The release of macOS Catalina, now available as a free download for everyone with a compatible Apple computer, adds efficiency, security, elegance, and smoothly integrated enhancements to the already-excellent Mojave version released last year. Catalina is the fifteenth release of what Apple used to call OS X, and, like earlier versions, builds on its solid and secure Unix-based foundation. As you’d expect, Catalina runs smoothly and reliably even in its first release, but—despite the many appealing new features in Catalina—cautious users may prefer to wait for the bug fixes in the first point release before updating an existing machine.
It might be hard to resist, however, given upgrades such as the Sidecar that lets you use any recent iPad as a second screen. Catalina adds iOS-style features like Screen Time with enhanced parental controls. And it replaces the classic iTunes app—with its overloaded and confusing interface—with elegant new apps for music, podcasts, and TV.
As always, you’ll find major and minor tweaks throughout, but the most momentous changes are behind the scenes. All support for old 32-bit software is gone, adding efficiency and speed to the OS, but causing potential problems for anyone still using older software. And security is massively increased by locking the OS software itself away from user-installed software—and through other enhancements to privacy and reliability.
With Catalina, Apple gives with one hand and takes away with the other. On one hand, Catalina gives you the chance of using thousands of apps that, until now, existed only on iOS and could only run on an iPhone or iPad. Though a technology called Catalyst, developers can convert their iOS apps into macOS with minimal effort, which means that Mac users will have native versions of Twitter for Mac, Rosetta Stone, Post-It, Pluto TV, TripIt, and a vast number of games and other apps. On the other hand, Catalina takes away compatibility with older games and apps that exist only in 32-bit versions—including classics like Apple’s own Aperture photo editor. You’ll need to find replacements for your 32-bit games or apps because Catalina won’t run 32-bit software at all. You can still use some, but only if you’re willing to use some complicated workarounds. Watch out for our guide explaining how to make this work shortly after this review publishes.
RIP iTunes, Long Live Music, TV, and Podcasts
The most obvious change in Catalina is the end of iTunes and the arrival of three new apps to replace it. Over the years, Apple has overloaded iTunes with features that become harder to find with each new release, and the three new apps simplify things while adding some welcome new features. The Music app is basically the iOS Music app in macOS format. It’s more spacious and colorful than iTunes, and it has a button that displays song lyrics. Furthermore, it displays the full lyrics, not the line-by-line display available in iOS—but only if you subscribe to the Apple Music service. On my system, when I played a song that I had purchased before I subscribed to Apple Music, the app told me that no lyrics were available for the song. But when I searched and played the exact same song from the music store, the lyrics appeared.
Similarly, the new Podcasts app is a big sibling to the iOS Apple Podcasts app, and the new TV app looks like a reduced version of the Apple TV interface combined with an iTunes-style sidebar on the left. Thanks to powerful voice-recognition on Apple’s servers, the search feature in the Podcasts app can now find words in the spoken content of a podcast, not only in the title and description.
Until Catalina, iTunes was also the app you used to make a full backup or restore of your iPhone or iPad. Catalina now builds this feature into the Finder. Just attach your iOS device by a cable, and the same iPhone or iPad backup menu that you used in iTunes now appears in the macOS Finder. By the way, the Windows version of iTunes isn’t going away, and it isn’t going to morph into separate apps—at least for now.
Catalina also makes your Apple ID account easier to manage by placing all iCloud and Apple ID controls under a single item in System Preferences.
Riding the Sidecar
Before Catalina, if you wanted to use a tablet as a second screen for your Mac, the only solution was a third-party app like Duet Display, AirDisplay, or iDisplay. You’ll still need one of these if your tablet is a non-Apple model from Wacom or some other vendor, but Catalina adds advanced built-in support for iPads as a second screen for the Mac. Simply place an iPad near your Mac, or connect it via a cable, click on the AirPlay icon and start using your iPad either as an extension to your Mac’s screen or as a mirror that displays the same content on the iPad that you see on the Mac. If you choose the mirror option, you can draw on the iPad with the Apple Pencil and see the results on both the iPad and the Mac.
