macOS Monterey preview: So much to discover

Don’t call Monterey a minor update. Yes, it’s less feature-packed than its predecessor. And yet, it still stands on its own, thanks to a nice list of new and updated features.

2020 was a significant year for Apple and Mac. The company’s move away from Intel-based processors to an in-house system on a chip (SoC) was long-rumored even before being announced at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) that June. However, much more surprising was Apple’s announcement the same day of macOS Big Sur.

The software update is the most significant since OS X launched two decades ago. Big Sur has pushed Mac into new directions, offers a fresh design, and several new and updated features.

However, all good things must end as Big Sur soon makes way for macOS Monterey. Announced at this year’s WWDC, the 18th major macOS release isn’t nearly as adventurous as its predecessor but is a satisfactory update, nonetheless. The version is peppered with an even mix of software updates and new features. The former includes new versions of FaceTime and Safari, while the latter literally focuses on making user workflows easier and with fewer distractions.

Remember, it remains in beta

Until at least September, Monterey remains an unfinished product. However, between now and then, Apple and its third-party developers will put the update through the paces through a beta process.

You can also experience Monterey through Apple’s free public beta program. But, remember: betas are sometimes unstable and often exclude key features or tools. Therefore, it’s a good idea to install the software on a secondary device and perform regular backups just in case.

Compatibility

Not every Mac that works with Big Sur will support Monterey. Those that will include the best Macs on the market, and specifically the iMac (Late 2015 and later), iMac Pro (all models), MacBook (Early 2016 and later), MacBook Air (Early 2015 and later), MacBook Pro (Early 2015 and later), Mac mini (Late 2014 and later), and Mac Pro (Late 2013 and later).

Several Monterey features won’t be making the jump to Intel-based Macs because of compatibility issues. If you want all of the new features, you’ll want a Mac with M1.

FaceTime changes

Despite some better-known competition, Zoom won the day when it came to video-calling during the COVID-19 crisis. Perhaps finally admitting its solution isn’t inclusive enough, Apple’s bringing two big changes to FaceTime across multiple platforms this fall. The first represents a tiny step in the right direction, while the second is far more exciting — assuming the iPhone maker can properly land the execution.

FaceTime expands to Android, Windows

With Monterey and iOS 15/iPadOS 15, Apple’s making it possible for Android and Windows users to join FaceTime meetings for the first time. But, as I already noted, the move comes with key limitations attached.

Apple’s Monterey preview page makes it clear non-Apple device owners can’t start new meetings. Instead, they must receive an invite first, which comes in a web link they can open on Chrome or Edge.

From there, things get a little less clear in terms of compatibility. For example, language on the same preview page says sharing some content with Android or Windows users in FaceTime may require a subscription to view. Most likely, this restriction will affect FaceTime’s biggest upcoming change in Monterey, called SharePlay.

SharePlay

With SharePlay, Apple’s making it possible for FaceTime meeting attendees to watch TV shows and movies together, listen to music, or share screens. For this experience to work, Apple’s launching a FaceTime grid view. This view shows everyone in the same-size tiles. There’s also a new portrait mode (Apple silicone only) that blurs someone’s background during a call.

At launch, SharePlay’s expected to support Apple’s native video and audio apps, plus Disney+, ESPN+, HBO Max, Hulu, MasterClass, Paramount+, Pluto TV, TikTok, and Twitch. In addition, Cupertino’s encouraging other third-party apps to also support the new feature.

If there’s one potentially great feature to be found across most Apple platforms this year, it’s SharePlay. However, before it launches, the company needs to address how subscriptions come into play, not just for non-Apple device users.

Can an HBO Max subscriber, for example, share content with someone who doesn’t subscribe to the premium service? How about the sharing of Apple Music? Are there more restrictions in place for non-Apple device users?

Focus

A few years ago, people became concerned we were spending too much time on our devices. The big tech companies ever since have addressed this concern by introducing tools that either help us manage our time better or make it easier to unplug. Apple’s new Focus feature attempts to do both.

Available on Mac, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch this fall, Focus allows you to adjust which type of notifications you’ll receive based on what you’re doing at the time. For example, during a Focus created to run during work hours, you might limit receiving immediate alerts to only your family and co-workers, while app notifications can only come from your favorite news app. By contrast, a Focus created for nighttime use might exclude alerts from everyone but your closest family members and include zero immediate app notifications.

You can create Focus groups that vary by device. However, ideally, you should sync these via iCloud. That way, the settings are the same across each device.

On Monterey, your Focus settings are easily accessible on Control Center and are changeable on the fly. Each can run according to a set schedule or be ready to go for manual use.

Even in the beta stage, Focus feels like a finished product; I’ve been most impressed with the built-in flexibility that makes it possible to adjust the settings seamlessly. Focus is a home run in my book, and I’ll be interested to see where it goes from here in future software updates.

