macOS Catalina full review

For the past six years, Apple has updated its Mac operating system in the autumn. This tends to happen in conjunction with the September update to iOS for iPads and iPhones, although there have been years when the Mac update has come a month later in October. The regularity of this update means that Apple has established an annual deadline for adding a collection of new features to the Mac and this year is no different.

This hasn’t always been the case, as you can see from our macOS version story, there was no Mac OS X update in 2004, 2008, or 2010. The switch to a yearly, autumnal, update started in October 2013 with the release of Mavericks, then it was October the following year, before setting into the September cycle from 2015. We mention this only to emphasise that the yearly cycle is a relatively recent thing. Apple doesn’t have to update the OS every year, and yet it does. And each time it does the Mac operating system gets even better - and crucially it doesn’t cost us a penny.

Actually, it’s not completely true to say it doesn’t cost a penny to upgrade. When Catalina arrives this autumn (we’re guessing September) macOS will be a free update, as usual, but there could be a hidden cost. You may decide to buy a new Mac because the one you own won’t run Catalina (see Can my Mac get Catalina), or you might be running software that won’t be supported anymore.

This year Apple is bidding farewell to 32-bit apps, so if you are still running an old version of Adobe Creative Suite, or an old Microsoft Office, for example, it is time to think about upgrading your apps (read about which apps won't work in Catalina here). Like many, you may not be inclined to do so if you aren’t keen on getting in to the subscription model favoured by so many software developers these days.

Whether you need to do any of the above will entirely depend on how much you want to run Catalina and take advantage of the new features. To help you decide we’ll go through the good and bad of Catalina.

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iPad as a second screen

We’d say the headline feature of Catalina is Sidecar, the ability to use an iPad as a second screen and as a Mac attached graphics tablet. Whether this sells Catalina to you will depend on whether you have a iPad that can support the feature. These iPads can be used as a second screen with your Mac.

  • iPad Pro (12.9in, 11in, 10.5in iPad Pro, 9.7in 2016-2018)
  • iPad (6th and 5th generation, 2017-2018)
  • iPad mini (5th generation and iPad mini 4, 2015-2019)
  • iPad Air (3rd generation and iPad Air 2, 2014-2019)

We suspect that a lot of our readers are still using older iPads. The iPad doesn’t tend to be a priority upgrade in the same way as an iPhone is, but Sidecar looks set to be a feature that could encourage Mac users to update their iPad. So, there’s another reason why Catalina might not be a ‘free’ update. To find the best iPad for you, check out our round up of iPads.

We think that Sidecar will be a great reason to update your iPad if your iPad doesn’t support the intriguing new features. With a supported iPad you will benefit from a second screen that can be carried with you and has touch screen abilities - finally macOS will get touch screen support! - and you will be able to use an iPad and Apple Pencil like a graphics tablet. There’s so much more than this though, here are a few of our favourite upcoming features:

  • You’ll be able to connect your iPad wirelessly via Bluetooth (range is 10m).
  • You will (sort of) be able to run macOS and use your Mac apps on your iPad which could be very useful in meetings and presentations, for example. (You’ll actually just be mirroring them to the iPad but it’s still great).
  • You'll get a sort of Touch Bar (as seen on the MacBook Pro) along the bottom of the iPad screen.

But is Sidecar enough reason to update to Catalina? If you already use a second screen and own a graphics tablet, or use a third party app to use your iPad as a second screen, or don’t have an iPad and don’t really want to buy one, what other reasons are there to upgrade?

Sidecar iPad and Mac

TV & Music

You’ve probably heard that Apple’s getting into the TV business and making its own shows. This autumn the company will be making these shows available to watch on iPad, iPhone, Apple TV, and various TV sets (read more about what you’ll need to get Apple TV+ here). The other place you’ll be able to watch these shows: the Mac, thanks to the new TV app.

We think that Macs, with their large Retina displays will be the perfect platform for watching the content Apple will be making available. It’s not that you can’t watch TV shows and films rented or purchased from the iTunes Store on the Mac right now, you can do that, but the arrival of the TV App on the Mac brings the benefits of the TV app in terms to picking up on where you left off on your various devices, and the inclusion of content from other platforms, not just Apple’s.

When the TV app arrives on the Mac you’ll be able to search for a show and see which services offer it - and, crucially, watch it where it’s free, rather than paying to do so. We look in detail at the TV app, which has been a fixture on iOS and the Apple TV for a few years now, here.

New Mac TV app

Apple’s not stopping at separating the TV content from the iTunes app. After installing Catalina, iTunes, as we know it, will be no more. In its place: TV, Music and Podcasts apps.

There has been some concern about what this will mean to the music collections of Mac users. Many of us have been using iTunes for years and have amassed huge libraries, spent time creating playlists and ranking tunes. iTunes isn’t a bad app from that perspective, but its problem is that it does more than manage your music.

Back when iTunes arrived on Macs in 2001 it was essentially a jukebox app, somewhere to rip your CDs. It then became a way to add music to your iPod when that device launched later that year. Then in 2003 the app transformed the music industry when Apple launched the iTunes Music Store. Eventually iTunes became the software used to activate the original iPhones, and for a few years, to install software updates on Apple’s smartphone.

