Hands-on with macOS Catalina Beta: Should You Update Now?

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I've been kicking the macOS Catalina beta around, and while I've got good news to report about the post-iTunes world, this update has a few more things to be concerned about. So, now that Apple has released its Public Beta, it's time to explain everything you need to know about macOS Catalina, and if you should update immediately or not.

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The good news is that the apps replacing iTunes are feature-complete, so power users won't have anything to worry about. On the downside, though, the death of 32-bit apps in Catalina might make upgrading a nightmare.

Is this a review?

In a way, yes. I'm going to explain who should and shouldn't hit update now, but since this is a beta, and not a finished product, it's not quite time to give a final verdict on macOS Catalina. Apple released macOS 15 Public Beta 2 on July 3, and while this update is going to provide a more-stable experience, nobody's saying it's ready for your production machine yet.

Most users, at least based on anecdotal evidence, aren't aware of the beta version and won't consider this update until Apple starts promoting it in the App Store.

I tested macOS Catalina's Developer Beta 2 (19A487l) on a souped-up 15-inch 2019 MacBook Pro. Performance was solid during that time, but I would hope that it would be, as that machine runs on an 8-core 9th Gen Intel Core i9 CPU with 32GB of RAM.

iTunes is dead, Music is a good replacement

macOS's Music App

As you may have heard, iTunes is gone in macOS Catalina, retiring to the big app store in the sky. In its place, we've got Music, Podcasts and TV — three apps that look like iTunes in terms of their overall design, with a navigation menu on the left, controls at the top, and the content in list/icon form in the rest of the screen.

The best news out of all of this — aside from macOS matching iOS and tvOS for its media apps — is that Music doesn't drop any of iTunes' best features. As I hoped and wished, all of iTunes' power-user features are intact, including iCloud Music Library and support for local MP3s.

That means you can keep adding songs to your collection from outside of Apple's library, so you're not reliant on the stuff the company clears and pays for. Prime examples of such personal tracks are rare concert recordings and mixtapes with uncleared samples. I tested this out by uploading a few albums I purchased as MP3s, changing their metadata, and watching those same songs and album names appear on all my other Apple devices.

The one thing I think Music needs, though, is a way to organize the list of Playlists in the left menu manually, as it's still stuck in alphabetic sorting. This limitation has always forced me to start playlist names with the letter A so they rise to the top.

The one bug I ran into is that the For You and Browse sections under Apple Music didn't always open when clicked. Sometimes I had to click to another section and click back to For You to make it open; other times I had to close the app and reopen it to get it to work.

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The Podcasts and TV apps do just what you'd expect, porting the iOS app and tvOS app to the Mac. This will likely be helpful for those who didn't realize that iTunes did more than music, though I don't know how many people will easily understand that Movies are found in the TV app — which has all the same sections as that app, including Watch Now, Up Next and Kids.

Oh, and one more tidbit to know: macOS Finder is now the point where you manage physically connected iPhones and iPads. At one point during the developer beta install process, we had to use Finder to install the iPadOS developer beta on our iPad.

The death of 32-bit apps might be a dealbreaker for you

32-bit apps are definitely dead.

This might hurt. macOS Catalina does not support 32-bit apps, and during its installation, it warns you of which apps on your system it will break because they're not 64-bit apps.

For me, that meant that OpenVPN — which is essential for our work here at Laptop Mag — hit the chopping block, and I couldn't keep using my test MacBook Pro for my work. This is a huge problem.

Oh, and because this is a beta version of the operating system, developers aren't responsible for their apps working in the short term, so I hope this puts the pressure on OpenVPN to get its act together.

You drive the Sidecar with a Pencil

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Sidecar, the biggest new feature for Mac owners who also own iPads, isn't as complete as I'd hoped. When Apple presented the feature at WWDC, it didn't emphasize that you'd need to use an Apple Pencil to interact with the macOS interface on the iPad. This makes sense, though, as macOS is designed to be interacted with a cursor, not a fingertip.

Yes, there are touch-friendly modifier keys and a virtual Touch Bar — yes, Apple's still trying to make the Touch Bar happen, but that's far from a full touch screen. Also, this limitation means that you need the Apple Pencil if you want anything more than a second screen (that you can't interact with) for your Mac.

