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Ingenious: OS X Yosemite Makes the Mac an iPhone Accessory

David Pogue
Tech Critic
Yahoo Tech

One thing’s for sure: Steve Jobs isn’t running Apple anymore.

He hated the idea of making a smaller iPad. He scoffed at the concept of a bigger iPhone. He kept Apple’s mobile operating systems closed — you couldn’t install other companies’ “extensions” to add features and keyboards to iOS. He didn’t give shareholders a dividend, or match employees’ charitable donations. He didn’t make OS X beta versions available to the public.

Yet all of this has now come to pass. It makes Apple feel kinder, gentler, more collaborative, less controlling.

Today, Yosemite, the newest version of the Mac’s OS X operating system, is out of (public) beta and available to all. It’s a free download. It runs on the same Macs that the previous OS X version (Mavericks) ran on — in general, Mac models sold since 2008 or 2009.

The months of public pounding on Yosemite have paid off. Most apps that run on Mavericks run on Yosemite (two of my programs needed Yosemite-compatible updates, and one, Reflector, won’t work until it gets updated).

Other than these few apps, installation is smooth sailing. In fact, once the installation was over, I was amazed to discover that my Macs had 10 to 15 gigabytes more free space than they did before Yosemite. (That’s because the installer purges old log and cache files.)

The redesign
OK, ready? Yosemite looks different. Radically different. It looks, in fact, a lot like iOS 7 or iOS 8 on an iPad.

OS X Yosemite

A new, smaller, thinner font makes up your menus. Flatter, simpler buttons and controls fill your dialog boxes.

OS X Yosemite

In many programs, the various controls on the top toolbars have been compressed and condensed, giving more of your work space back.

Yosemite looks lighter, thinner, pastellier. You can also see faintly through panels, title bars, and menus to what’s behind them — an idea that both Apple and Microsoft have toyed with over the years. It’s cute but still has no point. (Don’t like it? Turn it off in System Preferences Accessibility Display. Hit Increase contrast.)

A lot of people will despise the new look. No matter what the virtues of a software redesign, you can count on howls of outrage from the “Who moved my cheese?” crowd.

Still, even though things look different, they’re all in the same places, which helps. After about a day, the new look began to grow on me. It’s more sparse, less decorated — and in the heat of battle, that makes it easier to spot what you’re looking for quickly.

Features for everybody
There are plenty of new features in Yosemite. Some of them seem overhyped by Apple. And some seem underhyped, or not even mentioned. Here’s how I’d rate the big-ticket items, on a scale from 1 (no impact on your life) to 10:

Spotlight, the searching feature, appears in the center of the screen now, not the upper right, so it has a larger canvas for displaying previews of what it finds. Spotlight searches can now return information from Wikipedia, Bing, Maps, and so on. Impact: 4

Spotlight in OS X Yosemite

• A new Today view in the Notification area (a panel that pops out from the right side of your screen) rounds up your upcoming appointments, reminders, stock prices, weather, and so on. This panel is now customizable: You can install new panels (“widgets”) from other companies that add new kinds of information — New York Times headlines, for example. Impact: 6

Today view in OS X Yosemite

• Safari, the Web browser, gains more screen space because of its redesigned, collapsed toolbar. Safari also revamps the way you open a private (untracked) page. Impact: 3. Or 1 if you’re a Chrome user.

• Mail introduces a brilliant feature called Mail Drop, which lets you attach huge attachments to any outgoing message (up to 5 gigabytes; these do not count against your 5 gigabytes of iCloud storage). If your recipient also has Yosemite, she gets the attachment with the message; if not, she gets a link, good for 30 days, that downloads the file. Either way, you’re spared all the usual fiddling with Dropbox, SendThisFile, or driving to someone’s house with a flash drive.

With this feature, Apple has shattered a limitation that’s been in place since the invention of email. It’s liberating, simple, and really useful. What took the world so long? Impact: 10

Mail Drop dialog box in OS X Yosemite

Mail also lets you annotate PDF files, pictures, and other attachments right in the message, using text, shapes, your stored signature (captured by the Mac’s camera), or freehand shapes that you draw on your laptop trackpad (the Mac auto-smooths them).

It’s great for adding your signature to electronic contracts, or destroying the spirits of that graphic designer you hired with your “notes.” This feature is also a bit hidden: It works only on files you’re sending (not incoming attachments). You add your attachment, point to it without clicking, and then choose Markup from the little menu that appears. Impact: 6

Markup feature in in OS X Yosemite's Mail

• iCloud Drive is Apple’s version of Dropbox. It’s a folder, present in every desktop window, that lists whatever’s in your iCloud Drive — an online “disk” that holds 5 gigabytes (more, if you’re willing to pay money).

iCloud Drive feature in in OS X Yosemite

As with Dropbox, OneDrive, and their rivals, iCloud Drive is a perfect place to put stuff you’ll want to be able to access from any Mac, iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, wherever you go. It’s a great backup, too.

Not a new idea, of course, and not as generous with the free space as its rivals. But because it’s so built-in and automatic (nothing to install), it will mean a lot to a lot of people. Impact: 8

• Family Sharing is a broad category of features intended for families (up to six people).

First, everyone can share stuff bought from Apple’s online stores: movies, TV shows, music, ebooks, and so on. It’s all on a single credit card, but you, the all-knowing parent, can approve each person’s purchases — without having to share your account password with him. That’s a great solution to a long-standing problem.

