Last week might’ve been the most important week of this year for consumer laptops. Apple announced its new M1 chip, which, if the company’s claims about performance gains are to be believed, could redefine our expectations for laptop processors. But there’s another release this week that will usher in a big change for Mac users: macOS Big Sur.
Like the M1 chip, Big Sur is a step in Apple’s efforts to cohere its user experience across devices. Many of its “new” features will be familiar to owners of iPhones and iPads; it’s playing catch-up to iOS. Big Sur — through a series of minor tweaks and refinements — absolutely achieves the goal of making macOS look and feel more similar to iOS than it ever has before. Whether all of those features are as useful on a computer as they are on an iPhone is another question.
Should you update? My advice is usually to wait a few weeks and let early adopters report all the problems, especially with your primary work device. In this case, though, I would actually feel okay updating today. I’ve been using the operating system on a 2019 MacBook Pro 13 for the past several weeks. Apple really seems to have ironed out the numerous bugs that popped up during the surprisingly rough beta period, and the final release is quite stable without any major problems. There also aren’t any hugely disruptive changes like Catalina’s removal of 32-bit app support. (The exception is if you’re running a late-2013 or mid-2014 MacBook Pro; the update’s been causing some of those models to get stuck on a black screen. We’ve reached out to Apple for comment on these reports.)
Whenever you take the leap, though, you will notice the difference. If you’re an iPhone or iPad user, it’ll feel newly familiar.
The headline feature is the redesign. The whole OS has a new look, which Apple says is its biggest design update to its desktop operating system since the debut of OS X. The company has made a number of tweaks that will sound small on paper but add up to an aesthetic that’s friendlier, more modern, and much closer to iOS.
For example: the dock icons for Apple’s apps now all have the same rounded-square shape. (Windows have rounder corners now as well, as do other elements like menus, checkboxes, dialog boxes, and sliders.) A number of apps also have new icons that look like their iOS 14 icons. Music is now the white eighth notes on a red background, Mail is the white envelope on a blue background, the Safari compass has been placed on a white background, etc. I do not have strong opinions on icon shapes, though I’m sure many people do. The old ones were fine; the new ones are fine, too. Overall, though, they contribute to a new, distinctly iPhone-y look and feel.
Another change you may notice is that Big Sur makes greater use of transparent and translucent layers. The menu bar at the top, previously white, is now translucent, adopting the color of your desktop background. The text and menu bar icons adapt as well, turning white for dark backgrounds and black for light backgrounds. You’ll see some of this within apps as well — as you scroll past a dark picture in Safari, it changes the color of the toolbar.
One small annoyance here is that some older apps haven’t been updated to accommodate this. A clock utility I use called “Hour,” for example, stayed white on the menu bar when I swapped to a white background, making the icon difficult to see. You can turn off transparency in Accessibility, but that removes it for the whole interface and makes everything a lot uglier. It’s not worth doing for just a few apps.
This isn’t the biggest deal — I imagine the group of users who both need obscure menu bar utilities and are unwilling to use a dark desktop background isn’t huge — but it underscores the fact that not all third-party apps are up to speed with the new design yet (and some will likely never be).
There are some other things: there’s more spacing throughout the menus and sidebars, the menu bar is taller, and there’s a slight gap between the bottom of the dock and the bottom bezel and more padding around the stoplight buttons. Again, the little tweaks add up. Everything’s a bit flatter and slightly less contrasty, polished all around with little popping out. The new look is unified and modern — it’s an operating system for 2021.
Apple has also brought a few features of the iOS interface to macOS. The Control Center, which you access by swiping up from the bottom of an iPhone, lives in Big Sur as well. You pull it up by clicking the toggles icon on the right side of the menu bar. It puts a number of buttons in one place. As in iOS, you can toggle Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, AirDrop, Screen Mirroring, and Do Not Disturb; adjust brightness, volume, and keyboard backlighting; and play / pause your music. Easter egg: you can actually click and drag buttons from the Control Center to the menu bar if you’d prefer to have them up there.
Control Center helps make Big Sur feel a heck of a lot like iOS, but I also don’t find it nearly as useful on a MacBook Pro as I do on an iPhone. Most of the settings there are things that, on an iPhone, I would otherwise have to dive into Settings or a different app to fix, so it’s nice to be able to pull them all up with a swipe. But on a MacBook, I can already access many of these things on the keyboard (or Touch Bar, in the case of the Pro) where my hands already are.
