Apple’s macOS Big Sur is the latest version of its desktop and laptop operating system and the first to support both traditional Intel Macs and the new “Apple Silicon” Macs. Based on a three-month tryout in a series of public betas, Big Sur is quick, stable, impressively good-looking, and packed with subtle and significant improvements to the macOS interface. If you’re running last year’s Catalina version and haven’t installed a lot of third-party, non-Apple software, you can upgrade immediately to Big Sur, though only after making a complete Time Machine or other backup of your existing system. If you rely on third-party software, you may want to wait a few weeks or months for the first or second interim, or point release. But upgrade you should, because Big Sur is a substantial improvement, even over the excellent Catalina.
The first thing you notice when you start up your Mac running Big Sur is that the traditional Mac startup sound is back by default, though you can silence it from the System Preferences app. (With Catalina, expert users could enable or disable it using a terminal command.) After Big Sur appears on the screen, you see the most radical overhaul that Apple has given its flagship OS in years. But, as with almost every other new version, the new features and conveniences in macOS Big Sur integrate so well into the familiar interface that existence users will face a minimal learning curve. Apple has mastered the art of improving its OS design without disrupting the basic design established by OS X.
Turning macOS Up to 11
Speaking of OS X—now called macOS—Apple is signaling the size of the shift Big Sur represents by increasing the main version number for the first time. The “X” in OS X meant ten, and Catalina, the previous macOS release, was version 10.15. When you click on “About This Mac” from the Apple menu, Big Sur describes itself as version 11.0. (But advanced users who dig deep into Big Sur’s internals will find that, for the sake of compatibility, it tells apps that its version number is 10.16.)
Part of the point of changing the public-facing version number is that Big Sur is the first version that runs under Apple’s new Macs based on what Apple calls “Apple Silicon” and everyone else calls ARM. The first chips are here now, and they go by the moniker Apple M1. Big Sur and an unspecified number of future versions will run on both Intel and Apple Silicon machines, but a few years from now Apple will stop making Intel Macs and we’ll all be using Apple Silicon machines. Apple’s iOS devices already use Apple Silicon, and that means that many iOS apps will run perfectly on new Macs with Apple Silicon hardware. All you’ll need to do is download them from the Mac App Store.
Microsoft Windows 10
Apple macOS Catalina
Ubuntu 20.04 (Focal Fossa)
Google Chrome OS
Apple iPadOS 14
Big Sur will run on almost all Macs dating back to 2013, and the upgrade is free for the download. If you’re still running Mojave or earlier versions of the OS, keep in mind that Catalina and Big Sur won’t run your old 32-bit software, and you’ll need to open the System Report in the About This Mac app, and look at the list of “Legacy Software” to find out which apps you’ll need to replace with 64-bit apps if you decide to upgrade.
For corporate and advanced computing, Microsoft Windows 10 offers far more features and flexibility than Apple has ever managed, but I consider macOS more coherent and enjoyable. Windows offers convenient integration with Android devices (and minimal integration with iOS devices), but Apple’s deep integration between Mac computers and iOS devices is a major part of its consumer-level appeal.
The Big News First
The biggest changes in Big Sur are in the macOS interface, which benefits from dozens of refinements that make it more convenient and intuitive than ever before. Apple continues to make macOS look more like iOS, and many individual elements in the updated interface resemble those in recent versions of mobile OS. The overall effect remains familiar from earlier macOS versions, however.
A new Control Center, accessible from a top-line menu icon, looks a lot like iOS’s Control Center. As in iOS, Big Sur’s Control Center gives quick access to the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and AirDrop icons, and lets you switch on Do Not Disturb, change the device volume, and adjust the screen and keyboard brightness. It also includes a miniature iOS-style music player, with basic playback controls. You can drag any of these elements to the top-line menu (as you could in earlier macOS versions) if you want even quicker access to them. Or you can use the Dock & Menu Bar pane in System Preferences to control which icons appear in the Control Center, top-line menu, or both. (Tip: to quickly remove a control from the top-line menu, Cmd-drag it out of the menu.) I still haven’t found a keyboard shortcut that opens the Control Center.
The Notification Center, now completely redesigned to look more like the one in iOS, is a set of tiles that show incoming messages, calendar events, Up Today events, and much more. The Edit Widgets button leads to a spacious menu of widgets that you can add to the Notification Center. Some widgets come in small, medium, and large sizes, so you can arrange two small widgets on one row of the Center, while others fill an entire row for themselves. As with earlier versions of macOS Big Sur lets you respond to a text message in the Notification Center, and now you can also respond to an e-mail directly from its notification or expand a Calendar event without opening the Calendar app.
