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Mac OS High Sierra makes the Mac a teeny, tiny bit better — for free

Apple CEO Tim Cook (R) views the MacBook Pro in the demo room after an Apple media event in Cupertino, California, U.S. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach

It’s no shock that Apple puts most of its effort into improving the iPhone. The iPhone is a cash cow big enough to be heard from the moon.

The Mac, on the other hand, constitutes only a puny 12 percent of Apple’s revenue.

So Mac fans should be grateful, I guess, that the mothership still releases another free version of the Mac OS every fall. These upgrades (usually) make all of our Macs better without our having to spend a penny.

The one Apple released this week (available in the Mac app store) is called Mac OS High Sierra (macOS 10.13). As the new name suggests, it’s just a refinement of last year’s Mac OS Sierra. In fact, you could sum up what’s new in an article about as short as this one.

Safari upgrades

Apple has continued to work on Safari, its Web browser, and says that the new version is the fastest desktop Web browser in the world.

It also uses less power. Apple claims that you can watch Netflix for two hours longer in Safari than other browsers. In practice, that’s close to true. My expensive MacBook Pro gets absolutely pathetic battery life—about 3 hours per charge when I use Chrome as my browser. Using Safari instead, I get four hours. Woo!

Maybe even more thrilling to the world’s Internet surfers (and less thrilling to advertisers), Safari can now auto-block auto-play videos. Now, no video begins playing unless you click it. For each Web site, you can choose Safari->Settings for This Website and specify that videos are never allowed to play; always allowed; or not allowed only if they have sound.

In Safari, you can establish all of these settings on a per-Website basis. It’s pretty awesome.

This feature works beautifully, and it makes the Internet a calmer place. It easily auto-paused videos on CNET, CNN, Bloomberg, and, yes, even Yahoo. (If you can’t seem to get it to work, it’s probably because you have an ad blocker like AdBlock Plus. Those extensions seem to interfere with Safari’s new feature.)

That’s not the only way Safari will frustrate advertisers. Apple says that “Safari now uses machine learning to identify advertisers and others who track your online behavior, and removes the cross‑site tracking data they leave behind.”

This is cool, too: You can create different viewing settings for different sites. You might like the New York Times site to appear with larger text, Flash turned on for Dilbert.com, and so on. Page zoom, Reader view, location services, and use of your camera and microphone are among the settings memorized for each site.

And if you like the Reader view—which hides all ads, navigation stuff, blinking stuff, competing colors and fonts—you can now tell Safari to use it for everything. Every time you open an article that works with Reader, it pops into that format automatically. You end up with far fewer migraines from just trying to surf the Web.

Photos

This is a big one. Ladies and gentlemen, the Photos app is finally ready for prime time.

The editing tools have been redesigned and goosed nearly to Photoshop levels; you can now manipulate the Curves of a photo’s histogram, or edit only the reds (for example) in a photo.

Editing in the new Photos is both easier and more powerful.

I love that the Auto-Fix button is now right on the Photos main toolbar. This is the editing control most people use most of the time—it does a very good job at fixing the color, exposure, and contrast values for a photo—and now you don’t have to heave into Editing mode to apply it to a photo, or a whole batch of them.

If you still want to do your editing in Photoshop (or any other external program), Apple has finally restored this fantastic feature (which was in iPhoto) to Photos. Better yet, the changes you make in that app are non-destructive—you can undo them at any time. In other words, you can use Photos for its superior organizational and sharing tools, but Photoshop for editing.

A new Imports view shows not just the latest batch of imported photos, but the batch before that, and the batch before that, and so on. And, inevitably, there are now Instagram-style filters.

The redesigned Photos has a cleaner, well organized sidebar at left.

You can now filter your view by Favorites, photos you’ve edited, only movies, only stills, and so on. The Faces feature, which knows who’s in each photo, has been improved, and the face-categorizing you’ve done on the Mac gets auto-synced to your phone.

The Photos feature, called Memories (automatically grouped and curated slideshows with music), is much smarter now. Instead of grouping photos only by event or location, they now auto-recognize and auto-build slideshows of your pets, babies, outdoor activities, performances, weddings, birthdays, and sports games.

Apple has opened up its “order your photos printed on mousepads, books, calendars, etc.” feature to other companies. Soon, you’ll be able to install Photos extensions that permit all kinds of photo-product ordering.

Finally, Apple introduces some editing options to Live Photos: weird, three-second video clips that the iPhone can capture. You can now shorten a Live Photo, mute its audio, or extract a single frame to use as a still photo. Photos can also suggest a “boomerang” segment (bounces back and forth) or a loop (repeats over and over). And it has a new Slow Shutter filter, which (for example) blurs a babbling brook or stars moving across the sky, as though taken with a long exposure.

My one gripe: You hit the Space bar to open a video’s thumbnail to play it. So what do you hit to play the open video? In every other video-playback program on the ever-lovin’ planet, the Space bar starts and stops video. But not in Photos. Best I can tell, you have to reach for the mouse and click the Play button.

