Hands on: OS X 10.10 Yosemite beta shows off a new look and features

During this year's World Wide Developer's Conference (WWDC) -- where software is introduced and released in beta form to developers and masochists enthusiasts -- Apple execs revealed that they would ship a public beta of the latest Mac operating system, OS X 10.10, popularly known as Yosemite.

Last Thursday, the public beta of Yosemite was finally available to download. This is Apple's first official release of an unfinished operating system since the OS X 10.0 beta back in 2000. The beta release will give fans a sneak peek into the future of the Macintosh lineup.

Yosemite marks a major UI overhaul for OS X. In addition to a new design, Yosemite also brings fresh features and capabilities, as well as built-in apps that take advantage of these features.

I installed the beta build on a 2012 Mac mini, and have been running the developer builds since their first release in June on a 2012 MacBook Pro. Since this isn't a final release, I haven't written a formal review, nor will I be discussing speed, stability or battery life. Instead, I'll be looking at the major additions since last year's release of OS X 10.9 (Mavericks), and detailing how the features are implemented.

Installing Yosemite

Before we start, let me be clear: Yosemite is beta. Expect that there will be bugs, some minor and maybe some major. "The Summer of Bugs" is what I like to call the period between WWDC and Apple's fall software and hardware releases. Don't install Yosemite on computers that you rely on because, by definition, beta software is at best unreliable. If you choose to proceed, make sure to back up your data beforehand.

Still interested in testing the software? You'll need to have Mavericks installed (which is a free upgrade you can download from Apple's App Store). Yosemite runs pretty much on any Mac that can run Mavericks -- that includes any iMac from mid-2007, any MacBook from late 2008, any 15-in. or 17-in. MacBook Pro from 2007, any 13-in. MacBook Pro from mid-2009, any MacBook Air from 2008, any Mac Mini from 2009, any Mac Pro from 2008, and (if you have one) any Xserve from 2009.

If you can run the software, the question then becomes: Should you? The answer is up to you, but remember -- I can't stress this enough -- this is a beta. Apple execs have stated that the public betas will not be updated as frequently as the developer builds, so don't expect bugs to be remedied right away.

If, after all this you still want to give Yosemite a try, you can sign up at Apple's website. There are only a million beta slots allocated, so availability is limited.

Once you sign up -- which is as easy as logging in with your AppleID -- you're given a redemption code that can be used in the App Store. The Yosemite beta is a 5GB download. Installation is pretty straightforward and automated, once the initial legal pages are clicked through and accepted.

A new look and feel

First, Apple has changed the way OS X looks. Yosemite has adopted the design cues from iOS 7, meaning a brighter theme with a stronger focus on content. This is achieved by removing toolbar cruft, introducing flatter interface elements and adding a bit of translucency, emphasizing layering within apps and the system software.

Yosemite introduces flatter interface elements and adds a bit of translucency.

From the controls now found in the upper left of every window to new interface elements for updated apps, the design gives a more flattened look to each window, while the use of drop shadows and translucent elements gives the OS a sense of layering and depth.

The layering is even done on a per-window basis. For instance, Finder, Safari and Messaging now feature main windows with content that slides underneath the app toolbar when scrolling, while the colors of the content shine through the frosted toolbar. The translucent sections allow color -- but not detail -- to show through. The effect, which is sprinkled throughout the OS and apps, gives each Mac a personalized feel.

The system-wide font has changed from Lucina Grande to Helvetica Neue. The Dock has lost its faux-3D look and is back to a flat look not seen since the 2005 release of OS X 10.4 (Tiger).

If Yosemite's interface is too bright for your tastes, there is now a Dark Mode, which can be activated under the General System Preferences. Dark mode is not (yet?) as comprehensive as it could be; it doesn't change the look of the windows, only the menu bar, menus and Dock; the right-click menu and window toolbars retain their normal, lighter colors. Currently, when you enable the Dark mode, third-party menu items need to be updated to appear properly, a problem that hopefully will be sorted out by the time Yosemite is officially released.

Yosemite has updated the stoplight metaphor located on the upper left of every window: red to close, yellow to minimize and green to maximize. While the red and yellow buttons always worked as expected, the green button was always a bit of a crapshoot -- one never knew the result it would yield. It was originally supposed to expand the window, but the results always seemed random, sometimes maximizing the window around content, and other times configuring a window size seemingly arbitrarily.

After all this time, the green button is finally working and is officially a full-screen on/off toggle, as it should be.

The new look of some of the Yosemite apps shows a noticeable effort to provide clutter-free toolbars. System apps like Safari, Preview and TextEdit have even had the toolbar size reduced and consolidated. Something similar happened with iOS 7 in an effort to make content more prominent while removing distractions and superfluous elements.

A new Continuity

By far, though, the best feature of Yosemite is the integration between Macs and iOS devices, known as Continuity. Continuity is a set of services that makes each Apple device aware of what the other is doing and lets them exchange tasks and data. Essentially, Continuity puts data and tasks at your fingertips no matter which device you're using.

Here's the major problem with Continuity as it stands in the beta: Unless you have access to iOS 8, which is also currently being prepped for release in the fall, you won't be able to test the Continuity features. To get access to iOS 8, you have to sign up for an iOS Developer account and pay $99 a year.

Having said that, Continuity currently consists (more or less ) of AirDrop, Handoff, SMS message syncing, Instant Hotspot and integration with the iPhone's ability to make and send phone calls.

