macOS Sierra review: Mac users get a modest update this year

This is almost like part two of my macOS Sierra review. I had a chance to test Apple’s newest desktop operating system at the beginning of the summer, just before it was released in a public beta. The software hasn’t changed much since, but a few of the headline features were missing from that earlier build; Apple said they wouldn’t be available until the final version shipped in the fall. As it happens, Sierra arrives today as a free upgrade, so I’m picking up right where I left off. What follows is my full review of Sierra, though if you read my earlier preview, or have been using the software yourself, you won’t find many big surprises here.

Getting started

Sierra will work on Macs up to seven years old. (If your computer is older than that, it’s probably time to replace it anyway.) To be precise, it’ll run on MacBooks and iMacs from as far back as late 2009. If it’s any other kind of Mac — an Air, Pro, Mini or Pro desktop — your machine needs to be from 2010 or later. As you’ll see too, there are some features that simply won’t work without an iOS device. Think: an Apple Pay device for Apple Pay, a Touch ID–enabled device for Auto Unlock, and an iOS 10 device to use Universal Clipboard, Memories or the new Messages on the go.

As for setup times, downloading Sierra onto a recent iMac over my office’s usually fast WiFi network took about 20 minutes, while installing it took a little more than half an hour. As always, your mileage may vary. Suffice to say, though, if this is the only computer available to you, I suggest not upgrading in the middle of a workday — you’re going to be without a desktop for a while.

Features that are finally ready to use

Auto Unlock

Until now, iPhones and iPads have had Touch ID; Macs have had passwords. Which is fine, but certainly not as convenient. There’s still no fingerprint sensor on the MacBook or Magic Trackpad, but a new feature promises to be similarly convenient: using your Apple Watch to unlock your Mac when you’re in close proximity. To turn on Auto Unlock, as the feature is called, go into your Mac’s Security & Privacy settings and check off the box that says “Allow your Apple Watch to unlock your Mac.” It’d be pretty troubling if this feature were enabled by default.

So it’s easy to set up — or so you’d think. When I first tried to use this feature, I would wake my sleeping Mac and see the message “Unlocking with Apple Watch,” only to be forced to enter my password anyway. Apple says you need two-factor authorization enabled on your iCloud account in order for Auto Unlock to work. But I already had that in place. What could be the problem, then? I still am not sure. What I do know is that after I signed into appleid.apple.com and reset my iCloud password, I was able to log into my machine using Auto Unlock.

Apple Pay on the web

If you already use Apple Pay on your iPhone or Apple Watch, now you can do it from your Mac too. Starting today, some 300,000 websites are expected to add an Apple Pay button, according to a company spokesperson. To actually use it, you’ll need to have the site open in Safari specifically (because of course), and you’ll also need a mobile device that supports Apple Pay — either an Apple Watch or a recent iPhone. The reason for this is that although you’ll hit “pay” from the Safari page, you’ll need to either use Touch ID or a passcode on your iPhone or double-click your (authenticated) Apple Watch to complete the transaction.

Aside from being convenient, this has security benefits, according to Apple. For starters, not having to type in your address or credit card number could feel like a blessing should the retailer ever suffer a data breach. Additionally, all transactions are encrypted, and your credit or debit card number won’t be stored on your device or Apple’s servers, or be shared with retailers. Instead, you’re assigned a unique Device Account Number that’s stored on the so-called Secure Element of your device. Lastly, Apple Pay doesn’t keep a history of your transactions, though you can choose to keep your most recent purchase details in Wallet if you prefer.

During my pre-launch testing, five sites had already added the Apple Pay button: Indiegogo, Lululemon, Spring, Warby Parker and Instacart. To test it out, I found the least expensive thing in Lululemon’s (very expensive) lineup, added it to my cart, and then had my choice of two buttons: “Add to Bag” or “Apple Pay.” Because Apple Pay already had my credit card and address stored, clicking that button meant I jumped straight to a summary box, where all I would have had to do was click another button to confirm the purchase on my watch. It was super-easy, but it also scares me how quickly I could have purchased a $ 12 headband I didn’t need. In real life, you’d have but one chance to reconsider that impulse purchase before pulling the trigger.

All the stuff we covered earlier

Siri

Among all the new features in Sierra, this ranks as one of the most notable: Siri finally has a home on the desktop. And it’s hard to miss: There’s a Siri button both in the system tray in the upper-right corner and in the app dock at the bottom of the screen. Additionally, there’s a keyboard shortcut you can use: command-space-hold. As it happens, this is actually one of the few things that’s changed since I tested that pre-beta build. The command used to be Fn-spacebar. Now it’s command-spacebar and hold, which is similar to the existing Spotlight search shortcut (command-spacebar). That’s good, I think; may as well tap into Mac users’ muscle memory.

