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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

First Look: macOS Sonoma Public Beta

macOS Sonoma in an imac display

macOS Sonoma, out in public beta now and due to be released this fall, is an update that feels small in all the best ways. Even in early development, I’ve managed to use it on my main Mac without any serious compatibility issues or major bugs. This means that if you’re desperate for change in macOS, you will be disappointed—but at this point I suspect that most Mac users just want incremental improvements without disruptive changes. Slow and steady wins the race.

To be sure, Apple is tinkering quite a bit around the edges, but mostly in the sense of minor features getting a facelift or new quality-of-life features that span across its platforms. If all the effort expended getting visionOS ready to ship has meant that things are quieter than usual around these parts, so be it. Based on what I’ve seen so far, macOS Sonoma will make portions of your Mac experience better without breaking the stuff you count on. That’s my kind of update.

(Of course, many macOS improvements in Sonoma are also new features in iOS 17 and iPadOS 17, among them password sharing, upgrades to Messages, PDF autofill, new Notes features, and a big upgrade to autocorrect and dictation. Since those features aren’t unique to macOS, we’ve separated them out and covered them in an article about new 2023 Apple platform features.)

Keeping in mind that we’ve probably got more than three months before this operating system ships, here are some of my first impressions of macOS Sonoma.

Free the widgets

iOS 14 introduced a new form of attractive informational widget to the iPhone, and iOS 15 extended it to the iPad. macOS Big Sur introduced widgets to the Mac, but in the least visible way, trapped in the Notification Center sidebar.

With Sonoma, widgets can now be interactive—across Mac, iOS, and iPadOS—but more importantly for the Mac, they can now go where no Apple widget—not even Dashboard widgets, back in the day1—has gone before. In macOS Sonoma, widgets can live in Notification Center or on the Desktop.

I’m impressed by how Apple has implemented this feature. Widgets live on the Desktop, not in a weird interstitial layer. Widgets can never float above your windows. If your Mac’s window is full of other stuff, the way to see widgets is to hide all those other apps, use the Mac’s Reveal Desktop command (either via function key or by spreading your fingers out on a trackpad), or by clicking on the Desktop. (There’s an option to turn off that last behavior when you’re not using Stage Manager, which is good, because I click on the Desktop to reveal Finder windows, not to temporarily hide all my other windows.)

Widget color choices
Widgets can dynamically shift between color and monochrome—or you can choose to keep them in either style all the time.

Apple has also chosen by default to have widgets become desaturated of color—and therefore be a bit less obnoxious—when the Desktop/Finder isn’t selected. It definitely reduces the distraction, though widgets are also a lot less pretty when they’re desaturated. Fortunately, if you don’t mind the distraction you can set widgets to display in full color all of the time. I chose this setting and got used to them pretty quickly. (If you prefer the monochromatic look, you can also choose for widgets to remain monochromatic all the time.)

Of course, one of the other big limitations of widgets on macOS has been that they require a corresponding macOS app—and some iPhone and iPad apps with cool widgets never make their way to macOS. To counteract this problem, Apple has added a feature that lets iPhone widgets run on the Mac. If your iPhone is on the same network as your Mac, or within AirDrop distance, its apps will be available on the Mac. (They obviously won’t work if the iPhone leaves the house.)

It’s a pretty cool idea, and when it works it feels like magic. I added a widget I built using Simon Støvring’s Scriptable app, which isn’t available on the Mac, and it worked just fine. Some other app widgets didn’t work so well, showing a blank space. Still, it’s beta season—that this feature works at all with apps never written to support it is a good sign. And a good idea.

widget placement animation
Apple provides widget guides, but you can put them anywhere you want.

I’m also impressed with how Apple has handled how you place widgets on the desktop. It’s essentially free-form; you can basically put widgets anywhere. But when the widget you’re dragging gets close to other widgets, it will snap into alignment with those widgets. At first I thought the entire desktop was a grid, but that’s not what’s happening—Apple’s just making it easy for adjacent widgets to look properly aligned. (Items that live on the Desktop can’t be lost under widgets, either—as you drag a widget around, all the other items on your Desktop get out of the way.) These touches say a lot about Apple’s priorities. The company wants widgets on the Mac desktop to not look messy, and it’s done a lot of extra work to make that so.

Are you getting it yet?

macOS Sonoma brings Apple’s high-resolution video screen savers of the earth from space, flyovers of cities and nature, and underwater worlds to the Mac for the first time2. It also spruces up desktop wallpaper with those images. And it’s given the Lock Screen a bit of an update, too.

These aren’t three separate features. They’re one interlinked feature. The Lock Screen now picks up your desktop wallpaper, so you don’t have to suffer with the default. The high-resolution screen savers can optionally be displayed as wallpaper. The result is that your lock screen, screen saver, and desktop wallpaper can all be the same.

Screen savers can slow down and come to a rest as wallpapers.

I like it. I’m most impressed with the fit and finish Apple has put into the transition from screen saver to desktop. The screen saver doesn’t flicker off, to be replaced by a different image from the same video, nor does it suddenly grind to a halt the moment it’s disengaged. Instead, when you come back from the screen saver, the video briefly continues to play on the desktop, decelerating to a stop. It’s completely unnecessary, but really delightful.

