Getting Siri Working on Your Mac

"Siri, tell me a joke," and other useful tricks

Siri preference pane in macOS
Siri sports a number of options that you can select from the Siri preference pane. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

Since the release of macOS Sierra, Apple has included the ever-popular Siri digital assistant from iOS devices. Now Siri is waiting in the wings to be the assistant for us Mac users as well.

While Siri is included with macOS, it isn't enabled by default, and requires you to make a small effort to turn the Siri service on. This makes sense for many reasons, including privacy and security.

Security and Privacy With Siri

From a security perspective, Siri uses Apple's cloud-based services to perform many of its basic functions. Many companies have explicit policies about the use of cloud-based services, specifically to prevent corporate secrets from ending up in the cloud, where the company has no control over them. Even if you don't work for a company that's concerned about secrets, you should be aware that Siri will be uploading data to the cloud to help it answer questions you may ask.

When you use Siri, the things you say are recorded and sent to Apple's cloud platform, which then processes the request. In order to adequately process the query, Siri needs to know quite a bit about you, including such things as your name, nickname, friends' names and nicknames, people in your contact list, and appointments in your calendar. This allows Siri to answer personal questions, such as when is my sister's birthday, or when is Dad going fishing again.

Siri can also be used to perform searches for information on your Mac, such as, Siri, show me files I worked on this week. In this case, Siri performs the searches locally on your Mac, and no data is sent to Apple's cloud platform.

With an understanding of the very basics of Siri privacy and security, you can decide if you want to use Siri. If so, read on.

Enabling Siri on Your Mac

Siri uses a preference pane to control its basic features, including turning Siri on or off. Siri also has an icon in the Dock that can be used to quickly enable it; if Siri is already enabled, you can click on the icon to indicate you're about to speak to Siri.

We're going to go directly to the Siri preference pane to initially turn Siri on, because it also includes many of Siri's options, which aren't available from the Siri icon in the Dock.

  1. Launch System Preferences by clicking its icon in the Dock, or selecting System Preferences from the Apple menu.
  2. In the System Preferences window that opens, select the Siri preference pane.
  3. To turn Siri on, place a checkmark in the box labeled Enable Siri.
  4. A dropdown sheet will appear, warning you that Siri sends information to Apple. Click the Enable Siri button to continue.

Siri Options

Siri sports a number of options that you can select from the Siri preference pane. One of the first things I recommend is to place a checkmark in the Show Siri in Menu Bar option. This will give you a second place where you can conveniently click to bring up Siri.

  • Siri can speak to you in over 30 languages or dialects. You can pick which to use from the Language dropdown menu.
  • Siri can use a number of different voices to speak to you with, including American, Australian, British, Irish, and South African. Use the Siri Voice dropdown menu to make your selection.
  • If you would rather not have Siri talking back to you, you can turn Siri off by selecting Off in the Voice Feedback section.
  • Mic input allows you to select which audio input to use to capture your voice. Normally, Siri will use your Mac's built-in microphone (if present), but you may prefer to use a headset mic or another device. You can use the dropdown menu to select the mic input source.
  • Keyboard Shortcut allows you to select from one of three predefined keyboard shortcuts:
    • Command + Space
    • Option + Space
    • Fn (Function) + Space
    • Customize

The default is to hold down the command and space keys at the same time. Doing so causes Siri to appear in the upper right cornet and ask, 'What can I help you with?' You can select any of the options, including customize, which allows you to create your own keyboard shortcut.

Remember, you can also click on the Siri icon in the Dock, or the Siri item in the menu bar, to activate Siri.

What Can Siri Do for You?

Now that you know how to activate Siri and set up the Siri options, the question becomes, what can Siri do for you?

Siri can do a lot of things, but its best asset is that since the Mac is capable of multitasking, you don’t need to stop what you're doing to interact with Siri. As you can imagine, Siri can be used much like Siri on the iPhone. You can ask Siri for just about any bit of information you need, such as the weather for today, show times at nearby theaters, appointments and reminders you need to create, or the answers to hard questions, such as, who invented the corndog?

Siri on the Mac has some additional tricks up its sleeve, including the ability to perform local file searches. Even better, the results of the searches that appear in the Siri window can be dragged to the desktop or to the Notifications panel, for quick access later on.

But wait, there's more. Siri can work with many of the system preferences, allowing you to configure your Mac via Siri. Siri can change the sound volume and screen brightness, as well as many of the Accessibility options. You can also ask about basic Mac conditions, such as how much free space is available on your drive.

Siri also works with many of the Apple apps, letting you launch apps by saying things such as Open Mail, Play (song, artist, album), even start a call with FaceTime. Just say, FaceTime with Mary, or whomever you would like to call. Making that FaceTime call with Mary is a good example of why Siri needs to know a lot of information about you. It has to know who Mary is, and how to place a FaceTime call to her (by name, email address, or phone number).

Siri can also be your social media secretary. If you have your Mac connected to your social media accounts, such as Twitter or Facebook, you can tell Siri to "Tweet" and then follow that up with the content you wish to send out on Twitter. The same works for Facebook; simply say "Post to Facebook," followed by what you wish to say.

And this is only the beginning of what Siri on the Mac can do. Apple is releasing a Siri API allowing developers to make use of Siri, so stay tuned to the Mac App Store to discover all-new uses for Siri on your Mac.