MacOS High Sierra: First look at Apple’s updated operating system
Apple’s annual developer conference brings with it an operating system update sure as night follows day, but in 2017, the firm looks to have stepped outside the cycle. While most years see a completely new name to go along with a raft of new features, Apple has merely added an adjective this time around; and thus, we have macOS High Sierra.
While such a name change suggests a mild update this year, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, High Sierra is set to be the most significant update to macOS for years and that’s because Apple is dumping its long-standing file system HFS+ and switching to the more modern, all 64-bit Apple File System (APFS).
macOS High Sierra first look: Apple File System (APFS) and Metal 2
To be clear, APFS isn’t new. It was first announced at last year’s WWDC a full year ago. The significant part of this year’s announcement is that APFS will henceforth be the default option on every new MacBook and iMac that Apple sells.
APFS is optimised for the fast flash storage of today, instead of the old mechanical disks of yesteryear, and it’s important because it lies at the heart of everything you do on your Mac. Everything that reads or writes to disk – from booting up at the beginning of the day to editing photos and video files – accesses the file system. Changing it could mean significant performance improvement across the board, and potentially better battery life as well.
The new file system also brings with it a host of new features, including native encryption and support for snapshots for more efficient backups.
Apple demonstrated the speed of its new file system by duplicating a large number of video files into the same folder, first under macOS Sierra using HFS+ and then with High Sierra with APFS; the difference was noticeable, with the older system taking seconds to perform the operation and the new system performing the operation almost instantaneously.
This isn’t strictly due to performance improvements, though; rather it’s down to a new feature called Clones, which allows you to duplicate files without occupying extra space on the disk. In my tests, it worked as well as it did on stage: I duplicated a couple of large video files around 10GB in size to the same folder with Sierra, then did the same in High Sierra. The operation took 14.41 seconds in Sierra and 2.32 seconds in High Sierra.
I also ran before and after tests on the disk using the BlackMagic Disk Speed Test app, to see if general performance was better; the numbers were largely similar, though this app only tests sequential read and write performance.
macOS High Sierra first look: Other changes
Elsewhere, Metal, Apple’s low-level graphics API, has also now been updated to version two with support for VR. And a number of new features and performance upgrades have been made to a number of core apps.
Safari, in particular, looks highly impressive, gaining both performance and feature enhancements. Performance-wise, it looks pretty good, with improvements in both of the benchmarks we ran (see table below).
|Safari (Sierra)||Safari (High Sierra)|
And the new features look useful as well. Auto-play video blocking prevents those irritating embedded videos from playing as soon as pages load up, while intelligent tracking protection uses machine learning to prevent sites tracking you from website to website.
It will take some time for the latter to bed in so it’s impossible to tell how useful the feature will prove over time, but the video blocking worked perfectly. It’s also good to see that you can customise video blocking on a per-website basis. Just right-click on the address bar and select the “Settings for this Website” dropdown menu to access the auto-play options.
macOS’ Mail app includes improvements to search, as well as a new split view for composing mail, but perhaps more significantly it’s now more disk-space efficient, with mail files occupying a claimed 35% less storage space.
Apple’s Photos app also gets interface and feature enhancements, including a new sidebar that enables easier organisation and browsability and offers improvements to editing capabilities. The new curves tool will come as a welcome sight to veteran photo editors but this isn’t a particularly revolutionary addition. Also, in a feature that will please many users, face-recognition data is now synced across your Apple devices.
There’s plenty more, too: Spotlight Search gets an upgrade; the Notes apps lets you create tables and pin notes; High Sierra now saves your entire message history to iCloud; and Siri has been endowed with a more natural voice, capable of intoning the same word in many different ways.
macOS High Sierra first look: Early verdict
Early indications are that macOS High Sierra is a major step forward. Not from the point of view of obvious extra features, although there are some of those, but because the changes Apple has made are changes that will fundamentally affect the underpinnings of the software for years to come.
It’s too early to say how much APFS will affect day-to-day performance, reliability and battery life, but with Safari also making significant speed gains, it looks like Apple has scored another winner with High Sierra.