Up until recently, unfinished “beta” versions of iOS and OS X were only officially available to registered Apple developers, enabling companies to make their apps compatible before the operating systems were publicly released. But to increase openness and expand its pool of beta testers, Apple decided to offer “public betas” of both iOS and OS X to interested users, starting with iOS 8.4 and OS X Yosemite. Very soon, both iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan will become available as public betas under the Apple Beta Software Program, which you can sign up for here.
Should you install these new and unstable betas on your iPad, iPhone, or Mac? What can you really expect after doing so? Below, I’ll provide you with some guidance so you can make an informed decision to participate in the public betas, or hold off…
If Even Slightly In Doubt, Don’t Install An iOS Or OS X Beta
Having covered each year’s evolution of iOS and OS X for quite some time, I know how excited people (including myself) tend to become whenever there’s a shiny new version on the horizon. Apple’s engineers always come up with at least a few big features to improve on their prior work, and the marketing department does a great job of making even small feature tweaks seem important. The allure of installing a beta on day one, just to see a new system font or try out a new feature, can be powerful.
BUT… having been through the beta process before, I can tell you that installing a beta generally isn’t a good idea for most users, given how unstable (yet critically important) beta system software can be. I can also tell you that despite that warning, a lot of people will incorrectly assume that they’re not in the “most users” camp. They’ll install the beta and quickly regret it when their iPhone battery life gets cut in half — something that could very easily happen. Many watchOS 2 beta users are already freaking out since their Apple Watches are draining in half a day, and wishing they could revert back to 1.01. They can’t. There’s no known way to downgrade, and no one knows for sure when a better beta will be released (most likely: two weeks after the first one).
That’s why my advice is simple: if you can’t live with considerably diminished performance from your device, do not install one of Apple’s betas, particularly early betas. Day one adopters suffer the most. Wait at least a few days after each beta release and see what people are saying about battery life, speed, and crashes before making the jump.
Preparing Your Mac For OS X El Capitan
As between iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan, the new version of OS X is the easier one to use in beta form. If you’ve been running OS X Yosemite, there aren’t a lot of surprises to worry about, and if for whatever reason you don’t like El Capitan, you can downgrade and go back to Yosemite with only a few hours of work.
Back your Mac up to a reliable and fast external hard drive before upgrading to El Capitan. My advice is to use OS X Yosemite’s built-in Time Machine for backup, as I’ve never had a problem restoring a Mac from scratch when using it, but you may have another preferred backup app instead. Time Machine’s biggest virtue is its integration with OS X, which means that you can easily bring all of your files back onto a completely wiped Mac just by launching Yosemite’s installer and selecting “restore from backup.”
For the most part, prior OS X apps will run smoothly under El Capitan. Potentially major exceptions include Adobe’s Creative Suite (CS) versions 5 and 6, as well as any other apps that require Java SE 6, an old and insecure Java release that Apple now completely blocks under El Capitan. If you saw a dialog box under Yosemite warning that you’d need to download a Java SE 6 software to run certain apps, be forewarned: El Capitan’s dialog box doesn’t give you a download option and expressly forbids Java SE 6 installation. There are some challenging workarounds, and the potential of an Adobe fix for the issue, but for now, it’s best not to switch to El Capitan if you rely upon Adobe CS5/6 or other Java SE 6-dependent apps.
El Capitan and iOS 9 both feature a new version of Notes, complete with a new iCloud synchronization engine and a bunch of great new features. While Notes will import all of your old note files after little more than an approving click on your part, you may want to go through and clean up the duplicates and excess files that may have been created by older versions of Notes. I somehow had 72 duplicate note files in my collection, which would take up iCloud space unnecessarily; depending on how often you used Notes previously, you may have more or less.
A free, super-handy Mac app called Notes Exporter can help you back up your existing notes collection to your Mac before you start deleting things. Be aware that Notes Exporter doesn’t work with an El Capitan/iOS 9-converted Notes library, so run it under Yosemite before you import (and change) your notes to the new format. The app exports into Plaintext format that can be read by OS X’s built-in Textedit.