Just like on iOS, you can use Apple’s virtual assistant to search the web, draft emails and texts, create calendar events, set reminders, search the web and check things like the weather, stocks and sports scores. Siri has some Mac-specific tricks too, including searching your files, adjusting your system settings and giving you information about your computer, like how much local storage you have available. Throughout, you can pin Siri’s search results, as well as copy or drag and drop them into other parts of the OS.

Ultimately, Siri on the Mac is no smarter than it is on mobile. Which is to say, Siri can handle a diverse range of requests, and understands natural language, to a point (e.g., “Show me Snowden movie times”). Over time, though, Siri’s limitations become more obvious, and you learn not to bother asking it certain things. Siri might be able to show me local Snowden showtimes, for instance, but forget about narrowing the results to evening shows, or locations in a particular neighborhood.

Universal Clipboard

Apple already has a lot of so-called Continuity features that allow you to jump between apps on iOS and macOS, picking up on one platform where you left off on the other. Now, in addition to, say, having your notes and web history synced across devices, you can copy and paste between them too. So if you spot something on your Sierra Mac, you can copy and paste into iOS 10, and vice versa. (This also works from Mac to Mac, and from one iOS device to another.)

It’s really, really easy to use too. You just have to be signed into the same iCloud account on both devices, which need to be running Sierra and/or iOS 10 specifically. Then, just copy something and it’ll appear on the clipboard across all your connected devices. To use an oft-repeated Appleism: It just works.

So far I haven’t needed this feature often, but when I do, it’s handy. In one case, for instance, I had a lengthy App Store download code waiting for me in my email, which I had access to on my iPhone but not on my test machine. (I was logged out at the time.) Obviously, without Universal Clipboard I would have had other options, including logging into my email on the laptop or dropping the code into the Notes app, which I use on both platforms. But being able to copy and paste directly is far more efficient.

Picture in Picture

New to both iTunes and Safari is a Picture in Picture view that lets you pop out video into a floating stay-on-top window, which you can then resize and drag around the screen. Apple has a developer API for this, so over time you should see the little pop-out icon appear on more websites. For now, it works on iTunes and a select few sites, including Vimeo. (I successfully tried Picture in Picture on ESPN during my earlier round of testing, but didn’t see the pop-out button there while testing the final build.)

When the pop-out button is available, the feature works well, and I particularly like that the floating window closes automatically once the video is finished. Still, it’s a shame that when viewing in Picture in Picture mode, you can’t jump forward or a back to a different point in the video.

Apple Music makeover

Speaking of iTunes, Apple Music has received a major redesign on both mobile and desktop. In the case of desktop (that would be the iTunes app), you’ll see three major sections: “For You,” “Browse” and “Radio.” Those last two need no explanation, but in the case of “For You,” it includes a mix of personalized recommendations and playlists, as well as updates from whatever artists you might be following. Throughout, the look is much cleaner, with large headers and oversize album art. Make no mistake: iTunes itself still feels like a bloated mess, but at least Apple Music now feels streamlined.

iCloud Desktop and Documents

If you like, you can now have your entire Desktop and your Documents folder sync directly to iCloud so that you don’t have to cherry-pick specific files for upload. Basically, then, Sierra works a lot more like Dropbox (or OneDrive, Google Drive or any other cloud storage service that allows you to automatically back up folders wholesale). As ever, you’ll find Desktop and Documents in Finder’s left-hand pane; now, though, they’re listed under “iCloud.”

Obviously, it’s up to you whether you want to take advantage of this feature (it’s not turned on by default), but personally I’ve found it very useful. Because I have an iMac on my office desk and a MacBook that I take home and into conference rooms, it’s nice to be able to quickly retrieve things like TextEdit files and know my progress was saved across devices.

Optimized Storage

While we’re on the subject of iCloud, Sierra does a bunch of things to help you better manage your large iCloud library. If you head into iCloud settings, you’ll see an option for “Optimize Mac Storage” that enables not just one feature, but a whole series of background processes that help free up space on your local drive.

By default, your whole iCloud library will be available on your machine if you have the space, but if you don’t, older files will automatically be uploaded to the cloud. Optimized Storage also moves seldom-used files and already watched iTunes videos off your local disk. You can also store Mail attachments on the server until you choose to download them. Ditto for things like dictionaries, instructional videos and special fonts, which are now available on demand instead of on the system itself.

