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Hands-on with the new Photos features in macOS Sierra and iOS 10

Glenn Fleishman | July 12, 2016
Photos gets a minor refresh, but it’s significant for finding people and other searching.

Photos has long been a snooze of an app in iOS, and when its OS X complement arrived in Yosemite, it was underwhelming. Through many small releases in El Capitan, Photos’ stability improved and features expanded. Now, in iOS 10 and macOS Sierra, Photos is poised to be much more useful for the most common task after sharing: searching.

Apple finally added content analysis of photos, allowing Photos on both platforms to recognize and associate faces of the same person across many images, and interpret a limited array of emotions. It also now tags images that contain any of thousands of object features, like mountains and dogs.

Photos automatically assembles sets of memories into pseudo-albums, ostensibly saving you the tedium of organizing and culling. Apple goes one step further, creating movies that are…well, they’re pretty hilarious and may be more accurate about our lives than we want to believe.

With the public betas of iOS 10 and macOS Sierra out, you can try out all these features for yourself.

At the moment, Apple doesn’t synchronize facial and object recognition across devices. It’s not clear yet whether it will because Apple’s push at its recent Worldwide Developers Conference was for local analysis of private information that’s never uploaded to the cloud. While that’s great in theory, it does mean you might have to repeat the effort in tagging and merging faces, across every device to which you sync the same set of photos.

Facial recognition and organization

Apple added a Faces feature to iPhoto years ago, and frustrated many Mac owners to pieces by weakly implementing it in Photos, and dropping all recognized faces when converting libraries from iPhoto to Photos. iOS has never included any recognition support.

For both iOS and macOS, the new Photos scans quietly for objects and scenes, but because facial recognition is more computationally (and thus battery) intensive, both OSes let you know that face-interpretation only occurs when iOS devices and Mac laptops are plugged in and have sufficient charge. In iOS, it can happen in the background while the device is plugged in.

The initial process can take some time. In iOS 10’s second developer beta on a 9.7-inch iPad Pro, a library synced from iCloud with almost 27,000 low-res “optimized” images took almost an entire day to process. After the initial process, new images added to your library can be scanned in seconds. In macOS Sierra, it stalled after a few hours, certainly an expected problem with a beta release.

Photos doesn’t automatically label faces with names, doesn’t use previous Photos or iPhoto information, and doesn’t import information from other devices. So this can be a little tedious, though to me the facial recognition seems improved in terms of both finding faces (even when rotated and minuscule) and grouping together more images containing the same person.


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