Apple macOS Sierra, First Take: Siri comes to the desktop

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We're always a bit wary when a company changes the name of a product, as it tends to suggest that the marketing department can't come up with any better ideas that might actually improve the product itself.

In this case, though, Apple's decision to change the name of its veteran operating system from Mac OS X to macOS is intended to indicate the increasing integration of its traditional desktop OS and the young hipster iOS, that runs on Apple's mobile devices. The new macOS Sierra (v10.12) isn't due for a few months yet, but a public beta is now available so we've tested it out to see if it really does provide more than just a cosmetic name change.

Hey Siri!

The big headline grabber when Sierra made its debut at Apple's recent World Wide Developer Conference was, of course, the long-awaited arrival of Siri on the Mac. The Siri voice-recognition system has been available on the iPhone since 2011, but is often still treated as something of a novelty item, mostly used for simple tasks such as checking the weather forecast, share prices, or attempting to dictate the occasional reminder or email.

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Siri on macOS Sierra lets you dictate emails and search for files, although there is the odd speech recognition glitch.

Images: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

However, Apple's plans for Siri on the Mac seem more ambitious. Siri now sits in both the Dock at the bottom of the screen, and the menu bar at the top. It can check the weather and the cricket scores, as it does on iOS, but Siri on the Mac has also been integrated with the Spotlight search tool. This allows you to locate files, search the web, and to perform other tasks using voice commands while you carry on working within other apps. You can tell Siri to 'open Microsoft Word', and while you're typing in Word you could also use Siri to open Apple's Mail app and dictate a quick email to a colleague.

Siri's speech recognition is good, but -- in this beta, at least -- still has a few rough edges. Indeed, Siri consistently had problems with the word 'beta' itself, repeatedly typing it into our emails as 'Peter' or 'beater'. However, there were few other major errors during our tests, and this is the sort of wrinkle that could be tidied up in the months before Sierra ships.

File searching is a bit limited, though. Siri is good at locating groups of files, such as 'files created in the last week', or 'emails from Peter', but it seemed unable to open individual files or folders by name.

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Opening a web page using Siri.

Image: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

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There are also some inconsistencies in the way that Siri presents information. Siri can open individual web pages, such as 'ZDNet.com', in the Safari browser with no problem at all. But if you ask Siri to 'search for Apple news' it will show the results of its web search in the Siri panel on the desktop rather than in Safari, which makes it difficult to quickly browse through your search results.

Also, Siri currently has to be activated using either your mouse or keyboard, and there doesn't seem to be a Mac equivalent of the always-on "Hey Siri" option that's available on the iPhone. Of course, some of these problems may well be fixed before Sierra ships, and even in its beta state I did feel more inclined to talk to Siri on a Mac than Cortana on a Windows 10 system.

Universal Clipboard

One other feature that got a big round of applause during the Sierra presentation at WWDC was the new 'universal clipboard'. As the name suggests, this now allows you to copy and paste text and graphics between Macs with Sierra and iOS devices running iOS 10 (currently also available as a public beta).

Over the years, I've spend a fair bit of money on third-party apps that attempt to do this, so I was eager to try it out with Sierra. Unfortunately, the universal clipboard steadfastly refused to work when tested with my office iMac and an iPad Pro running iOS 10, so we'll have to wait and see if this gets fixed in the next few months.

Desktop and documents in iCloud

Continuing the integration of macOS and iOS, Apple's iCloud service now allows you to store the contents of your desktop and documents folders within your free iCloud storage. Multiple Macs running Sierra can share the same desktop folder so that your desktop looks the same on all your Macs, while iOS devices can access your Mac's desktop files using their own iCloud Drive app.

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You can now store the contents of your desktop and documents folders on iCloud.

Image: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

Personally speaking, my iMac's desktop just seems to accumulate flotsam and jetsam that would be annoying if it were copied across onto my laptop, but this feature could be useful for people who use their desktop as a kind of inbox for files they're currently working on.

Sierra also introduces a new form of 'storage optimisation' that works by uploading older files into iCloud in order to free up some space on your Mac's internal hard drive. It can also delete unwanted files such as the contents of your Trash or old web caches. However, this storage optimization seems to offer just a simple On/Off switch, with little control over additional settings, such as how long you keep files on your Mac before they get uploaded to iCloud. That simplicity might appeal to home users, but we suspect that corporate IT managers may prefer to turn this option off until we have a clearer idea of exactly how it works.

Keeping tabs

More useful, perhaps, is the ability to use tabs within apps to group together multiple documents or windows. Unsurprisingly, this feature worked well with Apple's own apps, such as Pages and the Numbers spreadsheet.

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Sierra's within-app tabs feature worked well with Apple's own apps, but not so well with third-party apps.

Image: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

Apple has stated that these tabs would also work with existing third-party apps, without requiring any updates, but our results here were mixed. Some of our apps did display the new 'Merge All Windows' menu command that combines open windows together as a row of tabs. However, some key apps -- including, you guessed it, Microsoft Office -- failed to display this new command, leaving a question mark over the need for updates to those apps.

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Picture-in-picture video playback.

Image: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

There are a number of more minor features, as well. The Apple Watch hasn't been a runaway success so far, and the ability to unlock a Mac simply by wearing a Watch probably isn't going to change that. However, the addition of Apple Pay to Safari on the Mac might give Apple's payment system an edge over some of its contactless rivals. The Picture-in-Picture option for video playback is nice too -- although the double-right-click command currently used to activate it needs to be simplified.

Conclusions

Beta software inevitably includes numerous bugs and other glitches, but the key features in macOS Sierra are attractive enough to leave us eagerly looking forward to its full release later this year. Even smaller features such as tabs in third-party apps and the universal clipboard could prove to be useful additions to your everyday working routine. And, if Apple pulls off the challenge of making Siri useful on the desktop, then it could genuinely bring us closer to the Star Trek future where we all talk to our computers without feeling like a complete idiot.

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Topics: Apple, Enterprise Software, Reviews

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