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MacOS Catalina: 5 best things about Apple's new OS for your Mac

Your Mac just got a huge update, thanks to Catalina, the new version of the MacOS available now.

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Catalina, an island and the name of the current version of MacOS.

Apple

Your MacBook, iMac or -- lucky you -- beastly Mac Pro just got a big boost, because MacOS Catalina is now available from Apple. With the Mac update, Apple replaces the iTunes app with three separate apps: Apple Music, Apple Podcasts and Apple TV. The Catalina update also lets Mac users run iPad apps available through the Mac App Store, and use an iPad as a second screen, much in the way you might use a monitor. 

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This year's annual Mac update from Apple keeps things interesting with a renewed emphasis on services, an important part of the way that Apple keeps its user base loyal. The Silicon Valley bigwig user base may pale in comparison to Microsoft users globally, but Apple has always used its apps and services ecosystem to create an aura of special status. The excitement of Mac owners in using Apple's new tools is key to the company retaining its reputation among app makers and fans.

Here are the five biggest things in MacOS Catalina, along with everything else in the new Mac operating system that should make your Mac life a little better. (And here's how to download and install Catalina.)

Catalina includes the new Music app.

Apple

1. iTunes replacement

For years, iTunes served as Apple's digital hub, helping you buy, manage, play and sync your digital content. But iTunes years ago started to sag under the weight of all its responsibilities and became for some more trouble than it was worth. With Catalina, Apple breaks up iTunes into three separate apps that each take on some of the burden that iTunes had carried. Taking over the music portion of iTunes, Apple Music offers a player, a store and a library for organizing all your songs, albums and playlists. Apple TV will handle all your movies and shows and manage the Apple TV channels you subscribe to. It's also where you access Apple TV Plus, the company's new streaming service. Apple Podcasts is designed to manage the podcasts you subscribe to and let you listen to episodes. And everything is synced through iCloud, so no more fussing with iTunes to keep all your devices up to date.

2. iPad apps on the Mac

We caught a glimpse of the future in Mojave last year, when Apple brought four iOS apps to the Mac: News, Stocks, Voice Memos and Home. With Catalina, Apple opens the MacOS to all iPad developers through a tool called Catalyst, which will help software makers build apps that can run on both iPad and MacOS devices without a lot of extra effort. And it's good news for Mac users, who should gain access to a broader selection of apps.

3. Sidecar

And it's not just iPad apps coming to Catalina; it's the device too. With Sidecar, Mac users can extend their desktop by turning an iPad into a second screen or use it as a tablet pad with Apple Pencil ($120 at Walmart).

4. Accessibility

Apple is greatly expanding the MacOS accessibility controls in Catalina. With Voice Control, you can take command of MacOS, iPadOS and iOS devices using your voice instead with a mouse, trackpad and keyboard and add custom words so Voice Control can recognize words you commonly use. The built-in assistive technology will use Siri's speech recognition engine, and all audio processing will happen on your device, keeping everything off Apple's servers to guard your privacy.

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5. Apple Arcade

Apple's gaming subscription service offers more than 100 new and exclusive games that Apple is working with game creators to create. Apple stressed that the games will not be available on other mobile devices and will not be part of other subscription services. The service, which will work on Macs, iPhones ($650 at Amazon), iPads, iPod Touches and Apple TV devices, will cost $4.99 a month for unlimited access after a one-month free trial. In Catalina, you'll find Arcade in its own tab on the Mac App Store.

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Sneaky Sasquatch, one of the games you can play on Apple Arcade on your Mac and other Apple devices.

Angela Lang/CNET

What else is in MacOS Catalina

Along with the major additions, Catalina brings a basket of improvements, from tighter security to improved photo editing.

  • Screen Time: To help you get a grip on the time you spend with your device, Catalina's Screen Time app can monitor and let you take control of your and your family's Mac time. Schedule downtime for anyone in your family and limit which apps you or your kids can use. With Communication Limits, you can set limits on who your kids can chat with and when, and manage your kid's contact list.
  • Security and privacy: Catalina includes an activation lock, as used on the iPhone ($900 at Amazon) and iPad, to ensure only you can erase and reactivate your Mac if you've lost it. An enhanced Gatekeeper -- which checks your installed apps for malware --  monitors newly installed apps for security issues.
  • Photos: The Photos app in Catalina has a new tab for browsing your photos. The app organizes your photos by day, month and year.
  • Notes: The updated Notes app has a new gallery view and offers shared folders for collaboration.
  • Reminders: The redesigned Reminders app has new edit buttons, and Siri is integrated to make suggestions.
  • Safari: Apple's web browser opens your start page more quickly, offers Siri suggestions and warns you about weak passwords.
  • Mail: With the Mail, you can more easily block senders, mute threads and unsubscribe from commercial email lists.
  • Find My: Catalina combines Find My Phone and Find My Friends into a single app. And you can locate offline devices via their Bluetooth signal.
  • Approve with Apple Watch: If you have an Apple Watch, you can use it to authenticate your Mac.
  • Apple ID info: Catalina gives you access to your Apple ID info through System Preferences.
  • QuickTime Player: Do you use QuickTime for video playback? With Catalina, you'll get Picture in Picture (PiP).
  • Home: You can securely record video to iCloud when a HomeKit-enabled camera detects activity, and view the video via the Home app.
  • International: Catalina offers expanded multilingual support.
  • iCloud Drive: For iCloud, you can share folders with a private link.
  • Restore from a snapshot: if a MacOS update disagrees with your third-party software, you can revert your system back to a snapshot of your computer you had before updated.

Originally published this summer. Updated with new information on Catalina.