This doesn’t mean the Control Center is a bad thing to have; it’s just a case where something customized for Mac use might have been more useful than a duplicate of an iOS feature. In System Preferences, you can swap in Accessibility Shortcuts, battery percentage, and fast user switching (which lets you switch between accounts without logging out). I think all of these would be more useful to include by default.
I’ll caveat here: Control Center (as well as native iPad apps, which we’ll discuss later) would be quite useful on a touchscreen Mac. Obviously, Apple has never made a touchscreen computer (unless you count the Touch Bar), but I hope this design choice, as well as some of the other tweaks in Big Sur, means that the company is considering it.
What’s a better fit for macOS is the updated Notification Center, which comes up when you click the clock on the menu bar or swipe in from the right with two fingers on the trackpad. What I like about this is that you can totally make it your own. You can stick all kinds of iOS widgets like shortcuts to Clock, Notes, Calendar, and Podcasts in and arrange and size them to your taste. I wish you could use these outside of the Notification Center, though. I’d love to keep the Screen Time tracker or Calendar on my desktop. (RIP Dashboard.)
Notifications themselves are now grouped together by app, which I much prefer to having to wade through a single feed. (I never used the Notification Center in Catalina because of how much of a mess the ungrouped list was.) And you can respond to messages directly from the Center, without having to open any apps. This feature is legitimately helpful, and I found myself using it a lot.
Though it’s not technically limited to Big Sur, this review is a chance to check in on Safari 14. Apple says 14 brings its biggest-ever update to Safari, though, arguably, the biggest changes are security features that you won’t interact with much.
A lot of Safari’s tweaks are also a catch-up effort (though the target is Chrome in this case, rather than iOS). For example, you can now customize the start page with a background image, shortcuts of your choosing, and other sections (Siri suggestions for pages to visit, a customizable reading list, a “privacy report”). I wouldn’t call this the most useful part of Big Sur, but it does make the experience feel more personal and cuts into the lead that Chrome previously had when it came to customizability.
Like pretty much all other browsers, Safari’s tabs now have favicons by default. (Previously, you had to dig around in Settings to enable them.) There’s a new native translation feature (still in beta), which worked as quickly as Google Translate does and even got to parts of a few pages that Google missed. Safari’s selection is more limited, though, supporting just English, Spanish, simplified Chinese, French, German, Russian, and Brazilian Portuguese for now. (Google can translate over 100 languages.)
There’s a new Safari Extensions category in the App Store. While Safari doesn’t yet have nearly the expansive extension library that Chrome does, some popular ones you might be looking for, such as Ghostery and Grammarly, have versions available. We can look forward to more down the line because Apple has made it easier for developers to import stuff they’ve made for other browsers with the WebExtension API.
A lot of Safari’s tweaks are a catch-up effort
One unique feature Safari now has is tab previews. If you hover over a tab in the tab bar, a small preview of its content pops up. This is another feature that’s really well-suited to the Mac, which you might often use to hop between dozens of tabs for school or office work. It’s most helpful when you have multiple tabs open from the same website (like, say, Google Docs) and the favicon isn’t enough.
Apple also says that Safari is faster than any other browser (read: Chrome) and less of a battery suck. The latter’s not a surprise; Chrome is a horse, and we’ve found Safari to be more efficient in the past. Regarding the former, in some head-to-head tests I did, Safari loaded pages a tiny bit faster than Chrome did. But they’re both plenty fast, so it didn’t really impact my experience.
And there’s a new, visible focus on data privacy. Click the shield on the left side of the address bar, and you’ll pull up a list of what trackers are active on that webpage and what’s been blocked. With a new password-monitoring feature, Safari can alert you if one of your stored passwords has been involved in a data breach (another feature Chrome already has). And you can customize which websites each extension can access.
Overall, I’m not quite ready to make Safari my primary browser because I use a bunch of extensions that are still Chrome-only. And while Safari has made strides toward being as good as Chrome, there still aren’t a lot of areas here where Safari is visibly better than Chrome. Still, if you’re someone who puts a high premium on efficiency or staying in the Apple ecosystem, there aren’t as many downsides to using Safari at this point.
Several of Apple’s other apps now look much more like their iOS counterparts. Messages now has an image search engine, Memoji stickers, group photos, pinned messages, a Search feature that sorts results by medium, and cute effects. (Balloons appear if you wish someone a happy birthday, for example.)
