Although the biggest Mac news to come out of Apple’s recent developer conference was the move towards a future based on Apple-designed processors, the next version of macOS was also introduced.
Called macOS Big Sur – again after a Californian landmark – the new operating system introduces some key new enhancements and ushers in the next generation of Mac – it’s the first version that will run on both Intel processors and Apple Silicon.
Coincidentally, while ARM-based Apple Silicon Macs will start to be introduced at the tail end of 2020 but we believe there will be plenty of Intel-based Macs for some time to come.
We’ve now been hands-on with the developer beta for a week to check out all the latest features in the flesh.
While developers are able to get hold of a test device based on Apple Silicon (actually a repurposed Mac mini), we’re using our Intel Core i5-based 13-inch MacBook Pro from 2017 here – the latest Mac we have to hand.
The design changes
Apple says it’s the biggest design upgrade since the introduction of Mac OS X in 2001. That is the case for sure, but the makeover is mostly skin deep – this isn’t a change like System 9 to OS X or Windows . There are new features here, of course, and the design is more aligned to iPadOS/iOS than ever. But this isn’t a total overhaul.
While that sounds like a criticism, it isn’t because users don’t want mass change – especially for something like macOS that people depend upon every day for work and play.
What’s also interesting is that Apple has sought to designate macOS Big Sur as a new generation of macOS by changing its version number from 10.x to 11. To give you an indication as to that change, Apple moved to 10.0 in 2001 when macOS was known as Mac OS X.
However, it seems the move to 11 from 10.15 has been relatively short in the making – the developer build actually had a version number of 10.16 when we installed it. Yep, it’s almost 10GB in size.
The macOS Big Sur developer build was actually surprisingly stable and we could use it constantly, so we believe that a public beta can’t be that far away.
So what’s new in macOS Big Sur? Let’s find out.
macOS 11 Big Sur key features
Complete design refresh
macOS 10.xx (or macOS X as it originally) has changed significantly in design over time since its 2001 launch, but there’s never been such a big refresh in one go as there is this year.
That colour palette, window edges, icons, menu bar and buttons have all been refreshed and yes, it seems very much more iPad-like in appearance. A new translucent menu bar moves icons out of view when you’re not using them if you have stacks of icons there.
Pop-ups have been refreshed with a new look (again, they’re more iPadOS in look). Because you see pop-ups all the time but don’t really pay much attention to them, this is actually quite a striking change – it really does make you feel like ‘something has changed’ in your day-to-day use of macOS.
The built-in app icons have also been modified so they’re iOS/iPadOS squares instead of the circular icons we’ve seen a lot in recent times. But the 3D design of them looks a little old fashioned compared to iOS/iPadOS equivalents and some of the other third-party apps you can see in our Launchpad view here. Indeed, they seem almost to have a design reminiscent of early iOS.
Mac Catalyst apps (ported from iOS and iPadOS) automatically inherit the new look.
Control Center and widgets
There’s now an even more iPadOS-like Control Center in the customisable menu bar, while Notification Center has also been made more interactive with redesigned widgets that can be different sizes.
Again this is very similar to the iPadOS experience we’ve got in iPadOS 14 but in full screen.
Some Mac owners will find it amusing that Apple has returned to widgets in this fashion – remember the OS X Dashboard – a sort of desktop for widgets? That feature was only finally removed last year in macOS Catalina but hadn’t been updated since OS X Lion in 2011.
Apple says that Safari has been given a speed boost which compares favourably with Chrome but notably the company has shared no comparison with Microsoft Edge or Firefox.
Privacy reports are also now more detailed in Safari, too, as you can see above and you’ll be quite surprised how many trackers your favourite and not-so-favourite sites are using.
Tabs have also been entirely redesigned and are now identifiable by favicon (finally!), bringing Safari in line with other browsers. There are also some additional personalisation features, too.
Safari Extensions will be easier to install and use and can be found more easily in the Mac App Store as you can see here.
Messages on the Mac hasn’t been the most reliable app since its introduction (we can’t get rid of a phantom notification even after upgrading the OS) but now things are being beefed up, with new tools to pin important conversations for quick access and share expressive messages. Search is now much easier to use. You can also now use balloons, confetti and Memojis on the Mac, too.
Group messaging has also been made a lot easier on the Mac, too, with inline replies and group icon photos to easily identify the group.
A better Maps
Maps has also received a power-up in iOS and iPad OS and so new features also come to the Mac as well, although these seem limited in scope in the beta. You can discover places to visit with Guides or create custom Guides, too (as we’re doing here). Look around enables you to view destinations in 360 degrees, while there are also cycling and EV features, too.
Looking to upgrade your current Mac to Big Sur? Check out macOS Big Sur system requirements: Which Macs and MacBooks support macOS 11?