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Each year, Apple releases the first betas of its new operating systems at WWDC, and I brave the potentially bumpy install processes to let you know whether it’s safe to consider doing the same. That means I have to make the difficult decision of whether to install the earliest betas on my personal devices — I say yes to a given beta if there are new features that really interest me and I’m pretty confident that the installation won’t spend weeks wrecking my normal daily use of a given device.

After this year’s WWDC20 keynote, I knew that I wanted to install macOS Big Sur, iOS 14, and iPadOS 14 immediately, as each one included a few new things of serious interest. watchOS 7 was a comparative curiosity that I could either install or live without. And tvOS 14 barely registered on the radar.

I wound up putting four of the five new beta OSes on my daily driver devices, and have been using them for the last day so you don’t have to take the risk — or can jump in if you’re as intrigued as I was. Whether you’re a developer planning to dive into one or all of Apple’s platforms, or a business considering a move to or from Apple’s devices this year, here are the big takeaways for each platform.

macOS Big Sur

You can almost picture Apple’s fall 2020 marketing campaign already: “This OS goes to 11.” After 19 years of Mac OS X (restyled macOS 10) releases, the company finally pulled the trigger and officially moved macOS to version 11, a symbolically major step forward for the Mac platform. If you’re downloading the first beta, you might notice “macOS 10.16” references here and there, such as during the initial download or when third-party apps reference the OS version, but Apple has confirmed that it’s supposed to be macOS 11.

I’ve tested most of the macOS betas Apple has released over the years, and Big Sur is one of the most visually jarring — in generally good ways. It recalls the 2014-2015 releases of Yosemite and El Capitan (10.10-11), where Apple shifted Macs to the “flat” visual theme from iOS devices, and similarly feels decidedly different from the first moment it appears on screen. After spending hours with Big Sur, the differences turn out to be mostly skin deep, but it’s obvious that Apple really wants to unify its platforms behind a consistent design language at the same time as it’s debuting “Apple silicon” processors.

One welcome surprise: the return of icons with pre-iOS 7 3D depth and shading. I hated Apple’s shift to completely flat icons, and have felt for years that shadows were both a practical and beautiful way to make visual elements pop on 2D displays. Big Sur has refreshed many of the Mac’s icons with shadow details, and they almost all look better for the change.

Other OS-level tweaks to window corner radiuses give included apps a more bubbly feel, and introduce more of the translucent panes previously seen in iOS and macOS. Control Center on the Mac now resembles the iOS/iPadOS feature, albeit with better labeling and less reliance on icons alone to identify features.

Big Sur’s Finder feels like it’s been substantially rewritten ahead of the Intel to ARM transition, and could still be a work in progress. Icon spacing in the menu bar feels too loose, font sizes and line spacing are a little awkward (particularly when you switch display resolutions), and the title/icon bars for windows have been rebalanced in ways that feel foreign at first, but have clear space-saving intentions. Core apps such as Mail and Messages have similarly been rebuilt with the same benefits — greater iOS/iPadOS/macOS consistency — and spacing issues. Apple usually uses the beta cycle to fine tune macOS elements like these, so I’m cautiously optimistic that they’ll tighten up and improve by the time Big Sur goes final in the fall.

Safari is seemingly the core app that scored the deepest improvements in this year’s macOS release: Apple says it’s now 50% faster than Google’s Chrome, has a more privacy-focused sandbox for third-party extensions, and includes Privacy Report features that instantly reveal how websites are tracking you. A shield icon now appears prominently to the left of Safari’s address bar, in one click spotlighting the number of trackers, then revealing their names with a second click.

A circled “I” info button lets you see aggregated statistics across multiple sites, sorted either by the sites or the trackers, with statistics on how many sites are using the given trackers. Apple is apparently already blocking cross-site tracking across several networks, and using simple, clear markings to shame sites into reducing or eliminating their reliance on invasive tracking. We’ll have to see whether this initiative works, or just leads ad networks to develop new alternatives, which has historically been the case.

One last note on a big change that’s under the hood: Though there’s no way to test this yet, Big Sur will be the first version of macOS to include support for ARM CPUs — “Apple Silicon,” as it’s now being called — as well as the Rosetta 2 emulation system for running Intel Mac apps on ARM devices. You can get all the details in my earlier articles here and here.

As first developer betas go, macOS Big Sur is fairly typical in the stability department: If you want to install it, expect random crashes and the occasional rendering issue to interrupt regular workflows. I’ve experienced multiple crashes with Safari and Mail, but thus far no problems with third-party apps except for one from Google, which boots to a “fatal error” dialog box. Thanks to the redesign, even crash notifications look nice in Big Sur. Unless you’re a developer, my advice is to wait for the first public beta in July so you won’t see as many of them.

iOS 14 and iPadOS 14

Last year, Apple split iOS into two versions — iPadOS for iPads, and iOS for iPhones (and iPods). The stated reason was to give iPads the opportunity to grow as their own separate platform with features that wouldn’t necessarily come to iPhones, and although that was somewhat unsettling at the time, I heard through the grapevine that it was just marketing; branding aside, not much would actually change.

