macOS Sierra full review

Welcome to our macOS Sierra review, in which we test and rate the features, interface and ease of use of Apple's macOS 10.12 operating system for Macs and MacBooks. If you'd like to read about autumn 2017's update to macOS, turn to our macOS High Sierra preview.

The 2016 update to Apple's Mac operating system, macOS Sierra, has been available to download for free (assuming your Mac is new enough to run it) for almost a year now, following its unveiling at WWDC 2016. Sierra's array of features have grown on us in that time, and we feel even more positive about the update than we did last year.

In this article we review the strengths and weaknesses of the macOS Sierra operating system, look at its new features, and list its system requirements and the Macs that can run the software.

macOS Sierra's design & interface

Design-wise, macOS Sierra is virtually identical to its predecessor, El Capitan. The 'flattened' visuals brought in for Yosemite and retained in El Cap last year are still present; they weren't popular at first but I think most of us have got used to them, just like we did a little earlier with iOS 7's removal of skeuomorphic elements.

There are a couple of differences in the user interface, however. You can use tabs, for example, in a wide range of first- and third-party apps, rather than just Safari (and other web browsers). It's a small enhancement but a highly logical one, and should make the bulk of commonly used apps noticeably more convenient to use for multitasking.

First-party apps that support tabs from launch include Maps, Mail, TextEdit and all three iWork apps. For third-party apps, Apple pledges that no additional developer work will be needed to achieve this - it just needs to be an app that supports multiple windows.

macOS Sierra review: Tabs

There's also a new picture-in-picture viewing mode, following on from 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.

macOS Sierra review: Picture in picture

New features

With design changes largely taking a back seat in the 2016 update, the focus was instead on the new features. As usual, there are a couple of headline features (including one that we're particularly pleased about, and will look at first), and a long list of small functions and tweaks. Often when updating the OS on your Mac it's the accumulated small changes that make the real difference.

Siri on 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.

macOS Sierra review: Siri on Mac

A particularly useful and impressive feature is the ability to search through documents using Siri; you can use natural language, specifying various parameters to apply to the document search, and Siri's search results sit afterwards in the Notifications pane from where they can be dragged and dropped into applicable apps, and generally manipulated at your whim.

Read more about this in our Complete guide to Siri on the Mac.

macOS Sierra review: Siri

Apple Pay on Mac

Apple Pay has jumped from the iOS ecosystem to Mac.

The MacBook Pro with Touch Bar has a fingerprint scanner, but most Macs do not, and thus cannot handle the verification process by themselves. In these cases you'll still be tapping your iPhone or iPad to prove you are who you claim to be.

macOS Sierra review: Apple Pay on 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. Apple Pay on Mac will be available in the UK from launch, alongside the US, Canada, Australia, China and Singapore. Read more: How to use Apple Pay on Mac

Auto Unlock with Apple Watch

Some Apple fans (including a fellow member of the UK Tech Weekly Podcast team, in episode 19 - embedded below) were looking for the ability to unlock their Mac via the Touch ID fingerprint scanner on an iPhone. Instead, Apple announced something that is arguably a lot more convenient, albeit available to a smaller market: the ability to automatically unlock your Mac with your Apple Watch.

Get within a certain distance of your Mac while wearing an unlocked Apple Watch, and the Mac will detect your approach and unlock: no more typing in lengthy passwords.

Cross-device syncing

While covering the WWDC keynote speech for Macworld, I was coincidentally struck by the need for a simple way of getting small chunks of text between the Mac and iPad I was using simultaneously, rather than the mild hassle of emailing myself or similar. Now we've got it.

Universal Clipboard is one of those smaller, less glamorous features mentioned further up, but it's a great way to copy and paste data between devices. Whatever you copy on one of your devices will be sent to the clipboard on your other devices, wirelessly and seemingly instantly.

On a larger scale, macOS Sierra gives you the ability to share your entire desktop (and Documents folder) with other devices - including PCs. Files saved on the Mac's desktop or in Documents will be accessible via your iPad or iPhone's iCloud Drive, on the desktop or in Documents of another Mac, or in the iCloud for Windows app on a PC.

Optimised storage

Talking of non-glamorous features… Optimised Storage is a new way of helping your storage space go a bit further. It removes certain duplicate files for you, without needing to be told (caches, logs and so on - nothing you'll miss) and automatically stores items you rarely use in iCloud.

Features from iOS 10

We'll finish by reminding readers of a couple of major app refreshes that we discussed in our iOS 10 review and which also appear in macOS Sierra. (Bear in mind, too, that iOS 11 is on its way and should launch in September 2017.)

macOS Sierra review: Messages

Messages in iOS 10 has been given a full-on youth makeover, with more emphasis than ever before on emoji and sometimes bizarre visual effects. And much of this will appear on Mac too: the larger emoji, for instance, and the 'tapback' feature, where you can respond instantly to a message by tapping one of six icons - thumbs up or down, a heart, 'Ha ha', or question or exclamation marks. Links in messages will be previewed in the message thread.

Photos has a new Memories feature, which automatically creates themed, easily customisable albums for you based on its ability to recognise and understand people, places and events.

And Apple Music, while seeing few functional changes, has been fundamentally redesigned visually, and this applies also to its embodiment on Mac. See our Complete guide to Apple Music article for more on this.

macOS Sierra review: Apple Music

WWDC 2016 podcast

The UK Tech Weekly Podcast dissects the announcements of WWDC, including macOS Sierra, in its 19th episode. We've embedded the audio below in case you'd like to hear what the team have to say. The WWDC section starts at the 26:30 point.

A new episode of the UK Tech Weekly Podcast comes out every Friday. Follow them on Twitter for links to the latest episodes.

Which Macs are compatible with macOS Sierra?

Sierra is a more demanding OS than El Capitan, placing greater strains on the hardware that runs it, and some Macs that could happily run the latter won't be permitted to install the former. Here's a list of the Macs that can install the macOS Sierra upgrade:

  • 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?

Release date

macOS Sierra was announced at WWDC on 13 June 2016, where Apple's software VP, Craig Federighi, walked through the OS's new features. Apple released the developer preview beta version of Sierra as soon as the keynote speech was over, and devs were soon busily downloading the OS, testing and fixing compatibility issues with their wares and exploring ways to incorporate its features into their work. In July, the public beta opened.

But ever since 20 September 2016, the final version of macOS Sierra has been available to all, for free. Here's how to install macOS Sierra.

macOS High Sierra

Sierra has been out for almost a year now, and its successor has already been unveiled. macOS High Sierra is available in beta form, and will officially launch to the public at large in autumn 2017 - most likely mid-September. Read our macOS High Sierra review for more information.

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