A new Battery section in System Preferences shows the battery level over the past 24 hours or 10 days. If you have a recent MacBook with Thunderbolt 3 ports, an optimized charging feature extends the life of your battery by limiting the charge level when your machine is plugged in. This means that the battery icon sometimes says it isn’t charging while plugged in. That’s no longer something to worry about—it only means that the battery is already charged to its optimized limit.
Also in System Preferences, the Sound pane lets you choose among alert sounds newly recorded to be subtler than earlier versions. Every new macOS version adds security features, and some of your existing apps won’t run until you visit System Preferences and grant those apps full disk access, but that’s a one-time annoyance.
New in the macOS Core
Everything in what Apple calls the Core Experience, meaning the menus, toolbars, and everything else in the standard interface, has been updated and improved, and most of the improvements are so subtle that it may take you a while to realize how much better the interface has become. The Finder, for example, puts the name of the current folder to the left of the toolbar, instead of stacking the name on a separate title bar with the toolbar below it. The search field doesn’t open until you click on the search icon or press Ctrl-F.
A similar change makes sidebars fill the full height of the app window, instead of appearing below the toolbar. This gives the sidebar more breathing space and puts the toolbar icons closer to the window elements (like messages) that are controlled by the toolbar. For example, in the Finder the back and forward buttons no longer appear above the left-hand sidebar, but in the toolbar above the main file-list window. Until Big Sur arrived, I hadn’t noticed that the old arrangement didn’t really make sense, because the back and forward buttons were placed above the sidebar where they had no effect, instead of above the file-list window which those buttons actually controlled.
Similarly, apps like Mail used to have a separate toolbar at the top, so the icons to trash or forward a message weren’t directly adjacent to the message itself. In Big Sur, the toolbar appears immediately above the message itself—Apple calls it an integrated toolbar—which makes managing mail easier. This kind of change is everywhere in the Big Sur interface, and it’s an example of Apple’s visual design at its impressive best.
Other improvements in the Core Experience include more spacious drop-down menus that are easier to read than the old overstuffed ones, and windows that have a lighter, more open appearance, without distracting dark areas around buttons and other controls. One especially nifty touch: When you open a file-selection dialog or other sheet (as Apple calls them), the main window behind the dialog or sheet fades slightly to make it clear that you should work only in the dialog or sheet until you close it. Microsoft discussed a similar effect in its Fluent Design system years ago, but it has yet to appear in Windows 10.
Minor aesthetic improvements include subtler icons and a Dock that now floats a few pixels away from the edge of the screen instead of being attached to it. Apple likes to make its UI elements transparent, and now the menu bar is more transparent than in earlier versions, so you can see more detail of the desktop image behind it. As always, you can reduce or turn off transparency if and when you get tired of the distraction it can cause.
Safari Tab Preview
Big Sur also includes the major improvements in the Safari web browser that Apple added to earlier macOS interim updates during the past few months. Compared with the Safari version from Catalina’s first release, the default Mac web browser now has noticeably increased speed and reduced power drain, and, best of all, new privacy features like a pop-up list of all the trackers (such as Facebook and Google) that Safari has blocked from snooping on you. If you want to get a preview of the contents of a tab other than the one that’s currently open, you can hover over the tab to see a thumbnail image of the page. The Opera web browser was the first with tab previews; Microsoft’s Edge scrapped them with its move to the Chromium codebase. I’m still waiting for a built-in feature that splits the browser window into two or more panes, something available in techie-focused Vivaldi web browser.
Big Sur App Improvements: Maps, Messages, and More
As always, a new macOS version adds improvements to some default apps as well as to the basic interface. Maps gets a spacious new sidebar with your recent searches, favorite places, favorite transit lines, and, catching up with Google Maps, directions for biking. You can search for electric-vehicle charging stations (enter “EV Chargers” or a similar phrase in the search box), and, as in Google Maps, Apple’s Maps displays congested traffic and road work. Apple continues to roll out more detailed maps for much of the world, although this isn’t directly linked to the new macOS version. The update also brings beautifully designed, curated Guides with recommendations for touring cities (or just daydreaming about it in these travel-restricted times).
