Yosemite: OS X 10.10 Gets Ready for the Big Time

For the first time since 2000, Apple has offered a public beta of its new OS. Here’s what's new and what's cool.

yosemite dark theme
Credit: Michael deAgonia

OS X 10.10, otherwise known as Yosemite, is the 11th iteration of the operating system that powers the desktops and laptops created by Apple. This update marks, expected to be released later today, the second version of OS X whose code name is based on a California location instead of a species of cat -- and the second time Apple has let loose a major update for free.

Yosemite also offers some interesting firsts: It will be the first version of the Mac operating system to have a public beta (downloadable here) since The Public Beta of OS X released in September 2000. Yosemite also marks the first release of OS X to inherit the interface theme that debuted in iOS 7 and is the first to feature Continuity, a set of services utilizing the built-in wireless networking protocols to enable useful interactions between Apple devices.

Installation

The requirements for Yosemite aren't very steep. It can run on MacBook Airs and Mac Pros from 2008 and later, while MacBook Pros and iMacs are supported as far back as mid-2007. However, MacBooks, Xserve systems and Mac Minis must date from 2009 (and MacBooks must be the models with the aluminum casing).

Some advice before you start: 8GB of memory works well, but 16GB is what I recommend. Also, if you haven't gotten around to it, upgrade your hard drive to an SSD. If you have to pick between more memory and an SSD, go with the SSD. And, before you install, do a full backup first of your existing system.

Finally, since thousands of files are about to be swapped around, make sure your data is in top shape. So, run Disk Utility -- or, better yet, Alsoft's DiskWarrior ($100) -- before installing this update. If you're running OS X Lion or later, you can restart your Mac and hold down the keyboard shortcut command-R; this will bring you into Recovery mode. If something goes wrong, you'll also be able to reinstall the operating system from this mode.

The installer downloads to your Applications folder; pluck it from here and copy it to an external drive if you want to install it on other household Macs without going through the download again. Make sure to do this before you install the update; it will delete itself after the install to save space on your drive.

To manually install, double-click the Yosemite installer icon, enter your username and password, select your target destination -- for most users this is the Macintosh HD -- and the installer does the rest.

On my 2012 MacBook Pro with Retina display, installation took about a half hour; it took nearly an hour on my late-2012 Mac Mini (which does not have an SSD).

A Mac interface with iOS flourishes

The design focus in Yosemite, according to Apple, was to bring better focus on content. The designers started by toning down window ornamentation (even consolidating and streamlining the window toolbars in Safari and other system apps), and flattening buttons and other interface elements.

One of the more noticeable changes is in the system-wide font: Apple is now using a thinner font for menus and labels. In addition, the Dock is no longer faux-3D but has reverted to a flat design last seen in OS X 10.4. System and app icons have received the flat makeover first seen in iOS 7. And the stoplight controls located at the top-left of every OS X window no longer sport any element of depth; they are just red, mustard and green circles -- and the green button now toggles the app to a full-screen view.

The Yosemite interface adopts design cues from iOS 7/8; specifically, some interface elements allow color, but not much detail, of the content beneath to show through. The sidebars of apps and Finder windows, for instance, display the diffused colors of the content beneath them, and app toolbars display the colors of the in-app content underneath. This adds a personalized splash of color to what is otherwise a gray-themed system.

Apple engineers have also included a new Dark Mode, which can be activated by toggling on System Preferences > General > Use dark menu and Dock. Doing so changes the menu from translucent white to translucent black, while text and menu widgets are displayed as white on a black background. The Dock changes its background to a darker shade, too, but that's it: this mode doesn't change any other interface elements. Overall, the system trimmings remain light gray. I (I expect that many third-party menu widgets will need to be updated, as most look pretty terrible at the moment in this mode.)

Continuity

Yosemite's biggest update, Continuity, is a set of features that use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to tie Mac and iOS devices together.

A few notes: Be aware that your devices must be signed into your iCloud account for most of these features to work and that your iDevices must be running iOS 8. In addition, remember this is beta software -- some users have reported problems.

Handoff: If you have more than one Apple device -- say, a Mac and an iPhone and/or iPad -- Handoff will probably be your favorite feature; it's definitely mine. Basically, Handoff lets any device take over your current task.

yosmite handoff in dock cropped Michael deAgonia

Handoff lets any device take over your current task; the icon appears to the left of the Finder icon.

Let's say you're browsing the Web using Safari on your Mac and need to leave the house. If you pick up your iPhone or iPad, you'll notice an icon -- in this example, the Safari icon -- to the lower left on the Lock Screen. Swiping up on that icon will let you resume browsing on the same page. The process works the other way, too -- for example, if you started writing a document on your iPad, you can continue on your Mac precisely where you left off by clicking the leftmost icon in the Dock; the Handoff indicator appears immediately to the left of the Finder icon.

(If, for whatever reason, you don't want to use Handoff, you can disable it under System Preferences > General > Allow Handoff between this Mac and your other iCloud devices.)

iPhone integration: This is another great new ability If you receive a call on your iPhone, any Apple device with the same iCloud account and connected to the same Wi-Fi network will begin ringing as well, including the Mac. You can also dial numbers from webpages or Contacts using your Mac or your iPad; the device uses the iPhone to actually place the calls.