I’m most excited about the fact that you can now reply directly to a message in a group chat; right-click the message, and the option pops up. You can finally @ people in groups as well. Messenger has had versions of both of these for a while (as has Slack). Messages’ threaded replies are organized more like Slack’s than like Messenger’s in that replies are cordoned off under their message of origin, and you can click to unfurl them. In the past, I’d never even set Messages up on my computer specifically because it lacked these features, but I plan on using it more often now.
Maps has also seen an overhaul. There’s a new tab on the left side where you see recent locations and favorites, a Street View-esque 360-degree Look Around feature (you can take a really cool “flyover tour” of some areas as well, though it made me a tad motion sick), and bike and electric vehicle directions. When you click an address, a little bubble with all of its information pops up on the map, rather than showing up on the sidebar as it does in Google Maps, displaying a quick view of directions, TripAdvisor reviews, the street view, and other information pulled from Google.
There’s other stuff, including live updates for shared ETAs and indoor maps for buildings like malls and airports. It’s finally just as full-featured as its iOS counterpart which is, again, long overdue. But what I like most is that it’s also well-tailored to the needs of a computer user. The bubbles are legitimately useful for trip planning at home, and features like the flyover tour, which I’d never use on my phone, are quite cool to see on a computer screen. In the same vein as Safari, I don’t think the Maps updates are enough to make the app decisively better than Google Maps. But they’re about equally useful on the computer now, which is more than I could say before.
There are other odds and ends in various apps. Big Sur supports automatic device switching for AirPods, you can now see which of your friends are playing in Apple Arcade, FaceTime can now detect when you’re using sign language, Game Center has an in-game dashboard, etc. You can see the full list on Apple’s website, but you’ll probably be finding Easter eggs for a while.
Finally, there are various privacy things happening under the hood, but one thing you’ll eventually see is a new section of the App Store that will detail the privacy practices of each app (self-reported by developers). This isn’t here yet. Apple says it’s coming later this year.
Of course, the biggest advantages of macOS Big Sur will be seen on Apple’s new Arm-based Macs. Apple emphasized that Big Sur is optimized for its own processors, and it says you’ll see this compatibility reflected everywhere from performance to battery life.
In particular, the OS comes with an emulation layer called Rosetta 2, which will ensure that apps created for Intel machines work on Arm Macs until developers can port them over. You don’t interact with Rosetta 2. If it’s working correctly, you’ll have no idea that it’s there. If you want to know how well Rosetta 2 works on Arm systems, keep an eye out for our reviews of the new MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and Mac mini. (Apple’s own apps, such as Keynote and Pages, of course, will all run natively on the new Macs at launch.)
Another thing we’ll find out is how well iPhone and iPad apps work on Big Sur. One advantage of the Arm chips is that Macs will be able to run those programs natively for the first time. With Big Sur’s new redesign, they’ll probably look right at home. But as we’ve seen with Chromebooks, systems like this can sometimes create a learning curve where it’s not clear whether you should be using app versions or browser versions of all your programs and you have to tinker around with everything for a while. I’ll update this article after we’ve gotten to spend more time with Big Sur on Arm systems.
I won’t say “go ahead and upgrade” because, as I noted before, waiting a few weeks to download this stuff is always the safest course of action, and there’s little downside to it. But if the things I’ve mentioned here really excite you, you’re using a fairly recent machine, and you’re a user like me who mostly works with basic stuff like Chrome, Safari, and Slack, it’s probably not going to break anything. And it’ll make a difference. On paper, Big Sur is an endless list of small tweaks and incremental refinements. Most of them aren’t revolutionary; they’re things other software, be it Chrome, Slack, or Apple’s own iOS, already had. But each addition is clearly thoughtful, addressing a crucial area where Apple was behind, and they all add up to an operating system that has caught up in areas where it needed to catch up.
For the moment, the Mac is still a distinct product. In most areas (Maps, for example), Apple has tailored its updates to the conventional computer user. But there are a few signs here that point further to the future. Things like the introduction of Control Center, the iOS-ified icons, and the new compatibility with iPad apps aren’t the most pragmatic things to put on a laptop. But they do make for a macOS that you could envision using on your iPad, or even on — dare I suggest — a touchscreen MacBook.
Big Sur is a fine operating system as it is. It’s fast, nice to look at, and full of useful features. But it’s also a hint that Apple’s biggest innovations are still to come.
Correction November 16th, 7:05PM ET: An earlier version of this article stated that Chrome offers a privacy report. It has a password-monitoring feature, but not a privacy report. We regret the error.