macOS High Sierra, First Take: Solid foundations, but light on eye candy

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High Sierra, the latest upgrade to Apple's macOS operating system, has been available as a public beta for a few months now, but the final version -- also known as macOS 10.13 -- quietly appeared as a free upgrade via the Mac App Store on 25 September.

The hullabaloo surrounding the iPhone X and iOS 11 means that High Sierra's arrival has been somewhat low-profile compared to previous macOS updates. On the surface, there are few eye-catching features that are likely to steal headlines away from Apple's more glamorous mobile products. In fact, many of the features that Apple has been demonstrating in public focus on individual apps, such as Apple Mail and the Safari web browser.

App updates

Business users won't be particularly interested in the new filters and interface tweaks in the Photos app, but elsewhere there are some app updates that could prove useful for many people. The Spotlight search tool can now be used to check airline flight times and status updates, for example, and the Mail app can use Spotlight to fine-tune searches and compile a list of 'Top Hits' that prioritises emails from people in your VIP list or other frequent correspondents. Apple has also updated the iCloud Drive online storage feature, making it easier to send download links for sharing files with friends or colleagues.

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Safari now lets you apply customised settings to individual websites.

Image: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

The much-discussed 'tracking prevention' feature in Safari, which prevents adverts from following you around the web, has upset many advertisers, but will probably be welcomed by most Mac users -- as will the browser's ability to prevent videos on web pages playing automatically. Safari goes further as well, with a new menu option called 'Settings For This Website' which allows you to specify a number of settings that can be applied when viewing individual websites. You can activate or deactivate third-party content blockers, view the site in Safari's 'reader' view, adjust the zoom setting, block auto-play video content, and prevent a site from using location services, the microphone or camera.

These app updates are useful enough, although the underlying operating system itself boasts little of the traditional eye-candy that we've come to expect from Apple upgrades. But, under the surface, Apple has actually made a number of changes that are intended to secure the future of the Mac platform -- especially among developers and professional users.

Under the hood

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The 64-bit Apple File System (APFS) succeeds the 32-bit HFS . APFS is optimised for solid-state drives and natively supports full disk encryption.

Image: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

One of the most fundamental changes -- which will probably go unnoticed by most users -- is the fact that High Sierra abandons the HFS+ file system used by Macs for decades, replacing it with the new Apple File System (APFS). Designed for larger storage devices and faster solid-state technologies, APFS also introduces new features such as cloning and snapshots, which ZDNet has previously described as 'Time Machine on steroids'.

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Apple told us that APFS is primarily designed for use on the Mac's boot drive, and will retain compatibility with external drives using HFS+, so there should be no problems continuing to use older external drives that contain all your Time Machine backups. However, third-party disk utilities will need to be updated to support APFS.

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HEVC is designed to provide more efficient compression for 4K video.

Image: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

Another under-the-bonnet update is support for HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) -- sometimes also referred to as H.265. As the name suggests, this moves on from the existing H.264 video codec, and is designed to provide more efficient compression for 4K video. HEVC can also make use of the hardware playback features built into Intel's sixth-generation (and later) Core processors.

Graphics performance has long been a weakness for Macs, leading to sharp rebukes from developers such as Oculus, which said that it wouldn't support Macs with its Rift VR headset until Apple "releases a good computer". High Sierra updates Apple's Metal graphics API to provide improved performance and support for VR developer tools, as well as compatibility with the HTC Vive headset (but no news about the Oculus Rift so far). Of course, none of that will matter if your Mac still has an underpowered GPU, so High Sierra will also allow developers to upgrade their Macs by using external 'eGPU' upgrades, such as the Sonnet Breakaway Box.

Even so, the system requirements for these new features are still very high: Apple tells us that eGPU support will require the high-speed Thunderbolt 3 interface that's currently only available in a handful of recent Mac models, so for now it seems that Apple is focusing its VR efforts on developers who can afford the forthcoming iMac Pro workstation, rather than ordinary Mac users who would like to play the latest 3D games and VR titles.

Conclusions

Above all else, High Sierra seems designed to reassure Apple's professional users -- particularly developers -- that it hasn't forgotten about them, and that it's paving the way for a new range of professional systems in 2018 that will be able to exploit VR and other emerging technologies.

That focus on the OS's underlying architecture could leave many ordinary Mac users feeling that High Sierra lacks the 'must-have' new features offered by some of its predecessors. But for business users, a solid and stable update is no bad thing. Few significant bugs emerged during the beta phase this summer, and with High Sierra offering compatibility with older Mac models going back to 2010, it should prove to be a straightforward and worthwhile update for most users.

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