A new file system

The file system is the underlying, invisible software that controls the management of files and folders on your Mac. For almost 20 years, Mac fans have been using one called HFS+. And now, there’s the Apple File System, or APFS. It’s designed for the new era of solid-state drives and increased security threats.

Most of its benefits are under the hood: Far better security (for example, more sophisticated FileVault encryption for your whole hard drive); better crash resistance; more efficient storage; and faster operation. (If you’re technically inclined, here are the details.)

The two aspects of APFS you’ll probably notice first are:

  • You know the column that shows you how big the files and folders in a window are? Now, those numbers don’t need time to appear. They’re instantly there.
  • You can now duplicate a file or a folder instantly, no matter how big it is.

APFS is what Apple uses on iPhones and iPads already, so it’s already had some time in the field—and now it’s on the Mac, too.

(Well, at least it’s on Macs with solid-state drives like MacBook laptops. APFS doesn’t yet auto-convert traditional spinning hard drives, Apple Fusion drives, or external drives. You can manually convert spinning hard drives in the Disk Utility program, though.)

Notes

The Notes app has continued to improve:

  • Pin your best Notes. In the Notes app, you can now pin your most used notes (to do lists, grocery lists, etc.) to the top of the list, so they don’t get sorted down chronologically as they do now. They show up on your iPhone like that, too.

In the new Notes, you can “pin” the most important notes so that they always appear at the top of the list.
  • Tables. Yes! You can now add a table to a Note. Great for bake-sale assignments, sports scores, and so on.

Misc

  • Smaller multimedia. In both iOS 11 and Mac OS High Sierra, Apple offers new file formats that permit your photos and videos to look the same as before, but to consume only half the space. This is a huge deal for anyone whose phone or Mac is constantly filled up. For photos, it’s called the High Efficiency Image File Format (HEIF); for videos, it’s the High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC, or h.265). In theory, when you export these photos and videos, they convert to standard formats like JPEG and h.264.
  • Mail enhancements. When you search in Mail, a Top Hits section presents the messages Mail thinks are the best matches (based on Read status, senders you’ve replied to, your VIPs, and so on). Mail also offers a split-screen view when composing new messages in full-screen mode. And it stores your messages in 35 percent less disk space. More space is always welcome.
  • A new voice for Siri. The new male and female voices sound much more like actual people. (They’re the same ones that just appeared in iOS 11.)
  • iCloud file sharing. Finally, you can share files you’ve stored on your iCloud Drive with other people, just as you’ve been able to do with Dropbox for years. To do so, right-click an icon; from the shortcut menu, choose Add People. Now you can send an invitation to anyone by message, email, or whatever, and you can specify how much editing control they have. The catch, of course, is that the recipient must be using iOS 11 (on an iPhone or iPad) or Mac OS High Sierra (on a Mac).

Anything that’s on your iCloud Drive (kind of like Apple’s version of Dropbox), you can share with someone.
  • Capture a FaceTime moment as a Live Photo. You can snap a 3-second snippet of a video chat—a Live Photo—for later sharing. (You can’t do so secretly, however; the other person knows. In fact, the other person can block your ability to capture altogether, in FaceTime Settings.)
  • Messages in iCloud. When you sign into any new Mac, iPhone, or iPad with your iCloud credentials, your entire texting history gets downloaded automatically. (As it is now, you can’t see the Message transcript history with someone on a new machine.) Saving the Messages history online also saves disk space on your Mac.
  • Family storage sharing. You can now share an iCloud storage plan with family members.
  • More Spotlight wisdom. The Spotlight search feature can now provide flight arrival and departure times, terminals, gates, delays, and flight maps when you type in a flight number. It can also return multiple Wikipedia results on a single screen.
  • Developer goodies. Apple now offers development kits for virtual reality and augmented reality, hoping to jump-start new apps in an area where Apple is now way behind. There’s a new version of Metal, too, the Mac software that addresses your graphics card.

Hi-ho, High Sierra!

Two tiny things may annoy you in Mac OS High Sierra:

  • The Messages app no longer works with AOL Instant Messenger and Bonjour accounts.
  • Remember that smaller-photo-format business? Unfortunately, Photoshop doesn’t yet recognize the new formats, and I ran across a few frustrating times when I took a photo with my iPhone and couldn’t then edit it in Photoshop. (Exporting them a different way—texting them to myself instead of using AirDrop, for example—solved it.)

On the other hand, there are some features you’ll notice multiple times a day, including the new per-site Safari settings (like “don’t auto-play video!”), the better battery life (if you use Safari), and the fantastic Photos overhaul.

As always, the fearful of heart should wait for any glitches to be ironed out in the 10.13.1 update that will come along, no doubt, in October. But whether you upgrade now or then, you’ll find that Mac OS High Sierra is a teeny, tiny upgrade—that makes Mac life a teeny, tiny bit better.


More from David Pogue:

David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, is the author of the upcoming Mac OS High Sierra: The Missing Manual. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. You can read all his articles here (http://finance.yahoo.com/news/david-pogue/), or you can sign up to get his columns by email (http://j.mp/2mCizxV). 

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