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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

macOS Catalina review: New era ahead, proceed with caution

Sometimes software upgrades just fuzz together, all part of a continuum of changes over time. Others are more momentous, when there’s a clean break from what has come before. After a few years of fuzzy updates, macOS Catalina is one of those clean breaks.

Among the reasons are a major redesign to macOS security, the long-promised deprecation of older software, the replacement of a nearly two-decade-old core app, and the introduction of the ability to run software born on iOS on the Mac for the first time.

The Mac is entering a new era, but for a while things are going to be bumpy. macOS Catalina creates incompatibilities, alters workflows, and ends what has been a period of relative stability. This is a huge update that shows the direction Apple is taking the Mac and all its platforms. We are headed into a future with more unified apps and interfaces and an increased security focus. But as for the present? This is an update that users should be wary of installing because of all the changes it brings.

But Catalina isn’t all about breaking things. There are also major new additions to parental controls and device management, a huge upgrade to accessibility, the ability to use an iPad as an additional display and input device, a new machine-learning-driven facelift for Photos, and big upgrades to many other built-in apps.

End of an era

It’s been coming for a long time—Apple announced it at WWDC in 2017 and started warning users in April 2018—but with the release of macOS Catalina, it’s finally reality: macOS is done with 32-bit apps. This means that a huge number of older apps will not run under macOS Catalina. Utilities, games, older professional tools, even Apple system software—the end has come for them all.

Attempting to launch a 32-bit app will be met with failure.

If you’re using the latest versions of all the apps you use to do your job, this will probably not be an issue. I’ve spent the summer using Catalina and most of my key apps—BBEdit, Photoshop CC, Final Cut Pro, Logic Pro, Office 365—work just fine. But if you’re clinging to the final non-subscription version of Adobe Creative Suite, you can’t upgrade to Catalina. And if you’ve got some app that’s a key part of your workflow and has been put out to pasture by its developer—DragThing is hanging it up after 24 years—you will have a choice to make. Either put off upgrading macOS as long as you can and keep using old software, or get ready for change.

If you are someone who relies on old software that’s about to die—find out here if you do—I’ve got a few suggestions. Put off upgrading and, while using High Sierra or Mojave, try out new software that will work on Catalina. This will let you fall back to your tried-and-true apps if you need to, while you build a new 64-bit-clean workflow that will survive your eventual transition.

If you need to upgrade but have one key app you just can’t live without, consider making a disk image of your existing Mac (even better, make it a fresh install with just your important apps) and using it in an emulator such as VMWare Fusion or Parallels Desktop.

If you have more than one Mac in your life, you could also consider holding one back and using it as a compatibility backstop. It doesn’t necessarily need to even have a keyboard and monitor attached, since you can remote-control it using screen sharing.

The fact is, Apple’s taken the Mac through many transitions like this in the past. (I remember when we freaked out about whether apps were 32-bit clean, a lifetime ago.) They’re necessary for the platform to move forward, and they bestow technical benefits that help Apple advance the operating system and hardware that define the Mac—but in the moment, they can be a colossal pain. Apple has done a very good job at giving developers and users fair warning about this one, but here in the moment of truth there’s no denying that an awful lot of old software is no longer capable of running on the current version of macOS.

Mac Catalyst

One of the biggest changes in Catalina is not a feature that you can use. It’s work Apple has done behind the scenes to allow the developers of iPad apps to transform them into Mac apps via a technology Apple is calling Mac Catalyst. Apple tested a version of this technology in Mojave, bringing Stocks, News, Voice Memos, and Home to the Mac from iOS. With Catalina, not only has Apple brought a few more of its own apps over, but every other iOS developer can do so, too.

The LookUp dictionary app is making its way to macOS via Mac Catalyst.

I’m sure Catalina will launch with the Mac App Store populated by a bunch of new Mac Catalyst-created apps, especially from developers that Apple has been spotlighting and presumably aiding with development. I’ve seen many of them posting preview screenshots of their apps on Twitter and I’m encouraged by how many iOS developers are bringing their productivity-focused apps to the Mac for the first time. This is the promise of Mac Catalyst: That iOS developers who have been more or less locked out of the Mac for the past decade (unless they learn a different set of development frameworks and build alternate versions of their apps) will now finally have access to that platform.

