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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

First Look: macOS Ventura Public Beta

Apple’s macOS Ventura, an update due to ship this fall that has arrived Monday as a public beta preview, is full of both little feature refinements and big swings at improving Mac productivity. On the small side, it’s improved search in Spotlight and Mail, expanded Handoff support to include FaceTime calls, and provided some much-needed new features to Messages. There are dozens of small changes, and if one of them hits an app or feature you rely on, the change may make (or break) the entire upgrade for you.

Then there’s the big stuff. In Ventura, Apple has added an entirely new way to manage the many windows can can litter our screens. It has enlisted the optics of the excellent cameras on the iPhone to act as a substitute for often-lackluster Apple webcams. It’s recognized that families might want to share their iCloud Photo Libraries. And it’s thrown out the venerable System Preferences app, a part of Mac OS X since the early days, and replaced it with a new System Settings app that’s reminiscent of iOS.

In this first look at Ventura on the occasion of its release in a Public Beta, I’m going to focus on the big stuff. It’s not that the small stuff doesn’t matter—it can matter a lot. But it’s a long summer, and there’s a lot more to be done (and many more words to be written) before macOS Ventura arrives this fall.

Stage Manager: Another crack at windowing

Stage Manager
Stage Manager lets you group windows together, while displaying groups as thumbnails on the edge of the screen.

Managing multiple overlapping windows has been a defining feature of using a Mac since 1984. For decades, it’s been a huge productivity boost to savvy Mac users, since it allows multiple panes of information of arbitrary sizes to be arranged arbitrarily on a user’s screen. But for some users, the Mac’s windowing metaphor has led to confusion and frustration, whether it’s windows covering other windows or hidden or minimized windows being unfindable.

You, an expert Mac user, may be fine with the way things are. But Apple’s got a broader audience to serve with the Mac—there are more Mac users today than ever before, and the Mac installed base just keeps growing—and it’s never really been satisfied with the available window-management tools on the Mac.

I have to admire Apple’s insistence on this topic. Over the decades it’s tried windowshades, a floating application bar, Dock minimization, single-window mode, Exposé, Spaces, Mission Control, Full Screen, and Split View, and while many of those features have been embraced by some Mac users, the company still doesn’t think that it’s cracked it.

So here comes the latest attempt to refine window management on the Mac: Stage Manager, which will make its debut with macOS Ventura (and iPadOS 16, but that’s another story). Stage Manager is best thought of as a way to create arbitrary groups of windows that you can quickly switch between.

The best I can figure, Stage Manager’s creators believe that Mac users still struggle with too many open windows and spend too much mental effort opening, closing, and moving windows around. (If I get out of my “this-is-how-it’s-always-been” mindset, I suspect that they’re right.) But rather than building something like a tile-based organizational system, Apple has decided that the right solution is to create sets, sort of like Spaces—but have them all exist in a single space, with different sets collected in a new shelf that’s kind of like the Dock but different.

On one level, the Mac is approaching a level of interface-management complexity that threatens to bend in on itself and require some sort of manager for interface managers. The Dock contains running apps, but also other apps, but also minimized windows. And then there’s the Stage Manager shelf, which holds window groups. And you can group windows together in Stage Manager groups, or alternately group them in separate Spaces, or both. You can put some apps in Full Screen or Split View, which will themselves generate their own Spaces.

It’s a lot, and while I applaud Apple’s insistence on giving Mac users more tools to manage the Mac’s interface, this bricolage of features probably needs a top-down organizational rethink. (Not to mention that some gestures—like dragging an app out of the Dock to add a new window to a Stage Manager view—only work on the iPad and not on the Mac! Talk about mixed metaphors.)

And yet on another level, I think Apple might be on to something here with Stage Manager. As I used it, I didn’t really expect to like it—I am generally someone who observes Apple making these attempts to work on window management, dutifully tries them out, and then turns them all off. But I have to admit, I think Stage Manager may have rooted out a real truth about how people (or maybe how I) use a Mac.

The truth is, while I might frequently have seven or eight windows open at once, I’m never using all of them. I’m most likely using one, or two, or three. The others are there to be glanced at, or to be switched to when I’m performing a different task. There’s something to be said for trying to place each of those tasks in its own set, and then quickly flipping between them—rather than having to float individual windows to the top when you move from task A to task B.

I have a suspicion that a lot of people work this way and don’t even realize it. I might even be one of them. And that makes Stage Manager an interesting idea. (If you’re saying to yourself that this is what Spaces is meant to accomplish, I agree with you to a point—but I never could get the hang of Spaces, mostly because once a space was out of sight, it was out of mind. Stage Manager groups are much more present, and that’s a good thing.)

