Hey, Siri.. Is having access to you on my desktop actually useful?
OS X macOS Sierra was released to the general public a couple of weeks back. Along with the name change which tries to bring Apple’s desktop OS’s name in line with its brothers’ (tvOS, iOS, watchOS), macOS Sierra also tries to bring its features in line with those of iOS and create a more cohesive and complete software ecosystem for the users of Apple devices. I have been using macOS Sierra in public beta form since July and while starting to write this review, realized that I had forgotten a few of the features that Hair Force One (Craig Federighi) had announced at WWDC. So, I went back to the drawing board (Apple’s helpful ‘what’s new in macOS Sierra’ notification that pops up when you boot-up your Mac after the software update) and re-learnt the 10 new features that Apple touts as the marquee features of macOS Sierra. Here are my thoughts about each.
If the name isn’t hint enough, Siri, after being around for 5 years on iOS, has finally come to the Mac. And it packs some extra Mac-only features to boot. In addition to the normal queries that Siri deftly handles, you can now drag search results from Siri’s window (which can be accessed in three ways – long pressing Cmd + Space, the icon next to Launchpad on the dock and the icon next to the notification center icon on the menu bar), pin results in the notification center for easy access and also look for files. Personally, though, after using it a couple of times because of the wow factor, I haven’t used it at all. Siri on the iPhone is really useful when you can’t use your hands to access stuff on it. But if I am sitting in front of my Macbook Air, I can use my hands and I find that it is easier to type about what I want than speak and wait for Siri to respond hoping that it understood me correctly. Always-on Siri would help but in any case, always-on works better on the iPhone because it is usually near me when I need to talk to it. Siri seems to parse my accent better on my Macbook Air than on my iPhone but doesn’t set timers or alarms, stuff that I use Siri on my iPhone to do. Another thing it doesn’t do on the Mac is interface with third-party apps, a feature that was introduced in iOS 10. If Apple wants its devices and services to seamlessly meld into my daily activities from the time I wake up to the time I sleep (something Tim Cook said in a recent interview), Siri is the key and it needs to become way more powerful than it is right now.
The dragging search-results to emails and other documents (I used Siri while writing this article to find a screenshot about how long the article had gotten and dragged into Messages to send to my wife – cool!) is quite useful and I can say the same about pinning results to the notification center to follow sports scores or the likes. That said, after playing around with Siri a bit again for this article, just like the last couple of months, I don’t see myself using Siri much on my Mac, even though it is a good feature to have around.
Another big feature that macOS Sierra brings is optimized storage. And I’m happy to say that I’ve found this to be the most useful feature of the lot so far. Till now, whenever my Mac has need cleaning, I turned to Dr Cleaner to remove files and AppCleaner to remove apps. With macOS Sierra, Apple rolls features from these apps into one section in the ‘About This Mac’ part of the OS. And it does quite well too, providing a birds-eye view of everything that is occupying precious storage space unnecessarily and helping clean up all kinds of files and apps in a couple of clicks. It’d have been easier to use if it was a separate app though, I feel. Rookie users might not realize that the feature exists as they’ll first need to go to ‘About This Mac’ by clicking the Apple logo in the menu bar, go the ‘storage’ tab in the window that pops up and then click on ‘manage’ to access the screen from where storage can be optimized.
Speaking of macOS Sierra features that I find useful, picture-in-picture for videos ties with optimized storage. Available in iOS since iOS 9, PiP lets you minimize a video into a small window in a corner so that you can binge-watch the latest season of your favorite TV show while you work. I have been using it quite a lot and feel that PiP is a very valuable feature. Again, newbie users might not be able to realize its existence and use in the first go. Netflix and YouTube, the two biggest websites in the world when it comes to video, don’t support PiP yet (PiP in YouTube needs to be accessed by a double right-click on a video and a new Safari extension PIPifier, helps convert all kinds of HTML5 videos to PiP videos).
Counting down from the most to the least useful macOS Sierra features for me, the updates to iCloud Drive count as pretty useful. The files in the ‘Documents’ and ‘Desktop’ folders sync between all your iCloud enabled devices now and it is very convenient and makes iCloud more useful for storing and accessing files other than your Photos and device backups. Along with PiP and optimized storage, this is another feature that I have been using a lot to access important documents and other files on my iPhone and iPad. Just remember to go to Settings → iCloud on your iOS device and activate the iCloud Drive app first.
There are a couple of other features in macOS Sierra that sounded very convenient to use when they were announced at WWDC but I haven’t used them even once. macOS Sierra’s universal clipboard is one such feature. In theory, it sounds very intuitive and convenient – you need something (text, photos, links) from one device to be copied to the other, you copy it on the first device and paste it on the second. But, it isn’t that intuitive in practice. The biggest hurdle for me is that if I want to copy multiple paragraphs of text from different places or links to multiple articles, universal clipboard can’t do that. So, whatever you copy on one device should be pasted on the other device that instant itself. It would’ve been great if Apple had included an app or a widget in the notification center which would show me a history of things that I copied on an iCloud connected device (like the app ‘Copied’ does). That’d make the feature much more intuitive and useful for me.