Despite this initial rush of interest, it feels like it’s going to take months, if not years, for us to see just how Mac Catalyst might change the Mac and the software that we use on them every day. The technology behind Mac Catalyst is very new, and despite the year’s run-up via those four apps in Mojave, it’s still quite rudimentary. Developers who spent the summer using it to build apps point out numerous headaches and missing features that make building Mac Catalyst apps a lot more complicated than just checking a box in Xcode and building. (They also complain about a lack of documentation and a lot of bugs.) Some Mac-friendly features and actions actually require undocumented implementation using the Mac’s native APIs, which will raise the difficulty level for developers not already familiar with the Mac.

Now I can roll dice with Dice By PCalc on macOS, too.

Mac Catalyst apps don’t feel quite like Mac apps, thanks to a lot of modal windows and an everything-inside-the-window-frame approach to app design that’s necessary on iOS but not the Mac. Over time, we might get used to it, or developers will learn how to do the extra work required to add those features, or Apple will expand Mac Catalyst’s capabilities. Right now it’s all an open question.

In the long run, developers of apps that are already on both iOS and Mac may choose to simplify development by building a single app using Mac Catalyst, but right now developers I’ve talked to suggest that such a move would require some pretty severe feature regressions on the Mac side. I hope those developers decide to resist the temptation to toss their Mac apps aside until they can be proud of what they ship using Mac Catalyst.

Then there’s the interesting problem that Mac Catalyst apps are entirely separate from their iOS equivalents when it comes to the App Store. For a lot of developers with existing iOS apps, that’s a dealbreaker, since they want the option of letting their existing iOS customers use the Mac version without re-buying. A shared store may be coming, but it’s going to be a while.

Mac Catalyst is a work in progress, and Apple still has a lot of work to do to make it a better experience for users and developers alike. Given how enthusiastic the company was on stage in June at WWDC about its new SwiftUI technology, and how little it said about Mac Catalyst, I have to admit to being a bit dubious. Is it possible that Mac Catalyst isn’t the future of Mac software development, after all?

I hope not, because there are many iOS apps that would be at home on my Mac. But what seemed for more than a year like a forthcoming sea change in how apps work on the Mac now feels more like an experiment in progress. I reserve the right to change my mind if I’m blown away by the first Catalyst apps to ship this fall, but it’s feeling like this issue will probably take a while to resolve itself.

Dumbing down iTunes

The sidebar slides in on the Music app, and the column browser is gone.

The writing has been on the wall for the monolithic Mac iTunes app for a few years now: Apple’s strategy on iOS (where iTunes’s features have been served by separate Music, Podcasts, and TV/Video apps for years) set the course. With macOS Catalina, the separation has arrived. While the broad strokes of the change are pretty much what anyone might have guessed, the details are interesting: the Music and TV apps appear to be built out of the code of iTunes, while Apple’s pioneering implementation of podcast browsing from 2005 has finally been put out to pasture, replaced by a new Podcasts app sourced from iOS and brought to the Mac via Mac Catalyst.

Despite being sourced largely from iTunes, the Music and TV apps have been given a new coat of paint, with more colorful sidebars—and the Podcasts app has been designed to match, giving the three media apps some visual consistency. This is definitely intended to be Apple’s new design language across its Mac apps, and perhaps the iPad as well.

Music’s design is heavily influenced by Apple’s decisions on iOS. Up Next and Lyrics panes now slide out over the interface, obscuring what’s behind unless the main content area is more than 1,330 pixels wide. It’s a decision that makes sense if you’ve got a single-window interface, but I don’t use my Mac in full screen mode and I didn’t mind the popover approach that iTunes took with those windows.

The deck chairs have been rearranged on the top-level play bar—Now Playing content is now aligned left, with controls moved to the center and volume to the right. I don’t know why that’s better, but perhaps it’s more consistent with iOS?

As someone who uses iTunes every day to listen to music, I’m disappointed to report that some features I use have failed to make the transition to Music. The venerable Column Browser in the Songs view, which was once the primary way users interacted with iTunes, is gone. It was ugly but functional, and let me do things like quickly focus on a specific album or artist, or shuffle through an arbitrary set of albums in a temporary, impromptu playlist. All that’s left are prettier and less functional alternatives.

