Somewhat lost in all the excitement around Apple’s other hardware and software updates this month is macOS Sierra, which begins shipping today as a free upgrade for all Macs introduced since late 2009.
As you may recall, Apple renamed Mac OS X to macOS to make the brand more consistent with its other OS releases—like iOS, tvOS, and watchOS—and Sierra, or version 10.12, is the first to bear this new name.
“Sierra is a fantastic new release,” Apple senior vice president of Software Engineering Craig Federighi said during his appearance at the WWDC 2016 keynote back in June, “with a big focus on Continuity, iCloud, and the fundamentals of the Mac experience.”
I don’t use macOS enough to review Sierra, but I do of course keep my MacBook Air up-to-date with the latest macOS version. And I’m in the Apple Developer Program, so I’ve actually been using macOS—yes, part time, granted—since June. I’m not quite sure why I’m so ambivalent about macOS, but I’ve always been, though I really like most Mac hardware.
Anyway, here’s a quick rundown of what’s new.
It’s free. As with the past several macOS/Mac OS X versions, Sierra is available as a free upgrade via the Mac App Store. The download weighs in at about 4.8 GB and is available for all Macs introduced since late 2009, Apple notes.
Siri. The appearance of Siri, Apple’s personal digital assistant, on the Mac is of course the marquee feature here, though critics are right to wonder what took so long. It works about as expected, which is to say much like Cortana on Windows 10, and the results appear in a phone-looking panel on the side of the screen. But there are also Mac-specific features, which makes sense: You can search for files on your computer, search the web, check spelling, add items to your calendar, and more.
Universal clipboard. This is one of a handful of features that I see on other platforms that I’m truly envious of: The ability to seamlessly copy items like images, video, and text on one device—a Mac, iPhone, or iPad—and then paste them on another. This is the type of benefit you can only have by closely aligning platforms from a single vendor, and it highlights the advantages—gulp—of lock-in.
Simpler login, but only with Apple Watch. This is another one of those features, though I like the way Google handles this on Chromebook (with an Android device) better. That is, if you’re wearing your Apple Watch, you will automatically—if slowly—be logged into your Mac. This is a big deal because macOS, unlike Windows, doesn’t offer elegant sign-in types, like a PIN. You must otherwise type in a password.
iCloud Drive. Taking a page from the Windows playbook, macOS now offers integrated support for iCloud Drive in the Finder shell. This means that you can common file system destinations like the Desktop and Documents folders are automatically synced to the cloud so you can access them on your other Apple devices. Smart. But then, as Windows users, we’ve known about that for years.
Apple Pay on the web. Apple has offed Apple Pay on its iPhones for the past few years, and while it hasn’t exactly become as ubiquitous as many of us had expected, it is very easy to use. Well, now it’s on the Mac, through the Safari web browser, where you can pay electronically and then complete purchases with Touch ID on your iPhone or by double-clicking the side button on your Apple Watch.
Storage space optimization. As it does on its iPhones, Apple will automatically optimize the disk space on your Mac by automatically moving rarely-used files to iCloud and making them available on-demand (assuming you’re online, of course).
App tabs. Apple and third-party apps can now implement document/view tabs that work just like the tabs in your web browser. So the Pages app—sort of a poor man’s Microsoft Word—will now display multiple word processing documents in tabs, for example.
There are of course many other improvements. The Photos app has been updated with a new Memories feature that works a lot like the Assistant in Google Photos. Messages has been updated in tandem with the iPhone app, proving emojis, videos and preview links. Apple Music, sadly still bogged down by being part of iTunes, has gotten a major UI improvement. And so on. It’s a pretty big update.
But then it’s also a macOS update, so it doesn’t seem that big. That’s because Apple went in a sharply different direction than Microsoft did, and didn’t try to merge its mobile platform, iOS, with the Mac. So Mac users never suffered through the turmoil of a product like Windows 8, though they likewise never benefited from such things as multi-touch and pen support.
It’s worth examining. While I prefer Windows 10 to macOS, I so appreciate the Mac’s laser-like focus on desktop/PC-type productivity. Ultimately, it’s the versatility of Windows that puts it over the top, I think: I can choose a 2-in-1 if I want it all, or I can opt out of multitouch and pen and stick with classic form factors. On the Mac side of the fence, you need two devices, two expensive devices—a Mac and an iPad—if you want to do it all.
All that said, kudos to Apple for integrating mobile features regardless, and doing so in a way that both makes sense and is truly useful. As a Windows user, I’d kill for some of these features, especially the Universal clipboard.