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OS X Yosemite Arrives. What Does It Mean for Older Macs?

Some of the new features work on older MacBooks, some of them not so much.

Vjeran Pavic

Today Apple formally released OS X Yosemite, its newest operating system for Mac computers. For Mac users, the operating system has been much anticipated since it was first unveiled at the company’s annual developers conference in June (continuity between devices! “Green” messages! The promise of working Mail!). Apple even teased it out by giving early access to a million beta testers in July.

I’ve been using Yosemite intermittently since then, on both a 2013 and a late-2012 Retina MacBook Pro. And I’ve had a mostly positive experience running Yosemite on those shiny, new-ish machines.

But here’s the thing: Not everyone has a new laptop. Apple says that computers from as far back mid-2007 (Macs) and late 2008 (MacBooks) will support Yosemite, but as we’ve seen with other software releases, sometimes updating your old hardware to new software doesn’t work out perfectly.

 The new Spotlight search in Yosemite is powered by Bing and pulls up Web results.
The new Spotlight search in Yosemite is powered by Bing and pulls up Web results.
Vjeran Pavic

So, for the sake of this review, I also tested the new Yosemite operating system on an “old” 2011 15-inch MacBook Pro that I keep at home. I found that while some Yosemite features, like group messaging and desktop calling, worked on my 2011 laptop, there are limitations with older hardware. Is it worth upgrading? I’d say yes. But if you’re using a Mac from 2011 or earlier, don’t expect to use all of the new features.

The upgrade process

The Yosemite OS is free, and is downloadable through the Mac App Store. Downloading and installing the Yosemite OS on my 2011 MacBook Pro took an hour and a half, compared with an hour and 10 minutes for the same process on my 2012 MacBook Pro. The install process, for me, was glitch-free.

The basics

As I pointed out in my preview of Yosemite, the new OS brings in a fresh design that includes translucent browser and Finder windows, scrolling tabs and private search in Safari, and a Spotlight function that looks like a giant search bar in the middle of your screen. Spotlight search, which is now powered by Bing, pulls up relevant information from the Web, in addition to local files and applications.

There’s also the ability to mark up Mail with notes or your signature, and attach your signature to PDF mail using your laptop’s trackpad.

All of this performed as well on my 2011 laptop as it did on my newer one, with the exception that the displays are vastly different. However, despite Apple’s marketing of apps in the dock as more “distinct,” I don’t love the new design around app icons; they actually look less distinctive to me, especially apps like Safari, Messages and App Store.

 The Messages app in Yosemite lets you title group threads and add or remove new participants.
The Messages app in Yosemite lets you title group threads and add or remove new participants.
Vjeran Pavic

Messages

The updates to Messages are, in my opinion, some of the most useful. You can now easily add other iOS users to existing desktop Message threads, or remove yourself from the thread. You can also title your group Message threads, which makes searching for old threads much more intuitive (and also ensures that you don’t accidentally message a group when you meant to IM just one person).

The good news is that this feature isn’t hardware-specific, and it worked fine on my 2011 MacBook.

SMS

Speaking of messaging, you can now stop treating your Android and Windows friends as second-class citizens just because you can’t Message them all day long from your desktop: SMS text messages will now port to Messages on desktop, going first through your phone and then sending to Messages through the iMessage network. This, however, only works with iPhones running the latest software, iOS 8.1, which I’m told will become widely available early next week.

I tested this with two different Android phones, and I received all Android messages in my Messages on Mac — both my 2012 and my 2011 models. Note: You still won’t get desktop Messages from contacts using an iPhone if they haven’t opted into iMessage, as is the case with one of my editors.

Desktop calling

Desktop calling was the most problematic feature on my older MacBook. This feature lets you initiate, accept or reject iPhone calls right from your desktop, provided that your phone is within Wi-Fi range. It uses the same audio capabilities as Apple’s FaceTime audio.

 Desktop calling lets you initiative, accept and decline calls from your Mac.
Desktop calling lets you initiative, accept and decline calls from your Mac.
Vjeran Pavic

It worked every time on my newer MacBook. But early tests on my 2011 MacBook failed. On a couple occasions, I couldn’t dial out from the desktop. In other tests, audio on both outgoing and incoming calls consisted of an irritating crackling noise, although people on the other end told me they could hear me. Oddly, this seemed to improve over time.

Handoff

With Yosemite, a really handy feature called Handoff lets you start an email or browse Safari on your iPhone or iPad and quickly pick it up from another device.

So if I stepped away from my desk, started to compose an email on my iPhone, and then returned to my laptop, the Mail icon would appear on the far left-hand side of the dock with a little phone symbol on top of it. When I clicked on that, the unfinished email was there.

However, Handoff only works on newer laptops, and on any iOS new enough to have a lightning connector. So Handoff worked on my 2012 MacBook, but didn’t work on my 2011 model.

AirDrop

AirDrop, which lets you easily share things like photos between devices in close proximity, is not a new feature. But before Yosemite, you could only use AirDrop between iOS devices, or separately between Macs. Now you can do it between an iPhone and a Mac, using Bluetooth and peer-to-peer Wi-Fi.

I hit another hardware wall with this one: I could AirDrop photos between my iPhone and my 2012 MacBook, but not my iPhone and my 2011 MacBook.

 With a new feature called “mark up” in Mail, you can add text and other notes to images.
With a new feature called “mark up” in Mail, you can add text and other notes to images.
Vjeran Pavic

Instant Hotspot

Like SMS, the new Instant Hotspot feature requires the latest mobile operating system, iOS 8.1. You’ll also have to be signed up for a Personal Hotspot data plan through your mobile carrier. (If you’re unfamiliar with Personal Hotspot, it’s basically the feature on your iPhone that turns your smartphone into a Wi-Fi hotspot, often called Mi-Fi.)

Unlike Personal Hotspot, which involves going into your iPhone settings and activating it, Instant Hotspot can be activated from the Wi-Fi network menu on your desktop. This, again, worked on my 2012 MacBook but not my 2011 one.

Mail woes

Apple’s last OS for Macs, Mavericks, brought in a wave of issues for Mail users, especially those tying Mail to Gmail accounts. Apple has since released a series of updates for this, but I still would not expect perfection. I experienced some minor delays in Mail delivery, and on a few occasions email just wouldn’t send — interestingly, on my newer Mac. It’s possible, however, that these issues were also related to app-specific passwords required by Gmail.

Conclusion

There are other features, such as iCloud Drive and Family Sharing, that I haven’t fully dived into yet. And I’ve only used Mail Drop, which lets you send large files through email, once (it worked). But the ones I’ve listed are some of the key aspects of what Apple is calling “continuity,” this idea that you should be able to move easily between the mobile and desktop operating systems.

For people with brand-new Mac hardware and iPhones running the latest software, Yosemite offers compelling features. For owners of old machines, though, the update won’t be quite as remarkable.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.