There’s no avoiding it: High Sierra, the next major release of macOS, is going to feel like a somewhat boring update to most people. It’s full of foundational refinements and new technologies that will prepare your Mac for very cool things that are coming over the next few years. There’s a whole new file system underneath everything! But feature-wise, High Sierra lacks any new apps or consumer-facing changes that will make it all that exciting for Mac users.
If you’re a photographer, you’ll certainly appreciate the revamped Photos app and its more powerful editing tools. Mail, Safari, Notes, Spotlight, and Siri are all slightly better on High Sierra, too. But even Apple’s other refinement-focused macOS releases — such as El Capitan or Mountain Lion or Snow Leopard — contained more new stuff. This time, the most important changes are all happening under the hood. And even if you’re unlikely to notice all of them, some are pretty monumental for the operating system’s future. You can install the public beta for High Sierra as of today.
The small changes you can see
Photos is the app that’s received the most attention from Apple in macOS High Sierra, and the payoff for that work is significant. Over the last couple years, Photos has focused largely on simplifying the hassle of managing your photo library and syncing your pictures across devices through the cloud. But with High Sierra, it’s once again starting to feel like a capable, robust piece of editing software. The sidebar is now persistent and displays your library, Memories, Live Photos, and albums. You can view your photos based on media type (burst shots, selfies, panoramas, slow-mo, etc.), and GIFs are finally supported, too.
The edit view has been totally reworked and now offers a wider selection of tools including curves (for finer adjustments) and selective color, which lets you change the color of a specific thing in your shot without affecting the entire image. A new “Compare” button in the upper left corner makes it easy to reference the before and after of each adjustment you make to be sure you’re not ruining everything. And similar to iOS 11, the app’s built-in filters have gotten more natural and subtle.
Plus, if Photos still falls short for your image processing needs, Apple now lets you kick an image out to your editor of choice — Photoshop, Pixelmator, etc. — and saves any edits you make non-destructively. That way, you’re not left with multiple copies of the same photo on your Mac, and your edits sync across your devices just as they would if you’d been working in Photos the whole time.
High Sierra gives Photos the same, new Live Photos tricks as iOS 11 including the loop, bounce, and long exposure effects. Apple is also ramping up its continued war with Google Photos by making the Memories feature smarter; Photos will now create memories involving pets, babies, birthdays, sporting events, outdoor activities, weddings, and anniversaries. And Photos supports the new file formats meant to save space when you’re shooting images and video on a device running iOS 11. To round things out, you can now publish books (and even websites) with third-party companies like Shutterfly and Wix.
Apple has declared war against annoying auto-playing videos and creepy ad tracking across the websites you visit. In High Sierra, the company has ramped up Safari’s capabilities to shield you against both. And these auto-playing defenses are incredibly effective. You can set preferences for individual websites or a blanket rule that bans all autoplay, only stops content with sound, or lets everything play.
And it works! I’ve been unable to find any site that can successfully break through Safari’s new safeguards against unexpected media playback. For most, I’ve had to manually hit the play button or at least take some action. In other instances, loading animations made clear that sites were trying to auto-play something, but they still failed. This feature alone might make many give Safari another try as their primary Mac browser. Apple insists it’s way faster than Chrome, remember.
Another new, great Safari feature is intelligent tracking prevention. Apple’s browser will now use machine learning to identify the advertisers that track you around the web and remove the cross-site data that’s responsible for your Amazon browsing and other brief shopping sessions following you for days and weeks on end. You’ll know it’s working when ads start seeming less creepy and directly relevant to that thing you just searched for. Advertisers will no doubt try to circumvent this pro-consumer feature, setting up a game of cat and mouse in future updates to macOS and Safari.
Safari is also adding more granular controls over content blockers and privacy controls for your Mac’s camera, location, microphone, and notifications. And you can now set the Reader mode, which strips pages of everything but article content, as the default whenever it’s available.
Right off the bat, the updated Mail app should save some space on your Mac’s hard drive. Once you upgrade to High Sierra, Mail will compress all of your messages that it stores. Apple says this could result in Mail taking up to 35 percent less space compared to whatever amount of room it’s eating up on your computer right now.
Mail also gets one significant new feature that’ll come into play when you search through your inbox for that one important email: Top Hits. The idea here is to make search much more accurate by factoring in how often (and recently) you’ve read a message and whether the sender is a favorite contact or someone you’ve set as a VIP in Mail preferences. It also takes into account how frequently someone emails you and your rate of actually replying. Apple says that Top Hits will get more relevant and helpful the more you use it and search in the Mail app.
Notes can now be pinned, so you can keep the important ones at the top of your list. Tables can be added to notes, too. I had to think long and hard about what I’d need a table for when coming up with the fake travel schedule below, but I’m sure there are some of you who’ll find this small thing very useful. And now when you search for a word in notes, it’ll be highlighted so you can easily located it in results.
