macOS High Sierra vs macOS Sierra

macOS High Sierra will be arriving on Macs later today (25 September). Find out what to expect, and whether it's worth the upgrade if you're already happy with Sierra.

Of course, given that High Sierra is a free update when it arrives in autumn, you might wonder why there's any debate at all. You've got to remember that there's always a bit of work involved with updating a Mac, and that it can be pretty difficult to downgrade once you've done it. Then there is the fact that often, despite thorough beta testing, there can still be issues with the early versions of the software and that may well cause problems for you. So you want to be sure before you jump to the latest version.

If you want more detail on each of the versions you can check out our Sierra review and our High Sierra preview, but for now let's put the two head-to-head.

Design & interface

Here's one area you really don't have to make a decision. Design-wise, Sierra and High Sierra are pretty much identical - the biggest change to look forward to is the new High Sierra desktop background.

Of course, there are plenty of design tweaks to specific apps which we'll get to below, but as far as the OS in general goes, it's business as usual.

Features

High Sierra features changes not only to the core function of macOS but also tweaks to a number of Mac users' favourite day-to-day apps. Despite that, it's got to be admitted that this isn't one of the really exciting macOS updates.

As the name suggests, this is akin to Mac OS X Mountain Lion (which followed Lion) and Snow Leopard (which followed Leopard) - a mid-step upgrade that builds on Sierra while focussing on under-the-hood improvements that developers will care about, but that the average user might not even notice, although they will benefit from.

Apple File System

Nothing exemplifies that better than the biggest change High Sierra offers: a new file system. Yeah, thrilling stuff, we know.

The new Apple File System (APFS) may not be the sexiest OS update (but then, what is?) but it is important. Already the file system in iOS 10, APFS changes the way macOS handles and organises data with a number of important benefits.

First of all, copying files and finding the size of files and folders should now be near-instantaneous, the sort of small improvement that will add up over long-term use.

It also helps keep files safe thanks to built-in encryption, data protection for power outages and system crashes, and simplified data backup. It's also compatible with HFS drives and data so you shouldn't lost anything during the upgrade - though we'd still always recommend a backup first.

Beyond APFS, a similar under-the-hood upgrade sees High Sierra adopt the H.625 video standard, also known as HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding), which will make it easier to encode, stream, and store 4K video (files will be compressed up to 40 percent more than on Sierra), which is only going to become more important in the future.

VR

Apple's been a slightly slow adopter when it comes to VR, but with High Sierra that looks to be changing. The update adds the capability to use Macs to develop virtual reality content on compatible Macs using peripherals like the HTC Vive headset.

While new VR development tools won't affect most of us, it could signal a move towards being able to actually use the Vive and other headsets with a Mac to play VR games and experiences - though you'll need a high spec model with a compatible GPU - or an external GPU, support for which is another new feature expected in spring 2018.

Safari

Now we're getting more into the sort of changes the everyday user will notice. Safari features a few welcome tweaks in High Sierra that should improve most people's browsing experience.

First up, to the dismay of advertisers everywhere, Safari will now prevent auto-playing videos, ending the desperate hunt for that one tab blaring advert music at you. You'll even be able to choose to see ads entirely stripped out of pages that are compatible with Safari Reader.

The new Intelligent Tracking Prevention will also limit how much sites can use cookies to track your browsing and serve ads based on your browsing history.

Finally, you'll be able to personalise your browsing by creating custom settings for specific pages or sites - changing the default zoom setting on certain sites, or adjusting your location settings on a case-by-case basis.

If you want to gain these new features in Safari then the upgrade to High Sierra is going to be a must. Sure you can use ad blockers, and other software to get a similar result, but the new Safari will simplify the process.

Photos

When Apple discontinued iPhoto and introduced Photos with Yosemite back in 2014 some fans of iPhotos (and Aperture that was also discontinued) were critical of the way that the app simplified the tools offered for editing photos, reduced functionality and did away with things like the sidebar.

