As my colleagues downloaded the public beta of macOS Ventura, the underwhelmed reactions began to roll in. “Everything looks the same,” one of my colleagues lamented. “This kinda sucks,” another complained. Nothing was particularly wrong with the operating system — it just looks and feels exactly the same as Monterey did. Many of the most significant features of this operating system are things that many users may not ever know about or use.
But things could definitely be worse. Unlike with Monterey (I feel like we literally just got Universal Control a few days ago), those significant features are basically all up and running in the beta now, and they seem mostly solid.
Ventura also isn’t full of bugs or glitches that are ruining workflows or bricking computers, so there’s that. With the usual caveat that you should avoid downloading betas onto a crucial device because you never know when bugs might pop up, I’ve had no issue with the operating system so far on my M2 MacBook Pro. Broadly, the changes I’m seeing seem to fall into two of the agendas that Apple’s been pushing with macOS the past few years: bringing it closer to iOS (for those already immersed in the ecosystem) and catching up with third-party competitors (for those who have eggs in multiple baskets).
The continuity continues
Big Sur iOS-ified macOS’s design, and Monterey brought the Mac some of the iPhone’s key features. Ventura continues that journey with Continuity Camera. This feature allows you to use an iPhone running iOS 16 as a substitute webcam for a Mac that’s running Ventura. Mac computers tend to have not-great cameras, while modern iPhones have excellent ones, so this would be a reasonable decision for people to make.
I haven’t been able to test this myself yet because I’m still clinging to my ancient iPhone 8 that is barely sputtering along with iOS 15 (I’ll get you more impressions for the full review). But my colleagues who have used the feature up report that it’s no problem to set up — your Mac automatically detects the connected iPhone, and you can select it as you would another external webcam. The phone also plays a handy sound when you connect.
My coworker Mitchell Clark did hop on a few calls with me when they had the feature up and running with an iPhone 12 Mini and an M1 MacBook Pro. As you might expect, they did look clearer on our call when using Continuity Camera. It was a bit disconcerting to see their position change when they swapped between the two shooters, the MacBook’s and the iPhone’s cameras, but it was easy for them to do. They also, interestingly, looked worse in FaceTime than they did in Zoom, despite being right next to their router in both cases.
There’s one feature that still seems to have some kinks in it: Desk View. In theory, Desk View is supposed to leverage Continuity Camera to let you show your desk and your face at the same time using Zoom’s screen share function. However, when my coworker Dan Seifert tried this out, Desk View was showing his chest or lap rather than his desk. He could get it to show the desk by tilting his phone manually, but that positioned the front camera to point at his lap. That’s… well, one could see how that could go south. I asked Apple about both of the above questions, and they have not yet provided a response.
The other feature Apple appears to be most excited about is Stage Manager, a new way to organize your apps and windows that’s activated in Control Center. Your open apps are all organized on the side of the screen, and you can only have one open at a time (unless you’ve grouped it with another app, which is a thing you can do, though it took a while for me to figure out how.) Opening something new closes what you already have open. The intention of Stage Manager appears to be to eliminate distractions when you need to focus, but as someone whose work generally requires them to have lots of things open at once, it’s a no-go for me. It does, however, make using my MacBook feel a lot more like using an iPad.
The System Preferences app is now called System Settings and has been overhauled to resemble the Settings app in iOS. The grid of icons is gone — there’s a menu on the left and changing pane on the right, and a bunch of things like Software Update and Storage are now hidden in the General tab. I can see this being easier to navigate for folks who are used to the iPhone, though I dislike that it doesn’t currently appear to be resizeable in any way.
One other thing to call out here is that Spotlight now looks a lot more like the search function on iOS. You can now use it to run shortcuts or take other basic actions, though clicking the results I got from these searches sometimes didn’t get me anywhere. And it now includes image results from the web and other apps (as the search function on iOS does). Results seem to vary a bit. Searching “horse” gave me a bunch of pictures of horseradish. The only photo I got from a search for “RM” (a member of BTS) gave me a picture of the cover of John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, even though I’d just texted a picture of RM to somebody, and it was sitting right there in my Messages app (maybe his name needed to be on the picture, but images often don’t have words on them). All that said, I do use Spotlight all day and welcome any and all improvements to it.
There are a bunch of new features in the Mail app, and almost all of them are things that I’m shocked to learn the Mail app didn’t already have. You can now schedule messages to be sent at certain times, you can have the app remind you to come back to messages at certain times, you can now unsend messages within 10 seconds of sending them, and the app now automatically punts emails that haven’t received responses in a while to the top of your inbox. Speaking as a long-time user of Gmail, which has had these things for ages, I guess I’m glad that Mail users are finally getting them, too.
The one thing I do find legitimately cool is that you can now add “rich links” instead of “plain links” in emails, which makes them pop up as little squares with the page name in the body. Even users who aren’t using Mail see them this way. You can also send text links if you prefer.
Speaking of Apple apps that are in heated races with Google competitors, Safari has some updates as well. You can now collaborate on share tab groups with other people and automatically start Messages conversations or FaceTime calls with your collaboraters from the browser (though these features require you both to be using Safari, and I’m not sure of the odds of that). There are some security things as well: Apple is rolling out Passkeys, a passwordless sign-in standard that stores keys on your iCloud Keychain rather than in places that are are vulnerable to data breaches and other no-no things. The strong passwords that Safari generates can now be edited to accommodate site-specific requirements.
Messages also brings some new features that will be familiar to users of many other messaging apps (Messenger, for example). You can now mark messages as unread and can edit or unsend them for up to 15 minutes (provided that their recipient is also running the latest Apple software).
I do like that SharePlay, which allows you to listen to music and other media remotely with friends, can now be activated from Messages as well, as can collaborations on files in programs like Keynote and Notes. SharePlay is one of those things that is cool to see in action but that I’ve never actually found myself using, so we’ll see if the Messages integration changes my mind at all during the review process. Speaking of collaboration, shared iCloud photo libraries are now a thing and can include up to six people.
The optimistic view of this update, as a whole, is that Apple is finally acknowledging some of the ways that people have been using their Mac devices and is incorporating them into macOS’s core functionality. People have been mounting their phones for video calls for two-plus years now, and Apple now endorses that. People have come up with all kinds of ways to eliminate distractions and remind themselves to reply to emails, and now they can do it within macOS. The cynical view is that Apple’s scrambling to add features to macOS that other systems (both those of third parties and Apple’s own) have offered for ages. Take your own view.
We are still waiting for some kinks to be worked out over the next few months, and we’re also waiting on the FreeForm app, Apple’s new Figma-esque whiteboard tool that’s supposed to deliver a more seamless collaboration experience than we’ve seen from Apple’s other apps.
That said, there aren’t quite as many unknowns as there were when I was writing the Monterey preview last year. That’s a good sign. And it seems broadly like Ventura is a solid step forward on Apple’s long journey to bringing macOS closer to its mobile counterparts. Especially with features like Universal Control now live, the experience of jumping back and forth between the two grows ever so slightly more seamless. One wonders how many more of such ideas Apple will come up with before it gives in and puts a touchscreen on a Mac (one day, one day).