This could have given Apple a chance to tip its toe in waters it's long avoided: 2-in-1 convertible laptops. In the meantime, though, Sidecar does offer minor touch support, allowing the cut, copy, paste, undo and redo swipe controls that iPadOS enables.

It turns out that Sidecar mode is not meant for your fingers (for the most part), but designed for use with the Apple Pencil. Also, it enables you to use the iPad as a reference display, where you can look but not touch.

Close up with Sidecar mode

My favorite part of Sidecar is that the connection can be made wirelessly. Yes, it doesn't require tethering your devices together via a cable, which could be tough for those with modern MacBooks who are using most iPads (other than the 2018 iPad Pros) — who would need a USB Type-C to Lightning cable.

Safari gets modest updates

Safari, much like most of the Catalina update, is becoming more similar to other versions across macOS. For example, the new tab screen now shows iCloud tabs and Siri Suggestions. Safari will also warn you against creating too-simple passwords, but that can feel redundant when sites like Google already do that.

Safari's also catching up to Chrome by helping you avoid having redundant tabs open by suggesting you switch to an already-open one if you start typing the same URL in. There's also a new way to enable picture-in-picture viewing, from the audio icon in the URL field.

Reminders moves forward

A smarter Reminders app arrives in Catalina

I don't know about you, but I rely on reminders apps a lot to make sure I finish everything I'm supposed to do. This is why I was happy to see Apple's Reminders app get sections for items due today, and tasks scheduled for the future.

It's also easier to create more powerful reminders, as each entry has date and time fields, as well as a button to add a location for geofenced reminders. You're also supposed to be able to tag someone in a reminder, but that wasn't available to me yet.

Other points of interest

The new Find My app in action.

Apple's added Find My, a native way to access its device-tracking tools for finding AirPods, iPads, iPhones and Macs on your iCloud account. This app is a great alternative to asking people to navigate to iCloud.com and use Apple's sluggish site.

The iPhone's Screen Time usage tracking, for digital well-being, is also now on the Mac (in System Preferences), but I'm not sure it fits as well. Or at least it doesn't work as well as a time-tracker as it does on the iPhone, as macOS allows for a ton of apps to be simultaneously open and doesn't track the interaction time with said apps.

Speaking of System Preferences, it's been redesigned to fit all of your Apple ID information. Here, you can manage your connected devices, contact info, password and more.

The App Store is more or less the same, but now there's an Arcade tab to give gamers a tease of Apple Arcade. Most of the previewed characters look more indie than familiar, though Sonic Racing was featured in one of the slides.

Notes is getting a gallery view mode, where you get a grid of your documents. Oh, and since you can work on the same Note with other users, Apple realized that it should add Shared Folders, so you can organize notes together.

Mail has some overdue additions — muting threads, blocking senders, unsubscribing — catching up to the web-app versions.

What's not there yet

At this point, everybody should know the risks associated with a beta version, which include apps not working right. My first major hiccup came when opening Photos, which may be choking on my Photos library – comprising more than 107,000 photos and 2,200 videos.

Photos will feature the redesigned, magazine-like design seen in iOS 13 that hides screenshots from the main view to show off just your best shots. The app also has views for sorting images by days, months and years.

Oh, and during my time with macOS Catalina, I didn't see any iPad apps available in the App Store, as they're due this fall. Personally, I can hardly wait that long, as I want dedicated Netflix and Overcast apps on the Mac.

My recommendation

Right now, like every beta version of a program, Catalina is for the adventurous and those who don't worry about risking the machine they're using. Yes, it ran reliably on my laptop; I’m hoping that the 32-bit app issue I hit will be rectified with updates by the time the finished version of macOS Catalina comes out in the fall.

Apple Pencil-brandishing iPad owners and TV app lovers will get the most out of the beta versions of Catalina. The update's screen-extending capabilities and media consumption apps are currently the OS’ strongest selling points, especially as Music doesn't offer that many new features over iTunes, just on-screen lyrics. Your motivation to update to this first public beta will be even smaller if you, like me, have a gigantic photo library.

Author Bio
Henry T. Casey
Henry T. Casey,
Henry is a senior writer at Laptop Mag, covering security, Apple and operating systems. Prior to joining Laptop Mag — where he's the self-described Rare Oreo Expert — he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. You can find him at your local pro wrestling events, and wondering why Apple decided to ditch its MagSafe power adapters.
Henry T. Casey, on