macOS 12 Monterey review: Should you download?

LiveText is a marquee feature of Monterey

MacOS Monterey running on the 14-inch MacBook Pro 2021
(Image: © Henry T. Casey)

Tom's Guide Verdict

Our time with the macOS 12 Monterey betas shows an update with potential.

Pros

  • +

    Live Text is awesome

  • +

    Notes gets more complete

  • +

    Safari Tab Groups is a useful upgrade

  • +

    Safari's bad changes got rejected

Cons

  • -

    Waiting on Universal Control

  • -

    FaceTime SharePlay also M.I.A.

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Today, macOS 12 Monterey is here and while it's missing some of the big features we waited for, it's still one of the best Mac upgrades in years. Brighter, with new controls seen in iOS and iPadOS, the Mac's overall look changed dramatically last year.

And so this macOS 12 review will explain how Apple's adding lots of smarts to go with that new coat of paint. Primarily, those upgrades come in the nifty Live Text, while the Notes app is more capable than ever. But while FaceTime's updates are neat, they're not all here.

That said, we're still waiting for Apple to add the cool-looking Universal Control feature to macOS. It's currently available in beta form, and we expect the full rollout to come shortly. 

macOS 12 review: Release dates

macOS 12 Monterey shipped on October 25, 2021. A lot has happened since the public beta came out July 1, and through subsequent updates during the summer, Safari got slightly fixed back to where it should be. The final version arrived alongside the MacBook Pro 2021 (14-inch) and MacBook Pro 2021 (16-inch).

In terms of stability, during my time running the macOS 12 Public Beta on a spare MacBook Air 2020 with M1 chip over the last month, I kept forgetting that it's a beta. 

That said, bugs are inevitable, so if you're worried about a new software update slowing down your workflow, it doesn't hurt to wait until you've heard that the apps you love run on macOS 12 before you download. That gives you the opportunity to see if other folks are running into trouble with this update.

macOS 12 review: Compatibility and supported devices 

Apple's full list of approved and supported Macs for macOS 12 is below. Support dates back to 2013's Mac Pros. 

  • iMac: Late 2015 and later
  • Mac Pro: Late 2013 and later
  • iMac Pro: 2017 and later
  • Mac mini: Late 2014 and later
  • MacBook Air: Early 2015 and later
  • MacBook: Early 2016 and later
  • MacBook Pro: Early 2015 and later

macOS 12 review: New features found on iOS 15 and iPadOS 15

Apple's rolling out a lot of new features across multiple operating system updates due out this fall, so macOS 12 Monterey gets to be just like iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 in a few ways. 

My favorite, without a doubt, is Live Text. In Photos and Preview, among other apps, you can now select text from images, just as if you were using a document or PDF. This is Apple's AI magic at work, and it just works. For example, I could highlight text on a shirt I own that I took a photo of, or the nutrition label from a bottle. To see your cursor become a text select tool when you move it over text in an image is a sight to see. 

Also, images and links that you've been sent by others will now have their own sections in Photos, Safari, Apple News and other applications. Just look for the Shared With You section, as it's an easy way to find that thing someone sent that you can't find, or to take a trip down memory lane in photos.

Notes and Safari in macOS 12 Monterey

(Image credit: Apple)

Notes is also getting super-charged with two new features seen in iOS and iPadOS. My favorite is Quick Notes, which allows you to write notes while using other applications on the iPad, and can easily add links and quoted text from Safari to. I've used it for trying to make sense about the new and differentiated recommendations about face masks and social distancing from the WHO and CDC. Notes also now lets you organize your notes by using hashtag-tagged terms, so every note I have with #reviews in it is easily collected for future searching. There's also an Activity tracking section for shared notes, much like Google Docs.

There's also a new set of do not disturb modes that you yourself can customize, called Focuses. Each lets you pick a list of people and apps that you will let disturb your peace. Worried about missing a message? Focuses show others the status you have up, and in FaceTime they'll even let people have the option to break through your Focus filters if it's important. For example, texting my friend Caitlin (who is also testing these betas), I saw her Focus in Messages and had to click "Notify Anyways" to try and get her attention.

macOS 12 review: FaceTime upgrades galore

There are two pieces of big news around FaceTime video calls in macOS 12 Monterey and Apple's other platforms, starting with the fact that it's coming to Android and Windows. Except it's not getting an app, just a web view. 

While I eventually got things to work right with FaceTime calls between a MacBook Air M1 and both Windows and Android, there were some hiccups along the way. One colleague's video feed got very choppy, though he blamed it on his bad internet. Since this is a beta, and I'm not ruling anything out, I decided to call up Jackie, a friend with a more stable connection. Everything looked and sounded great for me on our call, though they said my voice sounded "soft." So I turned on the Voice Isolation setting in Control Center (found under Mic Mode), and that made everything crystal clear.

