OS X Yosemite Review: Apple’s Mac OS Gets A New Look And Killer Mobile Crossover Features

Apple’s new desktop operating system is out today, and the final version of the major software update includes lots of changes for your Mac. It’s still OS X, though – Yosemite hasn’t gone so far afield that people used to Mavericks or Mountain Lion will feel adrift, but it comes with some impressive new additions and feature tweaks that make the overall experience of using any Mac – and using a Mac together with an iPhone or iPad – more pleasant, and more productive.

Look And Feel

OS X Yosemite brings one of the biggest changes to Apple’s desktop operating system in the past decade, thanks to a redesign of app toolbars, as well as a new system-wide font, a brand new dock design and the addition of translucency across system elements to give you a subtle peek at what’s behind your active software, and what’s on your desktop. There’s also an option to switch to a new dark menu bar and dock, which seems like a very small thing, but in practice is actually quite useful if you spend a long time staring at your computer each day.

The font is actually one of my favorite things about OS X Yosemite, and it’s particularly useful now that many Mac users are shifting to Retina displays. The new text renders much better when viewed at higher resolutions, like when you dial up the screen real estate setting on your 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, for instance. It’s more legible at all built-in system resolutions, however, and seems to both ease eye-strain and just generally make your desktop computing experience more comfortable.

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The new dock and toolbar feature a flatter look, which is more in keeping with the design language Apple began to embrace in iOS 7. The new look isn’t so dramatic that users will be confused as to the function and purpose of interface elements, however; the change to the toolbars frees up space to give more usable area to the app upon which it appears, and the new look for Apple’s system apps in the redesigned dock make for easier legibility and recognition.

Translucency is an element that lets you see through select interface elements, in system apps like Messages, for instance, to get a better idea of what else you have running on your desktop. This is the surest sign in Yosemite that Apple isn’t moving towards making OS X and iOS the same, in terms of design and function – it’s an aesthetic feature, yes, but it’s also created because desktop users often have multiple application running at once, and providing even an opaque look at what’s going on beneath your current active window can help situate a person in that kind of multitasking environment. As someone who frequently has a huge number of windows open at one time, I can vouch for its effectiveness, even if the impact on the overall workflow is very subtle.

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Apple’s new look for OS X in Yosemite is a great blend of progress and restraint – it’s significant enough that you notice the changes, which are by and large for the better, but it’s not so dramatic that anyone updating from a recent version should have any trouble adjusting.

Today View

The new Today View in Yosemite mirrors the new Today View Apple introduced in iOS 8 in September. As on mobile, it makes the Notification Center panel a lot more useful, thanks in large part to greater user control over what they see, and the introduction of third-party widget support. Being able to drop stuff from the Today View that I never use, like Stocks, entirely, and then push up more useful features like the Calculator to the top is a huge benefit.


Today View replaces Dashboard for much of my standard daily workflow, but it does more than just replace Apple’s previous home for widgets, because I actually open it more than once every couple of weeks or months. Dashboard was solid in concept, as a place where lightweight, almost-apps that don’t require your full attention and that serve very specific functions could live, but it was too hidden and inconvenient to operate. Today View provides a much better home for widgets, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple drops Dashboard altogether in future iterations of OS X.


The new Spotlight is much more than a system-wide file search, freed from Finder, which is what it has been mostly up until now. Apple made it more powerful when it let it search from a variety of sources, but the new look of spotlight and the Command+Space Bar shortcut key combination really make it a full-fledged utility in its own right.


Spotlight will now autocomplete your queries based on what’s on your Mac, and what’s being searched for and talked about online. It offers much more information directly within Spotlight itself, too, eliminating the need to even open up a separate app to complete a lot of tasks. The rich and interactive previews Spotlight presents will give you full looks at photos and documents, and complete contact cards and events from your Calendar, and you can view and modify information just by clicking on it in these rich previews. See the address for your next appointment by clicking that info in Spotlight Preview, for instance, or call a friend from the preview of their contact card.

Previews also provide summarized Wikipedia entries, Maps location previews, news from Bing and movie information including showtimes, ratings and ratings from Rotten Tomatoes. iTunes results will display albums, ratings and release dates, editors notes and track listings direct from Apple’s digital store itself. Spotlight can also now do conversions directly within the app, so you can go from metric to imperial (a daily chore for me) without even opening a browser window.


Spotlight is a great app launcher, and made more so because of its new design and activation methods, but Apple has also put a lot of polish into the app itself, turning it almost into a Siri for the desktop, albeit with text entry instead of speech – yet another sign the company is paying close attention to the differences in usage habits between desktop and mobile and designing experiences accordingly.


The new Messages in Yosemite is an app that recognizes people use messaging more often than email now for quick, casual communication, and even for work and longer missives. Conversations can now be named, so that when you’re communicating in groups you don’t jump in and say the wrong one to the wrong people, and this feature carries over to iOS and vice versa, so that names are the same no matter where you set them up.

Other great new group messaging features let you add participants to existing conversations, remove yourself from them entirely or just mute them to ensure you won’t hear about every new update in a particularly active (and perhaps not so interesting) family chat.


