There’s one good reason to update to macOS High Sierra

Apple’s new version of macOS comes out today, and while almost every upgrade is under the hood and out of sight, there is one really great new feature inside Safari that is definitely worth updating for: in High Sierra, Safari automatically mutes autoplaying videos. The update to High Sierra is free and will be available for all Macs released since 2010, and some Macs introduced in 2009 as well. You can also get the Safari update on earlier versions of macOS, by updating to Safari 11.

I’ve been browsing the web in Safari for the past couple weeks, and the internet has felt like a somewhat calmer place, thanks to this new feature. If a video would normally autoplay with sound, it’ll still appear, but Safari will automatically pause it before the video can start to emit noise. That way, you get to browse in peace and quiet but can still hit play in the (unlikely) event that the autoplaying video was something you were interested in.

The feature works well. I tested it out on a number of websites that include autoplaying videos on their pages, including Bloomberg and CNET, and Safari always paused the videos before they could start to play. Safari also mutes those annoying ads that start to play sound only once you mouse over them (which you inevitably do by accident, not because you’re interested in them), even when they would normally get activated, which I was particularly happy to see.

Safari tries to be smart about which sites it blocks autoplaying video on, too. YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Twitch, Crackle, Vudu, and DailyMotion are among the sites allowed to autoplay videos with sound turned on by default. That makes enough sense, since we want videos to play when we go to those sites. There seems to be some inconsistency among TV streaming sites, though: for instance, it looked to me like HBO Go was whitelisted, but HBO Now was not. The same goes for DirecTV Now, which was whitelisted, and Sling TV, which didn’t appear to have to go ahead to autoplay with sound. That’s not going to create enormous problems for these sites or their subscribers, but I’m sure the companies behind them will be plenty annoyed with Apple.

If you do want to change Safari’s behavior here, the toggle is a little bit hidden. You have to go to the Safari menubar menu, click “settings for this website,” and then find the “auto-play” drop-down to change it. It’s fast enough to change once you know where to look, but it took some searching for me to find it. Controls are also tucked away inside Safari’s preferences menu.

Safari stock

Another thing that’s really nice about Safari in High Sierra is a new feature that prevents websites and ad companies from following you around the web. It does this by automatically cutting off websites’ access to tracking data left on your computer by websites you don’t regularly visit, so that advertisers can’t gather too much data on you. Some trackers will still be unavoidable, but Safari is supposed to cut out the vast majority of them.

This feature doesn’t change the experience of browsing the web all that much — but it does provide some comfort, and, really, is a reasonable privacy measure. The only difference I noticed was on ads served by Amazon: when visiting the same website in Safari and Chrome, the Safari page showed me a bunch of products to buy that were relevant to the page I was on (Blu-rays, because I was on a movie news site), while the ad in Chrome displayed a bunch of products similar to ones I had somewhat recently viewed, including an Echo and an Xbox controller.

I suppose I preferred the more anonymous ad (I don’t even own an Xbox), but the actual browsing experience wasn’t all that different. Still, I’m sure people will be happy to know they’re being followed around less. And while I can see the benefit to targeted ads — I don’t entirely mind ads being made somewhat more relevant to me — I’m not a fan of having one company or product doggedly follow me around the web just because I clicked on their link one time. And that often seems to be how ad tracking is used.

Together, the two changes to Safari make the web a little bit nicer place to browse — though they certainly don’t solve all of the modern web’s annoyances. As much as I’m hesitant to see Google taking the lead on this, I think it’s going to take something like Google’s plan to have Chrome automatically block all ads on pages with fullscreen pop-ups and other aggressive promotions before I’m not regularly frustrated just by opening up a website. These changes in Safari do start to help though.

If you’re already using Safari, this is a great step forward and a very good reason to update to High Sierra. But if you’re not using Safari, I’m not convinced this is enough of an improvement to make changing from your browser of choice worthwhile. There are still too many minor differences that, for me at least, make Apple’s browser too difficult to use. In particular, the lack of website icons (favicons) on every tab makes it unnecessarily challenging to navigate when you have a lot of tabs open.

As for the rest of High Sierra, the highest praise I can give it is this: I’ve been using the latest version of Apple’s desktop operating system for the past week or so, and I’ve barely noticed a thing. From a user’s perspective, almost nothing about macOS has changed in this latest release. Bugs are minimal. And the few changes that are here work as intended. It is a completely anodyne update.

The reality is that, under the hood, there’s a ton going on here. Apple has completely replaced the OS’s file system with one of its own making, one that will better allow for features like hybrid drives and backup snapshots and is supposed to do a much better job of file management.

Aside from files now instantly moving from one folder to the next — instead of taking a brief tick as they copy over, something that you might feel but will never quite notice — none of the benefits of the new Apple File System are going to be seen. The updates are all meant to make the system work better way off into the future. In fact, many Macs aren’t even going to get the Apple File System on day one. Only Macs with solid state drives will be transitioned over, which means there’s little reason for others to update.

There are a few other new features in High Sierra. We covered most of them in a lot more detail in our preview of High Sierra earlier this summer. Siri has a much more natural speaking voice, just like in iOS 11, but it’s still really limited in what it can do; Notes can now do tables, which is a nice addition; and Mail now surfaces top emails, though I still find the app to be unforgivably hard to use compared to pretty much every other modern email app. Other nice but nerdy updates: Macs now support VR headsets (the Vive, at least) and external GPUs (with AMD’s Radeon cards). Apple wouldn’t confirm support for anything from Nvidia.

Apple’s Photos app is one of the few things seeing a big update. Its navigation has been cleaned up, and there are even more detailed editing tools now, including access to curves, which is surprisingly powerful for a general purpose photo editor. I’m not sure that anyone super serious about editing their photos will take advantage of this, but Photos is turning into a great place to start touching up pictures, and it’s something that might even work for more serious editors in a pinch.

High Sierra is far from Apple’s most exciting macOS update. Even coming within a stretch of mostly minor updates, High Sierra stands out as an unusually boring one. But macOS is in good shape as a whole. It’s a solid, stable, functioning operating system, and Apple is setting it up to be in good shape for years to come. There are still a ton of places that need improvement — especially when it comes to Apple’s own apps. But High Sierra doesn’t hurt the situation. And the user-facing features it does add are truly helpful improvements.

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