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macOS 10.12 Sierra Review: Apple's New Mac Software

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Reviews

All the good, bad, and ugly of the Mac's new OS.


Michael Grothaus

20:02, 10 Oct 2016

While iOS 10 got all the attention from reviewers and users, Apple also put out another major operating system update in September: macOS 10.12 Sierra. Of course, there are reasons why iOS 10 is getting so much more love than Sierra. For starters, iOS 10 got many more feature improvements than Sierra. But also the install base of macOS is much smaller–tens of millions of devices instead of billions—because macOS only runs on Apple desktops and laptops.

A note on the name as well: Apple has ditched the “OS X” moniker and instead changes the brand name of its desktop operating system to “macOS”. This makes a lot of sense from a branding perspective as it matching the naming conventions of Apple’s other OSes: iOS, watchOS, and tvOS. It’s also important to note that macOS 10.12 Sierra didn’t get any kind go major visual upgrade besides a new white frosted look for Notification Center, which matches how Notification Center now looks in iOS 10.

So just what is new in macOS Sierra? In the first part of our review we’ll take a look at its new features including Siri, Universal Clipboard, iCloud Drive, and Apple Watch Unlock.

macOS 10.12 Sierra Review: Siri

Without a doubt, the biggest new feature of macOS Sierra is that Siri finally comes to the Mac. It’s also arguably much better suited for the Mac than it is for the iPhone since it can perform system level tasks like looking for specific documents, answer utility questions about your Mac (“How much battery life do I have left?”), and change settings on your Mac.

Siri works well for all of the above. For instance saying “Make the screen brighter” and Siri will automatically make the screen brighter and show you a bigness slider right in the Siri window so you can tweak it to your liking. This is infinitely more useful than being the Settings app to change brightness.

Another favorite Siri trick I love is you can ask it how to spell a word and Siri tells you. This is an awesome tool for writers who aren’t the best spellers. Siri, of course, also does much of the same tasks it does on iOS including fielding queries about weather, sports, movies, stocks, directions, and more. It also allows you to post to Twitter of Facebook using only your voice and lets you search the web and drag and drop results from your search–such as a search for pictures of apples–right to your desktop or open document.

Overall, I use Siri much more on my Mac than I do on my iPhone. Perhaps that’s because it just feels more natural to do e bettering this is just the start of Siri on the Mac and looking forwards to what it brings in the future.

macOS 10.12 Sierra Review: Universal Clipboard

Another small but great feature of macOS sierra is Universal Clipboard. This is a feature included in iOS 10 as well and without that cross support would leave it essentially impotent. Universal Clipboard enables you to copy text or images on one Mac device or iOS device and paste that content on another iOS device or Mac. iCloud’s backend seamlessly handles the cloud copy and paste feature–and it’s a brilliant one and works perfectly, making it much easier to pick up work on one device and carry on on another. Of course the bad news here is for Windows users: Universal Clipboard only works between iOS devices and Macs. It does not work between iOS devices and Windows PCs.

macOS 10.12 Sierra Review: iCloud Drive

Ugh. macOS Sierra was on a roll until we get to iCloud Drive. In Sierra Apple decided to expand iCloud drive to include your Desktop folder and Documents folder. This means that besides all of the iCloud Documents from apps iCloud Drive already automatically syncs between Macs and iOS devices, it will now store any file on your desktop and any file in your Mac’s Documents folder in iCloud Drive–making it available in the iCloud Drive app on iOS.

Good in theory, horrible in implementation. Thankfully this expanded iCloud Drive capability is off by default in Sierra—and I recommend you keep it that way. Enabling it actually removes all local copies of your documents from your desktop and Documents folder (yes, they literally disappear) and shuffles them into your new iCloud Drive folders in iCloud Drive. Seeing this happen is horrifying because it makes you think your files are being deleted. It also messes up any other syncing services like Dropbox if their sync folders are stored in your Mac’s Documents folder.

The way Apple should have implemented Desktop and Documents folders support for iCloud Drive is by leaving those documents in their exact same old locations on your Mac. They chose not to do this and it makes using iCloud Drive a nightmare in Sierra. For that reason, I recommend not enabling the feature.

macOS 10.12 Sierra Review: Apple Watch Unlock

This last feature we are touching on in Part 1 of our review will only be of use to people who own an Apple Watch. In macOS Sierra users can pair their Apple Watch to their Mac, which automatically allows the Mac to be unlocked when that Apple Watch is near. It’s a handy feature, yes, but one that is actually quite frustrating to set up (you need to Google for instructions–for some reason Apple did not think to include a set-up walkthrough in Sierra’s settings).

However, once it is setup, it works like a charm. Then again, the auto-unlock process literally only saves you a few seconds. And besides, once Apple unveils new MacBook Pros later this month with a built-in Touch ID fingerprint sensor it will make this new feature seem a bit second rate.

macOS 10.12 Sierra Review: Photos – Search

If you’ve ready my previous iOS 10 review, much of what I have to say about the Photos app in macOS Sierra might sound very familiar. That’s because Apple has worked hard on bringing feature parity across the apps. Finally, in macOS Sierra, the Photos app is getting back to its full-featuredness that the iPhotos app had, which is replaced a few years ago. And then there are the brand new features–including an insanely powerful new search feature.