Voice settings in macOS 12 Monterey

Sound soft on a call? Look for the Voice Isolation setting. (Image credit: Apple)

The one weird part of these calls was that I wasn't seeing obvious signs that my friends were on the line. If you don't have the left-side menu open, you may not see the person trying to join your call, and it's on me to notice a red dot on the menu button. Clicking that opens up the option to let said caller into the FaceTime call. 

SharePlay running in macOS 12 Monterey, when it worked

SharePlay, seen here, is not active in macOS 12 right now. (Image credit: Future)

The other big change coming to FaceTime will be SharePlay, which lets you watch or listen to video and audio streams that are simultaneous for both callers. I tested it earlier this year, before Apple removed it from the betas. 

Watching a Ted Lasso episode with my friend Caitlin, I noticed everything look crystal clear, but I wished the video from the FaceTime call and the Apple TV app windows were aware of each other. You either have to lay one over the other, or reduce the size of both so they can sit side by side. When I tested this feature on iPadOS 15, the apps were more aware of each other, with FaceTime bubbles appearing off to the corner. That said, SharePlay is missing Netflix support at the moment, and that's no good.

iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 debuted last month without the SharePlay feature in place. Apple was taking more time to iron out some of the issues, and it's appeared in betas for the phone and tablet software. We tried to find it in the latest beta releases in the middle of October 2021, but it was not there.

macOS 12 review: Safari's going through changes

Safari has changed a lot since its last major update, and after users complained, Apple took that that debate into consideration. So, there are two new ways of using Safari. The Standard view keeps things as they were, while the Compact view brings your tabs up, to alongside the URL field. 

In Compact view, the Back and Forward buttons will disappear if there's no page to go "back" or "forward" to. This is logical, as you don't have as much horizontal space there if your tabs are taking up that space. I'm sticking with Standard.

The other most immediately noticeable difference is found in the overall interface of Safari, which adjusts to take on the color of the web page you're viewing. For CNN it goes all-black, which is neat. But for Tom's Guide and TweetDeck, it takes on a very bright blue that's a bit much. Some may find this change to be an upgrade, like a curved ultra-wide monitor meant to immerse you in your content. I immediately looked for a way to turn it off (Settings > Advanced > uncheck Show color in tab bar).

Safari in macOS 12 Monterey

(Image credit: Apple)

Safari with Tab groups in macOS 12 Monterey

(Image credit: Apple)

Safari's also added Tab Groups, a really cool idea I didn't get at first. A tab group sounds like a bookmark folder, but it's instead a way to not worry about closing your windows. I could have used this back when I was planning my summer trip to Las Vegas. With a Tab Group, you can basically take a window full of open tabs, and tell Safari to save this group of tabs as they are; you can even adjust the pages in the Tab Group as you move to different sites. That way, I could have had tabs for flights, hotels, and other ideas all saved and ready for me to go back to.

Think of Tag Groups as browser windows that stay concurrent in the cloud.

macOS 12 review: Universal Control not here yet

I really want to tell you about Universal Control, a new feature that lets you control up to 3 iPads and Macs with the same keyboard and mouse. Sadly, that feature is not available yet. And it doesn't appear to be coming in time for the Oct. 25 release.

I will update this story once I can start testing it, but I'll admit I already have one (personal) frustration with it. I want this feature to be able to work even if the devices in question are not on the same Apple ID (the one big asterisk) as my work computer can't have my personal Apple ID on it. 

macOS 12 review: Shortcuts is on the Mac

The automation crowd is plenty happy that macOS is getting the Shortcuts application that iOS and iPadOS have had for years. I'm not a part of that crowd, and I don't see myself joining them even with this app. 

The built-in gallery of Shortcuts has some ideas that may seem novel to some, but it doesn't quite speak to me. Then again, I'm the type to not believe in Smart Home tech, so i wonder if it's not for me at all. 

macOS 12 review: Bottom line

As this macOS 12 Monterey review has shown, this update has some cool stuff to talk about (Live Text rules), but it's also lacking two big features that were announced for it. That said, Monterey is here, even if Universal Control and SharePlay aren't.

I expect I'll get the same "should I upgrade?" questions from friends and family that I get every year. And this year I have a big reason to tell them they should (the aforementioned Live Text). People have plenty of reasons to wait, but this time there's something cool that should make people happy to update.

Henry T. Casey
Senior Editor

Henry is a senior editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.