That said, does the Music app benefit from being an app devoted only to music, and not also to podcasts and videos and iOS device syncing? Yes, it does. It’s also a bit more Apple Music focused, which makes sense—though you can hide that stuff if you’re not into music subscription services.

Apple TV on its own

At last, some modern Macs can stream major movies and TV in 4K HDR video.

The Apple TV app is a good step forward for video viewing on the Mac, since the video features in iTunes were designed around buying movies on iTunes, while Apple is now offering streaming content from various providers (and will be providing its own content soon, too).

This app can provide video and audio quality (on certain Mac models) beyond anything previously available on the Mac. Apple says that on Macs released in 2018 and later, HDR/Dolby Vision videos and Dolby Atmos surround sound are available. The TV app is also able to stream 4K and HDR video, if you’ve got a 2018 MacBook Pro or a 2017 and later iMac with the T2 chip. (I believe this is the first time that any major source of movies and TV has allowed iMacs to stream 4K video, and that’s awesome, though it’s sad that the original round of 4K and 5K iMacs have been left out of the 4K party.)

The new Watch Now view is very much like the one you’ll see on iOS and tvOS, presenting the content you’ve got available to view based on your activity—but unlike on iOS and Apple TV, it doesn’t have any way to understand that you’ve got content subscriptions on other services outside of Apple’s own channels content. On my Apple TV and iPad, it knows I’ve been watching shows on Hulu, but my Mac doesn’t know anything about that. I’ll grant you that there’s no Hulu app for macOS, but there is a Hulu website—and Apple could link to it from within the TV app for Mac—but that connection is just not there.

Mac Podcasts get modern

A post-2005 podcast interface on the Mac at last.

The Podcasts app, which comes over from iPad via Mac Catalyst, is just fine. iTunes’s podcast features were once groundbreaking, but have since become horrendously out of date. It’s great that the Mac now has a modern podcast player of good quality, with a solid view into the Apple Podcasts directory.

The translation of the app from iOS to Mac is not without quirks. You’re not able to delete episodes via a keyboard shortcut or menu item—but you can swipe from right to left to delete them iOS style. And episode show notes, which can contain very useful information, have been hidden away under a little Info icon next to the Up Next toggle.

In true Apple fashion, the Podcasts app does the job and will work well for most people. At the same time, its lack of features will mean there’s a good niche to be had for more feature-rich podcast player apps, as there is on iOS. I assume we’ll be seeing some of those arrive on the Mac eventually, via Mac Catalyst.

Find devices in the Finder

The Finder’s a better place for device management, though I wish the Files view mirrored what I can see in On My iPad/iPhone.

Perhaps the best result of Apple turning iTunes into Music is that device management has been removed from iTunes and plopped down in the Finder. Managing iPods inside iTunes made sense once, but controlling iPhones, iPads, and iPods today is more about backup and software updates and file access than it is music.

When you attach a compatible device to a Mac running Catalina, it will appear in the Finder’s sidebar as an external hard drive would. Click on that item, and after “pairing” it with your Mac (you’ll need to enter in the device’s passcode), that Finder window will fill with more or less the same stuff you used to see when you clicked on a device in iTunes.

There are still some things here that Apple needs to work on, most notably the disconnect in the Files section of the browser, which should probably display exactly the same contents as the On My iPad/iPhone section in the Files app, but doesn’t. There’s also no progress bar when you transfer files to and from the devices, which can be frustrating if you’re transferring large files.

Find My… people and devices

Find My is a feature I’m thrilled is on the Mac, though it definitely shows its iOS heritage.

I use Find My Friends all the time to figure out where my various family members are. In Mojave, I spent a lot of time swiping into the Today view in Notification Center and expanding a small widget. In Catalina, Find My Friends finally gets its own app—and along the way, picks up the power of Find My iPhone via a new cross-platform (via Mac Catalyst) app called Find My.

Find My definitely shows its iOS heritage. Floating panels look identical to those on iOS, though Apple has added some decent control-click equivalents, populated the View menu, and offers some keyboard shortcuts. Still, this is a major upgrade in terms of Mac access to functionality that has existed on iOS for quite a while. I’m glad to have it.