Fast forward a year to iOS 14 and iPadOS 14, and there’s even less of an obvious reason to have split the platforms than there was in 2019. They look the same, feel the same, and substantially do the same things. Virtually all of the new iOS features also came to iPadOS, and when Apple’s Craig Federighi separately introduced major new features in iPadOS, he noted that some of them were coming to iOS as well. My sense is that the iPhone/iPad division was really introduced to set 2019 consumer expectations about which platform’s apps would be easy to bring to macOS with Catalyst (iPad) and which ones wouldn’t (iPhone), thus requiring a new macOS (Big Sur) and chip platform (Apple Silicon).

That having been said, the single biggest change to iOS 14 is the addition of widgets — a feature that also exists in iPadOS 14, but has less of an impact. For those who may be unfamiliar with the concept, a widget is akin to a small window into a webpage, providing live or frequently updated information. They’ve historically been used to heighten productivity by offering a quick glance at package delivery status, news, stocks, or sports scores without taking you away from your device’s desktop or Home screen.

Widgets can occupy the square space of four icons, the rectangular space of eight icons, or the large square space of 16 icons — a user can pick the size (and corresponding amount of displayable information) that fits the desired space. On iOS, widgets can be inserted into the grid of any Home screen page. iPadOS 14 currently restricts widgets to the Today View sidebar introduced last year in version 13, a major bummer that will hopefully be resolved in a future update.

Widgets were a great idea on Mac OS X, well before they appeared on Android, and spent a decade as an embarrassingly persistent omission for iOS once they became common across Android home screens. The new iOS 14 implementation works — there aren’t many widgets yet to choose from, but they look nice, perform as expected, and even let you create scrollable stacks that can turn one widget-reserved block into a place to quickly check multiple widgets. They fold into iOS 14’s Home screens so effortlessly and plainly that one can only wonder why Apple waited so long to implement the feature. As better widgets emerge, I expect every iOS user will want to use them, and iPadOS users will envy the superior integration.

Another tentpole addition this year is a new app, Translate, which thus far only appears on iOS 14 beta. Gunning directly for the Google Translate app, Apple’s version provides access to 10 languages in addition to English, allowing users to type or speak phrases from one language to convert into another. Apple touts secure, on-device translation as an advantage, and enables users to look up individual words in a dictionary with only one tap. But Google’s app supports far more languages and also includes an option for offline translation, as well as handwriting recognition, camera-based text, and bidirectional conversational translations. iOS 14’s Translate is a nice new option, but feels like Apple brought a knife to a gun fight — it will be more interesting if and when the translation features are integrated into Safari.

By comparison with widgets and Translate, other cross iOS/iPadOS improvements fall largely into the “iterative” category. Messages has been updated with pinned conversations, threaded replies, and other features to make group conversations easier to manage. Most of the tweaks are so seamlessly integrated that they feel less substantial than they are; it’s easy to pin a conversation for easy future access, or quickly determine from an enlarged icon size which member of a group has most recently responded. Apple’s custom avatar feature, Memoji, was also upgraded with more customization options and preset “stickers,” though not as many new choices as kids (and some adults) might have hoped for.

iPadOS is getting one key improvement of its own this year, and that’s Scribble, an updated handler for Apple Pencil interactions. Scribble enables the iPad to instantly open Notes and begin taking drawing or writing input when the Lock screen is tapped with the Pencil, and also parses Pencil gestures more intelligently than before. You can scribble atop text to delete it, circle text to select it, separate or join words by drawing a line between them, and insert words by tapping and holding on an empty part of a text field.

Apple notes that handwriting recognition has been improved, and iPadOS can now identify and separately handle handwritten text within combined graphical/text notes. But the most important change is that the Pencil is becoming a persistent input solution — something users can continue holding to not only navigate the OS, but also to use for filling in text fields and switching between creating/editing content. As a longtime Pencil owner who has used the first- and second-generation versions less than I’ve wanted due to OS-level limitations, I’m looking forward to revisiting the accessory more deeply with the new Scribble features.

