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OS X Yosemite public beta: What you need to know

Back in June, at WWDC, Apple announced the next major version of its OS for Macs, Yosemite (OS X 10.10). Though the official release of Yosemite is slated for “this fall,” the company is breaking from tradition by offering pre-release versions of Yosemite to the general public.

Given that this marks the first time a major new version of OS X has been available to users before it’s actually released (not counting the original Mac OS X Public Beta), you likely have questions. We’ve got answers.

What is the Yosemite public beta?

Apple’s OS X Beta Program—the official name for the public beta—lets some Mac users install beta (pre-release) versions of OS X 10.10 and provide Apple with feedback on those versions. As Apple puts it, you can “help make the next release of OS X our best yet.”

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What does “beta” mean?

“Beta” is a term that developers use to indicate that a piece of software is getting close to being ready for release, but still requires some testing. Alas, different companies have different barometers for just how close to ready “beta” means. For some, it means software that just needs some final polishing; for others, it means “still needs a lot of work.” (For Google, it apparently means “final version.”) But the generally accepted idea in the software-development world is that beta is software that’s essentially feature-complete but needs wider testing.

(In general, alpha is the term for software that’s still a work in progress, with features being added or removed—it isn’t even ready for beta testing. Then there are the beta versions. After those, you get release candidates which are (the developer hopes) ready for official release, assuming final testing finds no show-stopping bugs. In the OS X release process, you’ll often hear about a golden master [GM], which is supposed to be the final version—the name refers to the days of physical media, when a master was sent to a facility for the production of, say, installation DVDs.)

What does “beta” mean for me?

Put simply, it means that the versions of Yosemite available through the OS X Beta Program will not be finished products. They’ll have bugs, some apps—from both Apple and third-party developers—won’t work as expected, some services may not work, and there’s even the potential for data loss.

More specifically, Apple states, “Since the beta software is unfinished, some new features will not be available, such as phone calls, SMS, Handoff, Instant Hotspot, and iCloud Drive. Spotlight suggestions are U.S.-based only. Some applications and services may not work properly with the beta software. When creating or making changes to documents stored in iCloud, your documents will sync only with Macs running the OS X Yosemite Beta and with iOS devices running iOS 8.”

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I haven’t yet signed up for the beta. Can I? How?

Apple says that the first one million people to sign up for the Beta Program will be accepted. Just go to the OS X Beta Program page, click the Sign Up button, and follow the steps. You’ll need a valid Apple ID, and you’ll have to agree to the terms of Apple’s OS X Beta Program Agreement.

The Yosemite beta will be free to download for program participants.

I applied for the Yosemite beta program a while back. When and how will I find out if I was accepted?

The first one million people to sign up are automatically accepted. Apple says that once the public beta is ready, those people will each receive a redemption code for downloading the Yosemite beta installer from the Mac App Store. You just install it and start using it. (Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that, as we explain below.)

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I previously signed up for the OS X Beta Seed Program. Have I automatically been enrolled in the Yosemite beta?

No. The OS X Beta Seed Program, which currently allows users to install pre-release versions of Mavericks (OS X 10.9) updates, is separate from the Yosemite beta program. You can sign up for both programs, but just because you’re part of one doesn’t mean you’ll get to participate in the other. You’ll need to sign up for Yosemite separately and hope that you’re one of the first million people to do so.

I’m a member of the OS X developer program. Do I need to sign up for the Yosemite beta, too?

Probably not. Though Apple says that “there is no guarantee that participants in the OS X Beta Program will be given access to the same updates of OS X that the Mac Developer Program receives,” we suspect that if there are differences, developers will get access to new beta versions before the general public, and will possibly receive more-frequent updates.

Do I get anything out of being a beta tester?

Other than the satisfaction of knowing that you helped make the official release version of Yosemite better for millions of people around the world? No. (Yosemite will be free, so the usual perk of being a beta tester—a free copy of the final software—isn’t compelling here.)

Can I talk about the beta publicly?

According to Apple and the license agreement all beta testers must agree to, the Yosemite beta is “Apple confidential information.” By accepting those terms, you agree not to discuss your use of the software with anyone who isn’t also in the OS X Beta Program. That means no blog postings, no screenshots on Twitter, no showing your neighbor the cool new stuff your Mac can do.

However, you can discuss any information that Apple has publicly disclosed; the company says that information is no longer considered confidential.

Okay, I’ve been accepted to the beta program (or I’m considering signing up). Should I install the public beta?