That's right, file transfer fans: As of Yosemite and iOS 8, file transfers via AirDrop work between Macs and iOS devices. About time.

Handoff allows devices to take over current tasks. For instance, if you're reading a Web page on your Mac but have to go somewhere else, a swipe of the Safari icon on the lower left of an iPhone or iPad Lockscreen will automatically load your last page on that device. Handoff works the other way, too: If you're writing an email on your iPhone but make it back to your Mac before you finish, you can click on the left-most icon on the Dock and pick up on the Mac exactly where you left off on the iPhone.

Less awesome but still welcome is the update to Messages. iPhone text messages are labeled blue for secure and encrypted iMessages, and green for messages sent via the SMS protocol. Until Yosemite, SMS messages stayed localized on the device that received them. With Yosemite, any SMS message received comes across to Messages on all the devices you're logged into, just like the texts sent with Apple's iMessaging service.

Another great feature of Continuity: If you've ever had your iPhone charging in another room when it rings, you know how annoying it is to have to sprint to your phone, hoping you don't miss the call. With iOS 8 and Yosemite, not only does the Mac display the caller ID information of the person calling your iPhone, but you can answer the call from your Mac, as well. And if your Mac isn't in range but your iPad is, you can use that, too.

As described in the WWDC keynote, I didn't think the Instant Hotspot feature was that big of a deal; at least, not compared to the other features. But recently my neighborhood was hit with a power outage and my MacBook Pro was running on battery power. On a whim, I clicked on the Wi-Fi menu and noticed that my iPhone and my iPad -- both of which use LTE -- were being displayed as options for Internet connections. After selecting one, I was back online in an instant with no configuration necessary on my part. Now that's cool. Instant Hotspot will be a life-saver for many Apple users, just from sheer convenience and no need for configuration.

More useful features

Another area in which OS X has assimilated useful iOS features is in the Notification Center, specifically the Today view. Notifications are still displayed in the Notifications Center -- which is accessed via a click on the upper right of the menu bar or via a two-finger swipe starting from the edge of the right side of a trackpad -- but there's now a toggle for Today that displays everything you might want to know about your day at a glance.

As of Yosemite and iOS 8, file transfers via AirDrop work between Macs and iOS devices.

Date and weather, calendar events, data about stocks, a world clock, and a glimpse into the next day's upcoming events are listed by default. The widgets contained in the Notification Center can be programmed for interaction, so clicking on widgets like Weather will bring up more details. There are also shortcuts so you can quickly update your status to social networks like Twitter and Facebook or start instant messaging conversations -- right from the Notification Center. There is a calculator widget, as well.

Better yet, the Notification Center is extendable via third-party software. During the WWDC keynote, Apple execs showed off Notification widgets for ESPN and others, so expect more once Yosemite is officially released.

Spotlight searching has become much better at displaying relevant data in search results, and Apple engineers have increased the amount of sources that Spotlight pulls from, including online sources for the most current data. As before, Spotlight can be found in the upper right of the menu bar -- or summoned by pressing Command-Space -- but, unlike before, search results aren't crammed into a small section of the screen.

In Yosemite, Spotlight search results display front and center. Not only can Spotlight help you find obscure phrases in documents you forgot you had, but now it references Wikipedia, Bing, the iTunes Store, Maps, theater show times, current news, conversions of units/currency and more.

iCloud -- Apple's set of services that help keep your data consistent across your Apple devices -- has been improved as well. For the first time since iDisk, Apple now offers iCloud Drive, a folder accessible from the Finder's Side Bar that behaves similarly to Dropbox, syncing any document to all of your devices using your AppleID. The documents are accessible from any iOS device or Mac, and even Windows PCs.

What's most interesting about iCloud Drive is that, after years of endless conjecture and theories of Apple doing away with a user-modifiable file system, iCloud Drive supports folders and any type of document and also supports Finder Tags for easy lookup.

Note: Enabling iCloud Drive in the public beta will move all of your current iCloud docs to the new system, which isn't supported in earlier versions of OS X or iOS, so be careful. You might want to hold off on enabling this feature until it's officially supported in the final releases of Yosemite and iOS 8, just in case. Unless you're a developer, having access to your data is more important than confirming iCloud Drive works as it should.

Minor but handy

There are a ton of minor feature enhancements throughout the OS that I'll be diving into in greater detail in the final review, but for now, here are some of my favorites:

Mail has been updated with email markup capabilities, which allows you to annotate and draw on graphics and documents you send through email. You can add speech bubbles, circles, text, and other simple designs without opening up Photoshop.

When Yosemite finally ships, the Actions menu, the Share menu and the Today area in the Notification Center will be enhanced and customized by third-party extensions.

Safari now features tabs you can swipe through. Instead of filling the tab bar and then offering a drop down list for tabs that can't fit, the new Safari allows you to use two-finger trackpad gesture to scroll sideways through the tab list.

Bottom line

With Apple (under CEO Tim Cook) making moves that would have been unlikely when Steve Jobs was in charge, it seems that the Yosemite beta is the perfect metaphor for Apple: Both a new direction and a natural evolution for the Mac.

By taking advantage of the vertical hardware/software/services strategy, Apple execs are apparently keen on providing solutions and integration that competitors might find tough to imitate.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter ( @mdeagonia).

This article, Hands on: OS X 10.10 Yosemite beta shows off a new look and features, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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This story, "Hands on: OS X 10.10 Yosemite beta shows off a new look and features" was originally published by Computerworld.

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