On the Mac, a call will display as an actionable notification stating the caller information -- such as the number or the contact picture and full name -- as well as the option to pick up the call or decline it. Next to the decline button, there's a drop-down arrow that will let you initiate a text conversation through messages if you'd rather not talk.

yosemite incoming call Michael deAgonia

You can now get notifications of incoming iPhone calls on your Mac.

Pressing the Accept button will answer the call via the FaceTime app. Caller information will be displayed on a blurred overlay, complete with audio waveform and the options to mute, end and transfer the audio call to video.

Missed calls show up in the Notification Center. But I've gotta tell you: If you have multiple Apple devices, it's hard to miss a call. The iPhone 6 starts ringing, followed by the iPad, followed by the Mac and then the iPad Mini.

Instant Hotspot: Essentially, this allows the Mac to use the iPhone as a hotspot to access the Internet. No configuration at all is necessary -- if you have a recent iOS 8 device with a cellular connection, it will automatically show up under the Airport menu. Just select that and you're good to go.

yosemite instant hotspot Michael deAgonia

Instant Hotspot allows the Mac to use the iPhone as a hotspot to access the Internet.

AirDrop: This feature lets you transfer files to iOS devices from Macs and vice versa.

To transfer files from a Mac, use the Finder's AirDrop sidebar or any Share sheet, including the Share option prompted by right-click (or two-finger tap on a trackpad). Any device set to be discoverable -- Mac or iOS -- will be available.

To initiate a file transfer from an iOS device, tap the Share icon in any app that supports it, such as Photos, and a recipient will display within seconds in the AirDrop field. Tap the recipient and the file is sent (upon confirmation and approval on the other side, if needed).

If you're having trouble finding an AirDrop user, swipe up from the bottom of the screen on an iOS device and toggle AirDrop off and then on. On the Mac, open Finder and click the AirDrop sidebar. Toggle "Allow me to be discovered by:" off and on again.

On a recent hiking trip, my friends and I used AirDrop to exchange videos and photos on the fly, and I was then able to send that media to my Mac without plugging in my phone.

SMS relay: This lets Messages on the Mac (and iPad) send and receive the SMS messages you get on the iPhone (which it couldn't before).

The Messages app picks up a few other tricks, too. Like Finder, the Message app title bar and sidebar now feature slick translucency effects, but the real improvements are in the Details field. From here you can access the message recipient's contact information, if any, and you have the ability to make a voice or video call, share displays and mute the conversation. If you're following the location of the recipients, a Maps field will show you where they are, and pictures that have been sent will be consolidated in this view as well.

A chat with more than one recipient lets you name the chat, add more contacts via the Add Contact... option -- and, if the conversation notifications become too unruly, you can mute the conversation via Do not disturb. There's also an option that lets you leave the conversation entirely. And next to the messages input field is a microphone that allows you to send audio snippets, similar to that of Messages in iOS 8.

Notifications

Notifications now supports a new Today view that includes customizable and interactive widgets, letting you see useful info at a quick glimpse. You can add more widgets (or remove them) by clicking the Edit button at the bottom of the Notification screen.

Personally, I don't like the way the Today and Notifications area are divided; because it toggles between the two, you're either looking at your Today view or your Notifications. Why not both? Why can't the app notifications be a customizable field in the Today view? As implemented, I have to scroll to view all of the widgets in my Today view; since I'm scrolling anyway, why not allow notifications to be mixed in?

One thing I'm interested in seeing is whether Notification's Today view will be the death of the Dashboard, as they're functionally similar.

Spotlight and Safari

For years, Spotlight was accessible by clicking on the magnifying glass icon in the upper right corner or via the command-space key combo. Searches were confined to a comparatively tiny search field, huddled to the upper right of the screen; results were also limited to a narrow list cascading down the right of the display. Most results were abbreviated, cut off due to lack of space. In Yosemite, Spotlight finally cuts loose.

yosemite spotlight search cropped Michael deAgonia

Spotlight now offers much more information in response to a search.

Spotlight still resides in the far right menu bar corner, just to the left of the Notification Center icon. When activated, a large search field fills a good portion of your screen, front and center, and results are displayed in a large rectangle centered on your screen. The results area is a much larger area than before and holds much more information.

There are also a ton of new tweaks. For instance, you can still look for and launch an app by entering a few characters of its name and then pressing enter; but in Yosemite, search results for that app also display recent documents, which is smart and relevant.

Spotlight is capable of searching through more sources and displaying many more results, too. As before, you can launch apps, find local contact information, mail, calendar events and reminders; now there are Wikipedia entries, searches through conversion histories, PDFs, map data (like local restaurants), dictionary results, local theater show times, and iTunes app and media store results (including movies for rent and purchase).

The Safari browser gets some updates, too. The interface is a bit more streamlined, with the window toolbar and embedded interface elements using less space than before. In line with the window controls, Safari now sports a minimalist toolbar featuring forward/back, sidebar toggle, address field, share, tabs view and downloads buttons. The text field still serves as a search and address field, but it's been enhanced a bit.

Despite the clean new look, you can still customize the action icons on the main toolbar; and you can still display Favorites (bookmarks) on a separate toolbar. Those options weren't removed, just disabled. But if you click on the address bar, a menu appears with all of your favorites, anyway -- including nested folders -- so there might be something to hiding the Favorites menu to display more Web content.

The address/search field can search using multiple sources, not just Google (or another preferred search engine) alone. You can now search map data, movies, the iTunes store, Wikipedia, and other engines, with the results displaying inline. As before, clicking on the results brings up more information.

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