six colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

Support this Site

Become a Six Colors subscriber and get access to an exclusive community, monthly newsletter, and subscriber-only podcast.

By Jason Snell

OS X Yosemite Review

OS X Yosemite

Mac users fearing a merger between iOS and OS X are going to have to wait a little longer—perhaps a lot longer. With OS X Yosemite, Apple’s latest free update to OS X, the company has focused on connecting its two device ecosystems without turning either into a slavish copy of the other.

Sure, Yosemite (named after California’s majestic national park) takes cues from iOS—these are two operating systems issued by the same company, after all. But this release is more about linking the two systems together rather than adding a thin veneer of iOS dressing over the 30-year-old mouse-and-keyboard interface that makes a Mac a Mac.

Yosemite’s marquee features are probably Continuity and iCloud Drive, and while they can work if you’re exclusively a Mac user, they’re obviously at their best when providing bridges between OS X and iOS. This is a release that’s designed to let the Mac and iOS work better in tandem, but it’s still the same familiar Mac OS you’ve come to know, albeit with a few variations that will feel familiar to iOS users.

iCloud Drive

iCloud has always been amorphous. What is it? It’s Find My iPhone, iWork document sync, iOS device backup, and a few other miscellaneous services. With the addition of iCloud Drive to iOS 8 and Yosemite, at last there’s a tangible place to see a big chunk of iCloud. You’ll find it as an item in the Finder’s Go menu and it’s automatically a part of the Favorites list in the Finder sidebar.

Until Yosemite, iCloud Drive only really worked inside apps. Numbers for Mac, say, could store files in iCloud and Numbers on another Mac or iOS device could open those files. That functionality is still there, but now the storage areas for those apps just appear as folders within the iCloud Drive folder. (So those Numbers files you were saving to iCloud before, you’ll find inside iCloud Drive’s Numbers folder.)

Like Dropbox or similar cloud-storage services, iCloud Drive appears to cache all your cloud files locally, and then sync them in the background. (Yosemite stores them inside your ~/Library/Mobile Documents folder, but you don’t want to root around in there.) You can drag just about any file you want in here, and it’ll automatically sync to any other Macs attached to your iCloud account.

iOS devices can theoretically read from iCloud drive too, though app developers need to add support for that. That makes iCloud Drive potentially a bigger deal on iOS, where it’s essentially a proxy filesystem on devices that have never had one visible to users before. On the Mac, it’s more like a built-in version of Dropbox, which is not bad.

And it does make bridging the gap between iOS apps easier: Previously I would not have been able to use iCloud to open a document created in BBEdit on my Mac in a different text editor on my iPad without using a middleman service such as Dropbox in an app that had built in Dropbox support. (Only apps from the same company could share documents in the old approach to iCloud files.) But if my iOS text editor app is updated to work with iCloud Drive, I’ll be able to open that text document I created in BBEdit and saved to iCloud Drive.

As with most new features Apple introduces that mirror features found in existing third-party services, people have speculated that iCloud Drive might be a threat to Dropbox or similar services, at least among users in the Apple ecosystem. I’d argue that most of the time Apple introduces a feature like this, there’s still plenty of room around the margins for competitors, because Apple tends to keep things simple and the company’s choices will not fit every user.

iCloud Drive might be enough for someone who uses only Apple devices and has a free Dropbox account but almost never uses it. But if you want to do more, you’ll bump into iCloud Drive’s limitations. It’s a simple file syncing service, and that’s cool, but Dropbox and its ilk have dozens of sharing, versioning, and security features that iCloud Drive doesn’t have. There’s room for both.

And to Apple’s credit, Yosemite actually makes services such as Dropbox more useful, too, by adding support for features such as file status markings. A new version of the Mac Dropbox app displays a green checkbox in the Finder when a file is synced and a blue arrow icon when it’s syncing, and none of it requires weird hacks—it’s all supported.

Continuity and Handoff

Then there’s Continuity, Apple’s name for a broad collection of features that connect your various Apple devices together. The most notable of the Continuity features is something called Handoff, which allows one device to pass information about what it’s currently doing to another device—for example, an email you start composing on your iPhone can transfer over to Mail on the Mac as you sit down at your desk. A webpage you’re viewing in Safari on your Mac can transfer over to Safari on your iPad. An iMessage conversation you’ve been having on your MacBook Air can transfer to your iMac when you sit down at your desk.

