macOS Sierra has more of everything you love, just with a different name

What makes a good operating system? Utility, intelligence, consistency, stability, speed and knowability.

The last component should be the easiest one, especially for well-established OSes, but it’s where many have stumbled. Microsoft, for instance, learned a hard lesson with the innovative and overreaching Windows 8. It hid key components of the operating system and tried to drag Windows users into the touch age. We know how that turned out. Windows 10, an excellent OS in its own right, is also the salve for many of the wounds inflicted by Windows 8.

Apple has never made that kind of mistake with its desktop operating system. Sure, it’s had some bad releases, especially in the days when the OS was called “System.” The OS X era, though, ushered in a series of reliably smooth interfaces and updates. Over time, the biggest question Apple had to address was how its growing stable of screens on phones, tablets, TVs and watches would reflect and, where possible, interact with Apple’s grandad of operating systems.

The rechristened Sierra macOS answers that question and much more.

If you’ve been using OS X for the last few releases, macOS Sierra will be comfortable and familiar. The desktop and dock are virtually unchanged. In fact, of the nearly dozen major changes, few are visible when you launch the OS.

Even so, each change is valuable in its own right and it all results in a markedly better OS than the one that came before it.

I’ve written at some length about Apple’s digital assistant Siri’s integration with the macOS desktop. While I wish there were a way to set up an “always listening mode” as you can with Microsoft Windows Cortana, I am quite impressed with what Siri can accomplish when you ask.

The Siri icon is one of the few noticeable desktop changes. The rainbow wave icon sits in the upper right hand corner of the screen — it also has some prime real estate in the Dock — just waiting for you to click it. Siri still relies on the internet, though, so if you select it when not connected, it’s basically useless. That’s probably one of the reasons Spotlight, Apple’s seemingly redundant universal search remains in the spot right next to Siri. It works with or without the internet (though its suggestions for movie showtimes and location-based information still need the internet, too).

When connected though, Siri can, just as it can on the phone and Apple Watch, respond to natural language queries and return usable results. Some, like images, can be dragged right out of the Siri results window into other applications like mail.

Siri can launch Safari!

Image: screenshot

As a desktop citizen, Siri also gains the ability to open apps and manage some settings. Better yet, Siri will usually let you ask for things in ways that make sense to you. I was able to have Siri adjust screen brightness by asking it both “Make the screen brighter” and “Lower screen brightness.” She was also able to check how much iCloud storage I have left. There are, essentially, an endless list of questions you can currently ask Siri and it even retains its trademark sense of humor. When I thanked Siri, it replied, “Oh, no, I should be thanking you.”

Siri on macOS Sierra is a good tool for finding cat picks and sending them to your friends.

Image: screenshot

Siri has its limits. I was able to ask Siri to find an available table for tonight, but she told me should couldn’t make reservations without the right app.

Since Siri is a cloud-based service, it will get smarter over time.

I suspect that, for most Apple customers, iCloud is the place they store their iPhone and iPad backups and the thing that constantly reminds them on their iPhone that they do not have enough storage for all their stuff. That situation probably won’t improve with Sierra, but now, at least, iCloud finally serves a desktop utility.

iClouds integration into the macOS desktop and file system is expertly done and long in the coming.

Image: Screenshot

With iCloud Desktop, anything you drag or save on your macOS desktop is automatically stored in the cloud; iCloud does the same thing with your Documents folder, a trick Apple likely learned from Microsoft’s OneDrive. As a result, you can access these files from your iPhone, iPad, the web and even Windows desktop. And if you signed into another Mac, it’ll have the same desktop and document files.

Here’s what iCloud’s new Desktop and Documents folder look like through iCloud’s Web interface in Chrome on a Windows 10 PC.


In other words, iCloud is finally more like a cloud service than simply a file backup system.

At every turn, Apple guides you to moving more and more of your files to the cloud and their service. The storage management windows suggests you “optimize” local storage by moving all your high-resolution photos and videos to the cloud and keep lower resolution copies on the local system.

macOS offers numerous ways of managing local storage, some of which include eating more cloud-based storage.


This new optimize storage button should offer relief to those who’ve had their Macs for some time.


The way Apple treats iCloud storage like it’s an unlimited resource is kind of funny. I mean, it is, but it’s also not free. If you want 50 GB of storage, you’ll need to pay $0.99 a month. That’s a pretty good price (actually half of what Microsoft charges if you don’t buy Office 365 for $9.99 a month, which gives you a terabyte), but it’s worth remembering that it’s not 50 GB added each month, it’s just to maintain that amount. The more you store in the cloud from your desktop and the more iPhone backups you throw up there, the more iCloud storage you’re going to need.

If you do upgrade to macOS Sierra (and trust me, you will), 200 GB at $2.99 a month might be a better baseline going forward.

macOS Sierra continues the work begun with Handoff on Yosemite to reach out beyond the desktop to Apple’s other screens.

Before I started writing this review on a MacBook, for example, I unlocked it with my Apple Watch Series 2 running watchOS 3. I simply opened the laptop, the words “Unlocking with Apple Watch…” appeared on the screen and my system unlocked a moment later.

