Mac OS X Public Beta was released in September 2000 and in the spring of 2001 Mac OS X 10.0 Cheetah was launched. Almost 20 years later, we arrived on Mac OS 10.15 Catalina, which now turns out to be the last update that retains version number 10. This year’s update is called Mac OS Big Sur and is Mac OS 11.0.
Apple chose this year’s update to change version numbers has a natural explanation: It will be the first version to run on both Intel’s x86-64 architecture and Apple’s own processors with the arm64 architecture. You can read more about the transition to “Apple Silicon” here – this article is about Big Sur.
New graphic design
Apple has redone large parts of the design on Mac OS Big Sur – the graphic piece, that is. The function is essentially similar, but the shape is new.
The most obvious difference is that all application icons are placed in rounded squares just like IOS. Apple has redone all (or at least most of) the built-in application icons. Some have more or less been placed in a rounded square, others have been copied from IOS (Mail for example, which has had its stamp icon for years) and again others have got brand new icons.
Windows have much more rounded corners, and the same applies to selected items in lists, for example an e-mail in Mail, which previously had corners but now seems to have a rounded rectangular filling behind it. Dock and other interface details have also become rounder.
The menu bar has become more airy, with white text on a semi-transparent bottom. The various menu choices also have considerably more air around them. We also see airiness in, for example, the side columns in programs such as Pictures and Finder, which look more like IOS without actually moving any functions.
A really big change is toolbars, which become more uniform and no longer have any clear buttons but only icons for each button. Hopefully we can enable button shapes as part of Tools – the icons can be problematic for users with visual impairment.
Control Center on Mac
Mac OS Big Sur borrows an old familiar feature from IOS: Control Center. On the Mac, you will find the Control Center as an icon in the menu bar. Click on it and a menu will appear which is very similar to the control center on Iphone and Ipad. You can temporarily turn off wifi and bluetooth, change volume and brightness, control media playback and enable Airplay and Do Not Disturb.
For users with small screens, this can save a lot of space in the menu bar unless you need to have separate icons for each function, and the media controls that also show which song is playing can be convenient for all users. It remains to be seen how useful the network settings are (for example, if you access advanced options directly from the Control Center or have to use a separate icon for that as well).
The new widgets that IOS has moved out of the home screen have also found in Mac OS Big Sur, but are still there in Notiscenter to the right of the screen. So those who have hoped for a comprehensive view similar to the old closed down dashboard, or the possibility of placing widgets directly on the desktop, will thus be disappointed.
Like IOS, you can choose the size of widgets so that you can place two small square widgets next to each other, or larger versions that cover the entire width of the Noticenter. You can also choose different height settings to accommodate more or less information.
Very new in Safari
Safari is one of the most important applications built into Mac OS, and Apple’s developers have spent a lot of time improving the browser. One of the first things you will notice is that the homepage can now be adjusted. You can choose to view or hide bookmarks, frequently visit websites, the new privacy report, Siri suggestions, Reading list and wallpaper.
The Integrity Report is part of Safari’s expanded privacy protection, which now allows, among other things, to set the use of extensions per site – you can, for example, block an extension from accessing your bank’s website but work everywhere else, or vice versa. The report itself shows how many tracking attempts the program has stopped and you can dig into the details and see exactly which trackers have been stopped per site.
Speaking of extensions: The Mac App Store is finally getting its own category for Safari extensions, but that’s not the biggest news. Apple has added support for the Web Extension standard, which means developers can easily port their Chrome extensions to Safari. This opens up entirely new possibilities for customizing Safari and allows many more people to choose Safari instead of any Chromium-based browser.
The tab bar has also received some love: Safari now displays the favicons of websites to the left of the title so you can find the right tabs faster, and when you hover over a tab, the program shows a preview. Titles are often a bad way to find the right one among many open tabs, and Safari’s tab management has suffered because of how Apple has insisted on displaying titles only, so you often have to scroll through them to find the right one.
If you save passwords in Safari, you will now receive alerts if any password has appeared in a leaked password database, a feature found in most password managers.
Messages finally on par with iOS
For several years, the Mac version of Messages (or perhaps really the experience of Imessage on the Mac) has lagged behind the iOS version. Features such as full-screen effects and memoji have been missing, but are now coming to Mac OS Big Sur. This means that you can both use existing and create new memos directly on your computer.
Updated Messages get all the news from iOS 14 – mentions, reply threads, group photos and stuck conversations. The program also gets an improved search function that divides the results based on the type of content (images, links, text) and a function for finding gifs and images online. If you use Photos and add photos or videos from there, the program has a new interface that makes it easier to browse the latest content.
Maps is another program that now inherits several features that have previously been found on IOS. Look Around is Apple’s answer to Google Streetview, providing 360-degree street-level 3D views in a select city. You can also see new detailed indoor maps for, for example, airports and shopping centers (a feature that is also being rolled out one by one around the world).
Just like IOS 14 and Ipad OS 14, Maps on Big Sur gets the new feature Guides to help you find the gold bar among restaurants and attractions in what is initially a handful of world cities like London and New York. Perhaps more interesting for Swedish users is the opportunity to create guides yourself that you can share with family and friends. In some countries, electric car owners are being helped to plan trips with stops along the way where there are quick chargers, and Apple has added support to see and avoid congestion tax areas in some cities. Apple has not revealed exactly which cities are included, but writes that it applies to “many cities in Europe” so hopefully also includes Stockholm and Gothenburg.
Faster updates and signed system volume
On Mac OS Big Sur, Apple has started signing the entire system volume, the separate volume that already in Catalina only provides read access to important system files. That means you won’t be able to make any changes at all. We do not yet know if this will be turned off as part of System Integrity Protection.
The change has another benefit for users: Since the system knows exactly where each file is located, it can start system updates in the background while you continue working. It should result in significantly faster installation of updates – in principle, the computer only needs to insert the most basic new files such as the kernel and other files that cannot be replaced while running, and restart.
Spotlight – gets faster, shows results in a more easily navigated list and above all: You can now preview results with Overview.
Pictures – now you can use many of the filters and adjustments that were previously only for photos even on videos. The retouch tool has also been updated with machine learning.
Home – Get the same news as IOS, including face recognition for cameras and quick status.
Optimized charging – Mac OS Big Sur gets the same smarter charge that came to Iphone and IOS last year. Optimized charging learns how to use your computer and keeps it charged at 80 percent when it thinks you’ll be connected to the mains for a long time, and fully charges when it guesses you’ll need to run on the battery. Ideal for users who almost always have the power cord connected.
voice Memos – sort recordings in folders and smart folders. Bookmark especially important recordings.
Siri – just like IOS 14 can give more answers directly from the network.
reminders – assign reminders to others you share lists with. Also get better search, organization of smart lists, suggestions from Mail, more shortcuts and the ability to provide lists of emoji icons.
Apple continues to sell older Macs with slower hardware. Mac OS 11.0 Big Sur no longer works on Macs with Ivy Bridge processor and / or Intel HD 4000 graphics. The list of currently supported models looks like this:
Macbook Air (2013)
Macbook Pro (Late 2013)
Mac Mini (2014)
Imac Pro (2017)
Mac Pro (2013)