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MacOS High Sierra beta has key updates, but isn't a must-have

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I spent some quality time with the public beta of the next version of Apple's desktop operating system, High Sierra, and learned a few things. Here's what you need to know before downloading the public beta -- or not.

To get the public beta, you need to create an ID for Apple's Beta Software Program and then head to the MacOS page and follow the instructions.

Easy install, but might be time-consuming

Installing it is pretty painless, if you don't count backing up your system beforehand. (And I can't stress enough how important it is to back up before messing with your operating system. Do it. Do it now.) The beta doesn't force you to convert your drive to APFS (Apple File system), which is good since it can take a while; I installed High Sierra on a fairly empty iMac 27 drive and the update still took about 45 minutes.

Converting your drive to the APFS file system is optional in the beta.

Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

Note that AFPS isn't new; it was implemented in Sierra, but as an optional alternative to to the old HPFS+. What's new is that, starting with the official High Sierra rollout in the fall, it will become the default. Since it's been around for a while, there shouldn't be any surprises.

Most of the key updates are invisible

By "invisible," I mean you probably won't notice a difference between Sierra and High Sierra in your everyday use, unless you're a developer or an avid Photos user. Or you crash your drive. We're still waiting on software companies to take advantage of the new application programming interfaces to speed up operation. For instance, at the moment, the only part of the system that takes visible advantage of the Metal 2 graphics API is Mission Control.

The Snapshot feature in the APFS file system maintains copies of your system state for easy backup and restoration, but I didn't test it by forcing a crash, and as yet Time Machine is the only application that can speed backup by using it. However a bug prevented me from trying it with an APFS-formatted drive.

To really understand how High Sierra will change the desktop experience, we'll have see how applications implement support for the new APIs. So if you're curious about that before it's final, you can probably wait at least a month before installing the beta, and by then you may have beta versions of some other applications to try.

Photos is most improved

The updated Photos interface is much better for both organizing and editing, but aside from the ability to edit Live Photos and roundtrip edits with external photo-editing applications,  It still has fundamentally the same capabilities as before. For instance, it filters your iPhone shots into more buckets, including Slo-Mo and Burst, and it automatically generates a broader selection of Memories. 

Pecan is thrilled to be part of your Memories now that it recognizes pets, events and more.

Lori Grunin/CNET

I do like the roundtrip editing, which works pretty well. I used "edit with..." to open a photo in Photoshop, made changes, and they were reflected in the image in Photos. Plus, the edits were nondestructive and could be rolled back. And the new set of Filters, while small, look much better than the earlier set.

And I don't want to underplay the new interface for editing, which, while it essentially just surfaces the old set of tools, is very well done for working on a large screen. It might be a little scrunched on a small MacBook display, though you can still collapse the tools you don't need.

The Photos interface now just lays all the tools out for you. 

Lori Grunin/CNET
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In addition to being able to edit Live Photos -- here I've applied one of the new filters and used the Bounce effect -- you can export them as GIFs. They're smaller than the originals, though.

Lori Grunin/CNET

The new Live Photos editing tools are basic but decent. Below the photo in the editor is a dropdown from which you can choose Loop, Bounce or Long Exposure, and you can choose a thumbnail or trim the clip with the frame slider. The three effects are just on or off. For instance, you can't adjust how "long" the Long Exposure simulates; it creates a single photo from the frames which is algorithmically decided based on the characteristics of the movie which underlies the Live Photo. But you can export looped and bounced as a GIF.

Safari speeds up, protects your privacy a bit more

autoplay blocking is great as long as the site autoplays both video and audio; there's no way to block autoplaying videos altogether. The content-blocker feature is a bit of a misnomer. It's really just cookie management to prevent sites from following you around the web, injecting ads for litter boxes everywhere because you made the mistake of checking out that high-tech self-cleaning model while shopping for cat food. (If you looked at it, you must want it.)  

Because of that, the tracking-defeat mechanism is intelligent but minimal, which is why it's possible to enable it on a site and yet have Ghostery report that there are 27 trackers still active.

The granularity with which you can set content and privacy preferences is really welcome, though, as is the ability to default to Reader view or a specific zoom level on any site.

That said, you don't need to install the High Sierra beta (or even the final version) to get the new version of Safari; unlike Photos, which is tied to the operating system, you can download it separately. In fact, you can download the beta of Safari now. But the one thing you won't get without High Sierra is the HEVC (H.265) acceleration. There isn't a lot of streaming content that uses that codec  at the moment, though. Most of it still uses its predecessor, H.264.

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You can set autoplay options on a site-by-site basis.

Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET
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I wanted to hear Siri's more natural-sounding voice, but when I tried to think of something long for her to say, well, this happened.

Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

Minor updates elsewhere

While Apple has made some notable tweaks to other applications -- table support in Notes is really the highlight for me -- the app updates aren't really compelling enough to merit a beta install. And some you may hate: for instance, Mail now jumps on the bandwagon of delivering "top hits" for search results like Google Inbox and Slack do. I hate it when applications do that, since it rarely seems to highlight the correct messages and wastes a chunk of space at the top of your screen.

QuickTime did successfully recognize and play HEVC video I had recorded with a Samsung camera.

Siri's voice does sound more natural, and if you own a MacBook with a Touchbar, you'll be able to do more with it: double tap to mute, swipe for brightness and volume, access an improved color picker and more.

The new iCloud File Sharing is for collaborating on documents a la Google Drive, and Apple offers sufficient control over viewing and editing shared documents.

At the moment, it's all about mobile

And by mobile, I mean devices that run iOS 11 (iPhone and iPad), not MacBooks. Until we see third-party applications, there isn't much fresh meat for desktop-only work on High Sierra's bones.The new capabilities are really about mobile-first tasks like organizing and editing Live Photos or being able to playback HEVC video and display HEIF-compressed photos -- which have to be captured with your mobile device. You can't yet encode HEVC video or save photos in the HEIF format on the desktop.

Of course, if you've installed the beta of iOS 11, then these hooks might be important enough for you to install the High Sierra beta. But otherwise, unless you're a developer, you're really not missing much if you don't get your hands on it now, especially since (like any beta software) it's got some bugs. By August, it might be a different story.

Discuss Apple MacOS High Sierra (10.13)

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