Hands on: ‘Siri, what’s new in macOS Sierra?’

Mac users can now tell their computers what to do using Apple’s voice-activated assistant.

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Messages gets TalkBack, but not much more

In iOS 10, the Messages app got a thorough revamp to make it more fun and interactive with a variety of ways to respond to people beyond just sending texts. But Messages on the Mac does not support the iPhone’s new animated effects. In Sierra, Messages that have been sent to you with animated effects just plainly state, in straightforward text, that so-and-so sent you a message with Fireworks. For a feature that’s designed (in iOS 10) to add a bit more emotional punch, the Mac interpretation is incredibly flat.

“Your girlfriend sent a message with a shooting star.” For some reason, my mind always reads these descriptions in Ben Stein’s monotone voice, for added dryness. Come on, Apple -- show, don’t tell. Even the Watch can display Message animations, so I’m pretty sure Mac hardware can handle it. I imagine that adding these Screen effects to Messages on the Mac is on Apple’s to-do list, but just wasn’t a priority this time around. The oversight is odd -- though at least you can click on a text message for TalkBack options like a thumbs up or down or a heart symbol.

A few more new additions

There are a handful of other interesting changes:

  • If your Mac is running out of space, the new Optimized Storage features allow you to better manage data and disk space. These tools include uploading infrequently used data to Apple’s servers, saving space on local storage; there are options to remove iTunes media from your machine. (Like other files, your iTunes purchases can be retrieved later and re-downloaded.) If you want to take a glance at how much data you could save, click the Apple Menu > About This Mac, select the Storage tab and then click Manage.
  • Almost every Apple app supports tabs now, making it easier to navigate through documents and files.
  • HTML5 videos on the web can now be placed into Picture-in-Picture mode, as a floating window above other windows, something borrowed from iOS.
  • And you can now share Notes with others, which enables simultaneous real-time editing.

One of the reasons I’ve been using Apple hardware through the years is because each device stands on its own but is also, increasingly, a piece of the larger tech puzzle. The various sharing features in Sierra further this trend. You don’t need to collect all of the devices Apple sells to be functional, but each adds an extra layer of functionality that serves to complement the whole.

Sierra, working well in concert with iOS 10 (and watchOS 3), does more of that, better and faster than before.

Bottom line

While macOS Sierra is short on major “wow” features, it’s long on usability tweaks and refinements that will matter more over the long run. It still falls short on some of the features found on Apple’s mobile platform, though, including the lack of HomeKit support for controlling IoT linked devices; the missing Memories features in Photos that share dynamically created movies; and the lack of Screen and Bubble effects in Messages.

Apple has in the past moved its development teams to different software areas that needed reinforcement, and it’s time that macOS gets some of that attention, too. Note to Apple: At least put macOS on par with iOS. Yes, the world is all about mobile now, but millions of desktop users are still plugging away on their iMacs and MacBooks.

That said, macOS Sierra is fast and offers a few major features that make it worth the upgrade. After many years of testing and reviewing Apple’s operating system releases, I’ve got to say that this year’s crop, from macOS Sierra to iOS 10 to watchOS 3, has been relatively stable compared to years past. And given how well the trio works together, it makes upgrading to Sierra a common-sense move.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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