Other low-hanging fruit include items that have been in the trash 30 days — Sierra can automatically erase that, as well as clear your cache and logs. Additionally, it flags duplicate downloads in Safari and reminds you of used application installers. Lastly, the macOS installer itself is smaller than in years past, meaning you have slightly more free space after upgrading than you might have had otherwise.

Photos

If you’re an iPhone or iPad owner, you’ve presumably updated to iOS 10, which, among other things, brings a redesigned Photos app. The new Photos makes an appearance here on Sierra too, albeit with a more sprawling, desktop-friendly design. As on iOS, Photos now uses artificial intelligence to analyze your pictures, identifying places, faces and various objects, like dogs and beaches. The app then takes all that information and puts together so-called Memories — automatically generated albums showcasing what Apple’s AI thinks are the highlights.

Though you might not always agree with the particulars (surely there was a better version of a shot Apple could have chosen?), this is a convenient way to look back on good times without having to go take on the chore of sorting and curating your photos. Scroll down and you’ll see that Apple includes “Related Memories” below the Memory you’re looking at. Be warned: This can be addictive.

Aside from Memories, you’ll also find dedicated People and Places albums. When it comes to people, Apple’s AI gets smarter over time as you tag more and more faces. To make this easier, Photos surfaces faces with a prompt to fill in that person’s name. Once you get a good backlog, you’ll notice that the People album sorts faces in descending order according to how frequently they appear in photos. That said, if you add someone as a favorite, they’ll always float to the top regardless of their ranking.

There are some UI changes here as well. There’s a search bar that can bring up pictures based on keywords — say, “cats,” “snow” or whatever else might be in the shot. As mentioned, Siri can find your photos too (try asking for photos from a certain year, or with a certain person taken at a certain place). The Albums view looks a little different as well, with rounded tiles and a view counter on videos. Also, if you’re viewing one big photo on the screen, you’ll notice that the scrubber on the bottom looks a lot like the one on iOS. (Pick “Show Thumbnails” from the View menu to make the scrubber appear in the 1-up layout.)

Lastly, Photos on Sierra ushers in some new editing tools. Among them: “Brilliance,” which applies region-specific adjustments to brighten dark areas, and “Markup” for adding text, shapes and signatures to images. You can also edit Live Photos (both stills and video), and Apple has released an API allowing third-party developers to incorporate this feature into their own image-editing apps.

Messages

Messages is yet another app that received updates on both Sierra and iOS 10. New features include larger emoji (three times bigger than before), inline previews of videos and websites, and so-called Tapbacks, which let you respond to a message by adding a thumbs-up, heart or other pictorial reaction by tapping rather than hit ‘reply.’ The fact that your reaction appears on top of the message bubble means less clutter as you scroll through a message thread.

Unfortunately, some of the most addictive new features in Messages for iOS didn’t make it into the desktop version. On mobile, for instance, you can send messages with stickers, handwriting, flashy screen backgrounds and animated text effects (think: “slam” for emphasis). Not on Sierra, though. If it’s any comfort, you can at least view these effects on the desktop when your friends send wacky messages from their iOS 10 devices. You just won’t be able to respond in kind.

Tabs

It’s not just Safari anymore — many Mac apps, including Mail, TextEdit, Maps and the iWork suite also now support tabs. So if you open a new window in Maps, you’ll see not a new window, exactly, but a neat little tab. This will automatically work across many third-party document-based apps too, without any tweaks required on the part of developers. The only apps where this won’t work are ones that didn’t already have a multi-window option. That’s why you’ll see tabs in Maps, for instance, but not FaceTime.

If you really love this feature, you can choose to always turn new windows in these apps into tabs. (That’s what I opted to do.) There are other options, though. You can elect instead to have this happen in full-screen mode only.

Odds and ends

And finally, some other miscellaneous changes that might (or might not) be of interest:

  • The ability to share notes from the Notes app.
  • You can now find Safari browser extensions in the Mac App Store.
  • Safari automatically plays HTML5 video if the website you’re looking at supports it. If a plug-in is required to view video, you can opt to enable it just once or on an ongoing basis.
  • A filter button in Mail allows you to see just unread or flagged emails, messages that are addressed to you or ones you’re copied on, or messages sent with attachments. It’s also possible to apply more than one of these criteria at a time.
  • Push email support and calendar updates for Exchange accounts.
  • Send read receipts for individual conversations in Messages.
  • “Coordinated alerts” mean that notifications make a sound only on the device you happen to be using.
  • Spotlight Search now finds files you’ve created, printed, shared, emailed, messaged and sent via AirDrop, or posted to Twitter or Facebook.
  • The keyboard settings menu now has an “auto-capitalization” option.
  • A new keyboard shortcut (not enabled by default) allows you to add a period by hitting the spacebar twice.
  • Apple says Sierra’s autocorrect algorithm is generally smarter than it was in last year’s OS.
  • Sierra adds a few new dictionaries, including Traditional Chinese and Danish. There are also two new bilingual dictionaries: Italian-English and Dutch-English.
  • Japanese users are getting transit directions in Apple Maps. This includes major train, subway, ferry and national and local bus lines in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.
  • Right-to-left support for Arabic and Hebrew.
  • Time Machine now supports the SMB protocol, making it compatible with third-party network-attached storage devices.