The device-finding functionality is a great bonus, since I can now spot the location of any device associated with my Apple ID (or those of my family members) anywhere. Even better is Apple’s new approach to finding offline devices in iOS 13 and Catalina. Essentially, offline Apple devices will send out a Bluetooth ping that can be detected by other Apple devices and sent back to Apple, encrypted and anonymized but with a date and location that will appear in your Find My app. This means that if your devices are lost or stolen and are spotted by another Apple device that just happens to be nearby, you’ll get a location fix—even if that device isn’t actually online itself. I haven’t had a chance to test this feature, but if this all works as it’s supposed to, it will be an enormous step forward for finding lost and stolen devices—especially Mac laptops, since none of them have cellular capabilities of their own.

A little tablet buddy

Sidecar lets you use an iPad as a second screen, but most of the time I’d rather just use my iPad.

Sidecar is a new macOS feature that lets you use a nearby iPad 1 as a Mac display and use the Apple Pencil as a Mac input device. It’s a clever idea, because so many of us are carrying around tablets with Retina displays and Apple Pencils these days.

You can initiate Sidecar from the Mac in a whole lot of ways: by clicking on or hovering over the green icon in any window bar, via the Displays pane in System Preferences, via the Window menu in most apps, and via the Displays menu bar item, just to name a few. If you initiate Sidecar from a window, the Mac connects to the iPad as a second display and places that window in it. But otherwise it acts just as if you’d plugged in a second display, so you can drag windows to and from Sidecar and even set Sidecar to mirror your Mac’s desktop.

Once that window appears on your iPad, you can interact with the app interface as you would on the Mac, using the Apple Pencil as a pointing device. (You can’t use your finger to interact with the Mac screen.) Sidecar provides a strip of icons that are mapped to modifier keys on the side of the iPad screen, so you can hold down Command or Shift as you “click” with the Apple Pencil—useful since those modifier keys are frequently used to alter what happens when you click. There are also icons to show and hide toolbars, the Dock, and the software keyboard. The Touch Bar, previously only available for users of certain MacBook Pro models, also makes an appearance, docked at the bottom of the Sidecar iPad, and that’s a smart use of that feature.

But if I’m being honest, I’m not sure I really see the point of Sidecar beyond using it as a general-purpose second screen for your Mac. Yes, Mac apps can be updated to support the Apple Pencil’s pressure and tilt sensitivity, so you can use your iPad to draw in Mac apps. But in most cases wouldn’t it be better just to draw in native iOS apps? Also, Mac apps really aren’t designed with a stylus in mind—and using apps designed for a mouse with an Apple Pencil can be weird and awkward. I find Apple’s Markup extension on the Mac to be pretty unfriendly, but it’s downright maddening when I try to use it via Sidecar.

Probably the best case scenario for Sidecar is that some very specific graphics apps will be updated with support for Sidecar and Apple Pencil, and users who prefer those apps to using iOS equivalents will be able to use an iPad rather than an expensive tablet from a third-party source. But as someone who loves the Mac and loves my iPad, I found using Sidecar disconcerting. It’s not a good Mac experience or a good iPad experience. And it’s much less useful than other Mac-on-iPad apps like Luna Display and Screens, which let me initiate connections from my iPad (and from way beyond 10 meters) and don’t require an Apple Pencil.

In a feature that’s not quite Sidecar, but is Sidecar-adjacent, Apple has added a new Continuity feature to iOS 13 and Catalina. You may be familiar with Continuity Camera, introduced last year, which allowed you to click on a document on the Mac and then ask an iOS device to take a picture to be inserted there. Now there’s Continuity Sketch, which uses the excellent new Apple Pencil markup mode on iOS to let you make a drawing, which is then inserted on the Mac. It’s a feature that’s easy to use and eliminates the need to transfer files back and forth for simple sketches.

Accessibility: More voice, different colors

macOS Catalina and iOS 13 take a leap forward in terms of accessibility for people who have difficulty using traditional input methods thanks to Voice Control, a new and comprehensive system for driving Apple’s interfaces solely via voice.

As with most accessibility features, they have broader applications than you might think. If you’re someone in a context where you can’t use your hands on a keyboard—let’s say you’re cooking something and your hands are covered in food—you could turn on Voice Control and still move around on your device, going to webpages and advancing them and responding to texts and everything else you would normally do while using your computer, all via your voice.

