macOS Sierra preview: Goodbye OS X, hello Siri

The 15-year-old OS X (née Mac OS X) is now macOS, bringing its name into line with descendants iOS, watchOS and tvOS – and in tune with the California place-name theme for updates, it’s called macOS Sierra.

macOS Sierra will be hitting the Macs of everyone who can run it in autumn, probably around the time of the release of the next iPhone. For developers, though, it’s already here, giving the most important people in the Mac ecosystem a few months to ready their breaking apps and build new ones.

Recently, we’ve got used to a “tick-tock” approach to OS X. One year’s release would see major updates, while the next would be more of a consolidation, with few big features and plenty of fixes, tweaks and optimisations.

This year feels like a consolidation rather than a revolutionary change. There’s one major feature – the arrival of Siri on the Mac – and a large number of changes designed to keep pace with new features in iOS 10. There are also a few smaller changes, all of which add up to a decent if unspectacular update.

Of course, this is a developer release. Some things are broken, some things are missing in action, and everything needs a fair bit of fine-tuning. But even at this stage, we can still get a flavour of where Apple is taking its oldest existing operating system. So what’s in it, and how is it looking?
macOS review: Which Macs will be able to install macOS Sierra?
For the first time since 2012, Macs are being dropped from the lineup of supported models for a new release. To run Sierra, you’ll need any of the following products:

MacBook (late 2009 and later)
iMac (late 2009 and later)
MacBook Air (2010 and later)
MacBook Pro (2010 and later)
Mac mini (2010 and later)
Mac Pro (2010 and later)

If you’re using a Mac that was released prior to 2009, you won’t be able to use Sierra, and you’ll be stuck with OS X El Capitan. However, Apple has tended in the past to release security and driver updates for older operating systems for quite some time – it’s still supporting Mavericks, released in 2013 – so if you’re still using a seven-year-old machine, you can expect to squeeze a couple more years out of it yet.

READ NEXT: Apple iOS 10 review (hands-on): “Biggest update ever”? We don’t think so

Siri

The headline feature is the arrival of Siri on the Mac, five years after its first appearance on iPhone. If you’ve used Siri on iOS devices, then you know what to expect. Invoke Siri, either by clicking on an icon in the Dock or menu bar, or via a keyboard shortcut, and the familiar colourful sound-wave pattern appears.

You then use natural language to ask it a question, and Siri responds. The types of questions you can ask have been expanded for the Mac. For example, you can now ask something like: “find me all the files I worked on yesterday”, which will return all the files you opened yesterday. “Find me the latest football results”, also works, although at the moment Siri appears confused about which kind of football you want – “soccer”, or the American version. And, once you’ve completed your search, you can pin it to Notification Centre, so you can revisit it again.

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Occasionally, Siri is annoyingly literal. Ask it to search for news about iOS 10, and it will happily tell you that everything you need to know about Apple products is on Apple’s website. Yes, it probably is – but at least make the effort to find it for me.

However, Siri is definitely getting smarter about finding and delivering information. In addition to searching Bing for news, it can now also search Twitter, and it uses your account (with your permission) to personalise the results it gives you. This is the fruit of Apple’s acquisition of Topsy, the Twitter search and analytics company, and it’s highly welcome.

The biggest problem with Siri is nothing to do with the technology, as such: it’s simply that in an office environment, talking to your computer still feels a bit weird. The plus point is that it allows to you to more effectively multitask, looking up information without breaking your flow in whatever application you’re in.

One other strange thing: Spotlight search still exists, and it’s separate to Siri. And Spotlight doesn’t get any of the natural-language searches that Siri is capable of. Surely it’s time for Siri to work via typed commands too.

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