OS X Yosemite review: the Mac catches up to the iPhone

In the frenzied excitement about iOS, iPhones and countless other new devices, Mac users would be forgiven for worrying that Apple has abandoned OS X, the operating system for its PCs. It’s tended to lag behind the mobile software – getting updated no less often, once a year, but tending to focus on much-needed but unspectacular improvements to battery life and performance. The new update, Yosemite (which is Mac X 10, though Apple has dropped the numbers) looks like another minor update, and in many ways it is. But also, in finally bringing OS X and iOS together, it makes a much-needed case for both.

Design

Yosemite is, like everything Apple now makes, more flat, more colourful and more shinier. Gone are the remaining parts of OS X’s old ‘aqua’ look, full of glossy blue and reflections, and instead comes in a design much more like iOS 7 and 8. There were much fewer things to change, so the makeover is nothing like as dramatic as when Apple released iOS 7, but the buttons in the corner of windows, the brushed aluminium textures of apps, the system font has been changed and the 3D effects have been thrown out.

This works, most of the time. But like the worst of iOS, the look can sometimes come across childish rather than simple. That’s even more of a problem on the Macs, where you’re supposed to at least look like you could be doing work. And as one of the very few noticeable additions from the previous system, Mavericks, it is likely to be one of the first things you see after downloading the new software. But unifying the look of the two operating systems is part of Apple’s move to make the two work better together is welcome – and a move that works better elsewhere.

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Continuity

Continuity was much touted as a feature of iOS 8 when it arrived last month, but didn’t actually work till now. It was worth the wait. As long as your iPhone and Mac are on the same network, any calls or texts that go to your phone will arrive on your computer, whether or not people are in the Apple ecosystem themselves.

Likewise, if you arrive at your computer having not finished an article you were reading on your phone, it’ll be there waiting for you on the Mac, ready to pick up from where you left off. It works the other way, too, and for a range of tasks including emails and documents.

It’s also easier to set up an internet hotspot so that your Mac can get on your iPhone’s internet – without even touching the phone. This hidden feature exists in iOS 8, too, and gives a useful little data read out, so that you can see how much battery is left on the phone, and how much signal it has, without taking it out of your pocket.

In the beta, this didn’t always work as well as it’s advertised. Messages is sometimes not as seemless as you might hope – a problem likely already familiar to anyone using iMessage across a bunch of devices. It’s no worse than it has been in the past, but with a range of new things able to sync between devices, you might run up against that slight irritation slightly more often.

 

Updated apps

Apple has made over many of its built-in applications, including Mail, Messages, Finder. (Next year Apple will be releasing its new Photos app, which will replace iPhoto and bring photo collections together across iOS and OS X.) As well as updating the look of those apps – turning the folders in Finder bright, pastel blue, for example – Apple has added a bunch of more or less useful features.

Many of them are small but neat. The Safari window has been slimmed down, leaving more space for the page you’re reading. Mail has the option to automatically upload any big attachments so that your email provider won’t refuse to send them because they’re too large, and you can also write on pictures and other attachments. Messages adds option for sounds and groups, like on iOS. Spotlight, the built-in search, now pops up in the middle of the screen and lets you search other things including the internet and film listings, as well as your computer. And Finder introduces Apple’s iCloud Drive, its wannabe Dropbox-killer (which works, though isn’t as useful as Dropbox itself).

 

Under the hood

As with iOS 8, Yosemite introduces a swath of new, invisible improvements. It introduces Apple’s new Swift programming language, which it claims will allow developers to make better apps more quickly. It adds new privacy settings to Safari, which among other things will allow you to use the privacy-pushing search engine DuckDuckGo, and it has new internet technologies like native Netflix playback, helping to preserve precious battery. (None of the changes will make your computer immediately faster, as Apple’s Mac updates used to do.)

Yosemite will work on any Mac that could run its predecessor, Mavericks, though some features like Continuity might not work fully on older computers. In testing in an old Mac, some things seemed to be missing but performance was indistinguishable from Mavericks. I was using the Gold Master.

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Verdict

Yosemite is a Mac OS for iPhone users. Like iOS 8, it’s better the more Apple devices you have. But that’s no small improvement – the lack of continuity between the bigger Mac devices and the portable iOS ones was often confusing, given that the seamless ecosystem was often said to be one of the advantages of buying into the Apple project. Yosemite is a statement of intent that Apple is still committed to desktop devices, and of what it wants them to look like. It’s a reassurance that Mac OS is going to be around for a while yet, even if it does end up looking a lot like iOS.

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