MacOS Catalina review: Mac goes pro, makes iPad a partner

After languishing in the shadow of iPhone and iPad for over a decade, the Mac gets a wave of upgrades and a renewed identity.

Jason Hiner VP of Content, CNET Labs; Editor in Chief, ZDNET
Jason is Vice President of Content for CNET Labs and the Editor in Chief of ZDNET. From CNET's world-class testing facilities, the CNET Labs team designs tests to quantify the best products worth buying.
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Jason Hiner
10 min read
Screenshot by Jason Hiner/CNET

If you've been a fan of the Mac during the past decade, you've probably felt like a kid who had been an only child until their parents surprised everyone by having a baby late in life. But, this wasn't just any new baby. The little wunderkind went on to become a straight-A student, a sports star and a decent human being loved by everyone in the community. Every once in a while, people remember that the kid has an older sibling -- who they admit is pretty cool, too. That's the Mac. 

But, after more than a decade of living in the shadow of the iPhone , the Mac is having a comeback year in 2019. At WWDC in June, Apple not only unveiled the next generation of Mac software -- MacOS 10.15 Catalina -- but also announced a new Mac Pro with the kind of eye-popping specs that professionals have all but begged Apple to make for years. Apple paired it with a matching Pro Display XDR, with even more impressive features. Both products start at $5,999 and are aimed at the highest of high-end creators, like special effects artists, animators and movie studios. 

For the people who love the Mac, that's a breath of fresh air -- even if they'll never be able to afford a Mac Pro or an Apple Pro Display XDR -- because it means that Apple is treating the Mac like a professional again. And, they hope that means the Macs they can afford, such as the MacBook Air , MacBook Pro , iMac and Mac Mini are going to get better and more productive, too.

And that brings us to the new MacOS Catalina , which is now available as a free download. Apple needed a pro-level software upgrade to go with the pro-level hardware it showed off in the spring. And yet, the most notable thing to happen to the Mac in recent years were the four uninspiring iPad apps that Apple ported to the Mac in 2018 -- Apple News, Stocks, Voice Memos and Home. None of them were very Mac-like, and they didn't give anyone much confidence that Apple was invested in the Mac. 

Watch this: The top 3 upgrades in MacOS Catalina

However, Catalina changes the narrative. It makes the Mac feels more "pro" again. It gives the impression that Apple has decided the future of MacOS isn't to make it more and more like iOS . Apple looks content to let MacOS be its own platform aimed at people who are laser-focused on getting important work done. And that's a win for people who rely on Macs every day to be productive and creative.

After years of fearing that Apple was trying to push everyone to do their work on iPads instead of Macs and might slowly phase out traditional computers, Mac users can take comfort in the fact that Catalina settles the Mac into a solid -- albeit specialized -- place in the Apple universe. Apple's ecosystem has matured to a point where the iPad and the Mac can coexist peacefully. 

But, here's the greatest irony of Catalina, an upgrade that heralds the Mac's re-emergence as an independent platform: several of its biggest advancements are tied to a new, closer partnership with the iPad. We'll talk more about that in a minute. Just know that the new special relationship between the Mac and iPad enhances the Mac's redefined role in the Apple universe.

Now, let's dig into the five most important upgrades in Catalina. Then, we'll finish off with a lightning round of other notable changes and dig into whether you should install Catalina on your Mac. 

1. The end of iTunes

One of the most common complaints among Mac users for over a decade has been how bloated and unwieldy iTunes had become, as Apple piled movies, TV shows, audiobooks, iPhone backups and more into an app that was named for its original purpose as a digital music player. A 2015 headline from The Atlantic declared, "iTunes Really Is That Bad."

With Catalina, Apple has finally broken up its digital media juggernaut on the Mac into four separate apps -- Music, Podcasts, TV and Books -- along with new functionality in the Finder to handle device management and backups when you have your iPhone or iPad plugged into your Mac.

The interface of iTunes had gotten very complicated and confusing when trying to switch between music, movies and other forms of media. The new, separate apps are simple and sparse, but generally consistent and usable. If you were worried that CDs you burned or other digital media files you imported into iTunes would get lost or mangled in the conversion to Catalina, the good news is that all of that stuff seems to be handled pretty well. It's just in new places. 