Wrap-up

There’s little reason to ever skip a macOS update (in fact, there are lots of reasons that’s a bad idea). But as far as annual releases go, Sierra is a fairly minor one. You probably won’t appreciate Siri on the desktop unless you already use it on mobile, and even then, Apple’s virtual assistant isn’t always as smart as we’d like. Auto Unlock is useful, but difficult to set up, and you need an Apple Watch, which many folks don’t have. Apple Pay is convenient but also conducive to impulse purchases, which is probably better news for retailers than shoppers.

Take all that away and some of the most useful features are actually the least showy. Think: Optimized Storage and the ability to automatically back up your Desktop and Documents folder to iCloud. Many people will use these features, myself included. Are these updates exciting, though? I think even the most loyal of Mac users would have to say no.

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iOS 10 review: Apple evolves

With iOS 10, Apple is basically polishing a pearl. iOS 8 introduced a vibrant and “flat” new aesthetic. iOS 9 was focused on refinement. So by this point, we should get something completely fresh and new, right? Well, not quite. Just like the iPhone 7, Apple’s latest mobile OS doesn’t look that much different on the surface. Instead, the company once again chose to focus on improving the overall experience. In particular, this year’s refinements collectively make the OS a lot more convenient (and help Apple play a little catch-up). If you’ve longed for some of the features you’ve seen on your friends’ Android phones, iOS 10 is more than enough to keep you under Apple’s spell for another year.

Getting started

iOS 10: review

At this point, moving to a new version of iOS probably feels routine. While there were widespread reports of the update “bricking” devices during its launch day, it looks like most of those issues have been ironed out. As always, though, be sure to back up your device before doing any sort of major upgrade. Even if you have your current iOS device set to automatically back up on iCloud, it’s still worth making a local copy through iTunes in case all hell breaks loose. (Also, restoring your phone from the cloud is much slower than with a local copy.)

There’s a good chance you’ve already been prompted to upgrade, but if you’ve procrastinated, head to the “General” section in the Settings app to manually initiate the update. Then just wait for the installation file to download (it’s over 1GB, so it takes a few minutes), and proceed with the installation. You’ll want to have your phone connected to a charger while you’re going through this process, unless your battery is almost full.

A revamped lock screen

Assuming all goes well, you’ll be presented with the all-too-familiar lock screen. This time around, though, it brings some new tricks. Swiping left bring you to the Today screen, which is now far more customizable than before. It’s basically a quick way to access widgets, which can do things like show you the weather, the latest news and your upcoming appointments. Naturally, there’s a bunch of built-in Apple widgets, but plenty of third-party developers are building them as well, including The New York Times, The Weather Channel and yes, even Google.

Swiping right from the lock screen brings up the camera, something that happens almost instantly on my iPhone 6S. Previously, you had to drag up from the bottom right of the screen to open the camera, which was a bit more difficult. I often missed the touch target completely, which left me swiping up a few times in futility. And, come to think of it, I’ve missed out on a few great photo opportunities because of that. Swiping right (get your jokes in now) has turned out to be a much more accurate gesture.

You can also do a lot more with the notifications that appear on the lock screen. If you have a 3D Touch-capable phone like the iPhone 6S or 7, you can interact with things like text messages without even leaving the lock screen. Some notifications will require you to unlock the phone to use 3D Touch features, but that’s just good security. Swipe down from the top of the lock screen to get your full list of notifications, all of which are also interactive using 3D Touch.

A more useful Control Center

If you swipe up from the lock screen, and indeed anywhere else in iOS 10, you’ll bring up the ever-useful Control Center. Instead of cramming all of its functionality in a single screen, it now spans two separate pages. The first houses all of the quick settings you’re familiar with — toggling on and off Airplane mode, WiFi, Bluetooth, Do Not Disturb and screen rotation lock — along with buttons for managing AirPlay Mirroring, AirDrop and Night Shift. And of course, those handy quick tools like the flashlight and timer are still at the bottom.