On the desktop, you can also now see all media attachments used in a conversation in a pop-up viewer, which is great for most situations, but also means you probably want to be more mindful about what you share. Messages has always had a memory, but increased accessibility means you might be surprised yourself to find what that memory contains. You can also now send and receive quick audio messages using the microphone button next to the message composition field.

Apple has also provided Messages with screen sharing support, which is a great feature should you ever have to do any family troubleshooting, or remote workplace collaboration. Screen sharing lets both participants in a conversation see one of their desktops, allowing for activities like co-browsing the web, or viewing a representation in real-time with a co-worker. Both parties can interact with the desktop, thought the viewer can just control where the cursor points, with a spotlight showing you when and where they click, and the Messages app begins a real-time audio conversation as soon as you kick off a session, with the assumption being that you’ll want to talk over what you’re doing without having to type it out (as you’ll be interacting with the desktop at the same time).


Message-based screen sharing is a great idea, and a smart placement for this feature. It’s been possible on Macs before, but this makes the process simple enough that anyone can use it, and given that it’s a handy way to collaboratively solve problems for novice users, housing it in Messages, which is increasingly the hub of multi-user communication on the Mac, makes perfect sense.


Continuity Features


Apple’s attention to the changing roles of desktop and mobile computing devices, and how users are integrating them into their lives are perhaps best expressed by Yosemite’s Handoff features. With this version of OS X, Apple now lets users start an activity on their Mac, and then pick it up on their iPhone or iPad, or vice versa. So if you’re composing an email on your MacBook, but need to run to the bus to avoid being late, you can seamlessly continue composing on your iPhone.

Handoff’s rollout began with iOS 8, but since Yosemite wasn’t yet publicly available, users were limited to being able to start and carry on tasks between iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. It was useful as a mobile-only feature, but with desktop integration, it becomes much more so. Handoff works automatically, too – so long as both devices are signed into your iCloud account, it’ll appear when deemed relevant or useful. So far, I’ve had it reliably provide me with the right suggestions when I wanted it to be there, as it seems like Apple errs on the side of caution in terms of popping up the icon in the bottom left of your lock screen, or at the far left of your dock, to initiate the switch-off.


So far, Handoff is supported by Mail, Safari, Maps, Messages, Reminders, Calendars, Contacts, Notes, Keynote, Numbers and Pages out of the box, but Apple is also offering an API so your favorite cross-platform third-party apps can take advantage. Any developer out there who offers apps on both iOS and Mac would do well to bake this feature in, as it’s hard to go back to more manual ways of moving from platform to platform once you’ve experienced it.

Make/Receive Phone Calls

Apple now lets you make and receive phone calls directly through your Mac, which is achieved by routing the call through your smartphone when both your Yosemite-powered computer and your iOS 8 iPhone are on the same network. In practice it means that if you have your iPhone in the other room and you get a call while you’re at your computer, you don’t have to run to catch it. It also means that you can field calls to your mobile using whatever headphone and mic setup you’re already working with on your desktop, which is great for remote workers like myself.


It works well in practice, though I did experience a few instances where there was noticeable lag on calls. Still, it’s very useful, and a far better solution than any of the third-party apps I’ve tried that offer similar experiences with Android devices. The fact that the phone and Mac have to both be on the same Wi-Fi network means you can’t use it as a pseudo roaming solution while your mobile’s at home and you’re in another country, but if this version works out, maybe that’ll arrive at a later date.

Send/Receive SMS

This new iOS 8.1 feature allows Macs running Yosemite to send and receive SMS messages, again routing them through the iPhone. The SMS feature means that even your contacts who don’t have an iOS device will be able to send you messages, and receive yours, no matter what device you happen to be using. It’s essentially iMessage expanded beyond just iCloud users, and it’s a great feature.


The first time you get those green messages on your Mac feels like a revelation – you no longer have to campaign those contacts to switch platforms just for the sake of convenience. Replying to them works just as well as receiving, and in the end it means Messages become even more the hub of interpersonal communication on your Mac, and beyond.

This feature requires iOS 8.1 to work, so it isn’t yet available to the general public, but I was able to test it out ahead of launch and based on my experience it should be solid when it hits general availability.

Instant Hotspot

When Apple introduced the ability to use your mobile connection on your iPhone as a hotspot to share internet access with your other devices, it changed the way many of us use our devices. Instant Hotspot takes that basic innovation and refines it, allowing you to activate and use the hotspot on your iPhone or cellular-capable iPad without having to even take them out or activate their screens.