Or imagine that you were someone who needed to reduce the amount of time they spend using a traditional input device. (Perhaps you have been diagnosed with some sort of repetitive strain injury.) Voice Control could dramatically reduce the amount of mousing you need to do. The dictation system that’s a part of Voice Control is a major upgrade from previous versions of macOS, allowing you to make corrections and move around your document with voice commands. For much more about this feature, check out Steven Aquino’s piece at MacStories.

Picking up a feature from iOS, macOS now supports color filters. This feature alters the colors that are displayed on the screen—which can make your interface look a bit weird. But if you’re somebody like me who is color blind, these filters can allow you to differentiate colors that you might not otherwise be able to. This can make software that wasn’t built with color blind people in mind more usable. (There’s nothing like reading a chart that’s got two colors, both of which look exactly the same.)

Locking down Mac security

The world is really different than it was when macOS was first created. Modern operating systems like iOS are hardened, paranoid, and locked down. Over the last few years, Apple has been attempting to rejigger Mac security so that it can be made more like iOS while still retaining the trademark openness and flexibility that make the Mac a very different kind of platform for a very different user base.

Catalina adds many new changes that are meant to make the Mac more secure by default, and while that’s welcome, it will cause a bunch of side-effects that may frustrate expert Mac users who are used to going beyond the default settings.

The Mac’s core system files are now stored on a separate volume, set as read-only, to prevent them from being tampered with by malicious software. When you’re booted into Catalina, you’ll only see a single volume, but in reality there’s a separate volume lurking in /System/Volumes that contains your system data. You can look but you can’t touch.

Gatekeeper, which scans apps the first time they’re launched to verify their identities and that they’re secure, has been expanded to run periodically on existing apps on your system. By default, Gatekeeper will require every app that it launches 2 to pass “notarization,” a system by which developers submit their apps to an automated scanning and verification system before release. Gatekeeper’s scope has also expanded, as it now scans all software, regardless of how it was loaded onto the system.

If this sounds like Apple is creeping closer to limiting the Mac to only running software approved by Apple, it is—but Apple would be quick to point out that these are all default settings that can be adjusted by the user. If you want to run random software you picked up off the Internet, you’ll be able to do it, probably forever. You’ll just need to turn off a bunch of Apple security settings to do it. (In the case of non-notarized apps, you’ll see a scary alert warning of potential malicious activity—but if you control-click on the app and choose open, it’ll give you the option to launch the app. This is the same approach previous version of macOS have used to bypass Gatekeeper, and I’m happy to say that it still works.)

In Catalina, apps will also ask you for permission before accessing more aspects of your Mac’s system. Get ready for a hail of Notification Center permission requests when you update to Catalina. Apps that monitor keyboard input or screen recording will now need to ask permission before getting access to those portions of the system. Apps that want access to specific folders, including the Desktop, Documents, and Download folders, iCloud Drive, removable disks, and network volumes will need user consent before they’ll be able to do so. This feature is designed to stop apps from sneakily accessing your disk without your knowledge—if you open or save a file via a menu or via the Finder, your consent is implicit and you won’t be bothered.

The best-case scenario here is that the apps you use every day will have been updated for Catalina and, as a part of that update, will have eliminated any extraneous attempts to access folders that they don’t really need access to. But if you’re using older software, or software that really does need access to those folders, you may find yourself having to click through a bunch of approvals in order to use your software.

When there are many security prompts, users stop paying attention—Microsoft learned this the hard way with Windows Vista. Apple is walking a fine line here with all these permissions requests, and to be honest, as a Mac user I sort of expect that my apps have access to certain portions of my Mac, like my Desktop and my Documents folder.

There’s probably more work to be done here to smooth out this process, but there’s good evidence that Apple can improve the user experience for security prompts. In Catalina, it’s much easier to grant special permission to apps. In Mojave, if you denied permission for something like Full Disk Access to an app by mistake, adding that app back required you to dig around and find the app to add it to the Security preference pane—and some of those apps were weird helper apps that were very hard to find. In Catalina, if an app asks for permission and you decline, that app will still appear in the Security preference pane (unchecked), making it easy to check the box and go about your business.

Another major security shift in Catalina is DriverKit and user space extensions. Certain peripherals and apps would essentially patch the central code of the OS using kernel extensions, which was a handy way to extend the features of macOS, but one that came with some serious security and stability issues. In Catalina, kernel extensions are basically outlawed, but apps can now come with extensions embedded within them that do more or less the same thing—but securely and, one hopes, with more stability. Even better, when you delete the app that’s extending the system, the extension gets automatically uninstalled and removed. (I frequently find I’m still running kernel extensions from apps I ditched years before. It’s not great.)