With High Sierra, Siri is getting the same, more natural voices that are also coming to iOS 11. The assistant is also better at music-related requests. Aside from the straightforward play this song by this artist stuff, you can ask Siri to “play some music” for a personalized playlist or ask her to play something sad or genre-specific.
Spotlight can now track flight status, if that’s a thing you want to do. It’ll show you whether a flight is on time, its path, duration, and the key departure / arrival terminal info you need. You can get this from Google, of course, but if you’re a big Spotlight user, maybe this is just ever so slightly quicker.
Other random new things
Messages in iCloud: Just like iOS 11, High Sierra now offers to store your iMessage history in the cloud, making it easier to retrieve all those conversations whenever you set up a new device. Everything is still end-to-end encrypted to ensure privacy.
FaceTime Live Photos: When you’re on a FaceTime call with someone, you can capture a Live Photo that uses the other person’s camera and mic on their Mac or iOS device for greater quality. Both parties on the FaceTime call are notified whenever a Live Photo is taken.
Universal Clipboard between Macs: You can copy something on one Mac running High Sierra and paste it onto a nearby Mac that’s also signed into your account. Universal Clipboard is already a convenient feature between macOS and iOS, and now it works across Macs.
Improved family sharing and shared iCloud storage: Starting with High Sierra, Apple now lets you set up different aspects of family sharing (Apple Music, shared purchases, etc.) as you need them. Also, everyone can take from the same storage plan. 200GB of iCloud storage is $2.99 per month, or you can jump up to 2TB — hopefully enough to cover everyone — for $9.99 a month.
New Touch Bar tricks: The tiny strip of a display on MacBook Pros is getting ever-so-slightly more useful in High Sierra. You can double tap the volume button to mute your Mac’s audio. Swiping to adjust display brightness and system volume is faster since you don’t have to bring up sliders first. And there are new buttons for Night Shift and AirPlay.
Better iCloud file sharing: Files saved to iCloud Drive can be shared with other people for collaborative work. Everyone sees the same document and will always get the latest version with any edits and changes. “Compatible” third-party apps can also work on iCloud Drive files and the document is still kept up to date. And now, you can share directly with people from the share sheet.
The bigger changes you can’t see
Apple File System
Apple is making some radical changes to the underpinnings of your Mac. High Sierra will mark the changeover to the company’s own, modern Apple File System. iOS users made this transition back in March, and now the Mac’s time has come. APFS is optimized for the flash / SSD storage in most new Mac computers today. It’s faster, more efficient, and advances Apple’s focus on encryption and security. Here are a few examples of the noticeable benefits of APFS:
- Saved space: As with iOS 10.3, you might notice some freed up storage on your Mac once you’ve made the upgrade to High Sierra. This is a result of the file system’s greater efficiency.
- Cloning: When files or folders are copied, they are now “cloned,” which happens instantaneously and the duplicated file eats up barely any additional storage on your computer.
- Fast directory sizing: You’ll no longer have to spend any time waiting for macOS to calculate the size of a particular folder or file in the “Get Info” screen. High Sierra keeps much better track of file / directory size and can display that data right away.
- Snapshots and crash protections: AFPS can take snapshots, which are read-only copies of the state of the file system at a given time. This makes backups easier and more reliable — both for app developers and Apple’s Time Machine software.
The rise of high-resolution displays and 4K video has led Apple to bring support for HEVC (H.265) to High Sierra. The pitch for HEVC is that it enables video streaming and playback of 4K content, but with file sizes that are up to 40 percent smaller than H.264 videos. All Macs will get software support for HEVC, but hardware acceleration, which will improve playback and encoding even more, is exclusive to only the most recent Macs.
External GPUs and VR
Sometime next year (Apple is saying spring 2018), owners of supported Macs will be able to connect external graphics cards over Thunderbolt 3 and instantly boost the gaming power of their system for far better performance with top titles and — eventually — support for virtual reality experiences. High Sierra is Apple’s initial step into eGPUs and VR, and it’ll be some time before we know how serious the company is about taking the fight to Windows here.
What didn’t Apple change at all?
iTunes and the Mac App Store. Perhaps more than any other apps on macOS — well, besides Chess, DVD player, and Stickies — those two are in need of some rethinking. The App Store is being completely redesigned on iOS 11 with a bigger emphasis on editorial, but that’s not (yet) true of the Mac. Maybe next year.
Dashboard is also still hanging around and continues to feel largely ignored and unchanged dating back to sometime in 2006. It’s turned off by default. For all of Apple’s efforts to be super efficient, there’s still a lot of ancient software left untouched in High Sierra. Why not just cut the cruft?
So that about covers what’s new in High Sierra. Should you install the beta? I can’t see any pressing reason to over the summer. This isn’t akin to the huge upgrade that iOS 11 gets you on the iPad. That’s perhaps worth dealing with some bugs for. But the Mac’s new software features are relatively small in scope, so it’s probably worth holding out until the steady, official release this fall — unless auto-play videos are really bugging you.
High Sierra will be available as a free download for all the same Macs that received Sierra in 2016.