Those people will possibly be pleased to see that in High Sierra Photos has received some changes that return some of those features to the app, and add some more professional tools that would have been the domain of Aperture.

First up, the new always-on sidebar should make the app easier to navigate, while image editing should be easier thanks to a new layout, new advanced editing tools, and a selection of professionally-inspire filters.

There's also now support for external editors, so that you could use Photoshop tools to edit images from Photos and save your work into the default Photos library, simplifying things for anyone who works on their images across various software.

Live Photos are getting changes too, including the ability to create looping images, or make them 'bounce', playing a selection of frames forwards and backwards. The new Long Exposure effect will emulate a slow shutter speed to blur water or create light trails.

Siri

The headline change to Siri is primarily cosmetic. Apple has fine-tuned both the male and female voices so that they should sound less robotic and more natural, with more detailed expression and intonation.

Siri's integration with Apple Music has also been improved ahead of the release of the HomePod, so that the virtual assistant will be able to recommend songs, create playlists, answer queries about tracks, and help with natural language queries like 'play more music like this'.

We're not sure how many people have adopted Siri on the Mac as a way of communicating. It can save some time if you wanted to "turn on Bluetooth" or "play music", or "remind me I have a meeting at 4" but we feel a bit silly asking our Macs to do things when we are in the office. We don't think the new features in Siri in High Sierra will make anyone more likely to adopt it.

Mail

Mail has been tweaked too, with a change to search so it should be easier than before to find emails within your swamped inbox.

That's thanks to the new Top Hits feature, which will appear at the top of search results. It will display a select few emails deemed most relevant to your search, based on the emails you read most, the people you reply to most, and more - and thanks to machine learning, it will get better at predicting your needs the more you use it.

This should help when it comes to finding emails, but initially it might be a bit confusing to find that emails aren't in date order. It's probably one of those things we will adjust to quickly.

Messages

This one's good news for iOS users. In High Sierra Messages will be synced with iCloud, which brings with it a few welcome benefits.

First up, it means messages don't have to take up space on your device (not that it's likely to be a big concern for Mac users). 

More importantly, it will improve syncing across your iPhone, iPad, and Mac, so that you know longer read a message on one device only to see the notification for it pop up immediately on another.

We wonder if this mean you won't be able to read your Messages when you are off line though?

And how well will this transition go? We do hope that nobody loses any messages as Apple's servers struggle to deal with the weight of Messages out there. And are we likely to need to up our iCoud storage to accomodate them.

iCloud

Speaking of iCloud, there are two welcome changes here too. First up, the storage limit for iCloud Storage Plans is being upped to 2TB, so you shouldn't run out of space any time soon. Of course the allocation of storage and the price won't change depending on which version of MacOS you are running.

Second, you'll be able to share a file stored on your iCloud Drive with others via a link so that they can edit the original file, rather than creating duplicate copies. It's similar to existing collaboration tools in some Apple apps, but it should be a simpler implementation.

It's not clear if sharing files via the iCloud Drive this way will be limited to High Sierra users. We are confident that anyone will be able to access the shared file, whether on a Mac running an older version of MacOS or on a PC.

Notes

Another app, another quality of life improvement. This time it's the introduction of pinned notes, so that you can quickly access the notes you need the most without having to sort through them all.

You'll also be able to add tables to notes, which will save you from diving into Numbers every now and then.

System requirements

Here's some good news: if your Mac is running Sierra, it can run High Sierra, as the two OS versions have exactly the same system requirements. For reference, these are all the current Mac models that can run both Sierra and High 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)

Wondering how macOS High Sierra compares to Windows 10, click here to find out!

OUR VERDICT

macOS High Sierra may not offer many radical changes to the user experience, but there are plenty of quality of life changes, and its under-the-hood alterations should help future-proof your Mac. Throw in the fact that every Mac that can run Sierra is High Sierra-compatible too and there's really little reason not to upgrade.

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