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macOS Catalina first look: goodbye, iTunes; hello, iPad apps on Mac

macOS Catalina first look: goodbye, iTunes; hello, iPad apps on Mac


The next big software update for Mac enters public beta today

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Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

iPad apps are coming to the Mac, and iTunes is being broken apart into several different apps. From a consumer perspective, those are the most significant new aspects of macOS Catalina, which Apple will roll out to Mac computers this fall. Today, the company is releasing its first public beta of Catalina. Let me say this up front: you should only install the beta on a secondary Mac you’ve got around the house; it’s been fairly stable in my testing, but it’s by no means ready to be put on your full-time laptop, iMac, or Mac mini.

There are plenty of other changes and improvements to macOS Catalina, from a redesigned Reminders app to small but helpful additions like iCloud Drive folder sharing. Let’s run through what you can expect from macOS 10.15 when it rolls out to everyone in a few months.

iTunes splits into Apple Music, Podcasts, and TV

Apple is finally bidding farewell to iTunes for the Mac, breaking the bloated software into three more focused apps: Apple Music, Apple Podcasts, and Apple TV. The company says these apps should offer great performance, but I’ve been testing Catalina on a 2016 MacBook Pro — and this is still an early beta — so it’s hard to gauge how much faster they are than iTunes.

Apple Music is a gateway to the company’s subscription music service, but it also handles all of the traditional music library management that iTunes did before. So if you’re a nerd like me with an Apple Lossless collection and a bunch of smart playlists, don’t worry: that stuff is all making the trip over and works perfectly. And yep, you can still buy individual albums and songs here if you’re not an Apple Music person. If you are, you’ll get the usual sections like For You, Browse, and Radio. There’s also more color throughout the app and in the sidebar, which is a nice change since iTunes had gotten pretty drab.

As for Podcasts and Apple TV, they’re exactly what you’d expect from Mac versions of their iOS counterparts. Apple TV includes full support for Apple TV Channels, so you can stream content from HBO, Showtime, and other networks right inside the app if you subscribe to them. Apple is also adding support for HDR and Dolby Vision to the TV app.

And Podcasts offers a very clean, straightforward interface for keeping up with your favorite shows and podcasters.

Sidecar lets you use your iPad as a second display

Apple has taken a cue from apps like Luma Display and is introducing a new feature in macOS Catalina called Sidecar, which allows your iPad to serve as a secondary or mirrored display for your Mac. This works both wired and wirelessly, and Apple says performance should basically be identical between the two. In my experience, that's been mostly true, but the wireless mode can be a little buggy in this beta stage. It’s also limited to a range of 10 meters (or a little over 30 feet) since Apple’s using Bluetooth as part of the Sidecar magic.

Additionally, any app that supports stylus input will let you draw or edit with your Apple Pencil right away without developers having to do anything. That covers apps like Adobe Lightroom, Illustrator, and others such as Affinity Photo. Even if you’re not a pro app user, Sidecar will be convenient for annotating PDFs or signing documents on your Mac.

Image: Apple

The Pencil can also be used to point and click like a mouse. And you’ll actually find yourself doing that more than you’d think because if you tap or swipe on the main iPad display area using your finger, nothing will happen. Apple has intentionally left out any kind of support for finger navigation, and that design decision was made because the company doesn’t really view macOS as a platform meant for touching. It’s for a mouse cursor or your Apple Pencil. There are two exceptions to this, though: running down the left side of your iPad’s screen is a sidebar that includes modifier keys (command, option, control, and shift) and an undo button. So to right click, you’d hold down control and tap the display with your Pencil. Additionally, if the app you’re using on your Mac includes Touch Bar controls — even if your Mac itself lacks a Touch Bar — those will appear at the bottom of the iPad’s screen.

Still, there are quirks to Sidecar. If you open a webpage in Safari, you have to use your Mac’s trackpad or the arrow keys on your iPad’s keyboard to scroll around. Since the Pencil is serving as a mouse pointer, you can’t use it to swipe around a page; it’ll just select content on the screen instead. This makes sense when you think about it, but is jarring at first. Second, Sidecar can only be launched from your Mac, so you can’t start a session on the iPad end. Lastly, Sidecar is strictly (and unsurprisingly) about display functionality. If you were hoping to pipe your Mac’s audio through your nice iPad Pro speakers, that’s not an option.

iPad apps on Mac: get ready for the floodgates to open

Project Catalyst gives developers an easy path for porting their iPad apps over to macOS while still providing the flexibility and tools to make them feel at home on the Mac. Touch controls are automatically adapted to the mouse and keyboard, but app makers can choose to do a bit of extra work for their Catalyst apps to fit in better with other Mac apps with things like menu bar controls, toolbar shortcuts, Touch Bar support, or translucent sidebars. (They’ll have to make another icon too, since iOS icons look a little weird in your dock.) If apps use iOS 13 features like dark mode, those automatically work in macOS as well.