There’s also a new shared family photo album and a new auto-shared Family category on the calendar. Any family member can see the location of any other family member, or find one another’s lost iPhones or iPads using Find My iPhone. Nicely done. Impact: 8 if you have kids

The Messages app has been tweaked in many ways. You can give names to conversations that involve three or more people; you can see every photo that’s ever been shared in a conversation thread, all in one place; and screen sharing is back — great for trying to help someone with a computer problem over the Internet. Impact: 4

The velvet handcuffs
The truly wonderful stuff in Yosemite, however, is reserved for people who own an iPhone, too (or a cellular iPad).

Like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, Apple wants to make life easier — and harder to leave — for people who own more than one of its products. But in Yosemite, and with iOS 8.1 for the iPhone, the company has taken this working-together business to stunningly smart new heights:

• The Mac is now a speakerphone. The iPhone, sitting anywhere in your house, can be the cellular module for your Mac.

When a call comes in, your Mac plays the appropriate ringtone. And a notice appears on your Mac screen:

Call notice on a Mac running OS X Yosemite

You can click to answer it (or decline it), without having to go find your phone. Or you can dial any phone number on the Mac (in Safari, an email message, your Contacts, or whatever) by clicking it with the mouse.

The Mac works great as a speakerphone. This is a game-changer. You’ll use it constantly, at least if you work in a place where speakerphone calls aren’t distracting. (You can, of course, also plug your headset into your Mac.) Impact: 10

• You can send and receive text messages from your Mac. Not just using iMessages (Apple’s proprietary messaging system for Apple-to-Apple messages). You can open the Messages app, type any cellphone number, and send an SMS text message to anyone. Or receive them when they’re sent to your iPhone number. Picture, audio, and video attachments come through, too.

I’ve used Google Voice to send texts from my computer for years, but it’s much more logical to do it right in Messages, without having to call up a Web page. Impact: 10

• Turn on tethering from the laptop. Tethering means using your phone as an Internet antenna for your laptop, so you can get online from a taxi or an airport waiting lounge. (Tethering costs an additional $20 or more a month from your cellphone carrier.)

To use it, you used to have to wake your phone, fiddle in Settings, wait, check your WiFi menu on the laptop, and so on.

Not anymore. The phone stays in your pocket. Even if the phone is asleep and locked, even if Personal Hotspot is turned off, you can choose the phone’s name from your WiFi menu and start surfing. The same menu shows the phone’s battery and signal status. Impact: 6

Tethering setup screen

Handoff passes half-finished documents between the phone and the Mac. If you’ve been writing a message on your iPhone, for example (top), you’ll find a new icon at the left end of the Mac’s Dock that looks like this (middle):

OS X Yosemite Handoff feature on iPhone and Mac

If you click it, the Mac’s Mail program opens, and the half-finished message is there for you to complete (bottom).

The same feature works for other Apple programs, like Safari (opens the same Web page), Maps, Messages, Reminders, Calendar, Contacts, Notes, Keynote, Numbers, and Pages. Works the other direction, too: If you start something on the Mac, an icon appears on the lower-left corner of your iPhone’s lock screen that opens the same item.

Handoff mail icon on iPhone lock screen

It’s a very slick trick, although it’s not clear to me yet how often we’ll need it. Impact: 4

AirDrop works between Macs and phones. AirDrop is Apple’s Apple-ified file-transfer system. It requires no names, passwords, permissions, or setup: you just tap the icon of the nearby Apple machine, and whatever you’re trying to send (a photo, map, Contacts entry, file, whatever) goes wirelessly. Great idea — but how ridiculous that until today, it worked only Mac-to-Mac or phone-to-phone!

Updated AirDrop feature on Mac and iPhone

Now, at last, you can shoot files and photos between Macs and iPhones/iPads. This is an open-ended feature with a thousand uses — if only people realize that it’s available. Impact: 9

The footnotes
There are annoyances in Yosemite.

The new, super-compressed toolbar in Safari no longer shows you the full address of the webpage you’re on — only the main “dot-com” name (shown here at top). You have to click it to see the full address (bottom).

Compressed address bar in OS X Yosemite

There are way too many alerts and notices and confirmations when you add a new Apple gadget to your ecosystem. It’s getting out of control.

Alert windows in OS X Yosemite

Similarly, you have to enter your iCloud password an awful lot these days — on both your phone and your Mac.

The green button at the upper left of every window now enters full-screen mode, where the menu bar is hidden, and the window stretches from edge to edge of your monitor. The old behavior (just make the window as big as possible without hiding anything) is gone — until you discover that you can Option-click the button to get the old behavior.

Green + button on an OS X Yosemite window

And setting up some of the new phone/Mac integration features is tricky. They require your phone and Mac to be on the same WiFi network, signed in to the same iCloud account. They require your phones and tablets to have iOS 8.1 and your Macs to have Yosemite.

Finally, I found a handful of the usual Big New Release bugs. OS X 10.10.01, anyone?

The headline
But you know what? Here’s the bottom line about those complaints. Impact: 2.

The point is that, if you can adjust to the new look, Yosemite adds some of the most useful, innovative operating-system features in years. The features that merge the phone and the laptop — text messaging, speakerphone, Handoff, AirDrop — send the Apple ecosystem benefits into the stratosphere.

Would Steve Jobs have approved of the direction Yosemite has taken the Mac — making it look and feel like iOS? Making the laptop an accessory to a phone, for goodness’ sake?

No way to know. But he probably would have been impressed. And you will be, too.

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