Mac OS X Yosemite preview: Is this going to be Apple's best desktop OS yet?

Times are changing at Apple. The days of not letting you know or see what the company is up to until it is on sale are no more and now, for the first time, Apple is letting the public play with its desktop operating system, OS X Yosemite, ahead of the official release later in the year.

But should you venture into the realm of non-final software, the place where things can break without warning, all just to get a peak of what is coming next?

There are plenty of change, but in typical Apple style most are tweaks that you'll realise you couldn't live without within a week of using them, and question why they never existed before.

Then there are the new features, the changes to your favourite features, the changes to things you didn't previously use and won't use this time around, and the changes under the hood you'll never notice. Of course some things that haven't changed at all.

This being a beta some are present, some are not available. Anything that requires iOS 8 to work won't, unless you are a part of the iOS developer programme and have already downloaded that too.

That mainly means that iCloud Drive and the new handoff features that allows you to answer calls or send text messages via your laptop if you've got an iPhone won't be available. 

A new look

Probably the biggest and most visual change is that OS X has undergone a systematic cleansing of the user interface. While it doesn't completely match the sparsity of iOS 7, it certainly looks a lot cleaner than previous outings.

For starters there is a new font, designed specifically for the Retina display found on the MacBook Pro laptop line, that brings in a much cleaner, thinner, visual experience.

There is a new streamlined toolbar that tries to remove a lot of the clutter. Everything from the red, yellow, and green buttons, to the icons, have been reduced to a minimum and the green buttons action has now changed. Instead of randomly resizing the window sightly bigger it makes the app go full screen (it replaces the two arrow full screen icon). If that sounds hideous you can press alt at the same time to revert back to the random option, but it is clearly an attempt by Apple to make us embrace full screen apps. 

In keeping with the layering affect on iOS 7, Yosemite windows now have a translucency to them allowing you to either see what's behind them, or in some cases, what's within them and coming next. It's a subtle effect that works surprisingly well, although for the most part you probably won't notice, aside from the odd "ooh isn't that clever" moment you'll have from time to time.

What you will notice however is the cleaner dock that sits at the bottom of your screen. Gone is the three-dimensional tray or shelf, in is what looks like a block of glass with curved edges that sits two-dimensionally against your wallpaper instead.

Spotlight

Searching for apps, documents, photos, or email has always been fairly easy in OS X although not as obvious as many realise. Tap Cmd + spacebar in OS X Yosemite and you are presented with a big search box bang in the centre of your screen.

The design is new and a lot more upfront, but that's for a reason. Instead of just giving you a quick list of stuff on your machine, the Spotlight feature will now pull in data from the internet, as well as other sources like apps, Maps, Wikipedia, news, App Store, iTunes store, and movie times, all in a more intuitive way.

Need to open an app quickly? All you now have to do is start typing in the Spotlight box and Apple autocompletes what you want making it straightforward and simple to find the right app and open it quickly. We like it.

Take contacts for example. Type in the person you want to find and it produces a contact card for them giving you all the data you have, including links to recent emails or documents with their name in that you've got on your computer. If that person is famous enough it even pulls up a Wikipedia entry too, and in the future if you've got an iPhone you'll be able to make a handoff call straight away.

Where Yosemite goes one step further now is allowing you to do basic conversions in Spotlight. Want to know the dollar-sterling exchange rate? Press cmd + spacebar and start typing. Want to know what 5 plus 5 is? It can do that as well.

Apple hasn't gone as far as linking to services like Wolfram Alpha, but that is surely only a matter of time.

If all this sounds a bit much you can restrict what Spotlight does and doesn't offer you, but we can easily see Apple using this as a way to get a number of quick simple answers back to users without them having to turn to a browser: Google has been offering these sorts of quick answers for some time.

Notifications

Borrowed from iOS in Mavericks, Yosemite tries to enhance the Notifications panel found tucked out of the way on the right-hand side of your screen by finally merging it with the widgets dashboard (it's still there but turned off by default). Now you'll be able to not only see all your notifications, but in a new Today panel see elements like weather, stocks, a calculator, and your appointments.

Although only coming with a basic handful of Apple-created widgets, Apple is opening up the feature to third-party developers. It means you'll get things like an eBay widget that tracks your auctions, or a sports widget to follow your favourite teams. Third-party widgets are expected with the release of Yosemite later in 2014.

There is huge potential here, and if you like the Notification Centre then you'll love the improvements. If, however, you've already forgotten it exists in Mavericks, and Lion before that, we aren't sure this is going to have you running back to the feature. Either way it is easy to embrace or forget.