One of the features that I appreciate about Stage Manager is that it isn’t a reinvention of how Mac windows behave, beyond the grouping and the toggling between them. It doesn’t enforce a specific size, location, or even layering order on windows—everything feels natural and Mac-like.

Stage Manager also feels a bit like an admission on Apple’s part that Full Screen mode, which strives to create an iPad-like experience on the Mac, misses the mark. I never use Full Screen mode, even on apps that would benefit from the utter takeover of my Mac’s display, because it really doesn’t work well with Finder. I’m dragging files into Logic Pro and Final Cut Pro all the time, and every time I try to use them in Full Screen mode I end up getting frustrated by all the mode switching and give up. Stage Manager, on the other hand, lets you display your desktop items in the background, or you can click on the Desktop to switch to the Finder and go grab what you want.

That said, more needs to be done this summer to make Stage Manager a fitting addition to the Mac. I’d like to see the ability to assign multitouch gestures and keyboard shortcuts to move among the different window sets. I am also often surprised that when I click an app to launch it, it’s brought into a new window set by itself, rather than being added to my current set. There are lots of little details here that aren’t quite right… at least, not yet.

Continuity Camera: Embracing the iPhone’s optics

The other banner feature of macOS Ventura is Continuity Camera, which lets Macs use an iPhone camera as a webcam. This makes a lot of sense, since Apple’s iPhone camera game is as strong as its built-in Mac camera game is weak. Even though third-party apps like Reincubate’s Camo have let users repurpose their iPhones as as Mac cameras for a while now, I have to admit to being surprised that Apple decided to make this an OS-level feature. It is, after all, an admission that Macs don’t have very good built-in cameras—but that admission is tempered by Apple’s pride at the quality of those iPhone cameras. Maybe that’s what helped this feature slip through?

In any event, it was the right thing to do. I love Camo, but most people would never think of using an app like that—and because third-party developers don’t have access to the deepest levels of Apple’s operating systems, there are things they can’t do that Apple can. To use Camo, you have to launch an app on your iPhone, and then make sure you don’t accidentally quit it while you’re mounting your iPhone on a stand or tripod and pointing it in the right direction. Apple can just detect the presence of a Mac, wake up the iPhone (XR or better) camera, and start streaming camera data wirelessly. There’s no app to launch, nothing to configure, no awkward attempt to mount a phone while not touching the wrong button or the wrong place on the screen. That’s pretty great.

Top to bottom: M2 MacBook Pro webcam, Continuity Camera, Continuity Camera with Center Stage.

As a part of introducing Continuity Camera, Apple is also introducing the concept of a System Camera to macOS. Like a default audio input, System Camera is the camera that macOS treats as the default. This is a feature used by Continuity Camera to detect when an iPhone is mounted to be used as a replacement webcam, and automatically switch to that camera. If you pull the iPhone off, the system switches back to the Mac’s built-in camera.

Apple won’t use Continuity Camera as the default in all instances. It’s using the iPhone’s sensors to detect that the phone has been placed on its side and is not wiggling around (i.e., being held by hand). In all other instances, Continuity Camera is simply available as an additional video input, which you can aim anywhere—you’ll just need to switch your software to use that camera as the input source.

Continuity Camera also takes advantage of features Apple has already used elsewhere. It supports Center Stage (on iPhone 11 and later), which automatically pans and zooms in order to keep people in frame. If you use Center Stage, then Continuity Camera will use the iPhone’s ultrawide camera in order to have the widest possible coverage area. (If you don’t use Center Stage, it’ll use the iPhone’s wide camera instead.)

I found the image quality of the iPhone’s wide camera to be appreciably better than that of the ultrawide in Center Stage mode. Using a small crop from an ultrawide camera image to emulate a little camera operator via Center Stage is very clever, and I like Center Stage as a concept. But the bottom line is, it’s still a crop from a lower-quality camera, and it’s noticeable when directly compared to the high-quality image straight from the wide camera.

Apple’s also lifted Portrait Mode and a smart lighting effect, Studio Light, and put them into Continuity Camera. Studio Light lightens the subject in the foreground and darkens the background (on iPhone 12 and later), and Portrait Mode fuzzes out the background (on iPhone XR and SE 2 and later).

While I’m enthusiastic about Apple bringing this feature to the Mac, I’m disappointed in the limited controls Apple provides to users. We’ve now got the ability to turn off Center Stage, Studio Light, and Portrait Mode in Control Center, but I’d like the ability to crop an image and adjust the image to look better in cases where Apple’s automatic adjustments just don’t get it right.

