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Apple launches public beta of macOS Monterey, bringing updates to FaceTime and Safari

The public beta of macOS 12 Monterey, Apple’s next big macOS release, is now available for download. The operating system has the same general look and feel as its predecessor, macOS 11 Big Sur, but it brings some new features and a number of tweaks to Apple’s most popular services.

Before we get into this, friendly reminder that Monterey is, for now, a beta. It may not be the best idea to install on a primary device, as you might encounter bugs, unfinished features, and incompatibility with third-party apps. If you will be installing the program on your daily driver, make sure you’ve backed up anything you can’t afford to mess with first.

For those who take the leap and install the public beta, the component Apple seems most excited about is its updates to FaceTime. My favorite of these is Portrait Mode, which blurs the background behind you while you’re speaking on a call (similarly to the iPhone’s feature with the same name). Portrait Mode didn’t always get everything — sometimes when there were multiple different surfaces behind me, it seemed to get a bit confused and leave some parts un-blurred. But it wasn’t difficult to find areas where the feature worked just fine. Apple says Portrait Mode will be available for adoption in third-party apps as well, but we’ll have to wait for them to issue updates to support it.

macOS Monterey’s new FaceTime Portrait Mode did a decent job of blurring out my background.

Even though it’s had the ability to make group calls for a few years, I’ve always viewed FaceTime as a tool for calling one person at a time. But Monterey introduces a few other features that are clearly meant to make the tool a stronger Zoom competitor, conducive to meetings and larger calls. It now supports a grid view and Spatial Audio (which makes other people’s voices sound like they’re coming from the area on the screen where their face is positioned). You can generate a link to a FaceTime call ahead of time (the same way you generate a Zoom link), and users of Android and Windows can join from their browsers. And a new Voice Isolation feature uses machine learning to mitigate background noise while you’re speaking.

There’s a new feature called SharePlay, which is like Netflix Party or Scener but for FaceTime. Like Netflix Party, it allows you and other people on your FaceTime call to watch content from certain streaming services together by syncing everyone’s video playback and controls. (So we’re both watching the video on our own devices, with our own accounts. But when I pause or start, you pause or start as well.) SharePlay isn’t a new idea, but it’ll certainly be convenient to have on FaceTime. While the list of supported services includes some big players (such as Disney Plus, Hulu, HBO Max, Paramount Plus, Twitch, Pluto TV, and — hilariously — TikTok), it doesn’t appear to include Netflix, which is the one streaming service I and all of my friends and family reliably have in common. Until that’s added to the roster, I don’t see myself using this that often.

A new feature that I do think I’ll be using a lot is Quick Note. Quick Note gives you an easy way to take notes on an article you’re reading (or items you’re viewing in Maps, Photos, or other apps). You can right-click highlighted text to add it to a Quick Note, and it’ll appear there along with a link to the source. (You can press Fn+Q to pull up a blank one as well.)

Quick Notes sync across devices and are available in a specific “Quick Notes” folder in the Notes app. The handiest thing, I think, is that if you’ve got an app open where you’ve previously created a Quick Note, you can hover your cursor in the bottom-right corner of the screen and a thumbnail of the note will pop up.

A screenshot of a MacBook Pro screen. The Verge’s review of the Razer Blade 14 is open in Safari. A paragraph is higlighted with “Add to Quick Note” in an adjacent drop-down menu selected. A Quick Note is open on the left side of the screen with more text and a link to the article.

I took some notes on my recent review of the Razer Blade 14.

Apple has introduced a few “continuity” features that are meant to make it easier to use Macs alongside other Apple devices. Arguably the most exciting one, Universal Control, won’t be ready until a future beta. What you can try now is AirPlay, which has made its way to macOS for the first time. AirPlay makes it easier to cast content to a Mac computer: it can mirror or extend your iPhone’s screen, for example, or can function as an AirPlay 2 speaker. I was able to set this up easily (you just need to wait until the devices detect each other and then enter a code on your phone), and it worked well.

A screenshot of a macOS notification that reads “Airplay: Look What You Made Me Do would like to AirPlay to this Mac.”

Yes, that is the name of my iPhone. Long story.

Safari has some tweaks, mainly concerning tabs. The URL bar now lives next to your tabs, which gives you more browsing space. Tabs have a rounder appearance now, and you can click one to reveal its page’s full address.

The new feature that I think is quite useful is tab groups. The way this works is that if you have, say, five tabs open, you can click a little icon in the top-left corner to make them into a “tab group”. Later on, if you open the sidebar on the left, you’ll see the group listed in the “Tab Groups” section; click on it, and Safari will reopen those five tabs. Also in that sidebar lives a bookmarks list, a reading list, and a list of links that have been shared with you in Messages. You can test-drive the new Safari browser in older versions of macOS without having to update to the Monterey beta by installing the Safari Technology Preview.

A screenshot of Safari open on a MacBook Pro. A Verge Windows 11 video is open on YouTube. The sidebar is open showing two tab groups: Verge Videos and Verge Articles.

Tab groups are almost instant to click in and out of.

There are a number of other odds and ends built into macOS Monterey. Shortcuts is available on macOS, Focus allows you to filter notifications based on the task you’re doing, it’s gotten easier to save photos that you receive in Messages, etc. I look forward to digging more into these features for our full review, but the things I’ve highlighted here are the ones I see being the most immediately impactful to daily use.

The phrase “odds and ends” really sums up my impressions after using macOS Monterey for a few days. macOS Big Sur completely overhauled the Mac experience. That’s not the case here (which is fine — not every update needs to be a revolution). Apple seems to have made some tweaks here and some tweaks there. My reactions have largely been: “Alright, that could be handy.” Which is fair. I’ll take handy.

Here’s the list of devices that will support macOS Monterey:

Notably, this doesn’t include a few models that did get Big Sur last year, including the 2013 MacBook Air, the late-2013 MacBook Pro, and the 2014 iMac.

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