The best new features in OS X Yosemite (so far)

Look for these cool capabilities in the OS X 10.10 Yosemite public beta

OS X Yosemite public beta
What to look for in the OS X Yosemite public beta

Starting today, up to 1 million members of Apple's OS X community can get a public beta of the forthcoming Mac OS version, OS X 10.10 Yosemite.

Do note that this is beta, so you shouldn't use it in a production environment. I can assure you that app crashes are common, and not all features work consistently.

Beta issues aside, you'll find that Yosemite is very similar to OS X Mavericks, so the learning curve is small. Apple is both refining and enriching its tools, as well as moving the user interface closer to iOS's, a journey it's been on for several years.

OS X Yosemite: Handoff
Handoff: Liquid computing in action

The Handoff feature uses Bluetooth Low Energy connections to let Macs and iOS devices see what's happening on them and hand off activities from one to the other as they get in range. (You need a mid-2012 or later Mac model and an iOS 8-based iPhone or iPad -- all using the same iCloud account -- for this to work, and Handoff must be enabled in General Preferences.)

As you can see here, an app alerts you in the Dock when there is a handoff it can accept from another device.

• Learn more about Handoff and the coming trend toward liquid computing

OS X Yosemite: iCloud Drive
iCloud Drive: Cloud storage that works as you’d expect

OS X has supported iCloud Documents for a while now, which let OS X apps share documents with other Macs and iOS devices as long as you have the same apps on them all. You can't easily see all your documents, and moving documents between the Mac's Finder and iCloud Documents is unintuitive and awkward.

In Yosemite, iCloud Drive makes these documents visible in the Finder and in Open and Save dialogs to all apps (not just ones from the Mac App Store) like any other drive, similar to using a Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive virtual drive.

You set up which apps participate in iCloud Drive in the iCloud system preference for live syncing as you work. Otherwise, syncing happens after you save.

OS X Yosemite: extensions
Extensions: The overdue reform of widgets

For a decade or so, OS X has had the Dashboard, an awkwardly separate space to run widget applets -- which no one does. In OS X Yosemite, the widgets screen no longer must be separate (though you can set it as your preference); instead, you press F12 to display them over the current Desktop screen.

But the real reformation of widgets is the new concept of extensions, system-level add-ons that can integrate with both the Finder and apps, managed in System Preferences. The Markup image editor is an example (see next slide), as is the revised Notifications Center (shown here) to which you can add extensions like Weather and Stocks in the iOS-inspired Today view.

OS X Yosemite: Markup
Markup: Annotate images within apps

The Markup extension is enabled by default in Yosemite. It lets you, well, mark up an image or PDF in the Preview app, in an image in a TextEdit document, or in an email you’re sending in the Mail app. You can draw on it, add text, and apply other effects for virtual whiteboarding. The original image is untouched, by the way; Markup works on a copy it creates.

OS X Yosemite: Browser default
Safari: Easier to use a different default browser

Platform makers really want you to use their browsers: Internet Explorer in Windows, Chrome in Android, and Safari in OS X. Finally, Apple is making it easy to set a browser other than Safari as your systemwide default by adding that option to System Preferences.

Sure, you could continue to set another browser as the default within its own preferences, but now it's explicitly an OS-wide choice that should encourage more people to make it. Maybe now that Safari is a darned good browser, Apple is comfortable in making such a choice easy.

OS X Yosemite: Spotlight
Spotlight: More info than ever

OS X's Spotlight search tool has long been a treasure trove of information as it searches your documents, emails, and apps, not just your file names. The newest Spotlight incarnation takes that a step further by adding Web search and, more important, a much better visual presentation of all those results. The previous Spotlight was too densely arranged, dissuading exploration of all its results. Yosemite's version fixes that.

OS X Yosemite: user interface
User interface: The inexorable iOS pull

Apple clearly wants us all to treat devices and computers as interchangeable, so it's been building in all sorts of integration, such as iCloud Keychain, iCloud Documents, Photo Stream, Maps integration into Calendar, AirDrop, and now Bluetooth-enabled AirPlay (look, Ma: No network!), cross-device AirDrop, and Handoff.

It's also been making the visual experience more and more similar.

In a previous slide, you saw the iOS-like Today view in the Notification Center. The venerable Dock now has the iPad's look. Mac app icons now match the iOS versions. The system font has changed from Lucida Grande to iOS's Helvetica Neue. UI elements are simplified À la iOS. The iconography is also modeled after iOS, as the new iTunes 12 shown here demonstrates.

Meanwhile, in Google land: Welcome to Android L
Meanwhile, in Google land: Welcome to Android L

Apple's forthcoming OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 -- likely to be released in September or October -- isn't the only big change coming in the world of popular computing platforms. Google is retooling Android in the forthcoming Android L, due by year's end.

• Get a look at Android L's fresh new face in InfoWorld's preview tour.