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macOS 12 Monterey review (hands on)

FaceTime gets perks while Safari looks different

macOS 12 Monterey review
(Image: © Future)

Our Verdict

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

For

  • Live Text is awesome
  • Notes gets more complete
  • FaceTime SharePlay is the watch party we need
  • Safari Tab Groups is a useful upgrade

Against

  • Waiting on Universal Control
  • Safari's interface changes may irk some

This year, macOS 12 Monterey arrives after Apple changed a whole lot about its desktop operating system's aesthetic. Brighter, with new controls seen in iOS and iPadOS, the Mac's overall look changed dramatically last year.

And so this hands-on macOS 12 review will explain how Apple's adding lots of smarts to go with that new coat of paint. Live Text helps throughout the entire system, the Notes app is more capable than ever, and FaceTime's SharePlay and calls with Windows and Android users are neat (but sadly, some will probably just stick with Zoom). 

That said, we're still waiting for Apple to add the cool-looking Universal Control feature to the macOS betas, and some of the changes to Safari may not please all.

macOS 12 review: Release dates

The macOS 12 Monterey public beta came out today, July 1. This is the first day of the "July" window Apple promised for public betas, so clearly they're all about being productive this year. 

There will be more betas coming out throughout the year, and the final general releases will come this fall, likely accompanied by more new Macs to run macOS 12 on.

macOS 12 review: Stability and bugginess

I've been running the macOS 12 Public Beta on a spare MacBook Air 2020 with M1 chip, and so far I keep forgetting that it's a beta. That said, I haven't yet pushed this beta to its limits by installing it on my primary work computer (for reasons unrelated to this article).

This falls in line with my general advice around betas. We don't know how they will work with third-party software, and what bugs may arise. So, don't install the macOS 12 public beta on a system you rely on for your job or work. That's inviting a bad time into your life. 

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.

macOS 12 Monterey review: Notes

(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.

macOS 12 Monterey review: facetime settings

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. 

macOS 12 Monterey review

(Image credit: Future)

The other big change coming to FaceTime is SharePlay, which lets you watch or listen to video and audio streams that are simultaneous for both callers. 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.

And since Apple has months before this OS has to ship, I bet they'll be able to improve one (if not both) of these annoyances.

macOS 12 review: Safari's going through changes

Safari has changed a lot since its last major update, and these changes may take some getting used to. Tabs no longer sit below your bookmarks, but instead up above them, next to the URL field. And that's practically the smallest change. 

The 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).

macOS 12 Monterey review

(Image credit: Apple)

And then there's the curious case of the navigation buttons. The Back and Forward buttons will disappear if there's no page to go "back" or "forward" to, while the Reload button isn't visible unless your cursor hovers over the space where it's supposed to be. There's also a Reload option in the URL bar's "..." menu.

All of these decisions seem to stem from an understandable idea: make the web page you're viewing the center of attention. Removing the tabs bar gives you more vertical space, and removing icons when they're not necessary gives you more space for the tabs that live up there. That said, I wonder what the average user will say when they download macOS 12 and wonder where their Reload button went. Power users will still likely opt for Command+R, so it's not a huge deal for us. 

macOS 12 Monterey review

(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.

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 in the macOS 12 betas. 

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: Outlook

We don't give starred ratings to beta versions of software for a very good reason: it's not final or complete, so it's not the time to pass judgement. And that's especially true here when macOS 12 is missing one of its coolest features: Universal Control.

Personally, I can't upgrade my own MacBook Pro to macOS 12 — it's a 2012 MacBook Pro that stopped getting OS updates last year. But once I get a new Mac, I'll be happy to see most of the changes in macOS 12. And I'll be thankful that Apple is letting us turn off Safari's chameleon-like ability to change its colors. So see this hands-on macOS 12 review as a living document, much like a shared note. Once we see more of its features in action, we'll be ready to let you know how they work. 

Henry T. Casey

Henry is an editor writer at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and Apple. Prior to joining Tom's Guide — where he's the self-described Rare Oreo Expert — he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. You can find him at your local pro wrestling events, and looking for the headphone adapter that he unplugged from his iPhone.