Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra comparison review

Which is the better Mac OS: Mac OS X El Capitan, or macOS Sierra? Should I update my Mac to MacOS Sierra?

Apple's latest desktop/laptop OS is known as macOS Sierra, rather than Mac OS X Sierra. It's still referred to as version 10.12 though, which is one on from Mac OS X 10.11, El Capitan. Back at WWDC 2016 Apple explained that it was rebranding its Mac OS X software as macOS to fit in with the general typographical style of iOS, tvOS and watchOS, so the X is no more (which is probably a good thing given how many people mispronounced it as the letter X rather than a 10 in Roman numerals.

macOS Sierra has been available to download since 20 September 2016, bringing a raft of new res to the Mac, including the Siri voice-control tech from the iPhone & iPad, as well as a wide range of system and interface tweaks. If you haven't downloaded it yet, what are you waiting for!

Sierra is a free upgrade from El Capitan, the previous Apple desktop OS, so there's no reason not to jump in and grab Sierra at the first opportunity, right? Not so fast. You need to check if your Mac is compatible with the newer OS, for one thing, and because it's not easy to go back to an older Mac OS after making the upgrade, it's worth considering how the new features and changes to the interface will affect your day-to-day user experience. That's what our Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra comparison article is here for: we'll compare the two products' features, interface and design to help you decide which is a better bet for you.

We think you'll want to jump in and grab Sierra - assuming your Mac is up to the job - but you should always put in some research before making an upgrade like this. Let's look at El Cap and Sierra in a little more detail. When you are ready to go ahead and install Sierra, read: How to update my Mac operating system. You can also read our separate Mac OS X El Capitan review and macOS Sierra review.

So, what do you get if you install macOS Sierra that you don't get on Mac OS X El Capitan?

Sierra has a new picture-in-picture mode and Tabs

Design-wise, El Cap and Sierra are virtually identical. The 'flattened' visuals brought in for Yosemite and retained in El Cap are still present in Sierra. But there are a couple of differences in the user interface of the newer OS. The first and most noticable: you can use tabs in a wide range of first- and third-party apps, not just your web browser. Apps featuring tabs include Maps, Mail, TextEdit, all three iWork apps and apparently any third-party app that supports multiple windows.

In Sierra there's now a picture-in-picture viewing mode, similar to the same-named mode in iOS 9 on the iPad. Picture-in-picture "lets you float video from Safari or iTunes in a window over your desktop as you work", in Apple's words, and you can pin this video mini-window to one corner of your screen, where it will stay even if you switch Spaces (read: How to use Mission Control, Expose, Split Screen & Spaces on the Mac).

The differences between Mac OS X El Capitan and macOS Sierra are largely confined to the features roster - it's what they can do, far more than what they look like. There are lots of new features to consider - take a look at our roundup of new Sierra features for a more comprehensive look - but in this section we'll focus on what we think are the highlights.

You get Siri on the Mac

This is the big one. Macs can now be controlled verbally using the Siri voice-recognition engine from the iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch and Apple TV. It was only a matter of time, really - and it's only fair to point out that Windows already has Cortana (and has done since Windows 8.1) - but it's still nice to see.

This is particularly useful for searching through documents; you can use natural language to specify various search parameters, and the results sit afterwards in the Notifications pane from where they can be dragged and dropped into applicable apps.

We also find it a really quick and easy way to perform tasks you would usually need to go through multiple System Preferences windows to perform. Just say 'Turn on Bluetooth' for example rather than fire up System Preferences.

If you want to find out more about what Siri can do on the Mac, read our complete guide to Siri on Mac.

Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra: Siri

You get Apple Pay on the Mac

Apple Pay has jumped from the iOS ecosystem to Mac (via tvOS and watchOS). Most Macs don't have a fingerprint scanner so they can't handle the verification process without using your iPhone or iPad. However, if you have a new MacBook Pro with TouchBar you are in luck.

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. Apple Pay on Mac was made available in the UK from Sierra's launch, as well as in the US, Canada, Australia, China and Singapore.

Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra

You can Auto unlock your Mac with your Apple Watch

Some Apple fans were hoping that macOS Sierra would bring for the ability to unlock a Mac using the Touch ID fingerprint scanner on an iPhone. Instead, Apple announced something that's arguably a lot more convenient, albeit targeted at a smaller market: the ability to proximity-unlock your Mac with your Apple Watch (if the watch has been unlocked - and it may have been auto-unlocked by its companion iPhone in turn, somewhat ironically).

Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra: Auto unlock with Apple Watch

You can copy and paste between devices

Universal Clipboard, a new addition to the Continuity suite of features covering interaction between Mac and iOS devices, is a great way to copy and paste data between devices. Whatever you copy on one of your devices - Mac, say - will be sent wirelessly to the clipboard on your other devices.

Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra: Universal Clipboard

iCloud will sync your Desktop and Documents across all your Macs

One of the features we like is the fact that iCloud now syncs your documents and your desktops across all your Macs. This is brilliant if you work from home as it means that you don’t have to remember to move documents into a shared folder - if you leave them on the desktop at work they will be on your desktop at home.

Sierra can optimised your storage and save your space on your Mac

Another handy new feature in Sierra is Optimized Storage. This comes into its own if you start running out of space on your Mac. The new feature moves deletes some files, and moves others to iCloud where you can download them again if you need to, freeing up local storage. YOu can also set it to delete the files in your trash after 30 days.

You get extra features in Messages

Messages in macOS Sierra (as in iOS 10) has been given a full-on millennial makeover, with more emphasis than ever before on emoji and similar effects that are likely to divide opinion (most of them seem targeted at a young audience). There's a 'tapback' feature, for instance, which enables you to respond instantly to a message by tapping one of six icons - thumbs up or down, a heart, 'Ha ha', a question mark, or an exclamation mark. Not really our thing, but nice to have the option.

More practically, links pasted into messages will be previewed in the message thread. You can see the headline of the article, main artwork and so on. Read more about Messages here: How to send and receive text messages on a Mac

Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra: Messages

Sierra brings people, places and event recognition to Photos

Like Messages, the Photos app received twin makeovers in iOS and macOS.

Photos has a new Memories feature, which (in theory) accurately recognises people, places and events, and uses this data to automatically create themed, easily customisable albums for you.

If you want to learn some Tips for Photos on Mac click here.

Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra: Photos

Which Mac OS is best for my Mac?

Sierra is more demanding to run that El Cap. If your Mac sits in the band of machines that can run the latter but not the former, your decision may be made for you.

Here are the machines that can run Mac OS X El Capitan:

  • MacBook (13-inch Aluminum, Late 2008), (13-inch, Early 2009 or later)
  • MacBook Air (Late 2008 or later)
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, Mid-2009 or later), (15-inch, Mid/Late 2007 or later), (17-inch, Late 2007 or later)
  • Mac Mini (Early 2009 or later)
  • Mac Pro (Early 2008 or later)
  • iMac (Mid-2007 or later)

And here are the machines that can run macOS Sierra:

  • MacBook (Late 2009 or later)
  • MacBook Air (2010 or later)
  • MacBook Pro (2010 or later)
  • Mac mini (2010 or later)
  • Mac Pro (2010 or later)
  • iMac (Late 2009 or later)

For more information about macOS Sierra's system requirements, see: Will my Mac run macOS Sierra?

You will also need the Mac App Store in order to download Sierra. Since Snow Leopard launched in 2009 the Mac App Store has been available on all Macs, so the chance that you would have a Mac capable of running Sierra, but running software that predates Snow Leopard is unlikley. You can buy Snow Leopard from Apple's online store and then make further updates via the Mac App Store if necessary.

If you never updated to El Capitan you may only have the choice of updating to Sierra as El Capitan is no longer available on the Mac App Store (although if you know someone who had downloaded El Capitan previously, they can access it via the purchased tab in the Mac App Store and if they copy the installation files to an external drive you could install it that way. For more detail, read our tutorial: How to install macOS Sierra.

Download link: macOS Sierra on the Mac App Store


It's not the quantum leap forward we've seen in iOS 10, but Sierra is still a major upgrade with a couple of attractive headline features (Siri and auto-unlock) and a wide range of smaller useful features (particularly Universal Clipboard and tabs in non-browser apps). It's more demanding than El Capitan so check your Mac is up to the task, but we reckon this is a solid and useful update.

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