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More Than Just a Name: What’s New in macOS Sierra

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Read Time: 6 min

Later this year Macs will stop running OS X and start running macOS. This brings Macs into the same naming scheme as Apple’s other products: we’ve got iOS, watchOS and tvOS already. 

Apple isn’t changing everything about the name; the Californian place names theme continues—so the first release is macOS Sierra—and it’s still going to be version 10.12 of the Mac operating system rather than version 11.0. 

Even with the new name, it will still be very much the operating system you know and love.

Despite the new name grabbing headlines, there’s also some nice new features in macOS Sierra. In this tutorial I’ll cover the major additions.

Updating to Sierra

Like the last few versions of OS X, mac OS Sierra will be a free upgrade through the App Store. Once it’s released—in “Fall” according to Apple—a notification will appear on the Mac prompting the update.

If you’ve bought a Mac in the last few years it can run macOS Sierra. The complete list is:

  • MacBooks from Late 2009 on.
  • MacBook Airs from 2010 on.
  • MacBook pros from 2010 on.
  • Mac Minis from 2010 on.
  • iMacs from Late 2009 on.
  • Mac Pros from 2010 on.

Siri on the Mac

The biggest new feature in Sierra is Siri. Yes, Siri’s been on iOS for four years now but it’s finally making its way to the Mac. 

Siri on macOS will work just like Siri on iOS. You’ll be able to ask simple questions, look up information online, find out scores in sports games, listen to Siri beatbox and do everything else you can do with Siri on the iPhone.

siri on the Macsiri on the Macsiri on the Mac
Sierra brings Siri to the Mac.

As well as all that, Siri is getting some Mac specific features. Siri integrates with the file system so you’ll be able to use queries like, “Show me all the photos I took last month,” or, “What images are in my Downloads folder?” 

You’ll also be able to pin Siri results to the Notification Centre where they’ll automatically update. If you want a rolling list of recent photos or to track a football score this could be quite handy.

The extra few years development and new features will hopefully make Siri more of a useful assistant than a novelty on the Mac.

New File System

Under the hood, the biggest change coming in Sierra is a new file system. It won’t be included in the first version but should be released in an update early next year. 

Most users won’t notice the new file system overtly, however, it will have a lot of benefits in the background. All files will be automatically encrypted, data should be safer, everything is optimised for SSDs and it leaves the door open for Apple to add new features. 

Initially, things like Time Machine that require a lot of writing and reading data should get much quicker.

iCloud Desktop and Documents

I’ve been a fan of iCloud for a while and it gets even better in macOS Sierra. iCloud Documents has been a handy way to sync files between OS X and iOS devices but it’s so far just used a dedicated folder away from the rest of the file system. 

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iCloud Drive gets even better in Sierra.

Now, as well as the iCloud Documents folder, the Desktop and Documents folders will also sync between Macs and all the files will be accessible on iOS devices in the iCloud Drive app. 

If you’ve a few devices outside Apple’s ecosystem, you’ll even be able to access your files through a web browser by visiting or downloading the iCloud for Windows app.

Updated Apps

Apple Music, Photos and Messages all get big updates in macOS Sierra.

Apple Music

From the start, Apple Music has been criticised for being overly complicated and difficult to use. The new update simplifies and streamlines the interface and should make it easier for users to discover new music, something that Spotify has been using as a major selling point. 

apple musicapple musicapple music
Apple Music gets a nice new update.


Photos gets the biggest update and I’ll be exploring the changes in depth in a later tutorial.

There’s a new tab called Memories that highlights, and groups together, photos you haven’t looked at in a while. 

To power Memories, Photos is getting a whole host of computer vision updates. It will scan your collection of photos and learn to recognise different people and objects. In theory, you’ll be able to see all the photos you have with your partner, children, or specific friends grouped together.


While Messages has always been a competent chat app, it’s never been as fun to use or as feature filled as some of its competitors. 

With Sierra, Apple hopes to change that. Web previews and videos will load right in the message thread so you won’t have to leave the app to see what’s been sent and with Tapback you can quickly respond with emoji. 

Messages that just feature a small number of emoji are also bigger. Whether these changes add much value or not, is up to you.

Optimised Storage

As Apple moves to an all SSD product line, storage space has become more of a premium.

SSDs are far cheaper now than they were five years ago, but large drives are still prohibitively expensive for most consumers. At the same time, better smartphone cameras and faster internet have meant that the amount of storage space most users need has dramatically increased.

Optimised Storage is designed to take some of the hard work out of freeing up space on a Mac. As the Mac starts to run low on disk space, you’ll be prompted to delete redundant files and to move rarely accessed ones to iCloud

Rather than storing your complete photo collection on a Mac, it’ll instead be kept online ready for you to download specific images when you need them.

Apple Pay for Web and Continuity Improvements

Apple is bringing Apple Pay from physical locations to the web. You’ll be able to make purchases on select websites using it. Any payment you make on a Mac will need to be authenticated using TouchID on an iPhone or with an Apple Watch.

apple pay for the webapple pay for the webapple pay for the web
Apple Pay for Web brings the security of Apple Pay to online shopping.

Apple is also continuing to improve inter-device compatibility. If you have an Apple Watch you can automatically log and unlock your Mac based on your proximity to it. When you walk up to it, it’ll wake from sleep and log in. If you walk away, it’ll lock.

Sierra brings clipboard sharing between macOS and iOS devices with Universal Clipboard. Anything that’s copied to the clipboard on one of your devices, will also be available on all the others.

Wrapping Up

While macOS Sierra might not be the most exciting update to the Mac operating system in recent years, it brings a few nice changes and sets things up for Apple going forward. 

Siri on the Mac is overdue at this point but should prove useful while features like the new file system, upgraded iCloud and Optimised Storage will make using a Mac even simpler and more foolproof. 

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