The Messages app gets many of the features released with iOS 14. Hence, it lets you pin conversations to the top of the sidebar and create a single image to represent a group conversation, instead of the current cluster of images. In group message threads, you can now comment on earlier messages and send a direct message to a single member of the group by typing their name or using the at-sign before their names. You can set up notifications so that you’ll be alerted to group messages only if your name is in them. The search bar displays thumbnails of photos and links, and a list of the friends you message most often. I don’t want to add confetti to messages, as you can already do in iOS, but Big Sur gives me the option, and you can use the Preferences to turn off confetti and similar effects sent by your well-meaning but annoying friends.
You find similarly improved organization features in the Notes app, with a newly collapsible list of pinned notes. The Reminders app now lets you assign a reminder to specific contacts with whom you share lists. The Calendar app gets traffic data from the Maps app, so it can tell you when to leave if you want to get to your appointment on time.
I haven’t been able to test new smart home features in the Home app, which support face recognition so that doorbells and security video devices can identify faces that you’ve tagged in your photos. The Home app also supports adaptive lighting for smart light bulbs and can restrict motion-sensing to areas that you specify, so (for example) the neighborhood cat won’t trigger an alarm when it rubs against your door.
As I mentioned earlier, Big Sur continues Apple’s increasing focus on security, so you’ll need to give some of your existing apps permission to access your disk when you first launch them in Big Sur. As in Catalina, the core macOS system is stored in a separate disk volume, which looks like an ordinary folder when you view it in the Finder, and which you can’t ordinarily access. In Big Sur, the volume with the system is called a “Signed System Volume,” and it’s crytopgraphically locked so that only Apple and approved partners can break the seal and make a volume bootable.
Apple makes the tool available to third-party vendors like Bombich Software, the author of my favorite backup program, Carbon Copy Cloner, but Bombich reports that a problem in Apple’s software prevents Carbon Copy Cloner from making bootable backups. Until Apple fixes the problem, you can still make backups, but they won’t be bootable unless you separately install Big Sur to the backup disk. The fix won’t be ready at Big Sur’s release, but Bombich plans to add it to Carbon Copy Cloner when it’s ready. If you rely on Carbon Copy Cloner, as I do, you may want to hold off on upgrading to Big Sur for a while.
macOS, Windows, or Something Else?
In the real world, few people are still making up their minds whether to use a Mac, a Windows machine, a Chrome OS laptop, or an Ubuntu machine for daily computing. That shouldn’t stop you from looking at other operating systems to see if they offer any features or capabilities you need.
I use a Mac laptop for home and travel use, and I get more pleasure out of using a Mac than any other machine. But I use a Windows desktop in my office because some apps that I use every day come in higher-powered, easier-to-use versions for Windows than for the Mac. Microsoft Office, for example, has far better keyboard support on Windows, and ABBYY FineReader only offers its uniquely powerful OCR editor in its Windows version. On the other hand, the Windows version of Adobe Acrobat Pro chokes when creating large PDF files that the Mac version handles effortlessly.
I carry an iPhone, and I value the deep integration between macOS and iOS. If I had an Android phone, I’d probably prefer to use a Windows or Chromebook instead of a Mac. If you’re looking for a high-powered gaming machine, you’re almost certainly going to want Windows. If you’re a graphic designer, chances are good you’ll pick a Mac. For high-powered business and scientific apps, Windows has the lead.
No one OS is best for everyone. But for consumer, home, and small-business use, macOS seems to me the obvious first choice, and I consider it the best-looking and most enjoyable option. If you need to run a Windows app on a Mac, you can install virtualization software, such as Parallels Desktop, VMware Fusion, or the free VirtualBox, and run almost anything that runs on a real Windows machine. One question for the future is whether you’ll ever be able to do this on the new Apple Silicon Macs. Parallels and VMware haven’t announced their plans for Apple Silicon Macs, but it seems likely that you’ll be able to run Windows apps on Apple Silicon machines at some point.
Big Sur Is a Big Step Forward
Meanwhile, macOS Big Sur is a spectacularly efficient, beautiful, and secure operating system that makes Macs even more of a pleasure to use. If you’re now running Catalina on your Mac, you should certainly upgrade to Big Sur, either now or after waiting for the first or second interim release. For my daily working system, I’ll wait for the first interim point release because I use a lot of third-party software and problems with third-party software typically take at least one point release to get sorted out. If you use mostly Apple’s software and other mainstream applications, you should feel free to upgrade today. The changes are refreshing in ways that no new macOS release has offered before. It remains a PCMag Editors Choice winner for desktop operating systems, alongside Microsoft Windows 10.
Apple macOS Big Sur
The Bottom Line
macOS Big Sur upgrades the Mac’s interface in dozens of subtle and substantial ways that make it easier and more convenient to use than ever. And new security features lock down the system even more effectively against malware.
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