At long last, Apple has realized the Mac needs change. The company came to WWDC 2016 ready to do what fans have long waited for. It changed the name of OS X to MacOS.
OK, OK — there’s more to it than that. MacOS Sierra has several major new features to talk about, including one you can talk to. But Microsoft has implemented a similarly aggressive update schedule, and that’s eroding the impact of Apple’s update schedule, which, just a few years ago, looked lightning-quick.
Let’s talk Siri
Siri for Mac rumors swirled around the last two OS X – er, sorry, MacOS – releases, but it never happened. This time, the wish came true. Siri will be hitting all Macs this fall, going toe-to-toe with Cortana for the title of best desktop assistant.
One major difference is immediately obvious. Siri doesn’t, and can’t, listen unless you tell it to. You can yell at Siri all day long, but it won’t respond. Apple, always mindful of privacy, requires manual activation, just as on the iPhone. That makes the digital assistant less convenient than it could be. Both Cortana and Google Now actively listen and respond to a key phrase — “Hey, Cortana” and “OK, Google,” respectively.
Siri also doesn’t accept text input. That’s more of a problem than you might think for a desktop digital assistant. There’s far less need to speak directly to Siri on MacOS, since your keyboard is likely to be handy. In fact, speaking to Siri may not be prudent if you’re at work, on a plane, or relaxing at your local coffee shop.
Spotlight replicates some of what Siri can do, and sorta-kinda steps into the role of text based digital assistant, the two aren’t mirrors of each. For example, you can ask Siri to find food near you, and it will. But Spotlight will just send you to Yelp’s search page.
Siri was slow when we first tried it in the beta version of MacOS, but it’s made great strides since then. Our test system, an aging MacBook Air from 2012 with a Core i5 processor, had little trouble keeping up with our voice input. It also recognized our voice input well, only occasionally missing quick, simple words (for example, Siri usually recognized “jig” as “J”). Chances are that if your system can be updated to MacOS Sierra, it’s probably fast enough to run Siri without issue.
Functionally, Siri’s features on the Mac are similar to iOS. Siri can play music, search the web, and open apps. She also has one major capability that’s not found on iOS – file system search. Previously, OS X users could use Spotlight search to find files based on location, date, document type, and so on. Now, Siri can do that, too.
Here, once again, Siri has improved over the course of its beta. When we first tried it, the assistant had trouble finding linked MacOS apps. Maps and iTunes threw it for a loop. Now, though, problems are far and few in between. Siri successfully played both music and radio stations through iTunes, summoned directions and food recommendations through Maps, and found the best-selling apps on the Mac App Store.
It’s not perfect. For example, Siri had trouble finding specific podcasts in iTunes. But it does work far more often than not.
So, how does Siri stand up to Cortana? Generally, Siri is better at opening applications, and interacting with them. Cortana lacks any ability to interact with most apps, first-party or third-party. However, Cortana is better at desktop search. It can find files, system settings, and applications more easily, and seems to better understand search modifiers.
Both Siri and Cortana have trouble with web search because they rely on Bing by default. That’s where Google Now excels. Google’s assistant is also great at quick voice recognition, and connects very well to apps — but it’s mostly restricted to Android, so it’s not really a desktop digital assistant except for one of the dozen who daily drive a Google Pixel C.
Use this platform for a boost
Aside from Siri, Apple announced a wealth of new features. Well, kinda. While the count looks respectable on a bullet-point list, the majority of functions added to MacOS are not features of the operating system, but instead extensions of existing Apple platforms. This includes Apple Pay, iCloud, iTunes, Messages, and Photos. And last — but certainly not least — is a Universal Clipboard feature, which will let Apple fans easily copy data from MacOS to iOS, or vice versa.
If your system can be updated to MacOS Sierra, it’s probably fast enough to run Siri without issue.
Many of the changes aren’t even app updates per say, but instead changes to functionality. ITunes, which was partially updated to the new style shown at WWDC 2016, showcases that fact. The Radio page had a bolder, more colorful font. But iTunes itself looks and functions as it did before.
How these changes impact you will depends a lot on how deeply you’ve invested into Apple’s ecosystem. Do you prefer iTunes over Spotify? If so, the new iTunes look is going to be a big deal. If you like Spotify, though, it doesn’t matter one bit.
And MacOS users might be disappointed to see Apple has made no attempt to replicate some of the more interesting app enhancements that came to iOS 10. For example, iMessages doesn’t have access to the stickers or touch-based message components found on iOS. MacOS users can receive these, but they can’t send them back.