Handoff works through an alchemy of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and it’s both Apple ID and proximity based, so you won’t find that you’re prompted to open a document at the office that your kids are reading at home. You need to be on a device logged in with the same Apple ID, and physically nearby, for Handoff to work. (Also, Handoff only works with relatively recent Macs with the proper Bluetooth hardware.)

When a device running Handoff is in proximity of another device with something it thinks might be worthy of handing off, that device shows a notification. On iOS, it’s an icon in the bottom-left corner of the lock screen. On Yosemite, it’s an icon in a special part of the Dock—set off from all the other icons, on the opposite side of the Dock from the Trash.

Handoff
Handoff wants me to open a Messages conversation from my desktop on my laptop.

If you move your mouse over the Dock item, you can see what app will open if you click (though the icon should really give that away) and what type of device is trying to hand off something to you. (For example, “Safari from iPad” or “Messages from iPhone.”) Click on that item and you’ll get pretty much what you expect: That item you were viewing on another device will open on your Mac. If you do nothing and the other device is switched to a different app or goes to sleep, the icon disappears, sliding off screen with the shame of not being Handoff-worthy.

Third-party apps can also support Handoff; for example, TLA Systems’ PCalc will let you transfer your calculation between its Mac and iOS apps on the fly. And iOS apps can even hand off to web sites—for example, an iOS app for a service such as Facebook or Flickr could offer to hand off to an equivalent web page for viewing on a Mac.

I think Handoff is a great idea, but in practice I’m not sure I’ve used it as much as I expected to. It’s slightly better at transferring web pages from iPhone to Mac than iCloud Tabs, but only just. Often I’ll open my phone to do something while sitting at my Mac and notice that a Handoff item has appeared in the Dock, when I’m specifically not using my Mac to perform the task. I think this will all improve as more apps on both sides take advantage of Handoff.

The rest of Continuity

Another Continuity feature makes your Mac capable of using the telephone capabilities of your iPhone. So long as the two devices are on the same Wi-Fi network—unlike Handoff, they don’t need to be physically close to one another—you can make and receive phone calls from the Mac. To dial someone from the Mac, you open the Contacts app and click on the phone icon next to a phone number.

I couldn’t get this feature to work until I discovered that there’s a setting on the iPhone—“iPhone Cellular Calls” in the FaceTime settings menu—that had to be switched on before I could use it. That’s a weird place for that feature to live, in my opinion—why not in the Phone settings?—and a weird name for it, too. (On the Mac side, you can toggle this feature off in the FaceTime app.)

This feature is a really weird mix of iOS and Mac technology, and it shows when it comes to sound. The FaceTime app will let you choose a ringtone for phone calls, but only from the stock collection of iOS sounds. (I even added ringtones to iTunes on my Mac, but it didn’t see them, and even if you find where the ringtone files are stored you can’t add new ones.) Ringtone selections were played on my MacBook’s internal speaker, even though the rest of the Mac was playing through an external audio device.

And while that external speaker was used to play back phone-call audio, I couldn’t get it to use my external microphone to record audio—it insisted on using my MacBook’s internal microphone. When it’s docked, my MacBook Air’s at the back corner of my desk—and that means that while I can use this feature to alert me that there’s a phone call, actually using it to talk with someone is not practical.

Adding to the Phone-Mac pile-up is a bridge that lets you send and receive SMS text messages on the Mac. Essentially, this all works via iMessage. Apple’s iMessage servers can now send and receive SMS text messages, and if you try to send a message to a number that’s not associated with an iMessage account, it will use an iMessage-to-SMS bridge to send it via the classic old SMS method. I’m not sure I will ever use this feature, but if you’ve got a friend or family member who uses Android and Windows Phone or just can’t give up their feature phone (cough John Siracusa cough), it could come in handy.

Finally, there’s Instant Hotspot. Previously, if you wanted to share your iOS device’s cellular connection with your Mac, you needed to sit at that device’s Personal Hotspot settings menu while you connected your Mac. If you’re working away on your Mac and want to get online, you need to pull out that iPhone, open Settings, tap Personal Hotspot, potentially turn it on, and then go back to the Mac and connect it.

With Yosemite, those days are over. If your iOS device has Personal Hotspot turned on, your Mac will see it under the Wi-Fi menu and can connect to it directly with no intervention on the iPhone itself. Under the menu you’ll even see your phone’s battery and network status, which is handy. This is how it should have been all along, but I’m glad it’s here now.

