined to keep moving forward at this stop-and-go pace, making incremental, often unexciting improvements year after year.

Is that the best way forward? I don’t know. I still think macOS is an excellent operating system, but it’s no secret that it’s hit a lull. Mojave might not change that, but it certainly suggests a more interesting future is on the horizon.