A free upgrade every Mac user should download

From new Continuity features to smaller, useful tweaks across core apps, Mac OS X Yosemite is a must download for Mac users.

Jason Parker Senior Editor / Reviews - Software
Jason Parker has been at CNET for nearly 15 years. He is the senior editor in charge of iOS software and has become an expert reviewer of the software that runs on each new Apple device. He now spends most of his time covering Apple iOS releases and third-party apps.
Jason Parker
13 min read

Late 2016 update

Since releasing Mac OS X Yosemite in October 2014, Apple has delivered two new versions of its desktop operating system -- El Capitan in 2015 and Sierra in 2016 -- and changed its nomenclature. Now known as MacOS, the newest variant comes equipped with features inspired by the iOS mobile software or designed to help Macs work better with iOS products, adding further incentive to keep your hardware inside Apple's walled garden, which includes the iPhone, Apple Watch and Mac computers. (Read the full MacOS Sierra review here.)

In November 2016, the company refreshed its lineup of 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros. Considerably slimmer, faster and pricier than its predecessors, the new models feature some innovative flourishes -- most notably, Apple's dynamic Touch Bar. There's also a less expensive 13-inch model without the Touch Bar.

The common theme among the MacOS Sierra release and the new MacBook models is a greater emphasis on usability and productivity, rather than performance per se. Exhibit A: the Touch Bar, a mini display that runs along the top of the keyboard that provides different icons and options for different apps. Sliders, hot keys and function buttons emerge on the fly as needed.

In addition to leveraging the TouchBar, the newest version of Sierra (release 12.10.1), for the first time integrates Apple's voice-enabled assistant, Siri, with the Mac operating system. It provides new ways to share across and synchronize Apple devices, and brings Apple Pay to the desktop. Bottom line: If your hardware can support the new version of MacOS -- here's a list of supported systems -- it's totally worth the free upgrade.

Editors' note, November 22, 2016: The original Apple Mac OS X Yosemite review, first published in October 2014, follows.

Yosemite gives your Mac a new look and new features (pictures)

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With its latest operating system, Apple is making all of its devices work more closely together, adding continuity features via iOS 8.1 that let you "handoff" a project or phone call from one device to the next. But it's also adding tons of refinements to streamline your everyday computing with a more rich Notifications center and Spotlight searches that access information on the Web. Along with the major feature refinements, a new flatter interface design emerges that takes lessons from iOS 7, but manages to remain a unique experience for desktops and laptops.

What results from this mix of new features and reworked design aesthetics is a free Mac OS upgrade that's more useful than previous versions with a modern feel that makes it the best Mac OS yet.

Now available at the Mac App Store for free, Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite was first announced at the Worldwide Developers Conference in June, and is the second update to be named after a place in Apple's home state of California, after last year's Mavericks.

New design

Yosemite's new design is the first thing you notice booting up for the first time. It's big on translucence and making search front and center. The windows and navigational elements, like the side bar, get translucent and dark, which gives the OS some edge. All of the icons are much flatter, moving the Mac OS X design scheme to be more inline with iOS 7. But don't assume it's a direct copy. Instead, it has a similar feel, but is clearly made for Macs, differentiating itself from other Apple devices.

Virtually every app, from the Menu bar to messages, showcases this slick new design. Calendar, for example, gets a new look for the week view, as well as new details in a view of the day's events at a glance. Safari gets a smaller translucent menubar that keeps all the functionality of Safari in Mavericks, letting you experience more of the Web content you're looking at. Even the Menu bar and system fonts have been replaced to give Yosemite a cleaner, more elegant feel.

When you compare the icons in the Dock in Mavericks (top) and Yosemite, you can see the flatter design. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Full screen apps get a very sensible upgrade in Yosemite, making the "stoplight" buttons work more efficiently. The red button still closes a window, and the yellow still minimizes it to the Dock. But the green button now toggles between full-screen apps and standard windows, making it a lot more logical than Mavericks that had the full-screen button in another area on the upper right.

