The System Preferences app in macOS has been around since its inception, showing its age. A small, largely immutable rectangle of size for the small screens of the early 2000s, it’s time for Apple to create a new, modern Settings app for the modern Mac.
And in theory, that’s what the new System Settings app in macOS Ventura should do. It’s a new app, obviously inspired by the Settings apps on iOS and iPadOS. That’s not a bad idea since so many Mac users use those platforms too, and it makes sense that Apple’s platforms would harmonize with each other.
The problem is, with a month to go before macOS Ventura becomes final, the System Settings app in beta is a bit of a disaster. Unless things change quickly, Apple is in danger of replacing one of the worst system apps in macOS with a new app that’s just as bad or worse.
Is there hope? Look, I’m an optimist by nature. The System Settings app can be saved. But it will take a lot of work, and the first step should be for Apple to admit it has a problem.
It’s about results
It is widely known that the system settings are built by Apple using the latest software design framework, SwiftUI. SwiftUI, which Apple says is the future of building apps on Apple platforms, is very young and still experiencing some pretty huge growing pains.
In many ways, it’s good that Apple has decided to build major macOS apps with its own tools. That’s the only way those tools will ever get better — with people at Apple identifying their weaknesses and demanding change. Third party developers can only complain so much. The greatest pressure comes from within.
But I’m not a developer, I’m just a Mac user. I don’t care what tools Apple uses to build its operating systems and apps. In the end, what matters is how good the experience is. Any development system or programming language will spawn a range of software, from good to bad. Is SwiftUI the reason System Settings is a wreck? I don’t know, and I don’t care. It just has to get better. That’s all.
The System Preferences app is a strange beast, as you’d expect for a holdover from the prehistoric era of Mac OS X. At the top level, it has a few dozen icons to choose from—way too many—arranged in alphabetical order or divided into inscrutable categories.
But the two-dozen-esque icons (the exact number varies depending on what kind of Mac you’re using and the peripherals attached) aren’t the only organizational problem: click one and you’re often taken to a preferences pane that has its own navigation sidebar, tab groups and buttons that open modal preference windows. They are settings boxes all the way down.
In theory, System Settings should solve this problem. It uses the iOS/iPadOS approach of a large scrolling list of setting types, which is less intimidating but no less confusing – on my Mac Studio there are no less than 30 different top-level items! That’s a lot, and in reality the best way to access both apps is probably by using the Search box to find what you’re looking for.
While System Settings has reorganized the great wall of buttons into a very long scrolling list, it hasn’t shied away from the box-in-boxes approach of its predecessor. click on General, and you get… another scrolling list with a dozen more options! Each of these options leads to its own settings window. (That’s one extreme. Click on the other side Internet accounts or Game Centerand you’ll find extremely sparse, simple interfaces.)
The box-in-a-box approach makes everything look organized, but in reality it just hides the disorganization. It is unclear why the items in General are there and not at the highest level, except that they were considered insignificant enough to hide. (And you can’t drag out items you always use or mark them as favorites.)
Even worse, the System Settings app hides its hierarchies. If you end up in one of those General sections, it can be easy to misunderstand what you are seeing. On the right side of the window, there is only a back button next to the institution name to let you know that you are actually one level below the main list of General articles. If you find an item by searching, the left sidebar will not tell you which section you are in. If you click away to another category and then return to Generaldoes the app display the same item (such as Share) you were looking at when you last visited, instead of the whole General listing, which makes it easy for you to miss that you are not all General settings items, but a subcategory.
It is much.
Broaden your observations
Perhaps the most puzzling design decision about the new System Settings app is the fact that it’s still more or less square. Just about every Mac comes with a widescreen display and has for centuries. Why can’t the Settings app be resized? Why doesn’t it show its deep hierarchy by showing multiple columns so if you click on . clicks? Generalyou can see all sub-items and the contents of the selected sub-item?
Some sections also contain very long scroll lists. click on Privacy and Securityand you will find more than 20 sections that you can click for more settings, and below That are the controls to set App Store security levels and enable and disable FileVault and Lockdown mode. Imagine if we could make the interface a bit bigger so we could see more content on a giant desktop screen or even on a 16-inch MacBook Pro.
Much confusion and frustration with the interface could have been resolved by letting the app spread its wings a bit, both horizontally and vertically.
Instead, once macOS Ventura ships, be prepared to click around… a lot. System Preferences is an app that requires a lot of clicking itself, but System Settings doesn’t really solve the problem. The sidebar means you don’t have to click back to the top level, which is an improvement. But the underlying hierarchy requires a lot of back and forth clicks, consuming many of those saved clicks.
i found the devil
These are some of the major system settings issues. There are also dozens, if not hundreds, of minor quirks in the app. Each is an example of how Apple misunderstands the details, and the details matter. (See Niki Tonsky’s Twitter thread for some amazing examples with inconsistencies in interface elements, in text layouts, in misaligned buttons, and more.)
I am a writer and editor, so I often see inconsistencies in the text of interfaces, and they are very easy to find in System Settings. For example, items are capitalized in one pop-up menu and not capitalized in the next.
And perhaps the most disappointing of all? No one seems to have organized something. Why is the default web browser setting at the bottom of the Desktop and dock settings list, right in between Stage manager and Mission Control? Why do Mission Control settings appear as separate toggles in the Desktop and Dock preferences list, while the two Stage Manager settings checkboxes are hidden behind a To adjust knob?
So what now?
The list goes on and on and on and on. I want to believe that Apple’s system settings team is working hard to fix all this for a fall release, but the list of things wrong with this app is so long that I can’t see how even an all-hands situation is on deck. could get it in good condition to ship with pride in macOS Ventura 13.0.
This is a problem. Apple can’t just put a ‘beta’ label on its operating system’s System Settings app! It has to send it and stick with it, or it has to get out of the way.
There are not many good options here. Either Apple delivers an embarrassing app, or it rushes back to the old System Preferences app and tries to hold out for another year, which requires integrating all the new settings added in macOS Ventura.
My guess is that Apple will go ahead and ship everything with 13.0, and users will have to deal with the replacement of an old and outdated Preferences app with a buggy and frustrating Settings app. That will be bad. What would be even worse is if Apple abandoned the project and walked away.
Sending a broken Settings app is embarrassing. But pretending it’s not broken would be unscrupulous.