By Jason Snell
September 26, 2023 9:15 AM PT
macOS Sonoma Review: Small moves
macOS Sonoma is an update that feels small—but in all the best ways. Upgrading it won’t change how you look at your Mac, at least not at first. This means that if you’re desperate for change to longstanding features of macOS, you will not find what you’re looking for in macOS Sonoma. I suspect, however, 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. macOS Sonoma will make portions of your Mac experience better (with some really nice detail work on Apple’s part!) without breaking the stuff you count on. That’s my kind of update.
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 (and iOS and iPadOS), widgets can now be interactive, 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.
Widgets live on the Desktop, stuck to it like a bunch of stickers, rather than floating in some sort of weird interstitial layer. As a result, Widgets can never float above your windows. If your windows are covering up the Desktop, the only way to see widgets is to move, close, or hide those windows. (I’ve been giving the Reveal Desktop command—accessible via function key or by spreading your fingers out on a trackpad—a real workout.) To make it a little easier, Apple has also imported a convention from Stage Manager, in which clicking on the Desktop hides everything but the Desktop. It makes sense, I suppose, but I hate it—my years of bringing Finder forward by clicking on the Desktop make it a nonstarter—and thankfully, Apple has given users the option to turn that gesture off when they’re not in Stage Manager.
The “stuck to the Desktop” approach is simple, and I think that’s why Apple chose it, but I’m a little disappointed that there’s no way to float a widget or the entire widget layer above Mac windows, even temporarily. If you want to work with a widget (they’re interactive now, after all) while looking at content in a standard window, you’ll need to rearrange or hide windows, which is probably more work than it’s worth.
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 color widgets 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 for my iPhone using Simon Støvring’s Scriptable app, which isn’t available on the Mac, and it worked, miraculously.
Unfortunately, iOS 17’s entire widget architecture feels a little bit shaky right now. Occasionally, widgets just stop updating or go completely blank, especially if there’s been an update in the App Store (or, for beta users, via TestFlight). I’ve restarted my iPhone more in the last few months than I had in the previous few years, all because it was the only way to get my widgets to start updating again. And when an iPhone widget turned into a zombie on iOS, it vanished entirely from my Mac’s Desktop. It’s frustrating, and Apple needs to get this issue fixed.
I’m impressed with the work Apple has put into how you arrange widgets on the Desktop. It’s essentially free-form; you can 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.
While it’s nice to have widgets on the Mac, the fact is that they’re imports from iOS and iPadOS and, as a result, don’t quite fit right. All widgets feel a bit too large, especially if you’re trying to use them on a laptop display—the appropriate scale for iOS just seems a bit wrong for macOS.
Then there’s the entire concept of the “interactive widget,” which is a real winner on iOS 17 but mostly a nonsequitur on macOS. Yes, your to-do list app now comes with a widget that displays items you can check off… but on the Mac, why not just have your to-do app open to do that task? The Mac is such an able multitasker, and its multi-window interface is so powerful that this feature is blunted quite a bit. This is not to say that there aren’t use cases for interactive widgets on the Mac… it’s just that they’re a lot less exciting.
Widgets are great when it comes to glanceability. It’s nice to lay that weather widget on my Desktop and know that I can just peek over in the corner of my screen to see the current temperature and forecast. But even here, the Mac’s flexibility blunts the value somewhat: most Macs are laptops, and laptops have limited screen space. Is a big widget from iOS sitting on your Desktop (and requiring window management to reveal it) a better glanceable experience than putting items in the Mac’s original glanceable space, the menu bar? Sometimes, the answer will be yes, but it all feels less necessary than on iOS.
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.
I love it. I’m incredibly 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. That extra level of attention to detail is Apple at its best.
Video controls get smarts
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 some high-resolution cameras (including the Apple 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 Stage zooming and panning but do like the idea of being properly framed.)
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 Window with… (Videoconferencing apps will need to be updated to take advantage of this feature, but it works out of the box with FaceTime.)
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 feels like Apple’s showing off a bit with these features, but they’re all built out of the same layer-detection algorithm that allows Portrait Mode, Studio Light, and the layered reaction effects featuring flying confetti or exploding fireworks. So not only does your face go in a small circle superimposed on the shared window, but the top of your head can whimsically pop right out of the top of the circle. (A virtual background is cut off at the circle, but your head isn’t.) It’s extra in the best way.
The layered large presentation style is similarly smart. If you reach over to point at something on the window you’re sharing, your hand appears above the window. And Center Stage frames the shot so that you’re properly positioned next to the shared window, not in front or behind it. It’s very impressive. It almost makes me wish I was in more video conferences.
Screen sharing goes big
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 over a fast network connection to 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 that it worked at all! The audio sent from the remote computer had pretty low latency, though it was distorted.
Still, as someone who is constantly connecting to a Mac mini server on my home network, I’m unreasonably excited about these upgrades. This feature alone will get me to upgrade my server to macOS Sonoma.
But wait, there’s more
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 a separate article about new 2023 Apple platform features.
And even the quietest macOS updates end up having dozens, if not hundreds, of improvements—some huge, some small. Here are a couple of the other features that are changing in macOS Sonoma.
Safari site-specific apps. 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. When I visited Gmail on the web, I was prompted to open it in a web app, at which point Safari saved a Gmail “app” in my user’s Applications folder. If you rely on a bunch of web-based apps every day, getting them out of Safari and into separate instances will be a big upgrade.
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 kept all my work apps open and then launched No Man’s Sky, and it played without a hitch.
Small can be big
macOS Sonoma isn’t a game changer—nor is it meant to be. But in an era where so many of Apple’s banner features are shared across its many platforms, Sonoma adds a surprising number of Mac-specific features and offers Mac-specific touches to others.
I’m most impressed with the features that feel Apple has gone above and beyond what was required to bring a little delight to the proceedings. That screen saver-to-wallpaper transition? Those multiple, multi-layered screen-sharing modes alongside actual webcam settings? Chef’s kiss.
I sort of miss the days when every macOS version would bring massive changes to the entire concept of the operating system, but I also kind of don’t. Two decades in, stability should be a hallmark of the modern macOS—but Apple should never stop striving to make the experience better. That’s what macOS Sonoma manages to accomplish.
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