Apple just dropped the latest macOS Sierra update with relatively few changes apart from one standout feature: Night Shift. It was first added to mobile devices via an iOS 9 update last year. The feature attempts to filter out blue light to make sleeping after working late a less jarring experience.
The idea that the blue light emitted from our device screens is interfering with sleep patterns is nothing new. Apps like f.lux have been around for years, so how does Night Shift for Mac stack up?
Today we’ll look at how Night Shift compares to f.lux and a few other apps for night owls and dark rooms.
Update Your Mac Now
Just like Night Shift on iOS, Apple has decided to add the same feature to its desktop operating system in the middle of the standard release cycle. Apple usually saves most new features for major releases (the last of which was macOS Sierra), and you’d be forgiven for missing the feature if you’re in the habit of mindlessly installing updates.
If you’ve not yet updated your Mac, you can do so by launching the Mac App Store and visiting the Updates tab. You should find the option to update your operating system at the top of the list. But make sure you have backed up your Mac with Time Machine or a third-party recovery tool before you install it.
If you can’t see the update in the App Store then you can download the combined 10.12.4 update from Apple and install it using the PKG installer. This will allow you to update any version of macOS Sierra from 10.12.0 onwards (hence, combined).
Apart from Night Shift, update 10.12.4 is relatively uninteresting. Siri gets support for scores and statistics for the Indian Premier League and International Cricket Council, and Apple has added Dictation support for Shanghainese. There are other fixes and tweaks, increased RAW image file support, and some enterprise features that most of us will never touch.
Ready for the Night Shift
Both Night Shift and f.lux work by the same principle: our brains have come to rely on the sun’s light to reinforce our sleep and wake cycles. We’re used to seeing colder “blue” light in the morning when the sun rises, and warmer “orange” light at the end of the day when the sun is setting.
Have you ever noticed that it’s hard to sleep immediately after using a computer or other device late at night? This could be due to excessive blue light signaling that it’s time to wake up. Night Shift and f.lux attempt to rectify this, though there’s evidence to suggest that simply filtering blue light isn’t enough.
You should stop staring at a screen a few hours before you want to sleep, but due to habits, work constraints, and the “always-on” nature of a connected world this isn’t possible. In this case, something is better than nothing.
Enable and Configure Night Shift
Once you’ve updated your Mac, you’ll find the option to toggle Night Shift in your Mac’s Notification Center. Click the icon in the top-right corner of your screen, or swipe with two fingers from the right-edge of your trackpad and scroll upwards to reveal the option.
The feature works much better if you set it to a schedule, when it automatically enables itself at a time of your choosing. Head to System Preferences > Displays and click on the Night Shift tab. Here you can choose between manual activation, Sunset to Sunrise, and a Custom schedule to suit your habits.
You can also configure just how warm you want the screen to appear. Click and drag the slider to a point you’re happy with — you can choose from barely noticeable to fake tan orange. There’s nothing else to change beyond these settings. The feature is pretty much identical to the iOS version.
Night Shift or f.lux?
Mac users have been able to access this sort of technology for years thanks to free cross-platform app f.lux and a few similar alternatives. We’ve covered the app many times in the past, and most users who value blue light filters will probably already be using the feature. Either way, it’s nice to have a choice.
Night Shift is Apple’s own solution, so “it just works” albeit with a limited feature set. f.lux on the other hand is a project that’s been running for many years, on many different platforms. For that reason, users who appreciate more control might prefer it over Night Shift.
f.lux has more options, and allows you to specify color temperature in kelvins, which ranges from 6500K (daylight) all the way down to 2700K (tungsten). The app also has three states — daylight, sunset, and bedtime — whereas Night Shift only has two. This allows you to gradually warm the screen over time.
If you want your screen to be a deep orangey-red at night, f.lux is the app that will do it. It goes much further than Night Shift in this respect. It also has drawn some criticism from users complaining about purple artifacts while playing streaming video.
Flux is about to have its user-base axed when Night Shift is released and native on Mac.
— Stefan Etienne (@StefanEtienne) March 13, 2017
One important point to note is that users with older Mac computers that do not support macOS 10.12 Sierra will have to settle for f.lux. The feature will not be added to older versions of Apple’s operating system. If you haven’t yet upgraded to macOS Sierra then you can check compatibility on Apple Support.
Considering both solutions are free to try, why not try them both and see which you prefer?
Mac Apps for Night Owls
Night Shift and f.lux will satisfy the needs of most users. But they’re not the only solutions out there that can make working at night a more pleasant experience.
Nocturne is a longstanding solution for Mac users who operate in dark environments. The app hasn’t been updated since 2009, but we’ve tested it as working on macOS Sierra. The app lives in your menu bar and is manually activated using the Switch to Night button.
By default, Nocturne will invert your screen, hide the desktop, and switch to a monochrome color scheme. You can also choose to tint your screen by setting custom colors for white and black. It’s free to download, so why not give it a spin.
Shady is another free app, though there’s an option to donate via PayPal on the project homepage. Just like Nocturne the app hasn’t seen an update in a while, having been written for OS X 10.5. It works just fine on macOS Sierra though, so it may still be worth your time.
If you’re working in a very dark environment and you want to limit the amount of light coming out of your laptop, Shady works very well indeed. The app places a black “shade” over your screen, which you can adjust using the arrow keys.
Ideally, you’ll want to lower your screen brightness. Then, launch Shady and tweak it till you’re happy with the image you see. It could be a lifesaver if Apple’s lowest brightness setting isn’t dark enough, or if you’re using your MacBook in bed and don’t want to blind whoever’s sleeping next to you.
Darklight ($0.99) / Candlelight ($0.99)
Darklight and Candlelight are two apps from the same developer, neither of which have been updated for a while. Darklight is arguably the most interesting of the two, as it’s designed for using a laptop in dark environments without causing eye strain or resetting your night vision.
Many astronomers cover their laptop screens with a red film called Rubylith to maintain good night vision while in the field. Darklight attempts to recreate this red (or green) with software. Candlelight seems to be a more limited version of f.lux or Night Shift, so you might want to give it a miss.
Work at Night ($2.99)
Work at Night is an old app that last saw an update in 2011, and is untested on the latest version of macOS. It offers similar functionality to the free app Shady, so consider it if you can’t get Shady to work. Remember you can get an App Store refund if the software doesn’t work as expected.
Do you use an app like f.lux to tint your screen at night? Will you be moving over to Night Shift? Remember that the best way to get a good night’s sleep is to avoid backlit screens a few hours before bedtime. You’ll have more joy falling asleep reading a book or unlit electronic-ink display, regardless of whether you’re filtering out blue light or not.
Let us know what you think of Night Shift in the comments below.
Image Credit: Poravute Siriphiroon via Shutterstock.com