This change adds another level of potential user frustration, however. Some of the utilities included with peripheral hardware you bought might require an update (or just be flat-out incompatible). The same goes for apps that patch the file system to add access to cloud storage, and virtualization tools. Most actively developed apps will adopt this new approach and may already have been updated for Catalina, but you should check before updating—especially if you rely on older external hardware.

If you’ve got a Mac with a T2 processor—that’s the iMac Pro, 2018 Mac mini, Retina MacBook Air, and recent MacBook Pro models—your Mac is now protected with the same Activation Lock technology that’s been built into recent iOS devices. If someone were to steal your computer, it would be unusable by anyone without your Apple ID username and password.

And for users with an Apple Watch but without a Mac with a Touch ID sensor, Apple’s expanding biometric authentication. A bunch of authorization requests on macOS Catalina will allow you to approve them by tapping the side button on your unlocked Apple Watch, rather than entering in your user name and password. As someone who has an iMac (no Touch ID) and an Apple Watch, I’ve been wearing this feature out. Yes, I would rather double-tap my Apple Watch than type my password over and over again.

Screen Time comes to the Mac

Though the System Preferences app in Catalina has gotten a redesign—like the Settings app on iOS, your Apple ID and iCloud settings are now at the top, prominently displayed along with the identity of your currently logged-in account—most of the preference panes are the same as they were in Mojave. The big difference is that the venerable Parental Controls feature is gone, replaced by Screen Time.

Screen Time was introduced in iOS 12 last year, and it brought greater control over how people use their iOS devices. It’s not just a feature for parents to monitor their kids and control how they use their devices—though it is that—but it’s also a way for us all to get information about how much we’re using our devices and perhaps nudge us to use them more wisely.

The problem with Screen Time was that it was only for iOS, and both of my kids also have Macs. I was also unable to manage their device usage from my own Mac, instead needing to get an iPhone or iPad in order to do so. With Screen Time on Catalina, that should all be history. You can manage usage across Macs and iOS devices and see statistics across platforms.

The old Parental Controls was… better than nothing, but not great. Using Screen Time for the last year on iOS has just made me want it for the Mac, and I’m happy that Apple has unified this feature across its platforms this year. If I have one complaint, it’s that the System Preferences window is a little too small to fit in all the Screen Time data comfortable. I wish it was resizable—or if you could optionally open a separate Screen Time window or app.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get reliable device statistics from my Mac or other devices during the beta period, so I’m going to have to spend more time with Screen Time once all of my family devices have been updated to the latest operating system.

Another shot at Photos

The redesigned Photos interface uses machine learning to display the best images and videos for events.

Catalina brings the third big rethink to the Photos app during its relatively short lifetime, as Apple continues to strive to find ways to better expose great old photographs out of gigantic photo libraries using advances in machine-learning technology.

I’m impressed with the way individual events are curated by Apple’s machine-learning magic. Events are intelligently segmented based on time and geography, and then “cover photos” chosen and cropped via an algorithm that’s trying to find good photos and crop them to display the key people or objects in them. (Videos also appear, and autoplay as you scroll past them.) It made my photo library look pretty fabulous, if I say so myself.

The new Years/Months/Days views in Photos are all heavily curated and not all of your images or videos will be displayed—Apple’s actually analyzing them behind the scenes and hiding some near-duplicates, screen shots, and other stuff that it things are generally undesirable. You can still click into the All Photos view to see everything, though.

A Photos feature that’s been on iOS for years has finally migrated over to the Mac this year: the ability to view and edit Memory Movies, which are little auto-generated video slideshows of individual events. It’s a fun little feature that lets you quickly share a bunch of images from a moment in time without building an entire slideshow project yourself, and it was always a shame that the Mac didn’t have access to it. Now it does.

And don’t forget Reminders

As someone who uses Apple’s Reminders app for basic list management and Todoist for certain timed to-do’s, I’m optimistic about the new Reminders app in Catalina and iOS 13. This new app should still be able to compile simple lists like the ones I build all the time in the current version, but offers features to make it easier to hang times, dates, locations, attachments, and individual sub-tasks onto items—so you can make it much more complex if you want.