In other words, the design changes are neither revolutionary nor are they a major shift like we had from iOS 6 to iOS 7, but the changes make Yosemite feel more modern, and its cleaned-up elements and new features help to streamline your workflow.

Notifications and widgets

The new Notification Center in Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite should be a lot more useful than before with the additions of both Today view and widgets.

It's true that Mac OS X Mavericks already had a notification center, with a slide-out window from the right you could access with a two-finger swipe on your trackpad or by clicking a button in the upper right. In Yosemite, you'll have the same functionality with all the usual updates, with the addition of the new Today view and widgets from Apple's core apps (and increasingly from third-party software as the OS matures), you'll have more information at your fingertips.

The Notification Center now has a Day View so you can quickly view your schedule at a glance. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

The Today view connects with your calendar, social networks, reminders, and more to give you a quick overview of your day. You can see meetings and appointments, any reminders you've set up in the Reminders app, the current weather in your location, and today's birthdays so you know who to send a message to. It's all done with a clean design that divides up each category sensibly so it's easy to read at a glance.

What makes the sidebar notification center even more useful is the addition of widgets. Formerly relegated to the Dashboard, you'll now be able to add core Apple widgets such as your calendar, weather, stocks, world clocks, social networks, a calculator, and reminders so you can interact with them directly without leaving the notification center.

All of these come included with Yosemite at launch. But there will also be several third-party developers adding their own widgets to the mix so you can quickly check out sports scores from ESPN, or get the latest CNN headlines customized to stories you care about.

Spotlight expands to the Web

Just as you clicked the magnifying glass in the upper right (or Command-spacebar) to search your hard drive in Mavericks, Spotlight in Yosemite uses the same controls to deliver local results on your hard drive, and now also finds relevant results from the Web.

When you search for a restaurant in Spotlight, you'll get photos, the phone number, the address and you can get directions through Apple Maps. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

As an example, searching for "Golden Gate Bridge" in Mavericks returns results in the upper right part of the screen from my connected email account and any other files or apps with that name on my hard drive. At the bottom of the search box there are options to search the Web or Wikipedia for Golden Gate Bridge, which opens Safari to load the results. Obviously performing a spotlight search for Golden Gate Bridge in Mavericks is not ideal because it only searches the hard drive, but it illustrates why Yosemite is so much more convenient.

In Yosemite, searching for Golden Gate Bridge gives you location-based results in Maps, news stories about the bridge, the associated Wikipedia entry, and any references to the bridge in your connected email accounts. A similar search on Google will get you much of the same information, but I have to admit it's pretty easy to hit command-spacebar and type in a location for a quick list of results.

What's more, when searching for a restaurant, Spotlight will display a map, address and phone number, plus you'll be able to use Yosemite's Handoff to call the number straight from your Mac.

Watch a quick video to see Spotlight in action

Continuity features and Handoff

Continuity features let you start work on one device then "handoff" to another and it lets you make calls directly from your Mac.

With handoff, you can start writing an email on your iPad and then switch over to your Mac. Your Mac automatically knows you were writing the email on a nearby device, and displays a notification in the lower left hand corner that lets you open the email straight away and continue writing from where you left off. Similarly, you could be working on a chart in Numbers on your Mac, then switch to your iPad, pull up from the notification in the lower left of the screen, and continue working on the chart on your iPad.

With Continuity, an incoming call on your iPhone will show up on your Mac where you can answer it on speakerphone. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

As I mentioned above, Continuity extends to your iPhone's calls and messages as well. When you receive a phone call on your iPhone, you'll be able to get caller ID and answer the call on your Mac as long as both devices are on the same Wi-Fi network. Once you're on a call and another call comes, you'll get a notification about the new call, along with an option to put your current call on hold to answer it; hang up and answer the new call; or add the person to a conference call with you on the other call.

