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It's rare for Apple to reshape the way people work on Macs, but that's precisely what the company is trying to do with Stage Manager in macOS Ventura. At first glance, it's just a quick visual way to swap between your recently used applications. But after testing the first Ventura public beta over the past week, I think it may also solve window management issues that have plagued Macs since OS X debuted 21 years ago. Or, maybe, I've just always hated Apple's Dock.
On top of Stage Manager, Ventura also has plenty of upgrades that should make life a bit easier for Apple users. Mail gets the biggest overhaul, but there's also better collaboration with Safari's Tab Groups, as well as much-needed features in Messages. At the very least, it's a far more expansive update than last year's Monterey.
Stage Manager: Making sense of the Mac madness
In my nearly two decades of using Macs — as a college student, IT support worker and tech journalist — I've never found OS X's Dock to be very useful. Sure, when it was first released, it was a huge visual upgrade over the simplistic taskbars in Windows and Linux. (I remember marveling at the fact that a Dock icon could show a running video.) But on its own, the Dock is a confusing mishmash of shortcuts and running application indicators, something reviews at the time also criticized.
If you want to find a specific Safari window, for example, you have to press Control, click on the Dock icon and then select it from the dropdown. In comparison, the far uglier Windows XP let me zero in on specific apps (and their sub-windows) with a single click on the task bar. Perhaps aware of this usability quirk, Apple introduced Exposé in 2003 as an easy way to see everything you're running all at once. Since then, I've religiously assigned hot corners on every Mac I've used to trigger specific Exposé functions (one corner shows everything that's open, another shows me windows just for my current app, while another brings me right to the desktop). Who needs a confusing Dock when you can get a God's-eye view of your entire system?
Fast-forward almost twenty years, and we have Stage Manager, yet another on-screen tool for jumping between your apps. But while it may just seem like additional screen clutter, its main function is to help you focus by actually decluttering your screen. When you select a recent app from Stage Manager, it centers that app on your screen and makes other windows disappear. Hit the app shortcut again, and you'll cycle through open windows.
While it seems restrictive at first, like an attempt at bringing an iPad-esque workflow onto Macs, Stage Manager also lets you group apps together and, crucially, remembers exactly where you position your windows. While writing this preview, I kept Safari and Evernote grouped together, so I could write and research without worrying about pings from Slack or WhatsApp. You could do something similar with Apple's Spaces virtual desktops feature, but I always found that hard to manage. Stage Manager makes it as easy as hitting a single icon on your screen.
If you're a Mac pro-user already set in your ways, you can ignore Stage Manager entirely (it can be turned on and off from the Title Bar, and disabled in System Preferences). But as someone who's struggled with Apple's attempts at window management over the years, I'm finding it to be a refreshing way to make sense of macOS. You can also automatically hide Stage Manager until you need to use it, just like the Dock. (Personally, I've found it to be most useful when I hide the Dock and leave Stage Manager running on the side.)
Other updates: Mail, Messages and more
I haven't used a desktop email application in years — it's just easier to hop into multiple Gmail accounts in a browser — but those who do will appreciate Apple's Mail updates in Ventura. For one, the search function has been entirely reworked, so it should be easier to locate a specific message. It's also finally getting some much-needed features, like scheduled send, undo sending, rich-text link embedding and alerts about missing attachments and recipients. Those are the sorts of features that have kept me glued to Gmail's web interface for years, so it's nice to see them finally make their way to the desktop. (But really, I'd love to know what took Apple so long.)
Similarly, I think everyone would appreciate the changes coming to Messages. That includes the ability to edit texts, delete them entirely, and mark them as unread. I wasn't able to test these features much, since they require your friends and colleagues to be running Ventura as well, but we're not expecting any major surprises with how they work. Ventura also treats older versions of macOS similar to Android users — when I edited a message to an iMessage group, my friends received a separate text notifying them of the changes. For me, it just appeared as an edit within the existing message.
Here are a few other notable changes in Monterey to look out for:
Continuity Camera: It lets you use your iPhone as a high-quality webcam. I haven't been able to get this feature working properly yet, but on paper it's a compelling way to beef up your video chats without investing in a more expensive webcam.
Shared Tab Groups in Safari: An easy way to collaborate with friends when planning for a trip, or any other group activity.
Passkeys in Safari: Instead of passwords, Passkey is a biometric way to authenticate with websites, and it's tied to your iCloud account. I wasn't able to test this yet, but theoretically it's far more secure than traditional passwords.
Strong password editing in Safari: Finally, there's a way to tweak Safari's auto-generated passwords to meet requirements from certain sites.
Collaboration through Messages: This will let you join up with friends to work together in Notes, Keynote and other Apple software, as well as some third-party apps.
Apple's Freeform app for collaboration: This isn't available to test yet, but it looks like an intriguing Apple spin on a whiteboard app.