In praise of AirDrop

AirDrop: One word, yet up until the release of Yosemite, two features. Though Apple introduced AirDrop to the Mac in Lion and to iOS in iOS 7, the two different versions didn’t work together. While it’s ridiculous to email yourself just to get data off of your iPhone and onto your Mac, that was the world we lived in. Fortunately, with iOS 8 and Yosemite, AirDrop is compatible.

Or it might be correct to say, the new AirDrop is compatible across Mac and iOS. If you’ve got an older Mac not yet upgraded to Yosemite, you’ll have to put your Yosemite Mac in a compatibility mode in order to transfer files. (As with Handoff, AirDrop requires some specific hardware and may not work on some older systems.)

Seamless AirDropping between iOS and Mac might be my favorite feature in Yosemite. I’m serious: I can now pop a photo over into my Mac’s Downloads folder with a couple of taps on my iPhone. I can transfer the web page that I’ve got open in a third-party app (one that doesn’t yet support Handoff) to Safari via AirDrop—I just tap Share, then tap on my Mac, and the web page opens automatically in Safari. It’s great.

A new design

Apple knows that eventually every display we use will be at Retina resolutions. And Yosemite’s new design feels like it was built for that future displays: Thin Helvetica Neue replaces the long-serving but chunky Lucida Grande as the system typeface. Transparency is more present than ever before, inside app windows and underneath toolbars and even on the login screen itself.

The title bars on Yosemite’s windows are now a much more subtle gray light-to-dark gradient, and the red, yellow, and green “stoplight” buttons on the corners of windows have been stripped of the shading effects that made them look like pieces of candy. Thus passes the “lickable” interface.

(In addition, the green circle has been redefined as the way you put an app into full-screen mode. If you prefer the old zooming behavior, you’ll now need to hold down the Option key.)

Darth Vader will be a fan of Yosemite, because it allows you to darken the menu bar and the Dock. Enabled by a checkbox within the General system preferences pane, this feature makes the menu bar dark, with light text, and the Dock’s background darkens substantially as well. Menus are now darkly translucent, and drawn with light text.

However, when I checked the box, nothing else on my screen changed. It would make sense for predominately dark-on-light apps to switch to a dark-on-light color scheme in this situation, but none of the apps I was running changed in the least. It looks like Apps can detect whether that check box is engaged, but none of the Apps I was running (including Apple’s own) bothered to do so. Lord Vader will not be pleased by a mere menu bar makeover: For my Mac to truly turn to the dark side, apps need to be able to follow suit. Until then, this feature is just a curiosity.

Just about every Mac uses a display that’s got a widescreen orientation. To save space, Yosemite’s design tries to fit more stuff on your screen by cutting the height of many window title bars in half. This has a ripple effect on other interface elements. The stoplight buttons, once isolated, now share space at the top of windows with other interface elements—at least some of the time.

In Safari, the three buttons are on the same level as toolbar elements. In Contacts, the entire title bar has banished. But in Mail, TextEdit, and Preview, the stoplights are a level above the toolbars. It’s maddeningly inconsistent.

As an 11-inch MacBook Air user, I don’t mind the space-saving trend. Unfortunately, an overly cluttered title bar makes it harder to reposition windows, since you don’t have that vast expanse of a title bar as a clickable area.

Yosemite also makes increased use of translucency: As in iOS 7 and 8, many interface elements are semi-opaque, displaying a blurred-out version of whatever items are beneath it on the interface stack. It’s usually quite subtle, so it doesn’t harm readability, but it doesn’t really seem to serve any useful purpose. It’s a light design flourish that isn’t offensive, but it’s not particularly bold either. Every now and then one of my windows will look funny, like it’s miscolored, and I’ll realize that’s because it happens to be floating above a web page or image that’s got a big, bold color, and it’s showing through. Is that fun? Is that weird? I don’t know.

Several other interface elements have been flattened in the same style as the stoplight buttons, as well. That pulsating blue glass-textured button in dialog boxes is now just a dark blue button with white text. I like it. The Dock likewise has gone from being a 3-D shelf to a 2-D background with a hint of translucency.

Even though it’s morphed from Mavericks, Yosemite is still very recognizably OS X, not some iOS hybrid. And it does look great on Retina displays—but doesn’t everything? However, I’d like to see more consistency when it comes to the way stoplight buttons and title bars are displayed, and I’m concerned that these new crowded title-and-tool bars will be harder to drag around the screen.