Google users will recall you can do the same thing with Google Voice. Apple makes dialing and answering calls ubiquitous for all Yosemite users -- even from a Web page.

All of this happens using bluetooth and the same Wifi connection. But in my testing, I was pleasantly surprised by the features for call-waiting and conference calls, and can definitely see how this will be useful for just about anyone.

Watch a video that demonstrates Continuity features

Safari gets out of your way

As I mentioned earlier, new design elements across Yosemite attempt to put content first, and Safari is one of the best examples. The new toolbar at the top is much slimmer, but manages to keep all the tools you're used to from Mavericks. It also has the translucence found across all the Yosemite apps showing more of what's behind the tools giving you a better browsing experience.

Navigating Safari is easier too, letting you view all your tabs in stacks with Tab View and making it easier to find the site you want quickly. When you click in the search bar, all your favorite sites show up as icons just below so you can click immediately to go to sites you frequent.

The tab view in Safari makes it easy to find the Web site you're looking for. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Safari also finally gets a private browsing mode and you can isolate one tab for security. When you use a private browsing tab, your history isn't saved, your tabs aren't automatically passed over to other devices and all the data and associated cookies are deleted whenever you close that tab.

As another security precaution, Apple has made clearing your history much easier. When you clear your history, you'll have the option to erase just the last hour or the day to make sure, for example, that your wife's birthday present won't be easily searchable when you walk away from your computer.

Messages grows up

Apple's chat client got a few upgrades too. You'll now be able to carry on group conversations with several people and you can add a title to the conversation so it's easy to remember and find later.

You'll also be able to add more people on the fly without starting a new conversation. A details button in the upper right shows current people connected, and you can click Add Contact to add someone to your chat right away.

Perhaps the best thing about the new conversation tools is you can duck out of a conversation when the group gets a little too feisty. If you're suddenly busy and don't want all the notifications, you can go to the details and check a Do Not Disturb box. To leave the conversation entirely, you can touch a button at the bottom and check out immediately.

Messages lets you start group conversations, and offers a Do Not Disturb feature if it gets out of hand. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Another feature in Messages that's also true for iOS 8, is the ability to view all the attachments for a conversation. Instead of scrolling through the whole conversation to find a picture, for example, you can click the details button and scroll down to see all the images from that conversation in one place.

Messages also lets you add quick sound files when you truly want to laugh out loud and screen sharing for when you want to collaborate.

iCloud Drive and AirDrop

Apple's new updates prioritize cloud sharing and ease of use. There are changes to iCloud Drive that clean up pre-existing iCloud synchronization, adding in support for iOS, as well as Windows, surprisingly.

What Apple has done here is make iCloud Drive behave more like other cloud services, such as Dropbox and Google Drive. Instead of just being able to share iOS and Mac documents, as iCloud did before, you'll now be able to save and access any file from iCloud Drive, regardless of platform.

You can now use AirDrop between Macs and iOS devices. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Another new sharing feature has nothing to do with iCloud Drive, but is excellent alternative for moving files. With Yosemite, AirDrop will now work between iOS and a Mac...finally! You'll be able to share a file from an iPhone to someone nearby on a Mac, by simply dragging and dropping the file to the Mac user's icon, as well as in the opposite direction.

Mail Markup and sending big files

The Mail app has needed an upgrade for a long time, and Yosemite adds some features which move it in a better direction. Not only can you send encrypted messages in the native app, you can also mark up your emails, annotate images, comment, and add speech bubbles. It's clip-art meets email.

Use Mail Markup to annotate images or documents right before sending. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Even more exciting is the ability to send attachments up to 5GB in size to friends whose email clients can't normally accept them. Mail Drop fixes this with a drag and a drop, transferring your attachments to the cloud. From there your recipient can download up to 5GB in attachments, where most email clients limit attachment sizes on their own. What about friends who use a different client? No problem -- they can grab the files from iCloud Drive through a download link that's sent with the email.

