macOS Sierra review: Mixing iOS with OS X to make a better Mac

With Sierra, Apple takes advantage of its entire ecosystem to the benefit the Mac.

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I imagine most people will use Picture in Picture more for entertainment, but it can also be good for, say, playing a how-to video while you follow along on your Mac. It’s one of those features that falls under the radar but should be appreciated by all users.

Tabs

I probably spend the vast majority of my time on my Mac using Safari, and I’ve grown accustomed to opening webpages in new Tabs under one window. It’s easier to find the window I need, and it helps cut down the on-screen clutter.

Bringing Tabs to general Mac user interface makes sense. I no longer have to try to figure out where a window is when I want to move files; you can just click and drag a file over to the tab to move it.

macos sierra tabs

Tabs will help cut down screen clutter and make the window you’re looking for easier to use.

Tabs also works in many Apple apps, like Maps, Numbers, and Mail. Apple says that Tabs automatically works with many document-based third-party apps, with no developer adoption required. But as of this writing, Microsoft Office apps still open documents in separate windows. Take a closer look at work Tabs works.

Apple Pay

With Apple Pay, you don’t have to worry about filling out online forms with billing and shipping information. It’s all in Apple Pay, and it’s secure. According to Apple, over 300,000 websites will support Apple Pay when Sierra ships.

However, Apple Pay relies on your iPhone or Apple Watch, even when you’re shopping in Safari on your Mac. When you are processing an Apple Pay payment on your Mac, the Mac looks for your iPhone or Apple Watch, and you must confirm your purchase on one of those devices.

macos sierra apple pay

Apple Pay in Sierra requires your iPhone or Apple Watch for confirmation.

When I’m at home, I sometimes shop online while sitting on the couch, with my Apple Watch and iPhone docked in my office on the other side of my house. So Sierra Apple Pay’s reliance on an external device can be an inconvenience. But it’s a security measure; having Apple Pay process payment without some sort of external confirmation could lead to the unwanted use of your Apple Pay account by anyone other than you using your Mac. It’s a small compromise to make for the sake of security.

Photos and iTunes

While Photos and iTunes have new versions with Sierra, they are separate apps that require a separate discussion. Macworld senior contributor Kirk McElhearn did an overview of what’s new with Apple Music. As for Photos, Macworld senior contributor Glenn Fleishman did a hands-on with the new Photos.

More stuff

There’s more to macOS Sierra than what’s been touted in Apple presentations and on the company’s website. Here are a few of my favorite new features that play a smaller role in the Sierra showcase.

Related: 7 hidden features in macOS Sierra you may have missed

Double space for a period. You know how in iOS, when you tap the spacebar twice, it creates a period? Now you can do that in macOS Sierra. Sure, it’s not that big of a deal, since the period key is near the spacebar, whereas on iOS, you have to navigate to another section of the on-screen keyboard. But if you frequently write on iOS and your muscle memory kicks in when you’re on your Mac, it’s a good feature to have—when it works. I have found that some third-party apps, like Microsoft Word 15.11.2, TextWrangler 5.5.1, and Firefox 48.0.2 don’t allow this, so you can’t completely depend on it.

macos sierra double space period pref

You can activate the option to press the space bar twice to type a period in System Preferences > Keyboard > Text.

Auto Unlock. OK, actually, Apple made this a promoted feature. But really, you only care about this feature if you have an Apple Watch, and a lot of you don’t have one.

Instead of typing in your password on your locked Mac, your Mac instead senses the presence of your Apple Watch and then unlocks itself. Your watch has to be on your wrist and authenticated (meaning you unlocked it with the passcode at some point), otherwise it won’t work.

Features like this one, where Apple can take advantage of its ecosystem, are nice to have.

macos sierra watch unlock

You can activate Auto Unlock in System Preferences > Security & Privacy, and you’ll see the setting in the General tab.

Shared Notes. In the Notes app, you can now share a note with other users, and they can modify the note. It’s nice collaboration tool for work, or an easy way to make sure you’ll all on the same page about the grocery list at home. Collaboration works on iOS 10, too.

Messages. If you are using Messages in iOS 10, then you might be disappointed in the lack of improvements in Sierra Messages. You can see the Digital Touch messages, handwritten messages, invisible ink messages, and stickers sent from an iOS 10 device, but you can’t create those same kind of messages in Sierra. Many Tricks’ Rob Griffiths had a tweet that perfectly summed up my feelings about Sierra Messages: “[It] feels like the child that missed the bus. Standing there by the curb, watching the others head off into the future.”

The new Sierra Messages does allow for website previews, bigger emojis, and Tapbacks, which are iconic responses to text bubbles.

macos sierra messages

Respond with a Tapback by right-clicking on a text bubble, select Tapbacks, and then select the icon to send as your response.

Bottom line

Overall, macOS Sierra isn’t a major overall of the Mac operating system, but I have a greater appreciation for the new features than I have for past revisions of OS X. They are ones I’ve wanted or needed, which means I find macOS Sierra a very satisfying upgrade.

Apple Pay, Universal Clipboard, and Auto Unlock have more demanding requirements than the other features, so you may not feel the urgency to upgrade if you have an older Mac. For example, if you have an older Mac, you can’t use Universal Clipboard—be sure to check the compatibility requirements.

If you own a Mac and have been keeping up with the upgrade cycle, you should install macOS Sierra. I usually say to not upgrade immediately, and wait for Apple to release its first 10.12.1 update. That’s just to play it safe; companies like Apple do their best to address bugs and make fixes during the beta cycle, but there’s always a chance something major can show up when the software becomes widely available

But macOS has been pretty stable for a while. I still think it’s a good idea to wait, but I won’t blame you if you upgraded sooner than later. You shouldn’t have to wait for features that will benefit you and make your Mac easier to use. Plus, the upgrade is free.

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At a Glance
  • The improvements and new features make macOS Sierra easier to use and take full advantage of integration with your iOS devices.

    Pros

    • Takes advantage of Apple hardware ecosystem
    • New features makes macOS a cleaner expereince
    • Universal Clipboard and iCloud Desktop and Documents lead to better productivity
    • No stability issues during testing

    Cons

    • Some feature will not work on older Macs
    • No third-party app support for Siri
    • Sierra Messages doesn't implement (read only) the features found in iOS 10
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