The High Sierra operating system update completes, we stare lovingly at our Mac desktop and, well, wonder what's actually changed. It's normal to want to see vast user interface changes when Apple releases a new operating system, but that's not the case for the latest MacOS install.

The truth is we love and despise change in equal measures – happy to complain when our favourite things have all changed, and then moan just as much when they don't.

At first glance High Sierra seemingly offers nothing over what you've already got running on your Mac. So is there a hidden point? We've been using the MacOS Public beta to get an idea of what to expect come official public download day.

  • New file system
  • Better graphics support for games and VR
  • Support for new HEVC film format

Those who have been using a Mac for a while will remember we've been here before: MacOS X Snow Leopard offered a similar upgrade experience over Leopard. It was an update all about creating a superior platform for the next couple of years rather than offering visual interface features for everyone to get excited about.

Fast-forward eight years to now and Apple appears to be adopting the same approach with High Sierra. The follow on from Sierra is more about what's under the hood rather than offering you noticeable differences, and that brings both an air of familiarity and a whiff of disappointment that there doesn't appear to be anything new.

Waves of enhancements are to be found, though. There is a new file system, a new way of treating image saves, support for VR, an update to the way graphics are handled with Metal 2, and a handful of small updates to apps like Safari and Photos.

Apple File System

A Public Beta is just that, thus it's pointless at this time doing any meaningful testing on how the file system reacts or whether, in reality, general users will notice any difference anyway.

There are top line stats that Apple is keen to share, of course. The new Apple File System (AFS) has a new 64-bit architecture, has been designed to speed up common tasks like copying files, is more secure than ever before, and has been optimised for modern storage. Therefore it should be faster and more robust – that can only be a good thing.

When you move to the new OS, everything will be transferred over to the new system, so you don't have to worry – although you should probably expect the move over to High Sierra to take a little longer than usual. It has to change all your files and encrypt them at the same time. Everything is still backwards compatible.

HEVC

Also new is the adoption of the HEVC video (what some PC users already refer to as H.265). Standing for High Efficiency Video Coding, this holder can compress video up to 40 percent more than the current and much-used H.264 standard.

The catch, however, is that it won't be compatible with all programmes from the off. As VLC users may already know, there can be issues with the new format, especially when it comes to sound.

Pocket-lintMacOS High Sierra screenshots image 1

Furthermore, Apple's adoption of HEVC will just be for new content that comes along, rather than content you've already recorded. So don't expect that huge 4K library of footage you have to suddenly be reduced.

Like AFS this is about getting ready for the future, rather than necessarily fixing the storage issues of the past.

Metal 2

The words Mac and games haven't traditionally gone together. Apple may be well adopted by creatives when it comes to high-intensity graphics for video and photo editing, but tell your buddies you've bought a Mac for gaming and they're going to laugh you out the room.

Still, Apple is keen to change all that by adding support for not only VR apps like SteamVR and VR devices like the HTC Vive, but doubling down on its graphics engine.

Now dubbed Metal 2, the end result should mean better graphics for both games and photo/video editing apps. Of course this being a beta there aren't any Metal 2 games out there to try yet, although we did enjoy a Darth Vader Star Wars VR demo on HTC Vive at WWDC in June, which was very impressive running on the new iMac.

What's perhaps more exciting for those who like their graphics, is that Metal 2 will also work with external graphics, making it possible to have external GPU boxes for Mac OS computers. That means you'll be able to increase the power of your iMac or MacBook Pro by bolting on another box to give you extra power. One solution for the desk, the other for when on the go. It's an approach some gaming laptops already have available, such as some made by Alienware.

It's not all behind the scenes, thouh. There are a few visual changes, although you'll have to look hard to spot them in specific apps. The Photos app, Mail, Safari, and Notes all get small upgrades.

Photos

  • New editing options including Bounce and Loop
  • New adjustment features
  • Greater support for third-party apps

One of the biggest areas of change this year has been the Photos app. While many "serious" photographers will have invested in Adobe's Lightroom or Photoshop apps, Apple is bringing a number of new photo editing and enhancing tools to Photos for MacOS High Sierra.

Pocket-lintMacOS High Sierra screenshots image 2

It's partly about bringing polarity with what iPhone and iPad users can/will be able to do in iOS 11, but also to make this a much more versatile app against competitors like Affinity Photo.

Key features we've enjoyed playing with so far are the ability to pick a specific frame within a Live Photo, to create a Loop or Bounce (a la Instagram/Boomerang) and the long exposure effect that will turn your still water shots all "dreamy" - as long as you've held your iPhone still enough when capturing.

Those looking for editing tools will get those too. Now instead of just basic "adjustments" like Shadows, Highlights, or Contrast, you can adjust a whole host of different elements, including adjusting the Levels and Curves. That might be gobbledegook to some, unless you're a Photoshop fiend, but it'll be very helpful to use once you get to grips with it.

If you really don't care about using Photos for editing and want to keep with Photoshop then new third-party support means adjusted images are saved directly back to Photos.

Apple has also tried to improve the search and find functionality, including enhanced Faces support so it can easily spot who's in a picture and show you other pictures of them. Spooky.

Safari

  • Greater granular control over website elements
  • Speedier for better surfing experience
  • Automatically stops cross-site tracking
Pocket-lintMacOS High Sierra screenshots image 3

The emphasis in Apple's browser is to give people greater control over the sites they visit and what those sites are able to do. That could be stopping autoplay videos from auto-playing, or setting the zoom level by default per site.

The most interesting one is to prevent cross-site tracking. This means that if you go to a specific shop online, said shops adverts won't then follow you around the web.

Spotlight now has a flight status support. If you are tracking a flight, or regularly do so, you can now just type in the flight number and it will give you all the relevant stats like departure time, arrival time, even the gate it is leaving from.

Pocket-lintMacos High Sierra Screenshots image 4

It's a small detail, but if you need that kind of thing then it's a great addition to Spotlight.

Check out Pocket-lint's separate guide for more information on whether your Mac will run High Sierra.

In a nutshell: it'll run on any Mac that currently runs Sierra, while any Mac made more than seven years ago won't be supported.

First Impressions

This for many reasons is an important OS to update to, but for many they will wonder what's different since pressing the update button. There are a few titbits here and there, but for those looking for a huge visual change, they'll be disappointed.

That's not to say you shouldn't press the "Update" button, a lot of the changes here are in the background, to make the engine run a lot quicker and smoother without you realising, but this is a OS that's all about foundations, one that follows in the footsteps of Snow Leopard, and one that while not hugely exciting, lays the ground work for more exciting things to come.

We look forward to playing with the final version when it comes out later in the year. 

When can you get MacOS High Sierra?

You can either download a beta of macOS High Sierra if you are a developer or download a public beta via Apple.com if you want something a little more stable. The finished, consumer version of MacOS High Sierra is due to roll out 25 September. If you do opt to try the Public Beta, make sure you back up your data first, or try it on a spare, non mission-critical, machine in case something goes wrong with the install.