Users of beta versions of OS X have traditionally been developers who wanted to test their software on the new OS before release or people testing the OS itself for compatibility with other apps, services, and IT systems. And, of course, there have always been bleeding-edge early adopters who just want to see what all the fuss is about. This, however, is the first time Apple has officially made beta versions of a major OS X upgrade available to “normal” users. But just because you can, should you?

It’s ultimately up to you, but there are a few factors to take into account. As we mentioned, beta software is by definition unfinished, which means that you could run into bugs or flaws that significantly impede your day-to-day activities—and, in the worst-case scenario, could result in data loss.

And some touted Yosemite features simply won’t be accessible during the beta period. For example, many Continuity features require iOS devices running iOS 8, which isn’t part of the OS X Beta Program. And Apple recommends that end users don’t activate iCloud Drive under Yosemite until iOS 8 is released.

But even if you’re okay with these risks and limitations, you may want to consider whether you’re ready to be a good beta tester. (See the next item.)

Do I have to do anything special to be a beta tester? How can I be a good tester?

Apple doesn’t have any formal requirements for beta testing, but remember that the purpose of the beta program is to provide Apple with feedback about the upcoming OS. So if you install the Yosemite beta and come across bugs or other problems, you should report those issues to Apple using the Feedback Assistant app included with the beta OS.

Apple is also looking for feedback on specific features and the OS as a whole. If you’ve ever thought, “I wish I had a way to let Apple know what I [like/dislike/love/despise] about this feature,” this is your chance—before the OS is even released.

All of this means that taking the time to provide detailed, actionable feedback is vital. For example, a good beta tester does more than file a report that says “Contacts crashes.” You’ll instead want to explain exactly what you were doing when you saw that crash. If the steps are reproducible, even better: “Whenever I try to add more than three phone numbers to a contact, the Contacts app crashes” is useful feedback.

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If you don’t have the time or dedication to provide that kind of feedback, you’re probably better off just waiting for the official release this fall. Apple would surely rather give a beta-program slot to someone who will be a good tester—and, frankly, we agree, as good beta testing means a better, more-stable release of Yosemite for all of us.

Of course, you shouldn’t expect Apple to change major features based on your feedback alone, and general griping—for example, venting about how you don’t like the “flat” look the company is adopting with its user interfaces—is likely to fall on deaf ears. But bug reports are vital feedback that can, and often do, result in fixes and improvements. And if the company receives enough constructive feedback about a particular feature or interface, there’s a good chance Apple’s engineers will take a look—if not for the initial release of Yosemite, perhaps for a subsequent update.

How do I send that feedback to Apple?

The beta version of Yosemite includes the Feedback Assistant app. You just launch the app and follow the steps. For example, on the Questions screen, you choose the general area about which you’re providing feedback (for example, System Crashes, AirDrop, or iCloud Keychain); and then any specific sub-area, if applicable. You describe the issue in a single sentence, and then provide a detailed description, including any specific steps that reproduce the issue.

The Feedback Assistant will request permission to collect diagnostic information from your Mac, and give you the opportunity to attach other files, such as screenshots that show the issue you’re reporting. Finally, you’ll see a summary of your submission; click Submit to send it to Apple.

How do I know if something is a bug or not?

In general, if something doesn’t work as it should, that’s a bug. If you can’t figure out how to do something, that may be a bug, or it could just be an interface that needs tweaking. If something works the way Apple designed it to work, but you just don’t like it, that’s not a bug, but your opinion may still be useful feedback.

The good news is that you don’t have to worry about which is which. Just use the Feedback Assistant app to provide your feedback. Apple will sort it out for you.

What if I’m having trouble with a third-party app under the Yosemite beta? Do I report that to Apple?

Yes. In fact, the Feedback Assistant app even provides a 3rd-party Application Compatibility category when submitting feedback.

However, in most cases, you should also take a few minutes to provide that feedback directly to the app’s developer, as Apple is unlikely to forward it. Most third-party apps provide a button or link (in the Help menu, in a preferences or settings window, or somewhere in the app’s main interface) for contacting the developer. If you can’t find one there, check the developer’s website, or, for apps purchased through the Mac App Store, use the Support link on the app’s Mac App Store page.

Whatever you do, don’t leave bad reviews for third-party software—on the Mac App Store or wherever—based on issues with the Yosemite beta. If the app still has issues once the final version of Yosemite is released to the public, criticism is fair game. But it’s not okay to ding an app for issues with an OS that hasn’t been released.

What do I need to run the Yosemite beta?

If your Mac can run Mavericks (OS X 10.9), it can run the Yosemite beta. In fact, Apple says your Mac must be running Mavericks before downloading and installing the Yosemite beta.