A feature that sounded super intuitive and downright fun to use to me when it was announced is using my Apple Watch to log into my Macbook. Till Touch ID comes to the Mac, this feature sounded like it’d help not make my Macbook feel like it was from the stone ages by having me type the password every time when I can use my fingerprint to log into my iOS devices. Unfortunately, though, the darned thing hasn’t been working for me even after trying multiple times over the last couple of weeks. To activate the feature, you go to System Preference → Security & Privacy → Allow your Apple Watch to unlock your Mac. It requires you to have two-factor authentication set up for your iCloud account. I enabled 2FA but every time I try to activate the feature, I get a message saying ‘Your Mac was unable to communicate with your Apple Watch’. I’ve tried finding a solution for this on various forums but nothing seems to be working right now. I’ll share an update about this when I make some progress. Based on what I’ve read and seen about the feature, though, it isn’t instant and takes a couple of seconds to unlock your Mac after waking it up from sleep and you are waiting for the Mac to unlock, just staring at the screen, for those couple of seconds. Also, it works using Handoff, a feature Apple had introduced in iOS 9 to allow iOS to communicate with macOS and it works only when the two devices that need to be connected are on the same WiFi network. Maybe, typing in the password till Touch ID arrives on the Mac isn’t that bad an idea after all.
There is one more feature that I haven’t used at all till now. Tabs. Yes, macOS Sierra brings tabs to all apps/programs by default. This is to help you better organize multiple windows of the same app. Unfortunately, my workflow is such that most of my work happens inside a browser window and the other apps that I use don’t require multiple windows for my work. I can think of a couple of apps where this feature could be useful, namely Apple’s iWork apps or Microsoft’s office apps. But I mostly use Google Docs and Sheets these days.
Speaking of Apps, Apple has updated a couple of their default apps in macOS Sierra to bring feature parity with their iOS counterparts. I’m talking about Messages and Photos. I love iMessage and it is one of the reasons I can’t imagine myself switching to Android completely. The convenience of using iMessage from my Mac along with the cohesiveness of the whole messaging experience puts iMessage a peg above the current crop of messaging apps especially for those who own Apple devices, according to me. iOS 10 has converted iMessage from an app to a messaging and app platform and macOS Sierra brings those updates to the desktop, albeit passively. You can view all the special effects that Apple baked into iMessage and also see messages and stickers from various apps, but, you can’t send any of these (except tapback responses, which are triggered when you long-tap on a message) back from your Mac. I understand why that’d be. iMessage’s apps and stickers need to be installed on the device to be used and because iOS and macOS are quite different at their core, porting these apps to the App Store on macOS would be a time-consuming exercise right now. Hopefully, we’ll see iMessage become a bigger platform for apps and said apps getting integrated into iMessage on all platforms in the future. For now, though, I appreciate at least being able to see all the fun GIFs and stickers my wife sends me from my Mac itself.
The Photos update is more feature-rich and packs in all the features that Apple highlighted for its iOS counterpart. The new Memories, location and people based albums, smarter search, etc., make their way to Photos on the Mac and with iCloud Photo Library, you can have all the photos taken from all your Apple devices in one place. I use Google Photos because I have more cloud storage with Google Drive. So, while the new Photos isn’t something I’m going to use much, I’m happy that it can do as much as, if not more than, what I feel is Google’s best app.
Lastly, the tenth feature, one that I can’t comment on because it is not available in my part of the world, is Apple Pay on the web. There’s a long road to Apple Pay launching in India and till that happens, I won’t be able to experience the convenience of using my Apple devices and now, Safari, for transactions. But, based on what I have read, Apple Pay makes paying for shopping through Safari even easier.
All in all, while I’m happy that Siri made its way to the Mac, am genuinely liking the optimized storage, PiP and iCloud Storage updates, and wish that my Apple Watch starts working to unlock my Mac, it might seem that for the last couple of years,
OS X macOS has been at the shorter end of the updates stick and that most of the focus has been on iOS. I believe that that’s the case because macOS is a more mature OS than iOS and does most of what it is supposed to (desktop computing) really well. Mobile OSes are where innovation is happening right now and macOS, largely, is catching up with the newest features of iOS to provide a seamless experience in Apple’s ecosystem. I think that in a few years, as iOS matures and becomes even more powerful, we’ll see the two operating systems merging to create an even more cohesive and seamless experience and with macOS Sierra, Apple’s oldest operating system is taking small steps towards it.
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