macOS Catalina full review

For the past six years, Apple has updated its Mac operating system every autumn. 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. 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. macOS Catalina 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 meaning you need to update your apps to newer versions.

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 macOS Catalina.

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 and a Mac 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)

These Macs can support Sidecar:

  • MacBook Pro (2016 or later)
  • MacBook (2016 or later)
  • MacBook Air (2018 or later)
  • iMac (2016 or later, as well as iMac 5K, 27-inch, late 2015)
  • iMac Pro
  • Mac mini (2018 or later)
  • Mac Pro (2019, when it launches)

We suspect that a lot of our readers are still using older iPads and older Macs. 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. Updating a Mac is generally a more expensive upgrade though so we are less confident that people will be rushing out to update their Macs to support it.

To be honest it is frustrating that the showcase feature of Catalina is limited to just a few Macs and iPads.

So, that’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. And you can find the best Macs here: which Mac should I buy. We also have the best iPad deals here, as well as he best MacBook Pro deals, the best MacBook Air deals sand the best iMac deals, so you don't have to pay full price!

We think that if you already have a Mac that supports it, Sidecar is a great reason to update your iPad if your iPad doesn’t support the intriguing new features. With a supported iPad and Catalina on your Mac 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!

You will also be able to use an iPad and Apple Pencil like a graphics table with all the features of a full-Mac app, such as Adobe Illustrator, rather than having to use a iPad version of a drawing app. 

There’s so much more than this though, here are a few of our favourite Sidecar 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.

The iPad does need to be linked to your iCloud account - so you can't just hook up a collegues tablet - but it's certainly a useful feature.

But is Sidecar a good enough reason to update to Catalina? If your Mac and iPad don't support the feature then probably not. 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 to Catalina?

Sidecar iPad and Mac

TV, Music and entertainment

You’ve probably heard that Apple’s getting into the TV business and making its own shows. In November 2019 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.

With the Mac version of the TV app you should 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.

However, there is certainly room to grow in terms of what is offered by the TV app, at least here in the UK. Right now it is dominated by the rentals and purchases that used to be presented via iTunes - in fact you will still see content publicised as iTunes Extras (which incidentally already includes Toy Story 4, which you can buy for £13.99).

Compared to the iOS version of the TV app the Mac version appears to be lacking links to content on iPlayer, ITV Hub and the like, which is disapointing. The Apple TV Channels that are on offer aren't that appealing if you live in the UK either.

The arrival of the TV app on the Mac reminds us of the old Front Row media centre software that Apple used to make for the Mac until it was discontinued in 2011. That software made the Mac mini a popular media centre option, and maybe the TV app will again promote the Mac as a home media centre.

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.

Many of us have been using iTunes for years and have amassed huge libraries, spent time creating playlists and ranking tunes.

There had been some concern about what this will mean to the music collections of Mac users. Luckily your iTunes library and all your meta data associated with it will be maintained (play counts, ratings etc). However, there are issues associated with the removal of the iTunes app if you happen to use DJ software. DJs are finding that the apps they use, which connect with the discontinued iTunes XML library format, no longer work.

This reminds us of when Apple updated iMovie and, following an outcry, had to make the old version available for those who preferred it. Perhaps Apple will make the older iTunes version available for those who need it. The only alternative for those people is not to update to Catalina.

Those issues aside, the arrival of Music app is a positive addition to the Mac. The problem with iTunes was that it did so much more than manage your music, whcih had caused the app to become bloated.

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 isn’t all that different to iTunes. You’ll still find the music you’ve imported over the years and your playlists, although in Catalina the interface has improved somewhat. You’ll still be able buy music on the iTunes Store (although you have to go to Preferences >General and select 'Show: iTunes Store' before you can do so) and listen to music on Apple Music (the music subscription service that was introduced by Apple in 2015) if you subscribe.

But what’s changing is that iTunes no longer handles the non-music related tasks like syncing (which will now 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. One welcome change is the fact that plugging in an iPad or iPhone doesn't automatically open up iTunes. You will simply find your device in the sidebar of the Finder.