Video controls get smarts

video settings screen
Finally, detailed control over your camera.

The pandemic forced all of us, even Apple, to reconsider the importance of videoconferencing. And macOS Sonoma adds a few new video features—some useful, some more whimsical.

On the practical side, Mac users will finally be able to take more control over their video settings without the need for extra software. Video Effects controls, previously buried inside Control Center, have been moved to a Menu Bar item that appears when any app is using a camera. And the controls have been upgraded.

In a huge boost, you can adjust the zoom and pan of cameras on Apple devices (including MacBook webcams, the Studio Display, and iPhones via Continuity Camera). For example, with Center Stage turned off I find that the Studio Display’s camera is framed too high—but now I can adjust that framing so that my face is dead center, with a little tighter zoom. (There’s also a nifty new Recenter button that applies a Center Stage-style calculation to put you in the center of the frame—but it only does it the one time. Very nice for those who don’t want Center Staging zooming and panning, but do like the idea of being properly framed.)

And while you could previously toggle video effects like Portrait Mode and Studio Light on and off, you can now also adjust their intensity. If you never used Studio Light because it was just a bit too much… well, now you can dial it back and actually put it to use. I’m really happy that Apple decided to put some of this control in the hand of Mac users.

Apple has also seriously upgraded sharing a window from your Mac in a presentation. To choose a window to share, you click and hold on the green stoplight button in the window, and then choose Share On (Name of Videoconferencing App). (Those apps will need to be updated to take advantage of this feature.)

Even more cleverly, Apple can combine that shared screen with video input from a camera. You can either pipe your video into a small circle that’s superimposed on the shared window, or you can display your regular webcam video—with the shared screen layered behind you but in front of your background. It’s the same foreground detection system Apple uses for Portrait Mode, but used to make it seem like your shared window is hanging right over your shoulder. I like the idea, though I couldn’t get this feature to work right in my beta testing.

Finally, Apple has added a bunch of reaction animations that can appear when you trigger them either by clicking on the animation in the Video Effects menu or by making physical gestures in the video frame. If you make a thumbs-up gesture, an animated thought bubble containing a thumbs-up icon appears near your head. If you do two thumbs up, there’s a confetti drop. (Yes, you can turn this off.)

This is all technically impressive, and it works in any app because Apple’s intercepting the video camera input, analyzing it, potentially processing it, and then sending it on. It’s also using that same foreground and background segmentation to create effects with depth, so the animated balloon release or confetti drop will include objects passing both in front of and behind the subject.

These effects won’t be for everyone, and yes, they’ll also be overused. But at the same time, they’re fun. I’ve been known to send someone an iMessage or two with the Lasers effect, possibly ironically. Making video more playful is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and for those who might disagree, I’ll point out that Apple also added a bunch of practical features in this category. There’s something for everyone here.

Grab bag

Even the quietest macOS updates end up having dozens, if not hundreds, of improvements—some huge, some small. Here are some of the other features that are changing in macOS Sonoma that I haven’t had time to dive deep into yet.

Safari improvements. You can now save sites as apps, so they appear in the Dock (and in your user Applications folder) and can work independently from Safari itself. Single-site browsers have been a popular concept for a while now, but this is Apple’s first time taking this approach on the Mac.

There’s a new Profiles feature that lets you keep different aspects of your life—let’s say work and home, but it also might be different clients or jobs—separated in the browser. I deal with this all the time because I need to log into various sites with different accounts. But with Safari on Sonoma, I can create profiles for the different accounts and quickly switch among them, instead of having to constantly spawn new private browsing windows so I can log in temporarily as a different user. Profiles also have separate browser histories, favorites, and even extensions.

Screen sharing. One of the the most useful utilities on macOS is Screen Sharing, because it lets you take control of another Mac from the Mac you’re currently using. I use this all the time with my home server, and during the production of this review I also found myself using it to connect to my MacBook Air running macOS Ventura (while it was sleeping, with its lid closed!) to compare it to my Mac Studio running Sonoma.

This unsung hero of macOS has gotten a major update. For starters, there’s an actual interface—instead of a simple Connect To start, there’s a proper window listing nearby computers and devices you’ve previously controlled. And there’s also a stunning new High Performance mode, which lets two Apple Silicon Macs running macOS Sonoma connect with low latency, high quality, and even support for two displays. I was able to edit some video in Final Cut Pro using this feature, and while it wasn’t perfect, I was impressed at how well it worked. The audio sent from the remote computer had pretty low latency, though it was unpleasantly distorted.

Game Mode. At long last, if you accidentally launch a Mac game in full-screen mode while a bunch of other apps are still running, macOS is smart enough to recognize what’s happening and give priority to the game and not your email app running in the background. This is good. I haven’t been able to test this feature yet—my one attempt ended in the game I was trying to play crashing on launch, presumably because it had a compatibility issue with macOS Sonoma? Oh, the irony.

And many more. There are plenty more features packed into macOS Sonoma, including improvements to security, privacy and accessibility. Every one of those categories deserves some attention—but for the purposes of this article, I’ll defer that attention to a later time.

  1. There was a bug that let you move Dashboard widgets out of the Dashboard layer and into your regular interface, but it was temporary and unsupported. 
  2. If you don’t count Aerial

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