Once a year Apple overhauls its Mac operating system with new features that usually requires quite a major download, however, Apple doesn't then focus all it's attention on the next big version of MacOS. Instead the company regularly updates the current operating system throughout the year, adding new features and enhancements, as well as fixing problems and security issues should they arrise.
In this article we will look at the latest updates to MacOS Sierra, also known as Mac OS X 10.12. We also have details of new features that are coming to MacOS Sierra as revealed by the most recent beta versions.
If you'd like to read about the next version of macOS instead, read about the new macOS 10.13 update here.
What is the latest verison of Mac OS X, I mean macOS?
When Apple announced its plans for the next version of its Mac operating system back in June 2016 the company surprised everyone by changing the name of Mac OS X to macOS to keep it in line with its other OS names (tvOS, iOS, watchOS 3). As a result the latest version of the Mac operating system is called macOS Sierra, although it's also known as version 10.12, so Apple hasn't completely lost the 10 from X (the X was always supposed to represent the number 10).
macOS Sierra is a free update to Mac users using compatible devices. For a full rundown of the system requirements for macOS Sierra, and a list of compatible machines, read: Which Macs can run macOS Sierra?
You can download Sierra from the Mac App Store. Your Mac will warn you as and when updates are available, plus you can check which version you are running by clicking on the Apple logo in the top left corner and selecting About this Mac. For details of how to download and install macOS Sierra read: How to update the Mac OS.
Althoguh macOS Sierra was rolled out officially on 20 September 2016, there have been some updates since:
macOS Sierra 10.12.1
After the launch event on 7 September, Apple released macOS Sierra 10.12.1, which brought numerous fixes and performance improvements. One new feature was the inclusion of pictures taken in Portrait mode on the iPhone 7 Plus.
macOS Sierra 10.12.2
Sierra 10.12.2 was released in December 2016, with the aim of improving the stability and performance of all Macs, so those running older versions of macOS are advised to install Sierra. There were new desktop wallpapers and emoji icons, and Apple removed the battery time remaining indicator from MacBooks.
macOS Sierra 10.12.3
macOS Sierra 10.12.3 became available in January 2017, with updates for all Mac users but specifically of interest to new MacBook Pro owners. For those users there's a Safari patch to fix the bug causing poor battery life, as well as a fix for the amend GPU errors that occurred during the encoding of Adobe Premiere video projects. Other Mac users will receive bug fixes for problems with importing images from digital cameras to third-party software and with previewing and searching certain PDF files, plus security fixes.
macOS Sierra 10.12.4
Apple made Sierra 10.12.4 available for download on 27 March 2017. Features in 10.12.4 include: Night Shift, more Siri answers (regarding Cricket), and updates to the PDFKit APIs, so you PDFs should display better. Like Night Shift on the iPad and iPhone, this reduces the blue light emitted by the display, which is supposed to help you sleep better if you’re using your MacBook before going to bed. You can read more about How to get Night Shift on the Mac here: How to enable Dark Mode and Night Shift in iOS, MacOS & Apple TV
macOS Sierra 10.12.5
Apple is now issuing beta versions of the next update to Sierra. While it was initially only available to registered Apple Developers (here's how to register as a beta tester), Apple has since made the update available to public beta testers.
To become a public beta tester, simply head over to the Apple Beta Software Program site and sign up. You should then be able to update to the latest beta on your Mac.
Since the release notes only say that the new build "improves the stability, compatibility, and security of your Mac," it's unclear as to what has changed, although no major changes or new features have been discovered thus far. This suggests that it's a performance/bug-fixing update, rather than an update that'll dramatically change how you use macOS.
macOS Sierra features
What's new in macOS Sierra?
Auto Unlock with Apple Watch
Apple has put several new features into the OS. The first announced on the night of its launch was Auto Unlock which allows you to unlock your Mac using your Apple Watch. No more typing in lengthy passwords after the screen goes off! A small addition, but no doubt will prove useful to those who have invested in the Apple Watch.
Universal Clipboard was slightly overlooked, but it is a new, great way to sync your copy and paste data between devices. This could be best put into practice with an iPad Pro and a Mac: drawing direct onto the iPad before intelligently copying and pasting on to Mac documents. This is a great way of syncing information between devices and will stop the brain-hurt of emailing yourself pictures or even sticking stuff in the cloud to download to another device.
Tapback in Messages app
While the macOS variant of the Messages app may be lacking in some areas (text animations and smileys aren't available at the time of writing) it does have one very cool feature - tapbacks. Tapbacks, as introduced during the iOS 10 section at Apple's WWDC conference, allows users to react to a text message without sending messages like 'LOL'. In a Facebook Reactions-esque way, users can react to incoming messages by giving it a thumbs up (or down), Question mark, Heart and more.
iCloud Drive and Optimised Storage
iCloud Drive also received a much needed update. For those of us familiar with sprinkling our Mac desktops with files that we need, rejoice - those files are mirrored on your other Macs (if you're rich) and on your iPhone.
Optimised storage for iCloud will automatically back up older files, particularly those that you'll never use again like cache files. It'll make your storage go a lot further before you have to fork out for more, which is great news. It's nice to see Apple thinking about the smaller nuances of its services.
Read next: How to use Mac menu bar in macOS Sierra
A further excellent feature coming to macOS Sierra is Apple Pay for Mac. Apple Pay icons will now appear on the buy pages of certain merchants - all you need do is verify your purchases with Touch ID on your iPhone or using your Apple Watch. This will be initially supported in nine countries.
Ahead of Apple's keynote, rumours had suggested that at some point Apple will add a Touch ID fingerprint scanner to its Mac range. This more conservative way of introducing Apple Pay to the Mac still provides many of the benefits, and it's still possible that Touch ID will eventually come to the Mac, too. However, the introduction of Auto Unlock mentioned above seems to be the solution to unlocking the Mac securely without the need for Touch ID.
Tabs have also been lovingly reimagined - no longer restricted to Safari, those apps that allow for tabs now (with no developer work needed) will allow you to multi-tab.
Picture-in-Picture mode allows you to thumbnail view photos and, more impressively, videos from certain apps while doing other things. So long, productivity! Although, for those who work in video editing, features like this will be another Godsend.
Apple File System (APFS)
Now while this may not be as appealing as many of the other features of macOS Sierra, Apple's new proprietary file system is worth a mention. Why? One of the most exciting features of the new file system is space sharing, which helps partitioned drives utilise space on the fly. Let's say you had a 1TB drive with two 100GB partitions, with one nearly full and one almost empty. In this situation, space sharing wouldn't limit the almost-full partition, and would instead note that there is 800GB of free space (the total free disk space) for both partitioned drives. Essentially, APFS treats the partition limits as containers that can be expanded when required.
Duplicated files won't take up any extra space either - if you duplicate a 2GB drive it wouldn't take up 4GB, instead the copy would access the original version. Then, if you make changes to the oriignal version, the new data is copied to a separate block preserving the original state.
Essentially, the new file system should make your macOS life a little easier behind the scenes.
Siri for Mac
After all the little bits and pieces, Apple showed us what we were hoping for - Siri on a Mac. A particularly useful and impressive feature that was demoed live on stage was searching through documents using Siri. The voice assistant will also let you be far more flexible with macOS Sierra - you'll be able to image search online with Siri, and have the ability to drag and drop those images directly into a plethora of apps.
Siri is already on iPhone, iPad and even the Apple TV, so it was only a matter of time before Siri came to Mac too. After all, Microsoft already has Cortana in Windows (and has done since Windows 8.1) and Chrome has Google Now.