Because this is a new Mac app Apple’s been able to start from the ground up refining what was good about iTunes and removing the bad. And that’s got to be good.

Read more about the new Mac Music app here.

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.

If you want to give podcasts a go take a look at the Top Charts tab to see what's on offer.

Also turning your Mac into an entertainment hub is the new Apple Arcade service. The Apple Arcade gaming service has also arrived on iPhones, iPads and the Apple TV and will bring some - but not all - of those games to the Mac.

If you subscribe to Apple Arcade it's great that you can play some of those games on your Mac, but perhaps the question is whether you would really want to. The fact that all the games offered by Apple Arcade aren't available on the Mac may answer that question for you.

Other apps

There are many other Apple apps getting an update in Catalina. In Photos there are some changes to how your snaps are showcased to you. It’s likely you will either love this or hate it. Apple’s using AI to analyse your photos and show the best ones (this is for you if 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 have also arrived on iOS, so if you updated 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). We had heard that in Catalina there would more tools available for editing these movies on your Mac, but so far we haven't found them.

Mail also gets 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. 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, you can choose for everything in your Notes library to 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). Luckily you can choose to keep the standard text view.

Speaking of which, you should also 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 aren't a compelling reason to update to Catalina.

There is one other app that arrives on the Mac with Catalina and it will make it easier to find your Mac (or any other Apple gadget) if it is lost, or stolen. Prior to Catalina, if you lost your Mac (or iPhone, or any other Apple gadget) you could potentially track it down, and if necessary wipe it, via the Find My iPhone app on the iPhone, or via a portal on iCloud.com. Catalina brings a Find My app to the Mac.

The Find My service has gained 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

Previously the Find My service relied on a lost Mac connecting to the internet, which was unlikely to happen if it was protected by a password and if it wasn't near a known WiFi network anyway. With Catalina installed, 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 than taking off after a stolen Mac would be to remotely lock and wipe your Mac once you have established that it has been stolen. Another new feature arriving on some Macs with Catalina takes that a step further. Activation Lock is 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.

App compatibility

It's the non-Apple apps that is the problem with Catalina. macOS Catalina doesn't support 32-bit apps. This shouldn't really be a surprise as Apple had been publicising the fact that it was moving away from 32-bit apps to 64-bit apps for years. In this day and age the continued support for 32-bit apps seems a little unnecessary, and is unlikely to be a problem for the vast majority of Mac users.

However there are those who will still be using 32-bit apps that are no longer supported. If you use Adobe Photoshop CS5 (which was actually available in 32-bit and 64bit versions), for example, that app will not work in Catalina. It's time to upgrade to a newer version, or, if you just don't want to sign up for a subscription version of the app, which is the case with Adobe and Microsoft apps these days, then find an alternative. Read about the apps that aren't supported by Catalina here.

It's not just 32-bit apps that could be out in the cold too. Apple is putting an extra level of security in with regards to third-party apps. Where it used to be the case that all apps sold via the Mac App Store would have to ve notarised, as in signed by Apple, now all apps will have to be 'signed' by Apple before they can be installed. Nobody knows yet how this will play out, but it's likely to be a source of frustation for developers who may decide it's not worth the effort.

Then again, another new feature coming with Catalina - an easier way to convert iPad/iPhone apps for the Mac - should mean that developers are more open to converting their apps to run on the Mac. Some have already appeared, including a new Mac version of the Twitter app.

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

Verdict

There are loads more new features arriving on the Mac with macOS Catalina, including some great sounding accessibility features. 

We like the idea of using an iPad as a second screen - but we are disapointed that the feature is only supported by certain models of iPad and Mac. Catalina feels like an update that leaves a lot of older Macs and iPads out in the cold when it comes to the headline features.

The arrival of the TV app is well timed since Apple’s going to be offering all that new programming in November. Apple Arcade is a boost to the Mac, but it's a shame that the full library isn't available.

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 main 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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