Safari

Apple likes to enhance and improve Safari every year alongside the launch of its new operating system and Yosemite is no different. Like other Apple apps, Safari 8.0 features a new cleaner design and some new features.

The toolbar has been extensively decluttered, while a new favourites pop-up menu - accessed by clicking in the URL/search box - lets you ditch the favourites bar altogether if you are feeling brave.

Like Spotlight, the search box tries to give you snippets for some key data from Wikipedia, Maps, iTunes, and other sources, in addition to showing you suggestions from your search engine, all of which can now be customised from an array of options rather than just Google or Bing.

There's also a new handy to use tab view that looks like the tab experience in iOS 7, and if you are a big tab user you can now scroll through your open tabs bar with a swipe of your fingers or the mouse rather than having to access the drop-down menu at the end of the row.

Behind the scenes there is a greater emphasis on security and cookie handling, and Netflix fans will be pleased to see that Apple has worked hard to make sure the movie and TV show service isn't such a battery hog.

Anecdotally it feels quicker to browse the internet too. In a series of general surfing tests against both Google's Chrome on the same machine and against Safari 7 on a different machine running Mavericks, Safari 8 came out top.

Mail and Messages

Mail

Like Safari, Mail for email and Messages for your iMessages, and now text messages, have also been updated.

Mail brings features like Markup so you can annotate pictures or add a signature either by writing it with your trackpad or scanning it via the camera to add to documents. It is surprisingly more useful that it sounds.

A new feature called Maildrop should also save you time and works on the idea of providing a link to big attachments to save you having to email them and all the hassle that comes with that.

Maildrop works in connection with iCloud and the files are available for 30 days thereafter. Our tests worked as expected - the recipient simply has to click the link to download the file.

Messages

Overhauled for Yosemite, there is a greater emphasis on working with groups. The app now provides more information on those that you are messaging with things like their location and the ability to send voice messages to others instead of just text; Happy Birthday anyone?

Come the release of iOS 8 you'll also be able to send and receive text messages through the Messages app regardless of whether the person you are messaging is using iMessages or not. It looks to be an amazing feature from what we've seen so far, although isn't available in the Yosemite Public Beta.

iOS 8 features - iCloud Drive, Handoff, and personal hotspot

Many of the features you will be keen to get your hands on won't work yet in the Yosemite Public Beta because Apple hasn't released a public beta of iOS 8 alongside it and doesn't plan to. Remember this is a preview of what's to come in the future.

That will be somewhat disappointing to new Yosemite and iPhone users keen to play, but that's just the way it is.

Those features include the iCloud Drive, which replaces Documents and Data access between Apple devices and should work more akin to how Dropbox does. We weren't able to try these features in the beta.

The other key iOS 8 and Yosemite feature is Handoff. Again we were unable to try the feature in this preview, but the idea is that if you own a Mac and an iPhone or iPad, switching between the two will be very easy, with you being able to start work on one device and quickly move to the other when it is in the near vicinity. We look forward to testing how it works when the full Yosemite release becomes available.

There are small tricks coming too, one of which is the personal hotspot feature. If you've got an iPhone you can now start a personal hotspot from your Mac without having to even get your phone out of your pocket.

With the new iOS 8 features in Yosemite, Apple is doing everything it can to make your laptop a powerful extension to your phone rather than a separate device.

Swift

There was a lot of talk at this year's WWDC about Swift, the new programming language introduced by Apple to make things work even faster. While developers should be getting excited, for the rest of us we don't need to bother. There aren't going to be a influx of "Swift apps" to worry about and for the most part you won't notice the difference.

Beta performance

One of the biggest concerns with playing with a beta version of software is just how stable is it. Of course Apple suggests that you only download the Public Beta on a spare computer, and while they would be right, during our testing we haven't experienced too many issues. It has not been crash free, but we've been surprised at just how stable it has been given that we are still a couple of months away from the official release.

Would we put this on a mission critical machine? Probably not, but it is not a crash every minute experience, and we've yet to find an app that hasn't played nicely with it.

First impressions

Yosemite is looking to be a brilliant evolution of OS X that really enhances they way you connect with your iPhone.

That's the overriding message we are getting so far, even though many of the iOS 8 features aren't yet available.

Yes there are some new design niceties to enjoy, and yes the new Spotlight makes things a lot easier to search and load apps, but the main group that will benefit the most from this update when it arrives later this year are the iPhone users looking to enjoy the Apple ecosystem even more.

For them experiencing the beta now will be the start of enjoying what's to come, with the knowledge that come this Autumn (Fall) if they upgrade both to Yosemite and iOS 8 they are going to have a very powerful feature set at their disposal.

READ: Apple OS X Yosemite beta now available, here are 7 tips to get you started

 



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