MacOS Sierra First Impressions: What it's Like to Use Siri on a Mac

By David Nield on at

MacOS Sierra is out now, bringing lots of new features to Apple desktop users. Back in June, we had a play with the beta version of the new operating system, which we have republished here, below.


The most noticeable update to Apple’s desktop OS is the addition of Siri. Similar to Cortana on Windows 10, Apple’s new operating system lets you speak directly to a virtual assistant on your desktop. Aside from the issue of whether or not you actually want to talk to your personal computer, Siri on macOS is really helpful — it’s neatly integrated, accurate, and easy to configure.

MacOS Sierra First Impressions: What It's Like to Use Siri on a Mac

You can put Siri in the dock and in the menu bar, or just keep it hidden behind a keyboard shortcut (Fn+Space). Siri’s voice recognition was practically flawless (remember this is still just a beta) when we tried out all the usual web searches and questions. If you know how to use Siri on iOS, then you’ll know right away how to use it on macOS.

The best use for Siri on the desktop is searching for specific files using natural language queries. Think of it as a voice-enabled version of Spotlight. You just click a button in the top right corner of your desktop screen or the Siri logo in your dock, then ask a question or say a command. Things like “Turn up the volume” or “increase the brightness of my screen” work easily.

Again, Siri handled our requests without any problems at all, though for anything really precise (like locating a file with a weird name) you’ll want to fire up Finder or Spotlight instead.

MacOS Sierra First Impressions: What It's Like to Use Siri on a Mac

Web and file search results can also be pinned to the Notifications pane, but this does tend to overwhelm your desktop space and wasn’t particularly helpful during our tests. If you do find a good use for this, let us know in the comments.

You can also get driving directions from Maps, compose emails, play specific music tracks (and playlists) from iTunes, change system settings, and even change your Wi-Fi settings with Siri. The only awkward part of the process is that you need to tap a button to say something, even with follow-up questions. There’s no always listening mode on macOS. If you shout “Hey Siri!” your iPhone will spring to life in your pocket — but not your desktop.

MacOS Sierra First Impressions: What It's Like to Use Siri on a Mac

Since macOS Sierra is still in beta, Apple still needs to add Siri integration into most of its macOS apps. Some commands already work, however, such as pausing and restarting your iTunes music. Obviously it’s too early for third-party application support but that will change soon.

Despite all of Siri’s uses on macOS, it seems unlikely that people are going to start yelling at their laptops in coffee shops or open-plan offices. Unlike Cortana, there’s no text box Siri interface, although Spotlight is more or less a version of that. Still — it’s worth pointing out that you can’t request Siri commands by simply typing them.

MacOS Sierra First Impressions: What It's Like to Use Siri on a Mac

After a full day with macOS Sierra, we can’t really think of anything that Siri does significantly better than all the other options you already have on your desktop. Siri on macOS Sierra isn’t nearly as useful as it is on mobile, where voice is often the easiest route to something. Again, we’re open to suggestions, but our first impressions were a little underwhelming.

MacOS Sierra First Impressions: What It's Like to Use Siri on a Mac

Another new feature worthy of a mention is iCloud automatically downloading and syncing everything on your Desktop and Documents folder. You’ll be asked during installation if you want to sync both folders, and you can turn it on or off at anytime in the iCloud settings.

If you store a lot of files on your desktop (and we definitely do) then it’s a really useful addition. Just remember you’re going to need the iCloud storage space to match, so an upgrade might be in order. Again, macOS is now reaching for uses far beyond the desktop environment.

MacOS Sierra First Impressions: What It's Like to Use Siri on a Mac

There’s also a new optimised storage feature in iCloud, where older files are shunted off to the web to make room on the local drive, but our MacBook Pro isn’t quite full enough for us to test that out yet. You can turn the feature on and off via a checkbox in the iCloud settings, so let’s hope it’s simple enough to understand when activated and doesn’t lead to unnecessary panic when users think their files have disappeared.

For the most part, you’re not going to notice you’ve upgraded from El Capitan. The visuals are almost identical, the options and menus are all in the same places, and the apps are by and large unchanged as well. The cleaner, clearer interface for Apple Music is one welcome improvement, but there aren’t many others worth calling out.

MacOS Sierra First Impressions: What It's Like to Use Siri on a Mac

The new picture-in-picture shortcut is a handy way of snapping a video from Vimeo into the corner of the screen and on top of everything else without messing about with window frames. You do need to keep the relevant Safari tab open in the background, but it seems like something that will get a lot of use. It doesn’t yet work with YouTube or anything other video site we tried.

Also, the new tabs-instead-of-windows approach is something we like. It’s available now in a few of Apple’s apps (such as Maps) and will be coming soon to others. It keeps everything tidy and pinned together in one window, though if you prefer the multi-window approach then that’s still available.

MacOS Sierra First Impressions: What It's Like to Use Siri on a Mac

We haven’t tried out Universal Clipboard — either Apple hasn’t made it live yet or we’re not clever enough to work out how to use it — and also missing from this beta version is the Auto-Unlock feature that let’s you sign into your Mac with a trusted Apple Watch (which sounds genuinely useful in theory — using a trusted Android phone has become our default way of unlocking our Chromebook).

For what it’s worth, the developer beta we ran had no significant stability or battery issues though of course your mileage may vary on a different machine. Most glitches weren’t from the OS, but from applications that haven’t yet had chance to catch up with it.

MacOS Sierra First Impressions: What It's Like to Use Siri on a Mac

By the time the public beta arrives in July we’d expect this to be a pretty solid piece of software, though it goes without saying that you should install any beta software at your own risk and should not complain to Gizmodo if your holiday photos get erased along the way.

Apple has gone just about as far is it can with its desktop OS in the traditional sense, and in terms of the standard OS features this is a minor upgrade over El Capitan. With a new name, macOS is now looking outwards, with Siri and iCloud leading the way — and we’re excited about the possibilities.