When you use Sidecar, two toolbars appear on your iPad screen. One is a sidebar that lets you bring the Mac’s dock to the iPad and add Cmd, Shift, and Option keys to the iPad’s touch-based keyboard. The other acts like the Touch Bar on recent MacBook Pro models, and Touch Bar-style controls appear on the iPad when you’re using Apple apps or third-party apps that support the Touch Bar. This feature works whether or not your Mac itself has a touchbar.
Sidecar only works with Mac models introduced in 2016 or later, or with a late-2015 iMac. It works with all iPad models that work with the Apple Pencil (either of the two versions), which means any iPad Pro, full-size iPad models from 2018, or iPad Air and Mini models from 2019.
It took me a while to realize that macOS treats a Sidecar-connected iPad like any second display and that I had to manage it from the Displays pane in System Preferences, not just the Sidecar pane. By default, a Sidecar-connected iPad is positioned to the right of your main screen, but you can use the Displays pane to position it to the left or anywhere else, so that the cursor will move smoothly between your Mac’s screen and the iPad.
More Curation, More Automation
Other built-in apps get varying degrees of updates. Photos has more built-in automation—Apple calls it curation—that decides what your best photos are and displays them more prominently in its new Days, Months, and Years layouts that show the photos from those time periods. The app’s preview screens automatically select what the app thinks is the most important part of each photo, but the whole photo is visible when you open the photo itself. If you like to sit back and watch the app make decisions for you, you’ll admire these features. Fortunately for anyone who prefers to do their own photo curation, you can still use the All Photos view to display thumbnail images of all your photos and make your own choices among them instead of letting the app use an algorithm that may not understand what you want.
The Reminders app is completely new and uses a new format to store your data, so you’ll need to update all your iOS devices to iOS 13 and all your Macs to Catalina if you want to access the same reminders everywhere. The app now reads the text you type and suggests dates and locations. A new Smart Lists feature works somewhat like smart mailboxes in Mail—you can display reminders for today only, or reminders you’ve marked as important, or other fine-tuning options. The Notes app, already updated in earlier versions, gets enhancements like the ability to share whole folders, not only individual notes, and options that make it easier to rearrange lists of notes automatically or by hand.
Safari shows only minor changes, like Siri Suggestions on the start page, offering to open pages related to messages that you’ve received or that are in your browsing history or elsewhere. Maybe these suggestions will be more useful to you than they are to me, though once or twice they’ve reminded me of pages that I looked at in the past and wanted to look at again, but never got around to again.
New Options, New Games
The Screen Time feature built into recent iOS versions now comes to the Mac through a well-designed option-rich System Preferences pane. But parents will have to wait for a later point release of Catalina to use a powerful and flexible new feature that lets you limit your children’s communications so they can only exchange messages and phone and video calls with specific people, or communicate at specific times, or with specific time limits.
A new “Find My” app combines the iOS Find My iPhone (or other Apple device) and Find My Friends apps into a single Mac style app. The Find My Friends feature—your friends have to choose an option on their own devices that lets you find them before the app can track them—is new to the Mac, and the Find My iPhone feature was always available through a browser, but it’s convenient to have it an app. If you’re over twenty-five, you may think Find My Friends is deeply creepy, but, no matter what age you are, it’s there if you want it.
One feature I haven’t been able to test, because it won’t go live until Catalina is released, is the new Arcade games feature accessible through the App Store. Apple Arcade is a $4.99-per-month subscription service that gives access to exclusive games—at least a hundred of them available soon after Catalina gets released. Look for a separate PCMag.com writeup of Apple Arcade after it’s open to the public, and keep in mind that it’s only accessible through Macs and iOS devices running the latest version of macOS or iOS.
Catalina’s major security innovation is one you won’t see unless you open up the macOS Disk Utility and look at the layout of your disk. Instead of a single partition of volume that contains both the OS and your data, as in earlier versions, Catalina installs itself in separate APFS (Apple File System) volumes, one with a read-only copy of the OS itself, the other with all your apps and data. This means that third-party software can’t mess with the operating system—only Apple can make changes to it, via system updates. If you boot your Catalina-based Mac from a volume or external drive running an earlier version of macOS, you’ll see two separate disks in the Finder, one named (by default) Macintosh HD, and the other named Macintosh HD-Data. But when you’re running Catalina, some behind-the-scenes magic makes these two disk volumes look as if they’re a single volume, just as in earlier versions.