We recommend the same minimum specs for the Yosemite beta that we suggest for Mavericks: at least 4GB of RAM (and preferrably 8GB); and at least 15GB to 20GB of free drive space.

More important, we strongly recommend against installing the Yosemite beta on your primary Mac. Ideally, you’ll want a separate Mac you can dedicate to running the beta, so that if you have any serious problems, you won’t be stuck without a working Mac—and you can erase the test Mac’s drive and start over if things go completely south.

If dedicating a Mac to the beta isn’t possible, a reasonably safe alternative is to use a separate drive—a second internal drive, or an external (USB, Thunderbolt, or FireWire) drive—for the beta. Install the Yosemite beta on that drive and boot from it whenever you want to test Yosemite. If you have problems with the beta OS, at least they won’t affect your “production” Mac. (That is, unless there’s a bug in the beta that affects data on other drives. Which is why you have backups—see the next item.)

Alternatively, if you have a virtualization app such as Parallels or Fusion, you can install the Yosemite beta in a virtual machine. This will let you test the new OS, relatively safely, in a separate window while you’re booted in Mavericks.

Whichever approach you take…

Should I do anything special to safeguard my data before I install the beta?

Back up, back up, back up. Unless you’re going to install the Yosemite beta on a secondary Mac (or on a secondary drive or partition, or in a virtual machine) and you don’t care about losing data on that Mac or volume, you’ll want to have a good backup plan—ideally, a separate backup plan from the one you use to back up your main Mac or drive. The last thing you want to do is accidentally overwrite your non-beta backups with data from your beta-test system.

And even if you do install the beta on a separate volume or in a virtual machine, you’ll still want to make sure you’re maintaining your main backup routine, just in case the beta inadvertently affects other drive or volumes.

Similarly, once you’ve installed the public beta, make sure not to entrust any important data to only your test Mac or drive. Multiple copies of important data are, as always, a good idea.

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How do I install the Yosemite beta?

You’ll install the Yosemite beta just as you would Mavericks: You download the installer from the Mac App Store, double-click the downloaded installer app, choose a volume on which to install, and follow the prompts.

Of course, that’s the oversimplified version. If you’ve read our installation guide for Mavericks, you know that there are a few things you can do to help ensure the process goes smoothly, such as first using Disk Utility to check the drive you’ll be using for the beta, and making sure you have the latest versions of your favorite apps. Some developers may even have beta versions of their own software that have been updated for use with the Yosemite beta.

You can then follow along with our Mavericks installation article, as the procedure is nearly identical. As mentioned above, we recommend dedicating a separate Mac, or at least a separate drive or partition, for Yosemite beta testing.

One suggestion mentioned in that guide that I want to call out here: If the Yosemite beta installer is located in its default location (in /Applications), the installer will delete itself during the installation process. So if you’d like to keep the installer application around—say, for creating a bootable installer drive (a procedure we’ll be explaining for you soon)—you’ll need to keep a copy of it somewhere outside of your main Applications folder.

Will Apple provide updates to the Yosemite beta like it does regular versions of OS X? Do I have to update?

Yes, over the course of the beta program, Apple will provide periodic updates to the OS. These will be available, as with updates to Mavericks, through the Mac App Store. It’s a good idea to update, so you know you’re running the latest version of the Yosemite beta, though you won’t be required to update.

(Normally, we’d recommend waiting a few days after an OS update is released so you can watch for reports of major bugs, installing once it seems as though the update is solid. However, as the point of a beta test is to test, and as you’re not running the beta OS on your primary Mac—right?—and as you’re making extra-extra sure your data is safely backed up, you should probably just update immediately.)

What if I install the Yosemite beta and regret it? Can I go back to Mavericks?

Unlike with iOS, you can always revert to an earlier version of OS X, though depending on how you back up, it’s not necessarily a painless process.

If you followed our advice and installed onto a secondary Mac or drive, you can just erase that volume and go back to your “real” Mac or startup drive and pretend the Yosemite beta never happened.

If for some reason you need to go back to an earlier version of OS X on your Yosemite beta Mac or drive, the easiest way is to make sure the data on that drive is backed up; erase the drive; install Mavericks onto it; and then, on first startup, use the OS X Migration Assistant to import your data from the backup.

Will I be able to upgrade directly to the final version of Yosemite when it’s released this fall? Or will I have to erase my testing drive and start from scratch?

The public beta will automatically update using the Software Update mechanism used for other OS X updates! So it should be very easy.

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