But, you might be wondering, what happened to the media controls? All of that is handled in the second page of the Control Center, which has room for more options. In addition to merely playing and pausing songs and skipping tracks, you can jog through your location in a track without leaving the Control Center. That’s particularly useful for longer files like podcasts and audiobooks. The bottom of the screen lets you easily switch between all available AirPlay devices on your current WiFi network.

The redesigned Control Center has ended up being one of the highlights of iOS 10 over my past few months of testing. I don’t have to jump into my iPhone’s settings or music/podcast apps nearly as much anymore. What’s the word for that? Oh right: convenience.

3D Touch (and Taptic Engine) finally feels useful

Apple introduced 3D Touch in last year’s iPhone 6S as a new method of smartphone interaction. Sure, it basically just replicated the “right-click” from PCs, but there was a lot to like in theory: What if you could just quickly access the most popular features of your favorite apps? Who wouldn’t want that? Even I was sold on Apple’s pitch back at the time, and over the past year I’ve grown to rely on it for apps like Swarm and Evernote.

The problem, though, is that Apple didn’t pay nearly enough attention to 3D Touch and the Taptic Engine in the 6S. While a handful of built-in apps and some third-parties adopted it, Apple almost seemed to distance itself from the feature after the 6S launch. Perhaps it was focusing its energy on the more powerful Taptic Engine that would be coming in the iPhone 7, but whatever the reason, many iPhone 6S owners felt like there was a lost opportunity to tap into 3D Touch (heh).

That’s less the case in iOS 7, where 3D Touch works in almost every part of the OS. There’s the notification integration I mentioned earlier, but I also learned to love the smaller additions, like using 3D Touch to change the brightness of my iPhone’s flashlight. Thanks to its more powerful Taptic Engine, the iPhone 7 also brings haptic feedback to simple things, like scrolling through the time in the Clock app, or scrolling through your library in the Music app. It gets to a point where you almost feel like you’re scrolling through a physical book, or a pile of CDs.

The Messages app takes on Snapchat

Apple really focused on improving its core apps in iOS 10, and the Messages app got the bulk of the upgrades. You can now change the intensity of iMessages (the chats labeled in blue that you’re having with other iMessage users), from a huge “Slam” effect that almost takes up the whole screen, to an obscured “Invisible Ink” message that has to be swiped to be read. The latter is particularly useful if you’re in a public place with lots of prying eyes. There are also screen effects that can accompany your notes, including a bunch of balloons, falling confetti, laser lights, fireworks and a shooting star. They’re fun at first, but they’ll be particularly useful for annoying your friends endlessly.

Just like the Apple Watch, you can send hearts (but of course, not your actual heart rate) and other symbols from within Messages using Digital Touch. You can also react to things people send you with “tapback” responses by double-tapping on them. You can also send a handwritten message by turning your iPhone into landscape mode (of course, you can also bring up the keyboard if you prefer typing this way). In the iOS 10 beta, you had to manually enable the handwriting mode, but it was also a bit hard to find.

The biggest change in Messages is that it now has an ecosystem of its own apps and sticker packs. By default, it includes apps for image and video searching (hooray easy-to-find animated GIFs!), as well as for sharing your most recently played Apple Music tracks. But you can easily add even more apps by hitting the icon of four dots at the lower left of the screen. (If that sounds confusing, you’re not alone. Apple’s interface around the entire Messages App experience needs some work, especially once you start piling in more software. It’s one area where I seriously began to feel the limits of the iPhone’s 4.7-inch screen, though it doesn’t seem much better on the 7 Plus either.)

Once you’ve made your way to the Messages App store, you’ll see a plethora of stickers, games and software that will appear right within your chats. It works just like the normal app store, except this time whatever you download shows up in the Messages app section. There’s also a good chance you’ve already installed apps that have brought along their own Messages apps, like Yelp, Evernote and Venmo.

Messages apps are similar to Apple Watch apps: They’re typically focused on a few functions that will work well within a chat. Yelp, for example, lets you share restaurants that you’ve recently viewed. Similarly, you can share specific movie times and locations with Fandango. One of the more interesting app implementations comes from OpenTable, which allows you to pick five restaurants and vote on them with your friends. Once you decide on a restaurant, you can complete the reservation process right from within Messages. (Eater has a good overview of how the whole process works.)

The games selection in the Messages app store isn’t huge, mostly consisting of simplistic board games at the moment. But it’s still cool to be able to play a quick game of chess with friends right from a text conversation. I suspect we’ll see plenty of multi-game entries like GamePigeon, which currently packs in pool, poker, sea battle, Go and a Scrabble-esque anagram title.

