Another year, another MacOS update – and this new one is more of a refinement than an overhaul of Apple’s desktop operating system. Its predecessor, Sierra, introduced several quality-of-life improvements like Siri integration, Touch Bar support, and better disk management. High Sierra, on the other hand, focuses on improvements that you might miss at first (or second) glance.
Let’s get high
Yeah, it’s called “High Sierra.” The name is a reference to the scenic and ecologically diverse biome in California’s Sierra mountains, a combination of foothill woodlands, scrubland, and subalpine forest. But unlike its namesake, the new version of MacOS is a little desolate in attractive features.
The big changes are behind the scenes, and the biggest change comes to the file system itself.
Safari has been tweaked to improve performance. Mail compresses data better. And the Photos app synchronizes categories between devices, in addition to the photos themselves. These tweaks are fine, but they’re minor. We’d never notice they exist if Apple didn’t point them out.
In fact, after using the High Sierra developer and beta builds over the summer, the only major difference we noticed in day-to-day use was the fancy new wallpaper.
You really have to dig for the new High Sierra features — deep, in the darkest corners of your Mac, High Sierra begins its work, disassembling and re-assembling your files in its own image, optimizing and toiling away in obscurity. Let’s descend into the weird and arcane world of file systems.
HFS Plus Plus … Plus
The big new feature in High Sierra comes in the way your Mac stores and retrieves data. Since time immemorial, Macs have used the hierarchical file system (HFS). Over the years Apple iterated on its original file system with HFS+, which is what was in use right up until MacOS High Sierra.
The new file system, aptly named the Apple File System (APFS), aims to get MacOS ready for the future by addressing several the issues plaguing HFS and HFS+. None of these are issues that most users would ever notice. Still, the changes introduced by APFS are a big deal, even if they’re not exactly going to revolutionize the way you use your Mac.
APFS is designed with SSDs in mind, so it’s able to handle a larger number of individual files. As the storage experts at Backblaze report, HFS+ is only capable of keeping track of about four billion individual files. That’s a lot, but given the ever-increasing size of the hard drives we have available to us, it’s an uncomfortable ceiling.
APFS remedies that by using 64-bit inodes, or file IDs, instead of 32-bit file IDs like HFS+. Because of that, APFS is capable of managing up to nine quintillion files on a single volume. Additionally, APFS now supports native single and multi-key encryption, which means you’ll be able to encrypt or decrypt individual files and folders without locking or unlocking your entire hard drive through FileVault.
That’s a lot of behind the scenes engineering, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. APFS does a lot of cool stuff with your data, from modernizing file indexes, to lowering overall latency. Spotlight searches are a bit quicker than before, but that will vary based on what you’re searching for and how large your hard drive is. For most end-users, the biggest takeaways are pretty straightforward – with APFS your Mac will be faster, more secure, and ready to handle nine quintillion pictures of your cats.
Safari is still Safari. Apple has upped the ante with a couple new privacy and security features designed to improve your browsing experience, but the overall look and feel hasn’t changed.
Safari will now automatically stop autoplay videos from playing, if they have sound. Some sites slip through the cracks, but Safari now has a new options pane for manually disabling autoplay videos and content entirely, regardless of whether or not it has sound. Gone are the days of hunting for which tab is playing that irritating ad music. Safari will automatically take care of it.
Similarly, Safari now features “intelligent tracking prevention,” which will keep advertisers from harvesting your information to target ads based on your browsing history. It doesn’t block ads, but it keeps advertisers from tracking your every move online, so those adorable cat vests you look at every day won’t keep showing up at every single site you visit. Even if you secretly really like seeing cats in vests. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But as we said, Safari is still Safari. It works as it always has. If you like it, then you’ll continue to, and if you prefer Chrome, we don’t think these tweaks will change your mind.
Bringing photos to life
High Sierra also features a revamped Photos app, which is now even better at recognizing your human friends and family, but still neglects your feline friends and family. Despite a notable lack of cat facial recognition, the new Photos app does have a few interesting new features to make editing your photos and managing your photo library a little easier.
The High Sierra version of the Photos app includes advanced editing options like selective color, and many easily applied filters, as well as expanding the existing Memories options. Now, you can create Memories slideshows for all kinds of activities and special events.
It’s not a groundbreaking feature, given you can just as easily to the same thing on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, but it’s nice you can do it right in the photos app.
There’s also many new organizational tools. Yes, at this point, we’re talking about sorting your photos like it’s a big new feature for the latest version of MacOS. That’s how sparse this update is. Tagging photos is literally a headline feature.
Wait, there’s more! You’ll be able to not only tag and organize your photos in the new Photos app, but also manipulate Live Photos from your compatible iOS device.
Try not to faint from excitement.
More human than human
As Apple pushes deeper into the AI assistant market with its new HomePod speaker, Siri is receiving a number of upgrades to make her a little more competitive and, well, human. She still doesn’t respond to “Hey, Siri,” on Macs or MacBooks, but when you do click the new Siri icon, she springs to life with characteristic glee and uncharacteristically human vocals.
Her stilted and slightly staccato speaking style has been replaced with something a lot smoother, and a lot less recognizably artificial. It’s still clear Siri is a computer-generated voice, but smoothing out her vocal gait goes a long way toward making her a sound more companionable.
She also spies on you now. More than she used to. With deeper Apple Music integration, Siri will monitor your listening habits and try to predict what music you’d like to hear next. She’ll also respond to requests for particular kinds of music, and suggest music based on your preferences. Thankfully, she won’t automatically download music and store them on your devices forever without any way of removing them. Like that U2 album nobody wanted.
Another big update you’ll hear mentioned in any discussion of High Sierra is the expansion of Apple’s graphics framework, Metal. It’s another behind-the-scenes upgrade, but because of its expanded capabilities, you’ll probably see a lot more VR content headed for MacOS. The new version of Metal supports VR and external GPUs but there’s a big asterisk there.
All right, your MacBook Pro or new-generation iMac has unofficially supported external GPU use if you run Windows through Boot Camp, but until now Apple hasn’t opened things up for external GPU use in MacOS. That changes with High Sierra, but it’s not as impressive as it sounds.
For video editing and other GPU-intensive workloads, sure, you will see some big performance improvements using an external GPU rig in MacOS. For gaming though, your mileage will vary, and your best bet is still running games in Windows 10 — via Boot Camp — even with an external GPU. Metal, and OpenCL just aren’t as efficient as DirectX. In short, your graphics card won’t have to work as hard running games in Windows 10 as it will running them in MacOS.
MacOS High Sierra has a revamped file system that will help future-proof your Mac, but for the everyday end user, there’s just not much here. In our time with the developer preview and release candidate version of High Sierra, we didn’t see much that will make a difference for the average user. We’re starting to question if Apple knows where the Mac is headed in a post-iPad world.
Of course, Mac fans should still download it when it comes out on September 25. It’s free, after all, and it has a ton of behind the scenes features. Just don’t be disappointed when you realize that High Sierra is just Sierra with an extra adjective.
Oh, and Siri has a new icon.
- New future-ready file system
- Improved Siri functionality
- A few ease-of-use improvements
- Not very feature-rich
- Most updates are behind-the-scenes