Safari has been upgraded from 8.0.6 to 8.1, a seemingly minor numerical change reflecting several new quality-of-life features such as Pinned Tabs, AirPlay Video support, and per-tab muting. While you don’t need to prep your Mac for most of the Safari changes, it’s worth bearing in mind that Pinned Tabs may change the way you organize your Favorites and use the Favorites Bar. You can now have one-click access to Facebook with nothing more than a persistent “f” logo tab, and Safari auto-creates similarly tiny tabs using the first letter or number for any page without an icon (9to5Mac gets a “9,” for instance). As of now, Pinned Tabs don’t carry over to iOS devices, so you mightn’t want to get rid of cross-device-syncing Favorites just yet.
Many other OS X apps are unchanged from Yosemite, so you won’t have much to do. Nothing has changed with Messages, FaceTime, or Preview this time out, as they and other apps retain the same version numbers found in Yosemite. Even Photos, which has been upgraded from 1.0 to 1.1 in El Capitan, has mostly subtle UI changes (with support for upcoming plug-ins).
While the “don’t risk it!” caveats above apply to all beta releases, I’d call El Capitan easier to play with than the typical beta — but also not so different from Yosemite that there’s a compelling reason to do so. Apart from the switch to San Francisco as a system font, and the aforementioned tweaks, most people will hardly notice the difference between El Capitan and Yosemite… at least visually, as it’s largely a performance-tuning release. The first beta version seems to be very stable. However, if guaranteed stability and performance are what you’re craving, you’re probably best off waiting until the OS goes final in the fall.
Preparing Your iPhone or iPad For iOS 9
Unlike El Capitan, iOS 9 feels like it’s changed quite a bit from its immediate predecessor. Not only has the system font changed to San Francisco, a difference that’s very obvious within both Apple’s and certain third-party apps, but there are also a collection of UI tweaks that radically (iPad) or noticeably (iPhone) modify the user experience. I was personally most impressed by the new iPad multitasking features, including slide-over, picture-in-picture, and split-screen modes, but you’ll also see changes on the iPhone and iPod touch, including the new Notes app, the deletion of Newsstand, and major changes to Spotlight and Siri.
Apple warns beta testers each year that their iOS devices cannot be downgraded to the prior final release after updating to the beta, but there actually is a way — DFU mode, discussed here — to go back, assuming you’re willing to completely wipe your device and restore it by physically connecting it to iTunes. As with the Mac, you’ll want to make a complete backup of your device before updating to iOS 9. Use iTunes, and I strongly, strongly recommend choosing “Encrypt [iPhone/iPad/iPod touch] backup,” as it will back up all of your passwords and other data rather than requiring you to enter everything again after a restoration. If you don’t like iOS 9, put your iOS device into DFU mode, connect it to iTunes, and restore from your backup.
Apart from a backup, there are a few other things you may want to do to prepare your device for iOS 9. As mentioned above for El Capitan, Notes has been updated across all iOS devices, and you should probably consider removing duplicate copies of note files and old cruft notes before making the upgrade. Use Notes Exporter for Mac, discussed above, to back up your old notes.
Newsstand disappears on iOS 9, which means that the prior interface for showing you magazine and newspaper covers within a special screen is going away. iOS 9 unceremoniously drops your Newsstand apps into a plain folder with regular old icons. You may want to change their notifications, such as badges, banners, or alerts, to become easily aware of new issue updates.
You may be considering upgrading early to iOS 9 just to see watchOS 2 for Apple Watch. Note that Apple has not said anything about a watchOS public beta, and developers who have installed watchOS 2 are discovering that it’s both battery-hungry and impossible to downgrade — there’s no DFU mode for the Apple Watch, at least that anyone has yet discovered. So for the time being, leave watchOS 2 for the developers. Seriously.
My final prep suggestion will be the most difficult one: even if you read my previous warnings, take an extra few minutes to seriously think about whether you are ready to create (further) instability and battery drain on your iOS device. Particularly on the iPhone, the beta version of iOS 9 may cut your battery life in half, and you’ll likely notice stutters in everything from transition effects to accessing search features — things that run smoothly on iOS 8.3 and iOS 8.4. All of these sorts of things will likely get fixed by the time iOS 9 becomes final, but for now, they’re rough edges. So consider waiting on installing the public beta until a later, better version, or using it only on an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch that you don’t rely upon every day.
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