The Today show

Notification Center
Two Widgets—the Apple stock Calculator widget and PCalc.

Notification Center has been around a couple of years, but if I’m being honest, I’ve never used it much on my Mac. The additions to Notification Center in Yosemite threaten to make it a feature I’ll actually use.

When you activate Notification Center, it slides in from the right side of the screen, but in Yosemite it no longer pushes the rest of your interface out of its way. And once you do activate it, you’ll see the major addition to this feature: A second tab, called Today.

As in iOS, Today can give you a quick view of what’s going on—but it’s so much more than that. That’s because it can contain widgets, tiny programs just like the ones introduced in iOS 8. Yosemite comes with nine, and they’re what you might expect: event summaries and calendars, weather and stock trackers, clocks and a calculator.

More exciting is that third party developers can build their own widgets. I’ve enjoyed many of the new widgets released by app developers since the release of iOS 8, and I expect that the Mac will gain numerous interesting third-party widgets with the release of Yosemite. In fact, I’ll wager that choosing just which widgets deserve to be in your Notification Center will be the bigger task.

Spotlight

Spotlight is nine years old now, and Yosemite marks the biggest changes ever to Apple’s search service. It’s got a new look a new set of data sources, and a new patch of real estate to call its own.

While the Spotlight menubar item remains anchored near the upper right corner of the screen, the Spotlight window itself is no longer stuck up there. Instead, when you type Command-Space, the Spotlight bar appears in the middle of the screen. Spotlight is now literally front and center.

As you begin to type, Spotlight will immediately auto-fill text for you, making it an effective quick launcher: As soon as you begin typing the word contacts, you’ll see the app’s name completed for you. Press Return, and the app launches immediately.

OS X Yosemite
Spotlight searches all sorts of data sources now.

If you give Spotlight a little more time, your search will populate with a whole bunch of results from various data sources, on and off your Mac. Maps, Bing Web search, the App Store, the iTunes store, top websites, and movie showtimes are all available, and you can view the results right in the right pane of the new, larger Spotlight window.

The new features of Spotlight work quite well. Results appear quickly, and seem rich. When I entered the name of my son’s school, Maps provided its address and a thumbnail view of its location. Typing the name of a recent movie brought up its poster, Rotten Tomatoes rating, and a host of other information including show times at theaters near me. When I entered the name of a musical artist, I got a link to his iTunes artist page, one of his albums, his Wikipedia page, and his personal website.

As soon as the new Spotlight was announced, I began to hear people speculating about how it’s such an expansive upgrade that it will render those third-party launchers—LaunchBar, Alfred, and the others—irrelevant. But, as with most core OS features that Apple announces, the features of Spotlight are meant to appeal to all users, not the power users. If all you’re using Alfred for is launching apps and doing quick searches, then I suppose you might not need it anymore.

But all of those apps provide features that Spotlight doesn’t support, even in Yosemite. I like the new Spotlight—it looks great, and the responsive and rich results suggest that it will be one of Yosemite’s most popular features—but I’m certainly not going to stop using LaunchBar.

Safari

Safari’s at the heart of many Mac users’ experiences, and of all the stock Apple apps in OS X, Safari appears to have gotten the most attention. By default it more closely resembles the spartan browser you might find on, say, an iPad. Most toolbars are off by default, and the address/search bar no longer even displays a full URL, just the name of the host that’s serving the page you’re viewing. (If you want to see the name of the page you’re on, you need to show the Tab Bar—tabs are the only part of the Safari window that can display page names.)

If you like it minimal, you’ll like it. I kind of hate it minimal, though. I’ve got a 24-inch monitor at my desk; I don’t really need to save space. Fortunately, I can turn most of Safari’s gewgaws back on and get a look that’s largely the same as what I had under Mavericks. To see page titles, I had to opt to always show a tab bar, and there’s a new “Show full website address” setting in the Advanced Safari preferences tab that makes the search/URL bar display a full URL and not just a site name. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to tell Safari to stop centering the bookmarks in the Favorites Bar, which drift around as I resize windows, upsetting all my Favorites-based muscle memory.

This new Safari offers a new Favorites view that’s reminiscent of iOS: The browser window fills with the contents of your Favorites bookmarks, the same collection that populates the Bookmarks Bar. The background to this page is translucent, so it will let in some hints of whatever’s behind the browser window. If you like the Favorites view, you can even set it as the default view when you open a new page or tab. A smaller version also appears as a drop-down when you type Command-L or choose Open Location from the File menu.