When you have an iOS 8.1 (this one also requires the upcoming update) device with a cellular connection, and you’re signed in on that device to your iCloud account, signing in to the same iCloud account on your Yosemite-powered Mac will make it appear as a connection list in your Mac’s Wi-Fi menu, even if you haven’t activated the hotspot in your iPhone’s settings. Clicking on it will automatically start the hotspot on the iOS 8 device, and log you in to the network, no password required. It really is that easy, and once you’ve been using it for a while, it’s hard to believe it was ever any other way.

iCloud Drive


Using the Dropbox app for OS X essentially gives you cloud-based storage directly in Finder, but Apple’s own iCloud Drive now offers you the same thing, with even tighter integration, using your existing iCloud account. Where file syncing via iCloud used to be a mostly invisible process surfaced only in relevant apps by developers, iCloud Drive now lets users have greater control and visibility regarding exactly what’s stored in their iCloud accounts, and what they do with those files.

iCloud Drive now appears in the ‘Favorites’ sidebar of Finder, just underneath the ‘All My Files’ list item. It contains files and folders just like an ordinary Finder folder, and you can add documents to it, and copy documents from it, just like you would with any folder. You can create new subfolders, tag items, and it’s indexed by Spotlight for easy searching. Plus it’s available even when you’re offline, with changes syncing back to your iCloud account once you reconnect. If there’s a conflict, it’ll let you review and choose which version to go with.

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The new iCloud Drive folder will show you apps created in iCloud by documents on your iOS devices, too, and you can open these with compatible apps on your Mac, with changes syncing. On iOS 8, you can open these documents in the apps that support them directly, even if they weren’t necessarily created there. It also works with Windows, given you multi-platform access to whatever your store in your iCloud account.


This feature works for both power users and casual users alike, since it makes it easier for those with an itch for stringent document control to get at their content, while also keeping the hands-off syncing and usability features of iCloud intact for those who don’t care to poke around too much under the hood.


Messages may be becoming more important as a communications center for your Mac, but Apple didn’t leave Mail out of the updates in Yosemite. The changes to its desktop email client include powerful new features that let you fill out and sign forms directly in replies, and provide built-in annotation tools for PDFs, which let you more easily collaborate back and forth with colleagues, or just with friends on a birthday party flyer.

The annotations tools user the Mac’s trackpad to let you draw freehand shapes, and the tool cleans up the lines to make smooth callouts, arrows and more. There’s a magnification tool so you can point out a particular piece of a document or image for closer attention. Given that most email I deal with these days seems to involve signing something or providing some kind of feedback, these are very useful additions.


Mail Drop might be the most useful new Mail feature, however; it automatically takes attachments up to 5GB in size, uploads them to iCloud and provides a link to the receiver (or processes them automatically if they’re also using Mail in Yosemite) so that they can receive it, no matter the attachment limits of their provider. This works across email providers, so you can use it with your Gmail or Outlook.com account, so long as you’re sending via Mail and are also signed into your iCloud account on your Mac.

Given that the average file size is getting larger all the time, and that most attachment limits haven’t kept pace with that development, this is a great way to share stuff without having to upload it to a cloud storage provider and get a link first.


New Safari is a big change from previous versions, with a more streamlined look that devotes less UI to chrome and more to actual web page content. There’s also a great new tab view that provides you with a visual, thumbnail-based overview of all your open tabs at once, with nested stacks of pages originating from the same domain. If you’re a tab-heavy browser like myself, this is a huge boon to your workflow. Hunting through one or two-letter tab headers is a thing of the past, when you’re trying to find that one tab you opened ages ago and promptly forgot all about.


Spotlight also gets more powerful in Safari, offering you suggestions from the same web-based sources that it polls when you’re using the desktop-wide Spotlight app. You’ll see brief previews of articles from Wikipedia, for instance, or films, locations and iTunes albums.

Apple has also added new Safari tools aimed at enhancing privacy and security, like the DuckDuckGo search engine built-in as an option for Smart Search. This was also added as an option for mobile Safari on iOS 8, and gives users who don’t want to trade their data for search results another choice. New cookie blocking options will allow you to specify cookies only from the current site, making it more difficult for marketers to chase you around the web, and an improved Private Browsing mode lets you open a new private window while preserving your existing session.

Safari’s best improvements might be its under-the-hood changes, however. Improved performance using the new Safari engine offer up to two hours more browsing time while on battery power vs. Chrome or Firefox, and special HTML5 support for Netflix streaming means you’ll also get up to two hours more viewing time with the subscription video service.


This is the first time I’ve started using Safari on a new version of OS X and stuck with it, even months later. Typically, I’m lured in by the lists of new features, but end up slipping back into old habits with Chrome before long. Apple’s latest Safari release has bucked the trend, however, thanks to the battery benefits mentioned above, as well as usability improvements like the new Tab view that offer concrete advantages if you spend a lot of time working on the web.

Bottom Line

Yosemite isn’t a hard sell – Apple offers it as a free download from the Mac App Store, and it’s compatible with essentially the same list of computers that could support Mavericks and Mountain Lion. But even if it didn’t have these advantages, it would still be worth installing; the improvements here are much more than surface deep, and make forward progress in terms of how we think about and experience desktop computing, especially in a world where mobile occupies an increasing amount of our time.

There’s a lot more going on here than the things highlighted above, too, including new AirDrop functionality that works between iOS devices and Macs, and plenty of developer tools that will make Mac apps from third-parties much more powerful, and much better integrated throughout the desktop, so stay tuned for lots more to come on Yosemite from us.