Apple is also adding slide-over sidebars to more iPad apps, building on a cross Mac-iPad feature that showed up in last year’s News app. Sidebars allow apps to fill the screen with content most of the time, eliminating bottom-of-screen tabs in favor of list-style selection choices that disappear whenever they’re not needed. It’s not exactly a world-changing feature, but gives iPad developers an easier route to port over Mac apps with left-side lists, and Mac developers a way to shoehorn laptop-like menus and feature depth into the tablet UI.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of all the changes to iOS and iPadOS; in addition to some forgettable new wallpapers, there are lots of little “refinement” tweaks, including wonderfully minimalist new phone/FaceTime call notifications and Siri pop-ups that finally don’t obscure the whole screen. (The new Siri UI is particularly futuristic thanks to a beautiful little animation.) Once again, users will welcome these long-awaited improvements and, given that they’ve been prominent in request lists and concept sketches for years, wonder why they took so long to happen.

I’m also very happy about something tiny Apple has added to iOS and iPadOS — a little status bar dot indicating when the front-facing camera is active (green) or on and not active (orange). After last year’s Group FaceTime privacy flaw revealed that some iOS devices were streaming video and audio without the user’s knowledge or permission, the addition of this simple indicator should provide users with a proper sense of whether the camera is or isn’t active.

The iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 betas have thus far been entirely smooth sailing, with no crashes that I can recall — better for a “beta 1” than some earlier iOS releases. I’d call them safe to install as early as you’re comfortable doing so. Apple’s first public betas will be out in July.

watchOS 7

Of all Apple’s betas, the one that traditionally worries me the most is watchOS, as the earliest versions had the deadly combination of battery drain and unpredictable bugs, mixed with wild new features that were enticing enough to take the risk. With watchOS 7, the story is completely different: The first beta release offers very little feature-level enticement to jump in, but seems quite stable, and will even have a public beta in July — the first time Apple is officially opening watchOS betas to general users.

I won’t mince words: watchOS 7 isn’t a very impressive update, though I suspect that some of the issue is that features are being held close to the chest for debut alongside Apple Watch Series 6 in the fall. Apple revealed a total of one new watch face, Chronograph Pro, which includes a time/distance-measuring dial called a tachymeter — yet another niche feature seemingly aimed at the “watch enthusiast” crowd Apple has been chasing for years. It also enabled third-party apps to offer more than one “complication” — those tiny button-like displays — on a single watch face.

Instead of announcing the watch face feature people really want — a way to install third-party faces — Apple instead enables users to share watchOS’ old, limited complication and color customizations with friends using Messages links, which will also be shareable via social media. This is the sort of charmless feature that I can only hope is Apple awkwardly setting the stage for users to virally spread the word about new faces people will actually care about, though I’m getting tired of waiting. The only other rumored new watchOS 7 face, an International option with changing flag faces, didn’t materialize in the first beta, so we’ll have to wait and see whether anything more is planned.

One persistent rumor that finally panned out with watchOS 7 was the similarly belated addition of sleep tracking to the wearable platform. There’s now a dedicated Sleep app (with a not very good bed icon) on the Apple Watch, linked to the iPhone’s Health app for synchronization of data regarding your preferred sleep goal, schedule, and alarms, plus data on whether you were in bed and/or asleep at given points in the night. I’ll put aside the issue of whether Apple Watches are really up to the task of doing anything overnight given that they’re still only rated for 18 hours of continuous use — a more complicated topic than one might imagine — and say that it’s nice to see the feature, anyway.

I wish I could tell you how well it works, but when I set it up and tried to use it overnight, it didn’t appear to do anything — no data was recorded or transferred to the iPhone’s Health app, and though I woke up four minutes early, the morning alarm I normally use on my iPad still went off at its regular time. My guess is that the Sleep app still needs some polish, which it will surely receive before the official debut later this fall.

Another watchOS addition mentioned in Apple’s keynote, a hand washing tracker, also appears in the beta but doesn’t seem to be working properly. Rather than appearing as an app, “handwashing” appears as an option under Settings, with the option to automatically turn on a 20-second timer, and either use or disable haptics in some way. Across multiple attempts yesterday and today, I couldn’t get the watch to automatically detect when I was washing my hands — sink noises and hand movements were apparently not enough to trigger Apple’s machine learning model — so the UI shown in the video never appeared. Once again, I suspect this will improve before watchOS 7 goes final.

Above: Siri’s moving, glowing ball icon has come over to watchOS 7, but still occupies the full screen rather than only the bottom — something iOS and iPadOS fixed this year.

Image Credit: Jeremy Horwitz/VentureBeat

There’s not much else at this point to justify upgrading to the beta version watchOS 7, unless you’re interested in testing the new Dance tracking feature in the old Workout app (soon to be renamed Fitness), and have an Apple Watch that supports the update — Series 1 and 2 will not run the new OS. Extra features that some people were expecting, such as support for blood oxygen monitoring, or additional battery life for truly worry-free sleep tracking, may show up this year with the Series 6. Here’s hoping for further improvements as the beta cycle continues.

Apple WWDC 2020: read all our coverage here.