OS X Yosemite
The new Favorites view in Safari.

As a replacement for Top Sites or a blank page in a new browser window, it’s actually kind of a good idea. Your very favorite sites, and your frequently visited sites, are all arrayed in front of you, represented by simple favicons. It takes some getting used to, but it’s a good idea.

The URL/Search bar is now more useful, thanks to improved auto-complete features. As you type, Safari’s querying Wikipedia, Maps and iTunes, the same data sources that are queries by Spotlight. The destination of so many of my Google searches is a Wikipedia page that it makes sense for Apple to eliminate the middleman and allow me to jump straight there.

Per-window Private Browsing used to be an obscure Safari-wide mode, but now you can make any browser window completely isolated from your browsing history, login cookies, and the rest simply by choosing New Private Window from the File menu. However, keep in mind that Safari’s Private Browsing feature can’t completely obscure you—your device’s internet address and some other basic information about your computer are still passed on to servers.

Safari’s new search and privacy features are welcome. And on small screens (such as an 11-inch MacBook Air) its new simple, sleek look will be helpful. Fortunately, most of the toolbars and features we’ve seen in previous versions can be turned back on (or at the very least approximated) by toggling various preferences. That way, old hands can put things back the way they want it; everyone else will probably appreciate that Safari on the Mac bears even more similarities to its iPad counterpart.

Mail, Messages, Calendar

Messages has been updated to enhance your conversations, so long as everyone you’re conversing with is using iMessage. With Soundbites, you can now chat via short audio messages, just as you can in iOS 8. (And of course, the two features are interoperable.) It feels more like an iOS feature than a Mac one, but it’s nice to have it on both.

Group messages also gain features, such as shared maps and an option to mute or even drop out of conversations. If you’ve ever been added to a group conversation and, after a while, really wanted to back out—now you can.

Mail doesn’t look that different in Yosemite, but it’s got a few nifty feature additions, most notably Mail Drop, which eliminates the problem of emailing large file attachments. Most mail servers won’t accept very large files, which forces the transfer of such files onto various remote file-sharing services. It’s an extra step.

But in Yosemite, that procedure is baked in to Mail. When you attach a large file to a message, Mail can upload it to a temporary location on an iCloud server (it’ll live there for 30 days) and add a link to that location to your email message. (If your recipient is using Yosemite, Mail will just download the large file automatically, as if it had been attached to the message.)

This is a quintessential Apple feature, eliminating a common headache without forcing the user to change their behavior at all. I don’t mind using Dropbox, but eliminating steps for users is always a good idea.

An odder feature is Markup, an addition to Mail that lets you add simple annotations to images and PDFs from directly within a Mail window. To invoke Markup, you click on the top-left corner of a file preview in a composition window, then choose Markup.

What happens then is actually an example of Yosemite’s new Extensions technology, which allows code from an entirely separate location appear inside an app. In this case, Apple’s written a Markup extension that lets you draw lines, shapes, text, and more on PDFs and images. You can stick your signature on PDFs without ever leaving Mail. It’s a pretty clever idea.

However, you’re not really in Mail when you’re using Markup—you’re in an odd modal state, an app within an app. And the Markup controls feel kind of kludgey, not nearly as intuitive as a markup tool like Napkin or Skitch. Markup is weird and interesting, but I’m not sure I’d say it’s good. Extensions as a concept are pretty interesting, with the potential to reshape how we use Mac and iOS apps, but it’s clearly the earliest of days for this technology.

It’s free, you know

OS X Yosemite is free, so if you want to update, nothing’s stopping you. The final few development versions were extremely stable, and I’ve been using Yosemite on my primary Mac for a couple of months now with very few glitches.

As with any operating-system update, there will be quirks and bugs and incompatibilities, and there’s no way to tell if one of them will bite you. All I can tell you is that I’ve been using it and find it solid. If you find the features that Yosemite offers appealing, I recommend that you upgrade. Handoff and AirDrop are my two favorite features to date, though I’m hoping that iCloud Drive and the Today view in Notification Center will become favorites as well, once more app developers adopt them.

[If you appreciate articles like this one, help us continue doing Six Colors (and get some fun benefits) by becoming a Six Colors subscriber.]