Over the years more and more functionality was added to iTunes, so that eventually it was the place to go on your Mac for everything from shopping for music and video in the iTunes Store, to syncing your iPhone and all its apps, and catching up on your podcasts, ebooks, and even syncing your photo library with your iOS devices. Then in 2013’s iOS 7 Apple switched iTunes for the Music app on iOS, while keeping a separate iTunes Store app on iOS devices.

It’s taken six years for Apple to do the same on the Mac. The Music app won’t be all that different to iTunes. You’ll still find the music you’ve imported over the years and your playlists, although it does look like Apple is improving the interface somewhat. You’ll still be able buy music on the iTunes Store and listen to music on Apple Music if you subscribe to that service. But what’s changing is that iTunes will no longer handle the non-music related tasks like syncing (which will be done via the Finder).

New Mac Music app

Is the new Music app a good reason to upgrade to Catalina? We think the simplified user interface will improve your experience and make it easier to find the music you want to listen to. Because this is a new Mac app Apple’s going to be able to start from the ground up refining what was good about iTunes and removing the bad. And that’s got to be good.

Other apps

TV and Music are getting all the attention, but they aren’t the only apps getting an update in Catalina. There’s also the new Podcasts app, but we won’t go into much detail here as we aren’t particularly hooked on any Podcasts, although we know people who are.

In Photos there will be some changes to how your snaps are showcased to you. It’s likely you will either love this or hate it. Apple’s going to use AI to analyse your photos and show the best ones (when you take 20 shots trying to get the perfect snap), it will autoplay videos and live photos when you preview them, and it will show you photos that are relevant, so for example, if it’s your daughter’s birthday you’ll see birthday snaps through the years. All these features are also coming to iOS, so if you are updating to iOS 13 you’ll probably want to update to Catalina too, just for the sake of continuity.

MacOS Photos Catalina

The Mac doesn’t always get the same features as Photos on iOS though. For example, prior to Catalina Photos on the Mac has very limited tools for making Memory Videos, the photo and video montages that you can create (we show you how to do that here). The great news is that in Catalina there will be more tools available for editing these movies on your Mac.

Mail is also getting some new features - on iOS and macOS - that will make it easier to keep on top of your inbox. You’ll be able to block emails from a particular sender - and move all their emails into the trash. And Apple is making it really easy to unsubscribe to mailing lists. You will also be able to mute an overly active email thread so you aren’t notified every time someone replies.

There are also new Notes features coming to the Mac and iOS, although as with Photos, you may love or hate the changes. Basically everything in your Notes library will show up as thumbnails. Whether this will work for you probably depends on whether you prefer the list view, icons or gallery view in the Finder. In our experience thumbnails of text documents isn’t that helpful, but if you use Notes to store weblinks, or to scan in documents with your iPhone, then it might be more useful. (Here’s how to scan documents using Notes).

Speaking of which, you should be able to search though the documents you scan in to Notes. Apple says Notes will be able to recognise words as well as objects, so when you search it will bring up the relevant scan.

These apps, Mail, Notes and Photos, and a few other apps including Reminders and Home, will be seeing the same changes to their iPhone or iPad variants. If you tend to use your iPhone as your primary device when it comes to those apps, perhaps rarely using them on the Mac, then these enhancements won’t be a big reason to update to Catalina.

There is one app that is getting some pretty significant changes on the Mac though that aren’t coming to iOS. The Find My app (nee Find My iPhone) is losing the iPhone focus of its name and gaining some new technology that will make it possible to track a lost of stolen laptop even if it is shut and asleep - which most laptops will be if they haven’t just been left on your desk.

Find My Mac

You’ll be able to locate a lost Mac because other Macs nearby will be able to relay its location to you based on Bluetooth signals. This might be less relevant to you if you have a Mac desktop rather than a laptop, but it really could help you track down a lost MacBook. That said, we’re not recommending that you jump in a cab and follow a criminal to their lair to recover your Mac. Read what to do if your Mac is lost or stolen here.

A better idea would be to remotely lock and wipe your Mac once you have established that it has been stolen. You can already do this using the Find My software, but a new feature coming to some Macs in Catalina will take that a step further. Activation Lock will be supported on any Mac with a T2 Security Chip (that’s some MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and iMac Pro models). It means that if your Mac is stolen the only person who’ll be able to erase and reactivate it will be you. So criminal types will find it hard to resell and hopefully this means that Macs will be less attractive to thieves in general.

Still undecided? We have this comparison of Catalina and Mojave here.

Verdict

There are loads more new features coming to the Mac in macOS Catalina this autumn including some great sounding accessibility features. We’ll wait until we get to try out the final version before giving our final verdict on the 2019 update to the Mac. From what Apple’s already revealed about the new operating system there’s some good things coming. We like the sound of being able to use our iPad as a second screen and the arrival of the TV app is well timed since Apple’s going to be offering all that new programming.

However, a lot of the changes to apps will be seen in iOS too, and since we tend to use those apps on our iPhone more than we do on our Macs, we’re not sure that those apps are really a good reason to update. You will be able to get those features anyway, just not on your Mac.

The other issue is whether you are running old apps that won’t be supported in Catalina.  It’s entirely possible that you never switched to the subscription plans favoured by the likes of Microsoft and Adobe, and are still using old versions of their apps. In that case, if you want Catalina then it’s probably time to bite the bullet and update everything.

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