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A Little Reality About Public Betas

In recent years, Apple has allowed customers to take a huge chance. As with members of Apple’s developer program, you can get early access to Apple’s operating systems, for better or worse. And sometimes it can be for worse.

While Apple wasn’t doing public betas of what was then called the Mac OS in the 1990s, they had a Customer Quality Feedback program (CQF) that allowed a small number of regular folk to get access to Apple software — and sometimes the hardware.

I was allowed to participate for a few years, until they reconsidered my status as a journalist and decided I had to go. This happened after the original Bondi blue iMac came out in 1998; I had one for a while. So I wrote an article about it for the Arizona Republic, and was even granted an interview with Jonathan Ive. Remember that few knew then what he’d turn out to be.

Oh well, it as fun while it lasted.

Well, maybe that was it, although I received permission to write that piece, but it was the end of my participation in the beta program until I set aside the cash to become a registered developer. In the old days, you’d also receive a hardware discount, which usually meant that I’d mostly pay for that membership if I bought a new Mac on a regular basis.

Originally, when there were separate iOS and macOS developer programs, you paid a membership fee for each; they’ve since been combined. But when the public beta program was established, that was really no longer necessary unless you actually planned on building apps.

When Apple started the public beta program, it was supposedly limited to one million people, but it does appear that anyone with a pulse can apply and be accepted. Today, you have access to macOS, iOS and tvOS; the latter for the fourth generation Apple TV. When a major release is launched at the WWDC, it will take two or three weeks before it’s cleaned up enough to allow for public access. Otherwise, there’s rarely more than a day’s separation between developer and public betas.

So might as well save your money.

Using a beta operating system can be enlightening, sometimes fun, but just as often infuriating. This is particularly true at the early stages of the beta process, where there are loads of big bad bugs to be fixed.

I’ve worked with Mac betas since the early 1990s, when an Apple developer gave me access to System 7. What I learned early on is that you need to have a full backup handy, in case something goes awry.

I recall macOS releases where it was barely functional in key respects. I heavily depend on Mail, and when it doesn’t work property, it stops me in my tracks. Several macOS releases weren’t stable enough for regular use until a month or two passed. But since I set it up on a separate partition, or drive, no harm is done. I just change the Startup Disk and restart.

With iOS, it’s a bit more difficult to revert to the release OS. It requires a Restore, but Apple gives you access to the last release version via its public beta site. Just don’t forget to back up before you install a public beta. If you attempt to rely on a backup made with the new OS, it probably won’t work with the older one.

I make a huge deal of taking precautions because some people are going to get into trouble, and then have a whale of a time getting a Mac, iPhone or iPad restored.

With the first public beta release of iOS 11, I found it worked decently enough, and I liked the new features. But I stopped dead in my tracks when I couldn’t run Google Maps. Whenever it tried to create a route, it would crash. That might not be important, unless you’re using an app or service that relies upon Google Maps, such as Lyft. So it was either make some extra money from a side gig, or give up the public beta, and you can guess what I did.

With macOS High Sierra, I opted to install it on my 17-inch MacBook Pro, from 2010. It’s one of the oldest Macs that supports 10.13, and I suspect it will drop off the list next year. But I thought that would happen this year, so maybe I’ll be lucky.

If you’ve read our Comments sections, you’ll see the complaints, from people who believe High Sierra is the worst beta ever, or at least the bugs impact them more directly than in previous versions. But I’ve been doing this for a while, and I find it a mixed bag. In addition to the inability to wake from Sleep on my MacBook Pro, Mail refuses to fully download new messages, or at least those received in the weeks since I last used it.

Performance seems no slower than Sierra, however, and most apps appear to run, for the most part. Since the Mac is now upgraded to APFS, the successor to the aging file system, HFS+, going back means erasing and restoring. So I’ll tolerate the problems, and I’m sure most will be resolved after a few updates.

But that’s also a key reason why I’m not going to install High Sierra on a second partition on my iMac. Switching to APFS means I’ll have to restore my Mac, so I’ll wait until I’m convinced the MacBook Pro can handle my mission critical apps without trouble. Then it’ll go on my iMac — after I ran a full backup of course.

I do think you just have to be realistic about the process. Expect the serious bugs to be resolved before long, so that’s no big deal. If you encounter problems, don’t forget to use Apple’s Feedback app to send along the details.

After all is said and done, what do you think about the new or changed features? Do they justify the upgrade? That’s the real issue.