Safari

I have always respected the differences the various web browsers bring to the table. And yet, these differences never outweighed my singular requirement that my favorite websites needed to work as expected in the browser window. With Safari, Apple has made significant changes in both Big Sur and now Monterey. None of these changes affect how websites work, although they present some unexpected learning curves some might not want.

In Big Sur, most of the Safari changes were in the background, including useful password enhancements and the introduction of the Privacy Report. Monterey’s differences are mostly in its design. The new Safari looks gorgeous thanks to pages that now extend to the edge of the app window and the general tidying up at how information gets presented. Some things work, while others do not.

Tab Bar

The streamlined tab bar takes up less space on the page and offers redesigned floating tabs that work with Safari’s Smart Search field. Together, they give the browser a more minimalist feel that extends to the new More menu button. Located to the right of the search field, when clicked, the button reveals links to the Privacy Report, bookmarking, sharing, Reader View, and more.

The minimalist feel of the Tab Bar works. However, I now forget to use some of the relocated tools under the More menu. (Perhaps, out of sight, out of mind.) This isn’t necessarily something bad (or good), but it’s still worth pointing out.

Tab Groups

Meanwhile, Monterey’s Safari now includes tab groups for organization purposes. With these, you arrange tabs (links to websites) by different topics and interests. Some might wonder how tabs are different than bookmarks. According to Apple, tabs as more dynamic and have been designed to follow you. A bookmark, by contrast, is more hard-coded to a specific page.

If tab groups catch on and essentially replace bookmarks, I’m on board. And yet, I can see how some might view the new tool largely as either a gimmick or not worth the trouble. If that’s the case, Apple might be forced to return Safari to its Big Sur version, which beta testers have already attempted.

If you’re not heavily tied to one browser over another, these Safari changes aren’t going to bother you. However, if Apple’s Safari is your primary browser and any nuance could affect your workflow, prepare yourself for a slight jolt.

Quick Note and Notes

Like many other new features in Monterey, the Quick Note tool also comes to mobile devices, specifically the iPad. It makes it possible to capture any thought, regardless of what you’re doing on the device. A Quick Note can include links, Safari highlights, Tags, and more. Better still, each gets funneled into the Notes app, which, thanks to iCloud, means they’re accessible across multiple devices.

With Tags, you can better categorize and organize your notes while Custom Smart Folders make it simple to find those re-categorized posts. You can also view Tags via a Tag Browser.

The new Notes’ Highlights feature makes it much easier to see when collaborators have changed a document. Each person is automatically assigned a different Highlight color. Mentions is another new collaboration feature. Using an @ sign and the person’s name in a Note, important updates are conveyed immediately to the collaborator.

Quick Note functionality is mostly lacking in the current macOS beta, although the feature already shows its eventual usefulness. The changes in the Notes app proper also look promising and should make it much easier to share content with others.

Shortcuts for Mac

One of the best features to arrive on iPhone and iPad in the past decade is finally coming to macOS. With Shortcuts for Mac, you can save time by removing steps to perform important tasks. You can select from a list of pre-configured Shortcuts or create new ones using the Shortcuts editor. In addition, you can run Shortcuts from the Dock, menu bar, the Finder, Spotlight, or through Siri for added functionality.

One of the earliest concerns about Shortcuts for iPhone was whether everyday users would take the time to tackle the learning curve. That’s less of an issue today as the library of prebuilt Shortcuts has steadily grown. This library has been successfully carried over to Mac in Monterey, and the new built-in Mac-specific Shortcuts look very good. Among these is a growing list of Shortcuts that automatically turn on Split Screen when two specific apps are selected simultaneously. Other pre-configured Shortcuts, no doubt, will follow in the coming weeks and months.

Other goodies

Monterey feels like macOS Snow Leopard taking over for Leopard and High Sierra replacing Sierra since it’s a minor update compared to its predecessor. And yet, even after you get through the changes mentioned above, there’s more to uncover and appreciate about Monterey.

The new Share with You feature in Messages, for example, adds some much-needed structure to the popular texting app. The tool, which is also coming to iPhone and iPad, keeps track of everything sent to you by someone or passed around in one of your groups, including pins, Apple TV content, Apple Podcasts, Safari links, and more. Thanks to Share with You, searching endlessly for received content is no longer necessary.

Universal Control is another interesting new feature in Monterey and one that blurs the line between iPad and Mac even further. With no set-up required, you can move between both devices as they sit side-by-side using a keyboard, mouse, or trackpad. You can also perform drag and drop to bring content from one device to another.

There’s also AirPlay to Mac, making it possible to send content to your Mac from an iPhone, iPad, or another Mac using Apple’s wirelessly communication protocol. You can also (finally) use your Mac as a third-party AirPlay 2 speaker.

Final Take

We’ll continue to put Monterey through its paces and offer a full review when the release arrives for the general public later this year. In the meantime, if you have any questions about Monterey, let us know in the comments below.

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