Living dangerously: Trying out the Apple beta software

The new Apple beta software has been made available earlier to the public. — Picture courtesy of Apple
The new Apple beta software has been made available earlier to the public. — Picture courtesy of Apple

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KUALA LUMPUR, July 31 — Apple recently announced the new versions of the software for all its devices. This time around, a public beta of the new versions were made available earlier, giving more people a chance to try out and test MacOS Big Sur, iOS 14, iPadOS 14, watchOS 7 and tvOS 14.

The only beta I skipped was tvOS 14 as it didn’t include enough changes that felt exciting enough to test.

In truth I didn’t wait for the public beta as there were links to the developer betas floating around on the internet which made the endeavour a little riskier but it gave me more time to play with the devices.

Developer betas are usually hard to access as you need either a developer account (I’m too poor for one) or very select media.

It made more sense to just install everything and see if the new versions felt like an upgrade or were substantially buggy enough to make me want to uninstall them as soon as I could.

Living with MacOS Big Sur

MacOS Big Sur has some noticeable UI tweaks that lend even more polish to an operating system that is still the best-looking of all the ones in use right now.

The icons have been resized to take up less space and look more refined. Of course there’s a new wallpaper as well so you could say the look and feel of Big Sur is certainly an upgrade.

I wasn’t quite impressed with the last MacOS, Catalina, and I found trying to use Sidecar, a way to mirror MacOS onto other displays and the iPad, a frustrating endeavour that would cause the test Macs’ fans to go on overdrive.

Sidecar seems to work more smoothly this time around and I also found it much easier to sync the AirPlay Display with my smart TV.

There was also the matter of some of my apps breaking with Catalina and I found that most apps this time around played well with Big Sur.

One exception was Mozilla Firefox — sound did not work in Big Sur and neither did video. The only workaround was to download the special Mozilla Developers Edition that would receive earlier updates than the standard version.

Safari, like other apps such as the tweaked Music app (now with a red background instead of white) saw a tweaked interface and feels faster as compared to previous version.

What I was not crazy about was the removal of the Network Utility app. Should I want to use any of its former functionalities, I would need to use Terminal commands instead.

Apple suggests its Wireless Diagnostics app as an alternative to troubleshoot wi-fi issues but I have always found the app inadequate as its functionality was limited, much like talking to a telco customer service person reading from a script.

Experience-wise I think it is a big step up from Catalina, which I was less thrilled by. Now if only Apple would tweak the cooling and startup times on its Macs. It doesn’t make sense to me that whether I’m testing the MacBook Pro or the Air, startup takes way too long and the cooling fans are ridiculously loud.

Would I recommend updating once it goes live for everyone? I would with a caveat — make sure that your current apps are compatible. While I did not notice performance slowdowns with the new update I am not sure if machines older than 2017 would not.

iOS 14

iOS 14 is the one beta I would hesitate to recommend. While it works for the most part, it is rather buggy.

UI-wise, like Big Sur, iOS 14 certainly is more refined. I like the new App Library that takes up a display pane as it makes it easier to keep track of or search for your apps — certainly useful for an app junkie like me with about 500 apps or so.

The new widgets are also fairly handy and more polished — I like being able to scroll through the top widget to look at multiple app widgets rather than having to scroll down the screen.

For developers, Apple Clips allows little snippets of apps that will give users a preview of an app’s functionality without needing to install the full app.

The bugs I found were the one where iOS would consistently notify me it had pasted something — this was an unfortunate result of my using the copy/paste function between devices. Even when I had not pasted something into an app, I would get the notification.

My phone would also consistently lose network signal. I am fairly sure it has nothing to do with my telco because it was fine before I switched to the iOS 14 beta.

It was easily fixed by turning mobile data on and off but it did prove annoying to be always checking my network reception

At times, the widget screen would freeze and not allow me to use iOS Spotlight. It went back to normal after a few hours despite my not restarting it.

Still my favourite feature is how the call notification is now a small widget instead of taking up the entire screen. This means calls won’t interrupt me in the middle of other actions and that is probably well worth installing the beta.

WatchOS 7

I confess I mainly installed the WatchOS 7 beta for the new watch faces. The new Chronograph Pro is pretty — with an integrated tachymeter which sadly I couldn’t put to much use since we are living in a pandemic after all.

The larger X-Large face with a rich complication option will be of interest to those who liked the original X-Large face though I found the option to add filters to the Photos face rather amusing.

As for the much touted Handwashing feature, it got a bit annoying after the first few days but what I find more annoying is there isn’t a quicker way to activate or deactivate it from the screen.

Instead, to turn it on you need to go to Settings and then scroll all the way down to the Handwashing option. If you want people to use it, make it less fiddly to turn off, that’s my reasoning.

The Health app also has a prompt to enable the hand washing feature but I find it curious why they didn’t put in the Watch app instead.

Now, the new Sleep option is an interesting mode for people who want to improve their sleep hygiene. In Settings, you need to let the Watch know your wakeup time and to ensure you get your eight hours of sleep, the Watch will prompt you an hour before bedtime.

This is actually rather smart — letting you prepare in the hour before you sleep gives you more time to wind down. You can also set shortcuts as well as apps on the Home Screen to aid your sleep routine.

I did not see any decrease in performance or battery life and unlike the other betas, I have not encountered any annoying bugs.

iPadOS 14

The iPad for me has always been the easiest device to recommend. With iPadOS 14, I can continue to recommend the tablet and the best feature for me is of course the Scribble function.

Scribble makes the Pencil far more useful with its handwriting recognition and ability to just write into search bars, as well as the more intuitive shortcuts such as a quick scratch motion to delete entries.

I’ve often used a paper notebook alongside the iPad but I have less reason to do so these days as the Pencil is no longer relegated to my very terrible Procreate sketches.

Scribble along with Notes makes the iPad a handy little sketchpad of sorts — you can handwrite your notes and in the Notes app select your handwriting and re-paste it as typed text.

With the better Apple Pencil integration you can now draw elegant shapes in Notes so your hastily drawn circle will be smoothed as will other recognised geometric shapes.

Though typing is more efficient, especially if, like me, you’re transcribing interviews as you go along, in spaces where the flat keyboard cover might not be ideal, being able to write more legibly on the iPad is genuinely useful.

Again I find the interface and design tweaks pleasing. All the sidebars give it more of a Mac feel and you can see the subtle changes in Music, File and Photos.

While iPadOS 14 isn’t a big departure it just makes the case for getting an iPad, any iPad, stronger, especially paired with the Apple Pencil.

None of my machines have died!

The test devices have all survived my curious try-outs of the Apple beta software though the iPhone heats up faster and more considerably than it has before I installed the beta.

I haven’t needed to adjust my workflow nor have the betas impeded my ability to use the devices in any way.

However I would say that for most people it would be a wiser choice to wait for the more polished final releases and to, of course, make backups before you do. I look forward to the final version if only to have people chiding me, asking “Why cannot reach your phone ah?”

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