The Message app’s Stickers are merely that: Images that get sent to anyone, even friends on other platforms. Much like ringtones, they’ll likely end up being an easy way for Apple to get a few bucks from its users more often. But I’ll admit, the stickers are a lot of fun to use. I dropped $ 2 on the first collection of Pokémon pixel art. No regrets.

Apple’s intent with all of Message’s upgrades is pretty clear: It wants you to leave the app as seldom as possible, even if that means working even closer with third-party companies. Given the fast rise of Snapchat and Facebook Messenger, it’s not surprising that Apple is actually trying to cultivate its one successful “social network.”

Smarter Photos

So, about those other core iOS app upgrades: The Photos app now uses computer vision technology to make some sense of your piles of pics. For example, searching for “cats” brings up a healthy dose of my obsessive feline photography. It’ll also automatically detect the most common faces in your photos. While it’s up to you to actually name those faces, it’s still a big help if you hate organizing photos as much as I do.

Photos also creates “Memories,” or auto-generated slideshows of pictures from your library. It’s similar to the way Google Photos slideshows work in that they’ll typically focus on a single person or photos taken around a specific event. The Memories themselves are a combination of stills, Live Photos and video in your library. You can also set the music mood and length of each Memory, which will likely be useful if you’re throwing them over to an Apple TV to watch with a group.

Memories usually turned out well, though they’re still clearly a work in progress. Sometimes the software would choose photos with fingers blocking them, or pictures that I know for a fact have a better duplicate in my library. Still, it’s useful if you don’t want to build a slideshow on your own.

Refined Music

The new Music app actually looks very different from what came before, which isn’t the case for the rest of iOS 10’s updates. The new interface is all about large fonts, bold colors and disc art wherever possible. Those of you who were annoyed by Apple focusing more on its streaming music service than your own collection of tunes will likely be pleased, as your local library is the first thing to pop up. The “For You” section also does a better job of recommending tunes (as well as explaining why you might want to listen to them).

I’ve seen both praise and criticism of the Music app’s redesign, but personally I dig the clean aesthetic. But really, anything is better than the last iteration. One nifty addition: You can quickly access lyrics of songs on Apple Music from within the Now Playing screen. It’s not there for every song, but it’s an easy way to get prepped for karaoke.

Siri gets smarter, again

After launching to much fanfare, it’s almost as if iOS users have grown to hate Siri. She had a penchant for not hearing you properly, and her actual capabilities were fairly limited. That’s changing with iOS 10, as Apple has — you guessed it — opened up Siri to other developers. I was able to book Uber and Lyft cars, as well as send cash to a friend using Venmo, with only voice commands. You’ll still have to deal with some accuracy issues, but at least now Siri is actually starting to get useful.

Siri also powers contextual awareness in iOS 10’s predictive keyboard. So, on top of just trying to guess what word you’re typing next, it can do things like fill out contact information if you start chatting about someone’s phone number. And if you’re trying to schedule something, it can also tell you when you’re available by looking at your calendar. This feature still seems to be in its early stages, but it’s a fascinating way of implementing predictive intelligence.

Odds and ends

  • I didn’t talk much about iOS 10’s design because, honestly, nothing really changed. The home screen still looks like the same old wall of icons you’ve seen before.
  • Yes, I know we’ve seen plenty of these features in Android already. But at this point, everyone in the mobile industry is shamelessly getting “inspired” by the competition.
  • While iOS 9 offered up some big changes for iPad multitasking, iOS 10 doesn’t add much. The Control Center has a bit more room to breathe, but that’s about it.
  • You can finally remove built-in Apple software, like the much-maligned Stock app. But, to be clear, the app basically just disappears, it doesn’t actually get uninstalled.
  • It really feels like iOS 10 breathed new life into my iPhone 6S, and I’m hearing similarly good stories from people installing it on the iPhone 5. It also runs well on my first-gen iPad Air.
  • I didn’t have any HomeKit-equipped hardware to test out the Home app, but I’m looking forward to seeing how Apple tries to unify the messy IoT space.

Ultimately, iOS 10 is a collection of small, but important, changes to an already solid mobile OS. I would have liked to see a whole new design too, but what matters more is that actually using the OS is a significantly better experience. The combination of the new Today screen and Control Center has already saved me plenty of time.

We’ll probably end up seeing a major facelift next year, but for now, iOS 10 is an upgrade that Apple users should look forward to.

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Moto G4 and G4 Plus review: Bigger and (mostly) better

When it comes to getting the most smartphone for your dollar, the Moto G line has been your best choice for the past few years. We adored the previous model, which came in at a mere $ 180. Now with the Moto G4 and G4 Plus, Motorola is literally aiming to make its budget lineup bigger and better. They’ve got larger and sharper screens, improved cameras and, of course, speedier processors. With those upgrades come compromises, though. For one, they’re more expensive: The G4 starts at $ 200 and the G4 Plus at $ 250. Motorola also made some curious design decisions, which in many ways feel like a step back. Still, they both manage to carry the mantle of Smartphone Value King.

