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MacOS Sierra hands-on: Siri, giant emojis and the everywhere desktop

We take a closer look at some of the coolest new features in the developer beta of Apple's new desktop OS.

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There's a huge change coming to MacBooks, iMacs, Mac Minis and Mac Pro desktops. The operating system running Apple's computers is getting renamed and updated, going from OS X to MacOS. (The new name is more in line with iOS and WatchOS, and the shift feels like another step in a long path to a grand unified theory of Apple operating systems.)

Dubbed "Sierra," the next version of MacOS will be available for free to existing users later this year. As with recent versions -- 2015's El Capitan and 2014's Yosemite -- the new upgrade is less an overhaul and more a collection of handy features and enhancements, some of which come directly from iOS or are designed to help Macs work better with iOS products. The big headline is Siri, Apple's chatty personal assistant, but it's the storage and iCloud changes that may actually be of the most practical benefit.

After test-driving the developer build of MacOS for a few days, here are our hands-on impressions of some of the highlights.


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Screenshot by Dan Ackerman/CNET

Siri on Mac

Yes, it's the same familiar Siri voice (depending on your region), and she does most of the same things as the iOS version. You activate Siri through a keyboard command, currently Fn+Space, but that may change down the line, and simply speak your query. All the standard things -- weather, news, local shops and landmarks -- work as expected. But, you can pin results, from sports scores to stock prices, to the notifications panel, and see them anytime.

The most useful trick with desktop Siri has been for searching files, which you can do by type, by date, or by keyword. For example, we could easily call out all spreadsheets, or all image files from the last two weeks with the word "screenshot" in the title.


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Screenshot by Dan Ackerman/CNET

New sharing and optimization in iCloud

Using iCloud for storing photos and files is well established at this point, and people use Google Drive, Dropbox and other cloud services for similar purposes. But, by checking off a new check box in the iCloud settings menu, files on the desktop or in the documents folders of multiple Macs can now be automatically synced.

Drop a file or add a screenshot to the desktop of one MacOS system, and a few seconds later, it pops up on the other ones. The documents folder, the other place you're likely to store important files, works similarly, but each machine gets a named folder within the documents folder on its sister machines.

There are plenty of ways to sync files between machines, but I liked how effortless this was, and especially how it gave me access to identical desktops (where I keep a lot of in-progress files) across different Macs.


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Screenshot by Dan Ackerman/CNET

Bigger, better messages

Messages on iOS is getting bigger emojis and more dramatic text, including messages that boom or shake, or ones written in "invisible ink," that reveals itself when you mouse over it.

Do I really want bigger emojis on my desktop? Perhaps not, but Messages remains one of the smoothest phone-to-computer crossover messaging systems. To use the new features, including invisible ink, which hides messages until you mouse over them, you'll need both the MacOS beta and the iOS 10 beta. In our hands-on testing with the developer build, big emojis and invisible ink worked, while some of the other new text format features did not work yet.


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Screenshot by Dan Ackerman/CNET

Watch more video with picture-in-picture

A small new feature, but a potentially very useful one. On select websites, videos can be popped out of their in-line spaces and instead play in a small pop-out video window off to the side of the screen. That way, you can watch while surfing other websites or doing other work. Among the early sites where you can try this are ESPN and Vimeo, and most HTML5 videos (rather than Flash) should work as well.


Much more is on the way

This is only a small selection of the new features coming to MacOS. Other include a universal clipboard for sharing content between phones and Macs; auto-unlock to log in to a Mac from an Apple Watch; and Apple Pay on the web, for using your phone's payment info for website purchases.

We'll look at MacOS Sierra more closely when the public beta hits (expected in July). Look for a final release later in 2016.