For me, the most exciting part of Continuity Camera might be that it has prompted Belkin to make a MagSafe mount to attach an iPhone to the top of a display as a webcam. I got a chance to use an early version of Belkin’s forthcoming mount on an M1 MacBook Air and it worked pretty well, though the iPhone (a 13 Pro in a case) was heavy enough to pull the laptop’s screen completely open if I tipped the screen angle over a little too far.

I’ve been using Camo and my iPhone to make a better webcam for nearly two years now, and I’ve never found a mount that I’ve been happy with. Come this fall, perhaps this won’t be an issue anymore.

An additional offshoot of Continuity Camera is Desk View, which uses the iPhone’s ultrawide camera to provide an image of what’s on your desk by rotating and de-distorting the edges of the camera’s field of view to display the area right below.

Cleverly, Desk View is implemented as an app, so it can be shared using the screen-sharing mode on most videoconferencing apps—you just share the Desk View window instead of a window in Microsoft Word or Numbers or whatever you might share with the Zoom crowd.

I had to make a lot of space in front of the laptop for Desk View to get this shot, but it rendered it pretty accurately. (The coaster was actually oriented this way, it’s not an artifact of Desk View.)

I need to spend a lot more time with Desk View. It’s clever, but also very odd. You need to have enough space in front of a computer in order to use it, for starters. And the fact that it’s using an ultrawide lens can lead to some very weird effects—as I found out when I reached into frame and my fingers were stretched out to look almost skeletal. The quality also isn’t great, but that isn’t a dealbreaker. In ideal conditions, I think Desk View will be great. The question is, how often will conditions be less than ideal?

Other features I’m excited about

Though it just appeared last week in the third Ventura developer release, I look forward to having the summer to explore how Apple has finally implemented a shared iCloud Photos library. A few years ago I asked some folks at Apple about the prospects of adding this feature, and while they didn’t say it would never happen, they did give me a list of complications that would make it very hard to do.

Apple’s implementation is in line with that list of complications. This isn’t a simple “merge our libraries” feature, but one that tries to give users control about which images they place in a shared pool and which ones they keep to themselves. The devil’s going to be in the details.

Shared Tab Groups are interesting, but unreliable at present.

Safari, which last year gained Tab Groups, this year gains the ability to share a Tab Group with other people. This is potentially a fun, collaborative feature—but that said, in these early betas it’s been really unreliable. It’s a cool idea that bears more attention when the feature is stable enough to be relied upon.

There have been some big, long requested additions to Messages with this release of macOS, iOS, and iPadOS. You can now edit and delete messages, within a brief editing window. There’s just one problem, namely that Apple isn’t syncing those changes to older versions of its operating systems. This is going to create, at least during the period when people haven’t updated to the latest and greatest, a sort of “messages fragmentation.” If you edit a message, people who can’t see edited messages will instead receive a message indicating that you edited the message, including the new, edited text. If you delete a message, though? It’ll just… stay there on their devices. There’s no indication that you deleted it… nothing.

I get the issues with making a messaging protocol like this backward compatible, but it’s unfortunate Apple isn’t able to use some combination of a late-in-the-game update for the current generation of operating systems and updates to the iMessage service to avoid this kind of fragmentation.

Then there’s the new System Settings app, and right now the less said about that app, the better. I’ll withhold judgment until macOS Ventura ships this fall, but early indications are not good. The new app makes the old System Preferences app, which was desperately in need of an update, seem efficient. I could go on and on, and I may at some point—but right now, what I’ll say is that I hope Apple fixes this app so I don’t have to write several thousand words about what a regression it is.

And of course there’s more

This just scratches the surface on new macOS features. Apple has added a new collaboration layer to Messages that lets developers tie a collaborative document in any app to a conversation between the contributors in Messages. Spotlight is getting an improved interface, including some support for taking quick actions right within Spotlight itself.

Mail has gotten a bunch of needed features, including delayed send, unsend, and a new full-text search engine. Safari adds official support for Passkeys, which threaten to make passwords obsolete. SharePlay now supports text chat-based sessions, rather than demanding audio or video. And the list goes on.

There’s a whole summer to explore. If you feel adventurous, you can install macOS Ventura on your Mac. If you’re not quite that excited, no worries: Apple will again spend the summer refining things before the update launches for everyone this fall. In the meantime, if you’ll excuse me, I need to figure out how share thousands of iCloud photos with the rest of my family.

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