Photos in macOS Sierra uses machine learning to scan your entire library to pick out images in them–without you needing to tag them or do a thing. To see how well this worked, I typed in “water” and the app returned thousands of pictures I had taken over the years that had water in them: oceans, lakes, rivers, fountains, and more.

Make no mistake about it, this new search functionality in macOS Sierra’s Photos app is one of the most significant advances in search computing in years. But not content with “water” I next typed in “cake”. To show you just how smart Photos’ machine learning is, it not only returned one category of pictures with cakes in them, but separated them into four different categories: pictures with birthday cakes, pictures with wedding cakes, pictures with general cakes (such as cupcakes), and even pictures with hot cakes in them.

If you’re a person who loves taking pictures and who has a massive Photos library with hundreds of thousands of photographs going back decades you’ll love Photos new search features. They are simply amazing and they’ll have you discovering pics you’ve long forgotten about.

macOS 10.12 Sierra Review: Photos – Memories

Matter of fact, picture discovery and presentation is something Apple is concerned about. We take more pictures than ever, but finding the right ones and presenting them in interesting ways is harder than ever. Photos’ machine learning search solves the first problem, and its new Memories feature in macOS Sierra solves the second–just as it does in iOS 10.

Memories gets a prominent placement in the Photos sidebar. Click the header to go to the Memories window where Photos automatically assembles pictures based on “memories”–times and locations of related photos. Memories include categories such as locations, “Best of the Year”, “On This Day”, and more. Tap on any memory to view the photos inside it.

Along with Photos; new search features, Memories will help people rediscover their pictures like never before.

macOS 10.12 Sierra Review: Photos – People and Places Albums (But Where Is Live Photos????)

The final improvement to Photos in macOS 10.12 Sierra I want to touch on is the improved People and the new Places albums. Photos has overhauled the old People album and now scans your library and uses machine learning to identify individuals in your pictures. It then assembles special sub-albums feature pictures with those individuals. This allows you to quickly access an album with all the pictures of, for example, your spouse. The only drawback about the People album is that Faces collections inside the album aren’t synced between devices: that’s right, you’ll need to recreate individual Faces collections inside each People album on your Mac, iPhone, and iPad. Hopefully Apple will change this.

Another new album is Places. This album displays a map with stacks of photos. The stacks represent locations where those photos were taken. Zoom in to get more precise locations, such as individual addresses, or zoom out to see photos grouped by a larger geographic area, such as city or country. The Places album is going to be extremely popular with people who travel a lot.

One disappointment with Photos in macOS Sierra–as in iOS 10–is that Apple STILL have not created a dedicated Live Photos album. This is baffling as Live Photos are relatively hard to spot mixed in with your regular images. GET ON IT, APPLE!

macOS 10.12 Sierra Review: Messages

While Apple has been working to bring parity between iOS and macOS, the Mac got the shaft in regards to the Messages app when compared to all the massive improvements Messages has seen in iOS 10. Messages in macOS Sierra does NOT get its own in-app App Store or Stickers or animated backgrounds and special bubble effects–though all of those save the animated backgrounds and apps will show up in Messages in macOS Sierra, you just can’t send the same from the Mac.

What Messages does gain in macOS Sierra is three things. 1) Larger emoji–now when you send a single emoji in Messages, it will appear a bit larger, making it easier to see. 2) Tapback responses–right click on any message bubble and select Tapback from the contextual menu. A bubble will pop up with a heart, thumbs up, thumbs down, HA HA, !!, and ?. Click on one to add the emotive icon directly to the chat bubble in question. It’s a nice way to add some more content directly to a particular sections of a message thread. 3) Rich Text Links–previously linked shared in Messages would only show the URL; the receiver really had no clear idea what they were clicking on. Now in macOS Sierra all links sent via Messages are turned into Rich Links, which display the link’s headline and a nice preview image so you know what you are clicking on. Rich Links also allow videos from YouTube to be played right in the Messages app.

macOS 10.12 Sierra Review: Tabs, Picture-In-Picture, and Apple Pay On The Web

Some final odds and ends worth touching on: macOS Sierra now brings tabs to almost every app on your Mac. This means that, like in the Finder and safari already, you can now open up new application windows in tabbed view instead of having to have a new independent window. For example, now if you want two Pages documents open, then no longer need to both be in their own windows–they can appear next to each other in a tabbed interface. This is great for productivity.

macOS Sierra also adds support for video Picture-In-Picture. You can now float the video window from iTunes or Safari over other windows on the desktop, allowing you to both work and view video at the same time.

The final cool feature I love is Apple Pay now comes to the web via Safari. Individual sites need to build in support for Apple Pay–but many already have, including easyJet. On sites that support Apple Pay on the web you’ll be able to click a new Apple Pay button at the purchase screen. Then simply authenticate your purchase and payment details by using the Touch ID on your iPhone and your payment is made–no need to enter your credit card or shipping details on website ever gain.

macOS 10.12 Sierra Review: Verdict

macOS 10.12 Sierra isn’t a groundbreaking OS. But it is a continued refinement of an already great one. While it’s headline features including Siri and iCloud Drive might leave something to be desired, its smaller features such as Apple Pay On The Web, application tabs, Universal Clipboard, and all the awesome new Photos features are the ones that make the operating system worth it. If you own a supported Mac, there’s no reason not to upgrade to this excellent–and completely free–OS.

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