Still, expect a little bit weirdness here and there, and some bugs that still need to be ironed out. For example, I added a new spoken word track to Books, where I wanted to treat it like an audiobook and sync to iPhone where I could listen to it from the iOS Books app, like other audiobooks. But when I went to edit the metadata (author, name of the tracks, etc.) on the Mac version fo the new Books app, I discovered that I couldn't edit the metadata there, but had to go into the Music app and edit it the same way I used to have to in iTunes when audiobooks were still part of that app. This is a rare scenario, but it shows there are still some frayed edges with the new apps that are replacing iTunes.


The iTunes app has diverged into the Music, Podcasts, TV (and Books) apps. 

James Martin/CNET

2. iPad apps on the Mac (a.k.a. Catalyst)

Another one of the biggest fear factors for Mac users with the arrival of Catalina has been the new framework for developers to bring iPad apps to the Mac. You may have previously heard this referred to by the codename Marzipan, but Apple officially named it Project Catalyst at WWDC 2019. 

The fear was that a bunch of low-quality iPad apps that were not optimized for the Mac would flood the Mac App Store, and native apps optimized for the Mac would get lost in the deluge. This perception wasn't helped by the fact that those first four iOS apps released by Apple for the Mac last year weren't very good and were not well received by Mac users. 

However, a year has made a big difference (though those original four apps still need fixing). The biggest testament to how far Catalyst has come is the Podcasts app. It's a Catalyst port of the iPad app, but has been modified with native Mac menus and look-and-feel. It also has a nice consistency with the Music, TV and Books apps, which are native Mac apps. 

Catalyst is also bringing a bunch of quality iPad apps that could potentially be welcomed by Mac users, including Twitter, TripIt, Rosetta Stone, Vectornator, Zoho Books, GoodNotes, Carrot Weather, Jira Cloud, DC Universe, Pluto TV and Asphalt 9. These all look like they are attempting to be good Mac citizens, even if they still retain a bit of iPad-ness in their look-and-feel. 

At launch, about 20 iPad apps had launched on MacOS Catalina while several of the most anticipated ones like Twitter and DC Universe were still in development. 

Screenshot by Alexandra Able/CNET

3. iPad as Mac display (a.k.a. Sidecar)

While apps such as Duet Display have allowed users to turn their iPads into extra external monitors for Mac (or Windows) machines for years, Apple decided to add this as a built-in feature of the operating system in Catalina. Of course, it only works between Apple devices in this case. 

It's very easy to connect using the Displays setting on your Mac running Catalina (Pro tip: go into Display in Settings on your Mac and check the box to show displays in the menu bar, if you want easy access to this feature). 

The Sidecar feature works well, is very responsive and generally acts as expected. I have to admit that I didn't find it all that useful, though, especially when connected to a desktop with a full-sized monitor. Others might find it more useful to have a single app open on a small side screen like this -- perhaps something like Slack or a real-time analytics dashboard. I suspect dual screen desktop lovers who want to use the iPad as a second display for their MacBook when traveling could also be fans of this new feature.

4. iPad as a Mac drawing tablet

Even though it will only be used by a small subset of users, the most impressive part of Sidecar is how it works when you use an Apple Pencil with an iPad that's connected via Sidecar. It essentially turns the iPad into a drawing tablet where users can write and draw with the Apple Pencil on the iPad in Mac apps that already support stylus input, such as Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop and Maya from Autodesk.

With the new iPadOS now decreasing Apple Pencil latency to 9ms (down from 20ms), the combination of the powers of the iPad and the Mac in this new feature will likely be one of the most welcome new additions in Catalina for creatives. 


5. Apple Arcade makes the Mac a gaming platform

The Mac has been a gaming platform for a long time. I remember playing Microsoft Flight Simulator, Prince of Persia and Scarab or Ra on a Mac Classic as a teenager in the early 1990s. But in recent years, Windows PCs have been the computer platform of choice for most gamers -- for a lot of different reasons, but mostly because that was where the best gaming hardware and software could be found.