For better or worse, Catalina’s enhancements can also cause annoyance for users who simply want to get their work done. If you use apps that open or save files on your Desktop, Documents, Downloads, or iCloud Drive folders, Catalina will now ask your permission before it lets the app get access to those folders. With apps that have been codesigned with a developer’s digital signature, or that have been notarized through Apple’s new high-tech security validation system, Catalina will only ask permission once. But if your app hasn’t been codesigned, Catalina will pop up annoying messages every time you start that app.
I distribute a few AppleScript apps that use third-party software that can’t be codesigned for complicated technical reasons, and I had to rewrite them to make them usable under Catalina. If you use any out-of-the-way apps from individual developers, it’s possible that you’ll face a blizzard of messages when you run those apps in the new version.
Fortunately, Apple is committed to letting you run any 64-bit app you want, even if the app hasn’t been codesigned or notarized—but you may have to click a few buttons and read a few misleading error messages first. For example, if you start up an app that hasn’t been codesigned, Catalina may show a message saying that the app is damaged and should be moved to the Trash. If you’re confident that the app is safe to use, right-click on it, and choose Open from the popup menu. Once again, Catalina will display a message telling you that the app is damaged and should be moved to the Trash. Don’t lose heart. Instead, click OK in the error message, then right-click the app again, and again choose Open from the menu. This time Catalina will show the same error message saying that the app is broken, but this time the message will also have an “Open” button that lets you actually run the app that you’ve been trying to run. After you click that Open button once to start the app, you won’t need to go through all this again, because the app will now open normally the next time you double-click on it.
Catalina further enhances many of Apple’s already-strong technologies. Voice Control takes the existing Dictation feature and makes it smarter and more efficient. For example, it now offers a list of possible replacements when you have to correct a word that it transcribed incorrectly. You can simply say “Replace ‘this text’ with ‘that text'” and Voice Control will perform the replacement for you. Also, Voice Control preserves your privacy by running entirely on your Mac, without sending data back to Apple as in earlier versions. You can navigate anywhere on screen by telling the OS to number all visible menu items or drawing a grid on screen with numbered boxes so you can zero in on the contents of any part of the screen by saying its number.
Previous versions of Apple’s Continuity feature let you insert an image into a document on your Mac by snapping a picture on your phone. Catalina enhances this by letting you drag a PDF from your Mac to a nearby iOS device and mark it up with the Apple Pencil or your finger. On a Mac, you can select a place in your document where you want to insert a sketch, and your iPad will pen a blank window where you can create the sketch and then insert it into your Mac document. This feature is separate from the Sidecar feature, and simply works with any nearby iOS device that shares your Apple ID.
Do You Want It?
Any Mac that you buy starting a few weeks from now come with Catalina installed, and almost any Mac dating back to 2012 can be updated to Catalina with a few clicks. As I said at the start, unless you have an immediate need for a Catalina-only feature it makes sense to wait until the inevitable point-release brings bug fixes and a few features that didn’t make it into the first release. If you rely on 32-bit apps, you’ll want to keep using Mojave or the pre-Mojave High Sierra version, which continue to work exactly as they did before and continue to get security updates from Apple. But if 32-bit apps aren’t holding you back, then you’ll want Catalina for its enhanced security, its efficient and elegant new interface for music, podcasts, and TV, and its deeper and tighter integration with your iPhone and iPad.
I use both Windows and Mac machines every day, and I admire both Microsoft’s and Apple’s operating systems. I prefer my desktop Windows machine for heavy work, for two reasons: partly because some apps that I need exist only in Windows, or exist in more powerful versions on Windows; partly because I prefer the keyboard to the mouse or trackpad, and Windows apps tend to be more keyboard-friendly than Mac apps. But when I’m not doing heavy work—when I’m answering mail, messaging friends and family, browsing the web, listening to music, watching video—I pick up my MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, because macOS seems to me the most pleasurable, responsive, cohesive, and reliable operating system, and because the tightly linked universe of macOS on my laptop and iOS or iPadOS on my portable devices seems to me, overall, the most usable and the best-designed environment for my digital life.