There’s a new enhanced natural-language scanning system that Apple says will allow Reminders to make some guesses about how you want to tag an item—though when I tried to get it to set a recurring event for every month on a certain date, or every other week on Wednesday, it couldn’t figure me out. Oh well.

I’m reminded of the way that Apple upgraded Notes a few years ago, taking it from a very simple app into one that was remarkable full featured. While I’m sympathetic to the ecosystem of notes apps (and now reminders apps) that will be challenged by Apple upping its game when it comes to bundled apps, it’s important to remember that most users never stray beyond the preinstalled apps, and bad preinstalled apps reflect on the quality and usability of Apple’s platform.

At the same time, Apple never builds these apps to hit all of the edge cases that power users require. I’m sure to-do apps will find all sorts of ecological niches that Apple will simply never address, and of course full-fledged organizational apps like OmniFocus should have no fear at all. But for those of us who just need some basic task management, Reminders will be better, and that’s good.

A grab bag of app improvements (or not)

The app improvements don’t stop there! There are a lot, and that is a welcome sight for all the reasons I mentioned above—improved bundled apps elevate the platform. Mail has added the ability to mute threads, block senders, and auto-unsubscribe from mailing lists. Safari has tweaked its start page, will warn you when you enter in a weak password, and lets you sent video straight into a picture-in-picture window by clicking and holding on the audio icon in the location bar. Notes now supports shared folders and will automatically use machine learning and text recognition to make your photos and scanned documents searchable.

Even the QuickTime app—now the only one, since QuickTime 7 won’t run on Catalina—has gained a few new pro features, including an enhanced movie inspector, the ability to generate a movie from a sequence of still images (that’s an ancient QuickTime feature, revived for Catalina), support for time code in video, and support for some videos with alpha channels.

Unfortunately, a few apps haven’t really improved much—the four apps sourced from iOS last year as a part of the Mojave update, via what we now call Mac Catalyst. They’re all still pretty rudimentary, and while it’s better to have them than not, they could be much better than they are. The Home app has added support for home automation shortcuts (but it’s so buggy as to be unusable), and setting time-based automations still requires you to spin an iOS-style date picker. That date-picker design should not ever appear on macOS, period—it’s a touchscreen interface that doesn’t work with a mouse or trackpad. I can’t believe Apple has left it untouched.

A big step—take only when prepared

Catalina takes the Mac in a new direction. I’m encouraged by the fact that Apple is cranking up its focus on security and privacy without locking Mac users out from running the software they want, when they want to—though the security notifications are more than is probably necessary. And while pulling the plug on 32-bit apps is something that needed to happen, it also throws up a brick wall for anyone who is still relying on apps that haven’t been (or won’t be) updated with Catalina compatibility.

Mac Catalyst has the potential to improve the Mac by bringing in a lot of new apps, but my enthusiasm for this technology has diminished over time as developers have discovered so many of its limitations. It will take time for us to learn if Mac Catalyst can really make a difference in terms of the health and life of the Mac, or if it’s more of a curiosity. The ball is in Apple’s court.

Apple wants everyone to update to the latest version of all their operating systems, of course. But with Catalina, I’d advise you not to upgrade immediately—and tell your friends and family to do the same. This is an upgrade that will, by design, break apps. Be sure that you don’t rely on any of those apps—and more to the point, be sure you’ve got a motivation to upgrade to Catalina beyond the good feelings you get from being on the latest and greatest.

If there’s a must-have app that only runs on Catalina, or you want to use Voice Control or Screen Time or Find My or Apple Arcade, and all your go-to software checks out, then by all means, make the jump to Catalina. (I’ve been using it for the last month with only a few minor app incompatibilities that I expect to be resolved as updates roll out alongside the new release.) But if you can wait, you should. Let other people discover the early bugs and suffer the app incompatibilities. Catalina will still be there for you when you’re ready for it.


  1. Sidecar is a Continuity feature of macOS, meaning that it uses both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to sense the nearby presence of the device—and setting a fairly strict range. You can’t use Sidecar beyond about 10 meters from the host Mac.  ↩

  2. Apps built before June 1 of this year won’t have to be notarized.  ↩

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[Get more macOS info on our macOS Catalina page.]