eXtensions - Sunday 16 October 2016

System Preferences in macOS, Sierra: Siri (Updated - Mac mini)

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By Graham K. Rogers

The update of macOS, has seen a number of changes to System Preferences. As had been expected, Siri functionality has been added to macOS and the feature now has its own preferences panel where the feature may be turned On and settings may be changed.

The interactive voice communication, known as Siri, has been available on iOS devices since iOS 5 and the iPhone 4S in late 2011. It can be used to ask questions or take actions using only voice commands. A Siri voice answers a request, although some responses may not always be what the user expects.

At Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference in June 2016, it was announced that Siri functionality would be added to the Mac with the release of macOS, Sierra.


The Siri preference pane allows users to set up the feature; to fine tune the languages; and to select a specific voice for Siri. The control are in a single preference panel that is dominated by the Siri logo on the left hand side. Below this is a single checkbox: Enable Siri. Note, however, neither the Mac mini nor the Mac Pro have a built-in microphone (see below).

The right side of the panel has five buttons and other controls. The first button allows the user to select the language that Siri will work with. There are 41 language options (including regional variations) available in the menu revealed. At the top are any preferred languages that the user has selected in the Language & Region preferences panel.

Of the 41 languages choices available for Siri, certain languages (Chinese, English, French, German, Spanish particularly) have several options: Chinese for example has 2 Cantonese options and 2 for Mandarin; English has 9 options.

Siri voices The second button, marked Siri Voice, will have one or more choices, depending on the Language that has been chosen. English languages have a selection of 8 voices (male and female), with regional accents. Some languages offer a basic male or female option.

Several languages (like Malay, Portuguese, Turkish) offer a female voice only. Experience with both iOS devices and macOS suggest that - for English especially - it may be useful to try a selection of languages and voices for the best input and output for the user.

Below the language and voice buttons are two radio buttons, controlling Voice Feedback: On or Off. If the feedback option is set for Off, when Siri is asked a question or given a command, a panel appears top right of the screen with the information below a text display of the question asked.

If the feedback option is set for On, when Siri is asked something, as well as the text panel, a voice will also answer the query. Depending on what is asked, answers from Siri may display a certain humour. Changing the Voice Feedback option from On to Off (or vice versa) is instant. No restart is required.


Below the feedback options, a button allows the user to select an input source: Mic Input. A Mac that has an Internal Microphone, will use that: the menu shows Automatic and Internal Microphone. When an external (e.g. USB) microphone is connected to the Mac, the button immediately changes to reflect the new option. If the microphone is removed, the button reverts to its previous state.

Siri Unlike iOS devices with the "Hey Siri" option, Siri does not have voice activation on the Mac. There are two ways in which Siri can be used: via a menu bar icon (turned on using the checkbox at the bottom of the preference panel); or via hot keys.

The default key combination on my MacBook Pro is Fn + Spacebar. A menu revealed when the button is pressed offers two other options (Option + Space, Command + Space), plus Off. There is also a Customize option. When this is selected, a blank panel is available for a user to type in any key combination. However, a warning is given if the shortcut is being used by another action

Pressing the shortcut (or the menu bar icon) displays the dark grey Siri panel top right of the screen, with the words, "What can I help you with." Spoken input from the user should elicit a response, although those unfamiliar with the feature may need some time to learn how this may be used. The panel will offer (text) suggestions if the user clicks on it.

At the bottom of the panel to the right of the "Show Siri in menu bar" checkbox, is a button marked About Siri and Privacy. This reveals a panel with an explanation of what Siri is and how it works, including ways online services are used, and how to restrict such access if desired.


Update - Mac mini

I am now able to update information on the operation of Siri on a Mac mini, which like the Mac Pro does not have a built in Microphone.

When the Siri panel is first opened, there are two significant differences to the panel on the MacBook Pro: the left side of the panel notes that "No microphone was found" while on the right side all the buttons for selecting Language, Voice and other input were greyed out.


When the box (left side) to Enable Siri was checked, the buttons were live and adjustments could be made. The warning about No Microphone was still displayed. When an attempt was made to use Siri, the communication panel (top right) showed that "Siri Not Available" with additional text to show that No microphone was found.


When a USB microphone was attached, the panels changed (about 5 seconds): no warning about the lack of microphone; and the Mic Input button reflected the specific type of microphone available. Siri is able to operate in the same way as with a Mac that has an in-built microphone.

See Also:

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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