Hardware

You won’t find any premium aluminum or chamfered edges on the G4 and G4 Plus. They’ve got practical and simple plastic cases. Still, they don’t feel like budget phones. Their curved edges make them easy to hold, and the slightly textured rear cover feels a bit luxurious against your palm. Both phones are also noticeably larger than any previous Moto G, thanks to their 5.5-inch 1080p screens. At least they’re thinner than their 11.6mm thick predecessor, clocking in at just 7.9 millimeters to 8.9 millimeters. Strangely enough, they weigh the same 155 grams (0.34 pounds) as before.

The G4 and G4 Plus feel pretty solid for plastic encased phones. There’s little flex or creaking when gripped tightly. Long-term durability might be a concern though — somewhere during my week of testing I nicked the top of the G4 Plus’s plastic edge. I never dropped it, so your guess is as good as mine as to how it got damaged. It does make me worried about how well they’d stand up to months of everyday use.

Both phones sport removable back covers, just like all the previous Moto G models. In addition to the nano-SIM slot, there’s a microSD slot for up to 128GB of additional storage. They pack in 3,000mAh non-removable batteries, a nice bump from the last Moto G’s 2,470 mAh offering. It’s a shame that the battery can’t be swapped out, but it’s also large enough that that shouldn’t be a huge issue. (We didn’t have a problem with it last year, either.)

Powering all of this budget goodness are 1.5GHz Snapdragon 617 octa-core processors. Both phones offer 16GB of storage by default, but you can bump up to 32GB with the G4 (a no-brainer $ 30 premium) or 64GB with the G4 Plus (for another $ 100). They come with 2GB of RAM, though the 64GB G4 Plus gives you a luxurious 4GB of RAM.

Given that they both share so much hardware, you’re probably wondering what makes the G4 Plus, well… Plus? The most obvious difference is the fingerprint sensor on its front, which sits right below the software home button. The G4 Plus also packs in a 16 megapixel rear camera with phase detection and laser autofocus. The G4, on the other hand, has a 13 megapixel shooter without the added niceties.

One unfortunate downgrade from last year: Neither phone is waterproof. Instead, Motorola is calling them “water repellant,” thanks to a “nano-coating” technology that protects them from spills. That means they should be fine during light rain, or if you spill coffee on them. Just don’t go fully submerging them in anything.

Display and sound

There’s nothing budget about the 5.5-inch 1080p displays on the G4 and G4 Plus. They’re not quite as fancy as the quad HD displays we’re seeing in some flagships, but they still pack in 401 pixels per inch, which is plenty sharp for typical usage. Colors were bright and bold, even in direct sunlight, and viewing angles were surprisingly great. I didn’t notice much of a difference between my iPhone 6S while reading long articles from Pocket and the New York Times app. Videos also looked uniformly great. The big downside is that they’re less capable when it comes to mobile VR. It’s no wonder they’re not Google Daydream ready (though nothing is stopping you from plugging them into a Google Cardboard headset).

On the sound front, Motorola made the curious decision of replacing the last Moto G’s solid stereo speakers with a single one. It’s plenty loud, but it doesn’t sound nearly as good as before. Now that Bluetooth speakers are cheap and small, I’d recommend just snagging one as an accessory.

One nice feature that I never thought I’d have to call out in 2016: both phones have headphone jacks! For the uninformed, you use them to connect a wide variety of audio devices, including headphones. Someone should tell Motorola that these audio ports, which have been universally supported for decades, would be a nice addition to their flagship Moto Z lineup. That’s especially true for the Z Force, which is thick enough to fit a headphone jack. (Yes, the Moto Z comes with a dongle, but that comes with plenty of compromises. You won’t be able to charge the phone when the dongle is plugged in, for example.)

Software

Motorola delivered a nearly stock OS on the G4 and G4 Plus, specifically Android 6.0.1. Marshmallow. The phones are devoid of the junkware and sponsored apps you often find on budget devices. None of this is new for Motorola, it’s been trying to deliver vanilla versions of Android since it was under Google. But it’s nice to see the company stick with that philosophy under Lenovo.

Motorola’s unique gestures, which made their debut on the original Moto X, once again make an appearance. Twisting either phone twice, similar to turning a door handle, quickly loads up the camera from anywhere in the OS. Making a double-chopping motion turns their flashlights on and off. What’s particularly nice is that both features work consistently even when the phones are in standby mode.

