DownloadingDownloading macOS Big Sur was a big change for me — visually, pragmatically, philosophically. It was the biggest macOS redesign we’d seen in years. And it was a new direction for the ecosystem in general; macOS looked and felt like iOS. 

Downloading macOS Monterey, by contrast, has not impacted my life much. I installed the first beta over the summer, forgot that I was using it within a few days, and tried to download it again the following week. It looks like Big Sur, with some tweaks here and there. Many of them seem to be catch-up efforts, equipping Monterey with features that iOS (or competitors) already had. A few of the features are useful for me, but they’re features you have to seek out and set up. And we’re still waiting on some of the most innovative parts of Monterey that Apple announced earlier this year to arrive.

So my ultimate view on this operating system is, “Sure.” It’s a stable release that I’ve been using reliably for a few months. Nothing’s terribly broken. If you’re someone who prefers to exercise maximum caution and wait a while before upgrading, you’re also not missing all that much. As is often the case with releases directly following a major redesign, this is a building year for macOS.

FACETIME

TheThe tweaks that Apple seems to be most excited about concern FaceTime. While I won’t go so far as to insinuate that Apple is trying to make FaceTime a Zoom competitor, it’s certainly introduced a number of features aimed at making its service more viable for group calls. The significant one for me is that you can now create links to FaceTime calls (as you can with Zoom calls) and send them out to participants ahead of time. These links are very easy to create with a single button on the app’s home screen — certainly slightly less of a pain than they are in the Zoom client on macOS. (On the other hand, the FaceTime link is just a link; it doesn’t come with dial-in numbers and you can’t join from a landline.) 

These links also allow Android and Windows users to join such calls for the first time. Joining a FaceTime call from a Windows laptop is eerily similar to joining a Zoom or Google Meet call — you click the link, the call opens in your browser, you’re asked to enter your name, and you wait around until the host lets you in. Also in the vein of targeting the business market (or, at least, the calls-with-multiple-friends market), FaceTime now supports Grid View, which lays the faces of participants in front of you when you’re on a call (an option Zoom also has). 

There are a few other neat features that pop up in Control Center, including Portrait Mode (which blurs the background behind you), Voice Isolation (which mitigates background noise while you’re speaking), and Wide Spectrum (which picks up all of your background noise, if you’re doing a virtual guitar lesson or something). Portrait Mode, in particular, works quite well, is easy to toggle on and off, and is something I’ll continue to use.

FACETIME

TheThe tweaks that Apple seems to be most excited about concern FaceTime. While I won’t go so far as to insinuate that Apple is trying to make FaceTime a Zoom competitor, it’s certainly introduced a number of features aimed at making its service more viable for group calls. The significant one for me is that you can now create links to FaceTime calls (as you can with Zoom calls) and send them out to participants ahead of time. These links are very easy to create with a single button on the app’s home screen — certainly slightly less of a pain than they are in the Zoom client on macOS. (On the other hand, the FaceTime link is just a link; it doesn’t come with dial-in numbers and you can’t join from a landline.) 

These links also allow Android and Windows users to join such calls for the first time. Joining a FaceTime call from a Windows laptop is eerily similar to joining a Zoom or Google Meet call — you click the link, the call opens in your browser, you’re asked to enter your name, and you wait around until the host lets you in. Also in the vein of targeting the business market (or, at least, the calls-with-multiple-friends market), FaceTime now supports Grid View, which lays the faces of participants in front of you when you’re on a call (an option Zoom also has). 

There are a few other neat features that pop up in Control Center, including Portrait Mode (which blurs the background behind you), Voice Isolation (which mitigates background noise while you’re speaking), and Wide Spectrum (which picks up all of your background noise, if you’re doing a virtual guitar lesson or something). Portrait Mode, in particular, works quite well, is easy to toggle on and off, and is something I’ll continue to use.

These features are actually available for third-party apps to support as well, though who supports what seems to vary. I could use Portrait Mode in both Zoom and Google Meet but couldn’t use the microphone controls. I haven’t been able to find a list of apps that support these enhancements, but I have asked Apple for one, and I’ll update this review if they dig anything up. 

The most exciting new FaceTime feature, though — and the one that could really distinguish it from Zoom and other competitors when it comes to group calls — is still in beta. It’s SharePlay. SharePlay is a service similar to Teleparty, Scener, and Watch Together. It allows you and other people on your FaceTime call to watch or listen to streaming content together by syncing everyone’s video and playback controls. (So we’re both watching Foundation separately on our own Apple accounts — but when I pause or rewind, your video pauses or rewinds as well.)

SharePlay, unfortunately, doesn’t seem ready yet. For one, the official list of services the feature supports isn’t easy to find — I had to get Apple to send me this App Store Preview page. The supported services are also relatively few, and it doesn’t include any non-Apple big players like Hulu, HBO, Netflix, or Spotify yet — which are the services that people I know reliably have. It also doesn’t have Apple’s own Podcast app yet. (It does include Tiktok, which is hilarious.) Hulu, Spotify and HBO Max are supposed to be adopting SharePlay at some point, but Apple hasn’t given me a timeline for Podcasts support.That aside, the beta version of SharePlay is a nice experience — when it works. I played a few Apple Music tracks on a group call, and I would say SharePlay worked about 50 percent of the time. It was a good experience, and all parties could pause and skip without issue. But if I changed songs, my fellow callers would often stop hearing the audio I was trying to share and get stuck on a loading screen (while it continued to play on my end), and I’d have to quit and restart the Music app to get us synced up again. All told, I hope that Apple is able to polish SharePlay up before its final release — it still seems to be a beta feature.

SAFARI

The latest version of Safari isn’t limited to Monterey — you can install it on Big Sur, too, but Apple tends to update it around the same time that it updates macOS. This year’s edition redesigns the way tabs look — or, at least, it tried to. In the first few Monterey betas, Apple combined Safari’s tab bar and URL bar into a single row. People ended up hating this — the franken-bar was a bit cramped, and it was easy to close tabs instead of selecting them — so Apple has brought back the old, discrete bars for the stable release. The combined tab bar is still an option if you want it — you can swap in Preferences. I encourage you to try both layouts if you’re a Safari user. I actually like the extra browser space that the compact tab layout affords, though it gets a bit unwieldy if you have tons and tons of tabs open.

Read full review here

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