Review: Apple’s macOS Sierra a minor — but worthy — update

Apple has a reputation for being a revolutionary company. But it’s taken an evolutionary approach to updating the software underlying its Mac computers.

While Microsoft has radically overhauled Windows numerous times over the last 10 years, Apple has opted for incremental changes, each year adding a few new features or polishing the look and feel of the operating system. This year is no different.

Indeed, perhaps the biggest change to the software this go-round is its name. Sixteen years after first introducing it, Apple has ditched the “OS X” name in favor of “macOS.” But even that change isn’t really radical. Instead, it harkens back to the pre-OS X name for the Mac operating system — “Mac OS” — and is more in line with the names Apple uses for its other operating systems, including tvOS for Apple TV and watchOS for Apple Watch.

But macOS Sierra — the official moniker of the latest release which is available as a free download today — offers more than just a name change. Instead, you’ll find a handful of notable changes, some of which you soon may find yourself using on a regular basis.

As has been the case with other recent Mac operating system releases, many of the new features either came from iOS — the software that undergirds the iPhone and iPad — or are designed to make Macs work more seamlessly with iOS devices.

The headline new feature is Siri, Apple’s voice assistant, which the company has finally brought to the Mac five years after the feature debuted on the iPhone. Siri works much the way you might expect it to, and does many of the same things it can do on the iPhone or iPad. It can give you sports scores, tell you how stocks performed, launch applications, perform math functions and search the web.

You activate Siri through a keyboard shortcut or by clicking on its icon, which you can find either in the macOS’s application dock or in the menu bar at the top of the screen. When it’s active, Siri pops up in a small window in the upper-right-hand side of the screen. It shows its answers to your queries in the same windows.

One of the cool things about Siri on the Mac is that you can do more with its responses than you typically can with those on Apple’s handheld devices. If you ask Siri to search for photos of Siamese cats, for example, you can drag a resulting photo from the Siri window into a document. You can also turn Siri’s responses into widgets in macOS’s notifications area, so that you can find them again quickly.

Of course, Siri shares the same shortcoming on the Mac as it does on the iPhone — it doesn’t always understand you or what you want it to do. And it doesn’t have some of the tricks the iOS version has. You can’t activate the feature by simply saying, “Hey, Siri” as you can on an iPhone. And it doesn’t look like Apple has opened Siri up to outside Mac developers as it has for the iOS programmers.

Besides Siri, another top feature of macOS Sierra is something Apple calls “Universal Clipboard.” This feature allows you to copy something on your Mac and paste it on your iOS device or vice versa. So, you can copy a picture saved to your desktop on your Macbook Pro and paste it into a note you are taking on your iPad. Or you can copy an address from your iPhone’s phone book and paste it into a document you’re typing on your iMac.

Universal Clipboard works wirelessly and automatically. You don’t have to connect your computer to your iPhone via a cable. As long as you are signed into the same iTunes account on both devices and the devices are within 10 feet or so of each other, the feature is just supposed to work.

It didn’t always just work for me. I sometimes had to try twice to paste a particular item. And sometimes the menu bar seemed to get stuck as I tried to select paste. But those problems could just be a function of running a beta version of Sierra. When Universal Clipboard did work smoothly, it was fun to use, representing an easy way to transfer information directly between devices.

And macOS Sierra features another new trick that can help you move items more easily between your Apple devices. iCloud, Apple’s cloud storage service, can now be configured to automatically sync the files stored on your desktop or in your documents folder on your Mac with your iOS devices and even with other Macs.

So, if you drag a photo to your desktop, it automatically shows up in a “desktop” folder in the iCloud app on your iPhone. Or if you save a PDF to the “documents” folder in your iCloud app on your iPad, it will automatically show up in the documents folder on your Mac. In my tests, the feature worked quickly and easily, even syncing files such as program installers that couldn’t be opened on my iPhone.

With this year’s operating system updates, Apple has revamped the Photos app on both the Mac and on iOS devices. The new app comes with some advanced image recognition features. It’s supposed to recognize individual people in your pictures and group them together. It also allows you to search for images by objects that can be found within them.

Unfortunately, it can take days or even weeks for the new Photos apps to scan through libraries of photos, particularly if you have a sizeable one. The Mac version of the app didn’t complete its scan of my library, so I don’t know how well it will do on facial recognition. It did pretty well with image recognition, quickly finding among my pictures ones with a carousel in it and others that included a swimming pool.

Apple has designed macOS to work better not just with iOS devices, but also with Apple Watch. You can now use an Apple Watch to automatically unlock your Mac, instead of having to type in your password. In my book, this has quickly became one of the few compelling reasons right now to actually wear an Apple Watch.

You’ll also be able to use Apple Watch — or an iPhone — to authorize payments via Apple Pay, another new feature in macOS Sierra. With Apple Pay, you’ll be able to make payments using the credit card stored on your phone or watch when you make purchases at particular Web sites.

Instead of having to type in your credit card — or hope that the merchant has safely kept your number on file — you can check out by clicking on an Apple Pay button. You confirm the transaction in a way similar to what you’d do in a physical store — by pressing on a button on Apple Watch or by putting your thumb on the fingerprint sensor on your iPhone. You’ll only be able to use it at a select number of merchants at launch and it only works in Apple’s Safari browser. But in my quick test, it worked well.

Apple added a few other notable features in macOS. For example, you’ll be able in some cases to pop the videos out of your web browser to have them live as a window on your desktop for a picture-in-picture effect. I only found that worked on some sites, and it only works with Safari, not other browsers.

You’ll also be able to use tabs in applications other than web browsers. So, if you are working on two separate documents in Pages, you can view them as tabs within the same application window rather than as separate windows altogether.

None of the changes that macOS brings is revolutionary, of course. But many are worthwhile and some are quite compelling. Assuming it doesn’t conflict with any of the software you use — something to always be wary of when upgrading your operating system — it’s certainly worth installing.

Photo: An Apple Macbook computer displays a response from Siri, a new feature of Apple’s macOS Sierra, the latest version of the operating system that underlies its laptop and desktop computers. (Courtesy of Apple)

 

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