Camera

This is where the Moto G4 and G4 Plus truly diverge. Should you settle with a 13 megapixel camera, or spend the extra cash for the G4 Plus’s 16 megapixel one loaded with autofocusing upgrades? Based on my testing, the G4’s camera is a bit hit or miss. Sometimes it delivered sharp and vibrant photos, but sometimes its color rendering was all off. It was also a constant disappointment in low light. The G4 Plus was a lot more consistent — it was able to lock onto subjects much more quickly, and it was actually useful in low light. Looking at both phones shows how far we’ve come in the world of mobile cameras. But, if I had to choose, I’d opt for the G4 Plus’s shooter without any hesitation.

While Motorola used a light touch with most of the software, its camera app is a very different experience from Google’s stock entry. There’s a radial exposure meter right next to the focusing ring, which lets you lighten or darken the image by dragging it up or down. Flash, HDR and timer settings are also on the left side of the screen, instead of the top. If you want to take panoramic photos, or simply want manual controls, you’ll have to use a separate app, like ProShot or Open Camera.

Performance

While I was bracing for a slow experience with the Moto G4 and G4 Plus (due to increased rendering demands for 1080p screens, last year’s display was only 720p), both phones surprised me with their relatively smooth performance. Sure, they’re not as instantaneously zippy as expensive flagships, but they also don’t feel like “budget” devices. Browsing around Android Marshmallow, launching multiple hefty apps like Pokemon Go, and juggling through them was relatively painless. There was the occasional slowdown on the G4, but nothing show-stopping. If anything, their performance feels more in line affordable mid-range phones like the Nexus 5X.

And when it came to demanding usage, I was surprised by how well both phones held up. I was able to capture 1080p videos of both phones’ displays using the AZ Screen Recorder app while running Pokemon Go and jumping through several apps. The Moto G4 showed a bit of slowdown, but Pokemon Go was still totally playable. And the resulting video didn’t have any major hiccups or dropped frames. The Moto G4 Plus with 4GB of RAM fared even better, with no slowdown during screen recording.


Moto G4 Moto G4 Plus Moto G (2015) Moto G (2014)
AndEBench 16,159 16,371 4,259 3,929
Vellamo 3.0 2,762 2,819 1,992 1,669
3DMark IS Unlimited 9,841 9,851 4,518 4,679
GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 6.6 6.6 1.7 N/A
CF-Bench 61,030 60,998 20,999 14,470

The benchmarks for both phones reflect the strong performance I saw. Compared to last year’s Moto G, they scored four times higher in AndEBench, three times faster in CF-Bench and they were more than twice as fast when it came to the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited. Of course, benchmarks aren’t everything, but huge performance bumps like these are noteworthy. I wouldn’t have dared play a complex 3D game on the last Moto G, but the G4 and G4 Plus ran games like Racing Rivals without any issue.

The fingerprint sensor on the G4 Plus was easy to set up, and it had no trouble accurately recognizing my fingers. Its placement on the face of the phone is confounding, though. Motorola would have been better off placing it on the rear of the phone like LG, or making it an actual home button like Samsung and HTC.

As for battery life, neither phone disappointed. Their 3,000mAh offerings had no trouble lasting me throughout a full day, even when I decided to go on some impromptu Pokemon hunts. In our test, which involves looping an HD video at 50 percent brightness, they both lasted around 12 hours and 30 minutes. The previous Moto G, lasted 10 hours and 40 minutes.

The competition

At $ 200 for the Moto G4 and $ 250 for the G4 Plus, both phones are practically in a class of their own. There are cheaper phones out there, including Motorola’s own Moto E and HTC’s $ 179 Desire 530, but they all have significantly worse performance in every respect. If you wanted a big upgrade, you could step up to the Nexus 5X, which currently sells for between $ 280 and $ 350, and remains one of the best Android phones on the market. Beyond that, there are the affordable high-end options like the $ 399 OnePlus 3.

If you’ve only got $ 200 to spend, there’s no better option than the Moto G4 right now. Stepping up to the G4 Plus gets a bit more confusing. If you want the 64GB version with 4GB of RAM, you’d have to shell out $ 300. At that point, the Nexus 5X is more tempting thanks to its faster hardware, though you’d have to live with its smaller 5.2-inch screen.

Wrap-up

Motorola’s big problem with these new phones is that the last Moto G was simply too good. In pushing for larger screens and other upgrades, it also introduced some compromises. Ultimately though, the good outweighs the bad. The Moto G4 and G4 Plus offer plenty of power and versatility without breaking the bank. And they show that, once again, nobody does budget phones better than Motorola.

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