macOS Sierra review: Siri and iCloud take control

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Sierra is rolling out now, so what can you expect?

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After months of beta testing, Apple last week pushed the final version of macOS Sierra to compatible iMacs, MacBooks, Mac Pros and Mac Minis. The new OS marks another stage in the Mac's evolution, and introduces a certain well-known digital assistant to the desktop too. Read on for New Atlas' macOS Sierra review.

That headline feature – the arrival of Siri in macOS (no longer OS X) – is likely to be what you notice first and what you spend most of your time playing around with once you've got Sierra installed. But how helpful you find Siri to be depends on what you use your Mac for and how comfortable you are chatting with an AI entity living inside your laptop or desktop.

It's not really something we've found ourselves turning to all that much, but it has some nice tricks up its sleeve (such as the option to pin Siri results to the Notification Center pane). Unlike Cortana in Windows 10, there's no text entry fallback for Siri, which can come in handy if you're in a coffee shop or just not in a very talkative mood.

There's no doubt the list of what Siri can do in macOS Sierra is impressive: everything from turning Bluetooth on and off to finding files on your machine (plus all the usual web search features you'll know from iOS). We just haven't used it much since installing the first beta edition back in June.

Aside from Siri, using Sierra is a smooth and pleasing experience, as you might expect from an Apple product that's been refined and evolved over so many years. Visual and interface tweaks are kept down to a minimum, and it takes some digging around before you uncover all of the new features on offer.

I wasn't able to test one of them, Auto Unlock with the Apple Watch, because I didn't have an Apple timepiece to hand. We're sure it works as advertised though, and based on our experience unlocking Chromebooks with a trusted Android phone, it's going to make logging in much more painless. Smart move, Apple.

Going beyond the desktop

One upgrade that is noticeable is the extra iCloud integration, an area Apple can't really ignore if it wants to keep up with the Googles and Microsofts of this world. macOS Sierra has the option to automatically sync your desktop and Documents folder across iCloud, and move older files to the cloud to free up space locally.

Both features get a big thumbs up from us and work very smoothly (though I only have one Mac and one iPhone to assess them on). They are also dependent on you having enough iCloud storage space free.

The option to shift older files to iCloud is part of a new storage optimization section in macOS Sierra, and it's combined with other handy tools, such as settings to clean up junk files that are no longer needed, erase local copies of iTunes movies and shows you've watched, and empty the trash automatically.

All very useful, and together with the introduction of Siri, a sign that macOS is now about way more than just the local machine you're currently working on. We should also mention the new Universal Clipboard that lets you copy and paste items between macOS and iOS 10 devices with ease, a feature we've already made good extensive of.

Sierra is by no means a huge leap forward for Apple's desktop OS – those days are probably gone for good – but it comes with some genuinely smart bells and whistles that most Mac owners are going to approve of.

It's easier to find what you need with Siri, it works better with other Macs and Apple devices, and it does more work in the background to keep out of your way – improvements that it's hard to grumble about or find fault with.

macOS Sierra apps

Picture-in-picture is a handy feature – if you can find it

Apple continues to insist on updating all of its desktop applications at the same time as macOS (which seems strange to us, but what do we know?). As on iOS 10, Photos and Music get the biggest upgrades, though Safari has learned a useful new trick too.

That's picture-in-picture mode, so you can keep an eye on the video content of your choice while you're supposed to be working. In operation it's slick and stable, with the only problem being it can be hard to find.

While a PiP button appears on Vimeo clips, on YouTube it's hidden behind not one but two right-click menus. Meanwhile the likes of Netflix and Hulu don't have it at all at the time of writing. Still, it's early days, and if you can actually find the option then it works well.

Back to Photos, which gets all of the upgrades we saw in iOS 10: smart searches, face recognition, and the Memories feature that automatically combines your best pictures into highlights packages based around particular times and dates.

As we said about the changes in the mobile OS, it finally feels like Apple knows what it's doing with photos – and it's about time. The smart searching feature work really well, so you can pick out sunsets or cats or your favorite people instantly, and iCloud Photo Library (introduced last year) is more intuitive and sensible than the old Photo Stream approach.

Having let Photos loose on our own snaps, the app did a decent job of getting everything sorted around particular events, though admittedly it didn't have much to work with. There are tons of apps and services that will do similar jobs for you now, and while Apple's solution is fine, it hardly stands out in a crowded field – it's just convenient, if you're using macOS and iOS.

We're not big fans of automatic photo curation, Apple-made or otherwise, but there are plenty of manual options to make use of, and the smart sorting really does prove its worth once you get used to it.

As for Apple Music, it basically just gets a new lick of paint, but it's an impressive one. Everything is clearer and more well presented, although the central foundations of iTunes continue to look rather creaky.

The Sierra difference

In these days of free, incremental OS updates, there's not as much to talk about in reviews like this as there used to be. If your Mac can run Sierra (models from late 2009 onwards) then you're of course going to install the new software and most likely going to love it too.

The addition of Siri is the big change, and even if you don't feel inclined to spend a lot of your time chatting to your computer, it's one more reason to stick with Apple across laptops, desktops, tablets and phones (note a similar expansion of Google Now and Cortana in recent times).

We haven't made much use of Siri over the last three months but Apple's engineers have undoubtedly done a good job with its implementation, and some of the tricks it's capable of are genuinely useful rather than gimmicky.

The iCloud upgrades – even more useful than Siri, in our experience – are also signs of a changing computing landscape, where the machine sitting on your desk is just one part of a larger experience controlled over the web. Google's Chrome OS project is looking less crazy with each passing year.

A really strong upgrade this time around from Apple then. There's not a lengthy list of new features, but what additions there have been are all smart and well implemented, and it plugs some of the most obvious gaps to once again go head-to-head against Windows, Cortana and OneDrive.

Product page: Apple

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