That's not likely to change anytime soon. But, Catalina comes with access to Apple Arcade, the $4.99 per month service that promises a library of 100 games across iPhone, iPad, Apple TV and Mac for your entire family (up to six of you). With Catalina, the Mac also gets the ability to connect a PS4 or Xbox One controller. Arcade opens up its whole library of games to Mac users. Combined with the TV app, which has a very similar look-and-feel to the iPad and Apple TV versions, this makes the Mac more capable as an entertainment device -- and travelers are likely to welcome that. It might even allow some of them to carry only a Mac and no tablet when they go on the road.

Apple Arcade on MacOS Catalina

Apple Arcade comes to the Mac in Catalina.

Screenshot by Jason Hiner/CNET

Additional upgrades

Security and privacy changes -- Apple has done a lot of under-the-hood work to make Catalina more difficult for attackers to compromise, even if they do trick users into opening bad links. It also introduced Sign In with Apple to protect your email address and your identity from apps and services you sign up for.

Voice Control -- To make the Mac a better platform for users with visual, motor or other limitations, this greatly expanded feature allows a Mac to be fully controlled by voice commands. It's been attempted by others in the past, but Apple has taken a comprehensive approach and fully baked it into the operating system. 

iCloud Drive shared folders -- After doing a lot of improvements to make iCloud Drive more usable in recent years, Apple is now tackling folder sharing in Catalina. It's a step in the right direction, but it's still not a Dropbox, Box or Google Drive replacement. [Note: After a buggy experience in beta, this feature has now been delayed until spring 2020.]

Screen Time -- This popular new feature on iPhone and iPad comes to the Mac in Catalina, and lets you tie it all together across platforms. Parents of younger Mac users will thank Apple for this one.

Notes and Reminders -- Both of these daily usage apps get big overhauls in Catalina as well as in iOS 13. However, keep an eye out for bugs in syncing with devices using older versions of these apps on MacOS or iOS. 

Find My -- The mashup that now lets you locate friends and family as well as all your Apple devices from one app is now accessible from your laptop or desktop. This is more handy than expected.

QuickTime -- The old school QuickTime app gets a nice little upgrade with Picture-in-Picture capabilities, and adds pro-level features such as a new Movie Inspector that lets you see all the technical details of video files.

Photos -- The same iOS 13 upgrade that will attempt to surface older photos and make automatic albums from your past pictures is also coming to Catalina.

Mail -- Apple added new features like blocking senders, muting threads and unsubscribing from newsletters. Still, if you want email power user features, you're better off sticking with Gmail or Microsoft Outlook.

Photos app in Catalina

The new Photos app in Catalina tries make new, automatic albums from your past pictures.


Should you download Catalina?

If there is one of these new features that you're ready to start using right away, then Catalina is likely worth the download. For example, if you're a designer and you want the new drawing capabilities of Sidecar to use in Adobe Illustrator or your family has already purchased Apple Arcade and you want to be able to use it from your Mac, then those are good reasons to jump into Catalina. 

An important caveat is that Catalina ends support for 32-bit apps, so if you still rely on any older Mac apps then make sure you upgrade them or find alternatives before you update to the new MacOS. DJs and entertainers should also wait before upgrading to Catalina since DJ apps often use XML files to manage massive music libraries. Catalina's move from iTunes to the new Music app changes the library format and XML libraries are no longer supported, Apple told the Verge. Creative professionals who use Adobe Creative Suite may also want to wait before upgrading to Catalina, as Photoshop incompatibility issues have popped up as well. 

If none of these things apply to you but you have a general sense that you'd like to try out what's in Catalina, then I'd recommend waiting for until after Catalina's first few incremental updates. That will keep you on a stable system that's more bug-free. Catalina is fairly stable, especially compared to the early releases of iOS 13 and iPadOS this year, but waiting for the first updates is always safe advice for operating system upgrades. Don't put this on the machine you use to make money yet, but you can certainly load it on a secondary machine or an older Mac that you still keep around -- so you can get a taste of the Mac's future.

Speaking of which Macs you can install Catalina on, here's the official model list from Apple: MacBook Air (Mid 2012 or later), MacBook Pro (Mid 2012 or later), MacBook (Early 2015 or later), iMac (Late 2012 or later), iMac Pro (2017), Mac Pro (Late 2013 or later), and Mac Mini (Late 2012 or later). 

Originally published with the launch of Catalina. Regularly updated with new information and testing.

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