A fast, first look at macOS Monterey

Apple's macOS Monterey is now available for public beta testing, so I took it for a quick test drive.

Apple, developers, WWDC, Mac, iPhone, iOS

Somewhere between Santa Cruz and Point Pinos sits Monterey Bay — first discovered by Europeans in 1542, still a home for sea otters, and also Apple’s namesake for the next edition of the Mac operating system, macOS Monterey. The OS (not the bay) is now available for public beta testing, so here's a very quick first look.

The good: Unity is strength

Apple continues work to bring its operating systems closer together, while respecting the essential differences unique to each of the platforms they drive. Catalyst, Apple Silicon, and a slew of user interface tweaks mean the leading features across both the Mac and iPad are almost identical: Shortcuts, Focus, Quick Note, SharePlay are banner features on both platforms. The growing list of similarities does nothing to erode the unique nature of each. Despite holding features in common, the Mac is still the Mac and the iPad is quite clearly still an iPad.

Universal Control isn’t available in this beta, but is still an articulation of how Apple is positioning the two platforms as complementary systems with their own unique advantages. In theory, both Mac and iPad should feel more or less the same.  

One of the best illustrations of this unity is that the Shortcuts app is now available on the Mac. The implementation is good, really good, and I think we’ll see more Mac users become more actively involved in building their own automations. That these can also support AppleScript and import existing Automator actions makes it even more likely advanced Mac users will embrace Shortcuts. This is a feature that will, I believe, make it easier to get stuff done as it continues to mature.

There seem to be a lot of features like that. I’ve not checked out FaceTime, as most of my contacts will continue to use Zoom despite the web interface Apple now supports, but QuickNotes, Focus, Visual lookup, and Universal Control appear to be brilliant tools that work across all Apple’s platforms, seem to work well (even in the beta) and will help you get things done on a Mac. Or an iPad. Or an iPhone.

And then there’s Safari.

The bad: For a few pixels more

I hope in time I’ll come to love the new look Safari. When it comes to significant user interface changes, familiarity does sometimes breed contentment. But I’m not there yet.

The biggest change is the replacement of the two bars at the top of the browser window (or three, if you use the Favorites bar, as I do) with a single bar combining search, tabbed websites, and everything else. In theory, I suppose, it means you get to see more of a website and less of the browser when using a smaller display. But it requires too much compromise for my taste.

Why do I feel like that?

  • The tabs are smaller than those in the current OS, which means that when you have multiple windows open (as I always do) they become unreadable.
  • Apple’s decision to make each tab reflect the color of the website taxes my retinas as I frustratedly bash Control-tab to find the tab containing the website whose title I can’t read.
  • I don’t like it that the address bar is embedded in individual tabs.
  • Why does it take more clicks to do some tasks I use daily in exchange for a more colorful browsing experience that doesn’t really help me? I use the sharing button and I’m sure most people do. Where’s my private window?

Basically, for the sake of a few additional pixels of display space when using Safari on a notebook, I’ve ended up with a web browser that gets in the way when I’m attempting to get stuff done. How does this additional friction benefit me?

Tab groups are useful, I suppose, but they don’t really solve a particularly pressing problem, given you can already create Bookmarks for all the tabs you currently have open in a Safari window. At my most charitable, I think Apple’s made decisions around Safari on Mac that are so challenging they must have been made for a purpose we aren’t yet aware of. Otherwise, it feels a little like one of those triumphs of managerialism that make little positive difference to the Mac community.

If it’s any consolation, I don’t like Safari on iPad OS 15 either. I want to see what I’m browsing and find it all most confusing.

The (not really) ugly: Transition tousles

When it announced Monterey, Apple praised all its bells and whistles, but the truth is some features just won’t work on every Mac, including Macs Apple still sells. Want your Mac to scan photos to turn them into text? This won’t work on Intel machines. That interactive globe in Maps? M1 Macs only. Detailed city “experiences” in Maps? You need a post-Intel chip. Spatial audio and on-device dictation both require Apple chips, too.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. It reflects the path Apple is traveling and means over the next couple of years the company will introduce a growing number of features within its operating system that will only work on an Apple Silicon Mac.

Of those included in this release, Live Text is certainly my favorite — not only in terms of accessibility but because most Mac users will be hyped to be able to use a Mac, Continuity, and their iPhone to automatically scan and copy text from images. This is a valuable business and commerce tool made available at a system level for free, as long as you're using Apple Silicon.

Eventually, I expect Apple will tie its automatic translation systems up to this feature to make it possible to read (or have Siri) read books, street signs, or anything else you come across. Frankly, that’s the real Rosetta engine in this piece.

You can’t blame Apple for not precisely spelling out that as it continues to iterate macOS over the next few years; it will be introducing more features that just won’t work on non-Apple Silicon Macs. It’s a truth every Mac user must now accept. 

On the plus side, it’s a truth mitigated quite effectively by the significant power and performance benefits you’ll encounter as you move to M1 Macs.

Next up: Keep testing

This is a first look, not a complex set of tests. On first look, I think most Mac users will find much that might delight them in the new macOS. But I don’t think that delight will carry through to Safari.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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