You know what’s fun? Unlocking your MacBook with your Apple Watch. Thanks macOS Sierra.

— Lance Ulanoff (@LanceUlanoff) September 20, 2016

Getting to this stage, though, was not as easy as I expected. If you want to use your Apple Watch, you not only have to enable it in the security settings, but you have to enable two-factor authentication on all of your iOS devices. In addition, I could no longer use my Apple ID password to log in. I had to set up a new, hard-to-remember password.

The joy of using an Apple Watch to unlock your macOS system will be tempered by the fact that you now have to use 2-factor authentication.

Image: screenshot

The good news is that, even though I did have to create this new password, I never have to use it because, obviously, I can now use the Apple Watch to unlock the computer. It’s something I really like, I just wish Apple didn’t make me jump through so many hoops to get there. At least I’m now a whole lot more secure across all of my macOS and iOS devices.

Apple Watch’s role as an authentication device also extends beyond unlocking your computer. With macOS Sierra you can now complete purchases with the watch or your touch ID-enabled iPhone. The process is simple. I simply found a shirt I liked on the retail site Spring (Apple says more than 3,000 support Apple Pay), selected the Apple Pay button and double-clicked on my Apple Watch button to complete the purchase. Since all of my credit card info is securely stored on the watch, everything just appeared on screen and my transaction was done. It almost makes buying stuff too easy.

I bought this shirt using Apple Pay on the Mac and completed the transaction using my Apple Watch.

Image: screenshot

What started with Handoff — the ability to start an action on an iOS devices like browsing the web, writing an email, getting directions and continuing it on the Mac — has now extended to a new Universal clipboard. Content copied on, say, an iPhone can, a moment later be pasted into another document on macOS Sierra. I loved how perfectly this worked — at least when going from the iPhone to pasting onto the desktop. I could not copy something on the desktop and paste it onto my phone, though.

As noted above, Apple’s left the look of its desktop interface pretty much untouched. There are, though, small, potentially useful differences.

Maps has tabs, but you have to know how to make them appear.

Image: screenshot

Tabs, for instance, now extend beyond the Safari Web browser into apps and maps, though the functionality is inconsistent. In Maps, for example, the interface offers no visual clues about how to add a tab. In Safari, there’s a “+” up in the far right corner. Select it and you open a new browser tab. To do the same on the first map screen, you have to right click or use two fingers on the touch pad to bring up a menu that includes this option: “New tab at this location.” As soon as you do that, the “+” sign does appear in the corner of the interface. I hope Apple decides to change that in the next version of macOS.

The more you let iCloud store and manage your photos, the more benefit you get in the searching and regurgitations side. The latter refers to macOS Sierra’s new Memories feature, which automatically analyzes your photos and then creates elegant slideshows. Sometimes the results are beautiful, but I also noticed that the AI isn’t very discerning (I noticed the same thing in Photos on iOS 10). Sometimes it pulls in sub-par, even ugly images.

macOS Sierra’s new Photos is constantly scanning your photos to make AI-driven Memories. It’s also picking faces out of all your photos. It’s up to you to identify them.

Image: screenshot

In general, though, Photos uses its new intelligence to good effect. Photos’ Memories facial recognition feature also automatically identifies the people in your images and the number of times they appear across your photos. Like Google Photos, you can identify these people by names pulled up from your contacts.

When combined with Siri, this becomes a pretty powerful tool. I was able to ask Siri to find me pictures of a particular person that were taken in Manhattan and got the two photos I was thinking about. Similarly, when I asked Siri to show me pictures of water, all my beach photos showed up. Smart stuff.

Siri’s AI is smart. I asked it to find my water pics and this was the result.

Image: screenshot

For individual photos, there’s a decent set of image editing features that are consistent with what you’ll find in iOS 10. But the desktop version adds a retouching tool that, in unskilled hands, might be more trouble than it’s worth. There’s also a photo markup tool that’s oddly hidden under extensions.

macOS Sierra is an operating system with thousands of features that would be impossible to cover in a single review. There’s an Apple Music update inside iTunes that probably deserves a standalone look. Messages on the desktop is, essentially, a subset of all you can now do with messages on iOS 10. So you can use larger emoji and view links and videos right inside Messages. People chatting with you through their mobile devices will have no idea you’re on a laptop.

There’s even a new Picture in Picture mode so you can watch iTunes movies and Safari videos in a small, resizable screen on top of your desktop while continuing to work on files underneath or beside it. The only thing I didn’t like about this is that PIP did not automatically minimize the large video window when you select PIP. In any case, I don’t think managers will approve of this nifty new feature.

Suffice to say that what was good about OS X El Capitan remains, and virtually all the enhancements found in macOS Sierra are effective and useful. Oh, and did I mention that it’s free?

Mac devotees will want to upgrade to it immediately.

Familiar • Great Siri integration • iCloud Desktop makes sense and offers real utility • Works well with your mobile devices • Free

Siri should have an always listening mode • Setting up unlock with the Apple Watch is a bit of a lift • It’s sure to make you more dependent on iCould storage

macOS Sierra is a high-quality, worthy upgrade, even if the biggest change is the name.

Originally published at on September 21, 2016.

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