I’ve done the deep dive. Here’s the easy explanation of why it’s too soon to upgrade to macOS Catalina – either if you’re pressed for time, or to forward to your friends.
macOS Catalina will break some music and visual software and hardware, because of changes to backward compatibility and some major new security features never before seen on a desktop OS.
The question is whether you want to find the incompatibilities and bugs yourself, or wait a while and let someone else do it for you.
Also, there is no reason to upgrade right now. Features like Sidecar, letting you use Apple Pencil and iPad as a second display/input device, are available elsewhere. (Try Duet. Or upgrade to Mojave if you haven’t already.)
So the fact I see people rushing to upgrade tells me they don’t understand why it’s a bad idea. Here’s why it’s a bad idea.
What could go wrong if you upgrade too soon
Some software won’t launch. Just one 32-bit dependency can break software like DAWs from launching. There is a tool that checks for whether apps are entirely 32-bit called Go64. But many DAWs and notation tools, for example, do require updates even to what could be labeled a 64-bit version.
DAWs will require an update before they work with plug-ins. Security changes mean that DAWs need to be specifically updated for Catalina in order to work. Check with your DAW maker. Ableton Live 10 in its latest, Catalina-specific release work, as does Apple’s own Logic Pro X. Many popular DAWs don’t have updates, and won’t until later in October (or even beyond that). And just because a DAW says it’s updated is not a 100% guarantee on your specific system, because —
Plug-ins and other tools may behave in unexpected ways. New macOS features for providing security permissions haven’t been tested in every combination yet. And new security requirements can also mess with software in obscure ways, because some of the things we do in music and visuals interact with input hardware (like keyboards and mice). Developers tell me this can cause unexpected behaviors – think bugs or even crashes with certain plug-ins or other tools. If you update today, you’re the one testing some of these combinations, even if you think your software is up to date. If you wait, you can let developers test it for you.
Some installers won’t work. A lot of older installers and uninstallers are 32-bit, not 64-bit. So if you update a system, then decide to install a plug-in or driver you forgot, you may hit a hard wall. If these are not actively supported devices or plug-ins, you may be unable to use them without rolling back the OS version.
You might not be able to use your iTunes library with DJ software. Do you manage your music library with iTunes, then DJ with that library with Traktor, Serato, Rekordbox, and other tools? Do you use iTunes on the Mac for playlists and library management and then use Rekordbox to load the library on USB sticks? iTunes is removed from Catalina, and it doesn’t run on Catalina. Theoretically, a workaround should be possible with the upcoming Music app and XML export from that tool, as with past versions of iTunes. But unexpectedly, Apple released a statement this week saying that workaround isn’t yet supported. Stay tuned on this one, but it’s definitely worth delaying updating if you use this feature.
You’re going to see a whole bunch of dialog boxes. Yeah, about those new security features – the first run can be, uh, exciting. Here’s an image. Fortunately, this is only on the first time you launch software. It’s another example of why you should do major OS updates basically when you have no critical work coming up and some free time on your hands.
Printers and other hardware may need an update. Look around you. See every device you rely on? Double-check that device has support. Does that seem like too much time? Maybe wait some weeks or months, because it will get better.
How long is long, and who should upgrade, and how?
Even waiting two weeks helps. Various developers including heavyweights like Steinberg and Pioneer are saying they expect to have more information by the end of October. That may sound arbitrary, but it has to do with the amount of time developers have had to deal with final pre-release versions of the OS and, as of yesterday, the OS being out in the wild with all of us.
Who should upgrade now? Developers and system administrators or anyone whose job is support.
For everyone else, plan on this:
If you want to retain support for older plug-ins and drivers that may not be updated, expect to keep one Mac around that runs Mojave or earlier.
If you do want to upgrade, just use a second hard drive to test first. This is even more effective than making a full backup (though that’s always a good idea, too). Here’s an easy guide. But even if you’re thinking of a testbed system, you should probably wait 2-4 weeks minimum.
If you’re thinking of buying a new system, for now, these will all still run Mojave if you need them to do so. In the future, Apple may upgrade its Mac hardware in such a way that will require Catalina, so be aware of that if you need to run any old 32-bit tools.
Use a break soon to upgrade to … Mojave
For stable systems, many of us for years have simply lagged Apple by one year, because macOS is now on an annual autumn release cadence.
So now is – seriously – a great time to update to Mojave. That upgrade is still available from the Mac App Store. It’s now quite stable and thoroughly tested, and updates are available to most tools.
It’s also an ideal “long term” upgrade for the Mac for a long time to come. It has the most stable audio system of recent updates, it has support for most of the newest Apple APIs (even including Metal graphics), and yet it retains support for 32-bit software.
Hey, remember, some people still have Atari machines they use actively for music.
What about Windows? Look, all OSes are complicated to support. And yeah, Windows users, don’t get snarky yet. While Microsoft has excellent developer support and tends to prioritize backward compatibility in ways Apple does not, it’s very likely Windows will also face some challenges as it moves away from 32-bit support and deals with security threats. Basically, let’s leave OS wars for the 1990s and focus on what works best for your actual use case. Though I would happily engage in an Atari versus Amiga debate for nostalgia’s sake if someone wants.
Why would we ever want this upgrade?
Okay, good question. This isn’t limited to Catalina – you might even wait for the OS update after this one – but Apple is adding features that could eventually matter to the Mac. (It’s hard to compare this directly to Linux or Windows, but at least for Mac users.)
More iOS apps will work on the Mac. 10.15 is the minimum OS version that supports a technology called Catalyst that will make it easier for iOS-only apps to run on the Mac, too.
The Mac is getting more accessible. Users with disabilities will find additional features in macOS Catalina, both for people with impaired vision and those using voice control and entry.
There should be expanded performance working with visuals. We’re waiting on more test data on this, but just as Apple is dumping some old graphics APIs, you should expect enhanced video and 3D graphics performance from many of the new ones. (As I said, for now you do getthe Metal benefits under Mojave, though some specific features for working with for instance Apple’s own displays are Catalina-only.)
There are various consumer features, too. If you’re involved in game development, for instance, you may care that Apple Arcade is on the new Mac release.
And yes, I think for people with iPads, the Sidecar combination with Catalina will be great – though I’m sticking with iPad Pro / Pencil and Duet on Windows and Mac for now, personally.
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