Catalyst could prove huge for the Mac App Store, which has stagnated over the last several years compared to the bountiful selection of apps on iOS. Apple showed off a few examples of third-party Catalyst-based apps at WWDC, and more should be coming when Catalina ships in the fall. I can’t wait to see apps like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video on the Mac (with support for offline downloads), and I’m sure you’ve got a list of what you’re excited about as well. Apple is doing everything it can to make it worthwhile — and easy — for devs to bring their iPad software to a new platform.

Apple is also continuing to introduce more of its own Mac apps based on the Project Catalyst tech. News, Home, Stocks, and Voice Memos debuted in Mojave to some harsh criticism, but the company says it has learned a lot in a year. Catalina’s Podcasts app runs on Catalyst, though Apple Music and TV are traditional Mac applications.

Find My, redesigned Reminders app, and Screen Time

As with iOS, Apple is updating the Reminders app on macOS with a new design and more advanced features. The Find My app, which combines Find My Friends and Find My iPhone (or Mac, in this case), is also coming to macOS Catalina.

Apple says that Find My will be able to locate your Mac even if it’s not connected to Wi-Fi by using its Bluetooth signal. If your Mac is lost or stolen, any Mac or iOS device that crosses its path will be able to report that location back to you, and it will then appear in the Find My app for easy reference. This reporting home feature is end-to-end encrypted and uses very little data or battery power, according to Apple.

Apple is also bringing Screen Time from iOS over to the Mac with Catalina. It can be found right in system preferences. As on mobile devices, it’ll show you how long you spend using individual apps. You can set limits, downtime periods, and also apply those limits to combined categories like games or social networking. Also, Apple is letting parents set communication limits for kids — such as limiting it to contacts only.

iPhones and iPads sync through the Finder now

Breaking up iTunes forced Apple to figure out what to do with device syncing. I suppose they could’ve kept it in the Apple Music app, but instead, the syncing menu has been relocated to macOS’s Finder. It’s basically the exact same screen that you’re familiar with from iTunes, just in a new spot. As Apple made sure to note at WWDC, nothing pops up automatically (and annoyingly) when you plug in an iPhone or iPad. You can just open Finder yourself to sync, back up, or restore a device.

Voice Control is a huge win for accessibility

Apple demoed its new Voice Control feature onstage at WWDC to big applause. It allows users to fully navigate and control their Mac (and iOS / iPadOS) devices using their voice. I repeated some of the steps in the video below, and they worked as expected. The system is smart enough to differentiate between dictation and commands on the fly, so it won’t include things like “hit send” in your messages. Apple says the quality of its dictation has improved as a result of these new accessibility efforts.

The other tidbits

  • Mail in Catalina will let you block senders, mute threads, and automatically unsubscribe from commercial mailing lists with a click.
  • Activation Lock bolsters security on misplaced or stolen Macs, but only those that have a T2 security chip inside. Currently, that list includes the 2018 (and later) MacBook Pro, 2018 MacBook Air, 2018 Mac mini, and iMac Pro. Like with the iPhone, your Apple ID password must be entered for the device to be useable. And no, you can’t just boot into Disk Utility and wipe the hard drive to get around Activation Lock.
  • Your Apple ID info is now found right at the top of system preferences, giving you fast and simple access to account management. Need to change your password? It couldn’t be much faster than it is in Catalina.
  • The Apple Watch could already let you bypass your Mac’s lock screen, but now it can also be used to access your passwords, authenticate app installations, or view locked notes with a double tap of the digital crown.
Image: Apple
  • Apps must now request permission whenever they want to access your Documents, Downloads, Desktop, or iCloud Drive folders. Permission is also required for access to removable storage.
Image: Apple
  • macOS Catalina runs on its own read-only system volume to prevent critical files from being deleted or overwritten.
  • Photos for macOS is falling a bit behind the iOS version. In Catalina, it’s getting the new, more immersive browsing experience and support for Memory Movies, but it lacks some of the more powerful editing tools that are coming to Photos in iOS 13 — especially for video.
  • 32-bit apps are not supported in macOS Catalina. Period. They just won’t run. If you have any 32-bit apps remaining on your system when you install the update, you’ll see which ones they are and be warned that they’ll become non-functional after updating.

One area Apple isn’t really addressing with macOS Catalina is speed. Software VP Craig Federighi didn’t talk up any performance improvements at WWDC, and it seems Apple is satisfied with where Mojave stands today. The effort to bring iPad apps to the Mac and Catalina’s other new features took priority, so maybe next year we’ll see a performance-focused update. This one is very much about refinement and ushering in a new era of third-party software on macOS.