Watch a video to see how Mail Markup works

iCloud Drive

With iCloud Drive Apple is changing it's cloud service to one that's more like standalone clients like Dropbox or Google Drive. With iCloud Drive you can now store any type of file (not just Apple app-made files) and even Windows users can take advantage of the free service.

Whatever the file is, you can put it in your iCloud Drive folder (accessed in favorites area of the Finder sidebar) and be able to access it from any of your devices. You'll be able to access and work with all your files even when you're offline, and once your Mac finds a connection, your files will be automatically synced back up.

Windows users will need to download iCloud for Windows. Once installed, Windows users will be able to access their files through Windows Explorer or they can use any Web browser to access iCloud.com.

Family Sharing

Family Sharing lets a family of up to six people share purchases from iBooks, iTunes, and the App Store without sharing accounts. You can share photos, a family calendar and more across all the devices within your family.

Probably the best feature is the ability for a parent to control what gets purchased on iTunes with a system that asks for permission when someone in the family wants to buy an app, book, or music.

Once a parent has set up Family Sharing, everyone will have access to everyone's iBooks, Apps, and music. The app sets up a shared family photo album where you can share photos and videos and make comments on your favorite memories, and all additions and changes will be synced to each of your family's devices.

You'll also be able to use a shared family calendar so everyone knows the rest of the family's schedule. You also can send out reminders to the family when you want to notify them of important events.

Photos app coming early next year

We got a sneak peek at the Photos app at WWDC in June, but Apple says it won't be available until 2015. The new app will let you share photos across devices. Promised features include improved scrolling, the ability to pinch out to collections and years, and more editing features. You'll be able to share and edit photos across all of your Apple devices thanks to iCloud.

Some complaints remain

I feel like I'm starting to sound like a broken record here, but I still wonder why some apps and features have seen no significant upgrades.

Launchpad is something I talked about when I reviewed Mavericks, because it seems like an iOS design element that's been shoe-horned into a desktop operating system. I can already click the apps folder in the Dock to get a pop-up window of app icons, and frankly I don't see how it's much different than Launchpad. To be fair, Launchpad has it's own search field so you can zero in on the app you want, but I still don't see the need for multiple ways to do the same thing.

The other app which seems to be going stale is Game Center. While I appreciate being able to view my games, friends, and use the platform for connecting to others, there just isn't much of a reason to ever open the app itself. Most games that use Game Center for connecting to others never require you to open the app, using the platform to connect in the background.

I still think Game Center needs something more to make it useful, such as the ability to see what my friends are playing right now, or a way to join up in a co-op situation. As is, I almost never look at the app and think Apple needs to come up with a way that makes it a fun and necessary tool for gamers.


Mac OS X Yosemite is a free upgrade that isn't going to completely change the way you use your computer, but the design refresh along with tons of refinements make it more than worth the time it takes to download.

What you're getting with this upgrade are more efficient ways of doing things (such as being better able to manage group conversations in Messages), while your desktop and mobile devices get more ways to work together (with Continuity and Handoff).

The launch of Yosemite comes at a time when Microsoft is starting to refine its OS experience with Windows 10. Where Yosemite mostly refines the features you already have, Windows 10 seems to still be trying to get the "OS anywhere" concept right. At this early stage, there's not much to talk about with Windows 10 due out sometime in the second half of next year, but from the technical preview we know the Smart Menu will finally make its return in a form that people will appreciate from earlier versions. In other words, Apple continues to push forward making current features better, while Microsoft seems to be correcting past mistakes.

Apple isn't perfect either, of course. There are still a couple of head-scratchers that haven't seen significant upgrades in some time, Launchpad and Game Center. But with so many features to better connect all your Apple devices, a new design that brings OS X into modern times, and several refined features that make common actions easier, Yosemite is still an upgrade you won't want to skip.