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macOS Big Sur hands-on preview: A bold new look for the future of Mac

Our Verdict

macOS Big Sur gives Safari major improvements, but its design changes don’t always click.

For

  • Safari gets more complete
  • Control Center collects options
  • Messages gets pinned texts, GIF search

Against

  • Interface changes don’t always read well
  • New icons may prove divisive

The final release of macOS Big Sur is finally here. We spent the summer playing around with the Developer Beta, where we saw how the perks of this refreshed new macOS update don’t always outweigh the problems of using a beta version on your laptop or desktop. 

The biggest Big Sur changes revolve around the interface, which has become more iOS-like, and pushed for bolder color, thanks to increased use of transparency and translucency. Safari’s gotten a lot of tricks as well, including a tab preview option that we’re surprised they beat Chrome to.

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Here’s everything you need to know to see if you should download the macOS Big Sur today:

macOS Big Sur: Release date and supported devices

macOS Big Sur’s release date was once “this fall,” but yesterday (Sept. 15) at the Time Flies event, Apple announced how fast time has flown, and that macOS Big Sur was coming on Sept. 16 (today!).

Here’s the complete list of Macs that support Big Sur:

  • MacBook: 2015 and later
  • MacBook Air: 2013 and later
  • MacBook Pro: Late 2013 and later
  • Mac mini: 2014 and later
  • iMac: 2014 and later
  • iMac Pro: 2017 and later (all models)
  • Mac Pro: 2013 and later

macOS Big Sur: Design

I almost worry about the day my parents update to macOS Big Sur, because they’re going to call or text and say “it’s so different!” The biggest change from my point of view is the increased use of transparent and translucent layers, which you’ll see everywhere from the Menu Bar at the top of the screen to every app’s Toolbar, where all of its buttons are found. 

While Apple’s choice here — which appears to give greater emphasis to your content — looks cool on occasion, I found places where it hurt legibility. If you’ve got a bright background (as the default Big Sur wallpaper is), the combination of white text on an opaque bright blue background may be hard to read. This problem also came up back when Apple did similar color tricks in the iOS Music app, when the backgrounds and fonts would automatically match your album art.

(Image credit: Apple)

These moments happen throughout macOS Big Sur, including in Safari, where the backgrounds of websites can change the colors of the Toolbar and bookmark bar as you scroll down. To fix this, open System Preferences, select Accessibility, select Display in the left menu and click “Reduce transparency.” Personally, I’ve just gone through all the backgrounds available, and found one that changes the Menu Bar text back to black — macOS Big Sur automatically picks between black and white depending on your wallpaper —  and has strong contrast. 

Also, Apple’s dialed back the silver hues of many of their applications, including Finder, Music and Safari, to a more neutral white tone. This may just be personal preference — I’m not sure — but I liked it the way it was, and don’t see much reason to make it harder to tell the difference between all my open windows.

(Image credit: Apple)

The other big aesthetic change comes to macOS’ app icons. Apple’s introduced a new standard icon shape, using the squares with rounded edges seen in iOS. Along with that, we’ve got icons that look a lot more bubbly and curved. The design language used here is known as Neumorphism, and it puts an emphasis on shadows and dimensionality. 

If you’re the type to care about app icons (and I count myself as one of those nit-picky types), you’ll probably have strong opinions. I prefer how Music and News look, where the secondary element looks debossed, rather than how the chat bubble for Messages and the envelope for Mail are seemingly popping up out of the background.

The request for notifications should have greater prominence. (Image credit: Apple)

One design discrepancy I’ve noticed, though, is how macOS handles security alerts and notifications. The former appear in middle-of-screen boxes, while the latter are smaller in the top-right corner, with less pronounced buttons. For new email notifications, that’s not a big deal, but those initial notifications for each app, where they ask for permission to send notifications, I’d rather those appear in the center, where they’d be harder to ignore. Anything that appears in the top right corner is easier to dismiss. 

It’s hard to be especially critical about design, since it’s so much more subjective than almost any other aspect of technology, so I couch all of the above in “your mileage may vary.”

macOS Big Sur: Safari

Every time Apple announces a big new macOS update, I decide to use it as a chance to spend more time with Safari, which often gets more and more perks. And with macOS Big Sur, it feels like I’m going to be spending more time with Safari than ever. Sure, I won’t be able to use it for some work stuff (some of our extensions are Chrome-only), but Safari’s finally getting some features it’s long needed.

(Image credit: Apple)

First off, you can choose a splash image for your blank tab screen. I chose the basic “diagonal rays of color” image that’s pre-loaded into Big Sur, but you can pick whatever image you want. Chrome’s had this forever, and it’s good to see Safari catch up.

(Image credit: Henry T. Casey)

Similarly, I’m saying “finally” at the sight of favicons — the little icons for each website, like Twitter’s bird and Dropbox’s opened box — for tabs in Safari. These make it much easier to keep track of which tab is which, and have been in every other web browser since I can remember. Apple had made favicons available in Safari previously, but they were in the app’s settings, where many people might not poke around and find.

Apple didn’t stop at that low-hanging fruit, though, as it’s also rolled out tab previews. If the favicon isn’t enough for you to realize what’s on that page (it’s been enough for me so far), you can hover over a tab to see what that page looks like, as a pop-over image will show a glimpse of said site.

Apple rates Safari on macOS Big Sur as “50% faster on average at loading frequently visited websites than Chrome,” but I haven’t noticed any significantly faster performance myself, though I haven’t done any testing yet. Apple also claims that Safari is going to last an hour longer on battery than Chrome and Firefox for web browsing, and up to 3 hours longer for streaming video online.

macOS Big Sur: Control Center comes to the Mac

Apple’s also imported iOS’ Control Center, which collects a lot of system preferences (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, AirDrop, display brightness, volume, Do Not Disturb, keyboard brightness and screen mirroring) under a Menu Bar button that looks like a pair of on/off toggles. 

(Image credit: Henry T. Casey)

The best part of this feature is that it’s not moving any features away from where they were, but consolidating them under one easy to find area, so users who are more familiar with their iPhone (both place this set of options in the top right corner) may find them faster. At the same time, these buttons all look a little bigger than they did in previous macOS versions. The larger icons aren’t just easier to see, they’re also a little more finger friendly, suggesting that Macs will some day offer a touch screen.

That being said, I didn’t find myself using Control Center at all, because my ingrained muscle memory for macOS defaults to using the traditional means. Yes, that includes the Touch Bar, which I don’t like, but use anyways, as my fingers are still reaching for the row of keys at the top of the keyboard. 

macOS Big Sur: Security and privacy

macOS Catalina got a lot of flack for its heavy-handed security measures, forcing users to manually approve access for a lot of features — over and over again. Personally, I’m all for it, because people should be more aware of what applications can do what with their data.

(Image credit: Apple)

Similarly, people should be more capable of seeing how websites are tracking them, something that Safari has pushed harder on. From the Safari start page you’re presented with a counter of how many trackers Safari has stopped from “profiling you.” Mozilla’s Firefox browser has a similar feature.

And when you load any website in Safari, you can click the Shield icon to see how many trackers are active and prevented on that page.

macOS Big Sur: Beta bugs 

Beta versions of software are (nearly all of the time) less stable than the final versions released to the public — and that’s been true for my time with macOS Big Sur. 

During earlier builds of the Big Sur developer betas, I ran into a really annoying problem where Mac App Store apps such as Due and Fantastical had to be deleted and reinstalled, but you couldn’t delete them without restarting. This appears to be fixed in the latest beta that just came out this week, but it’s a big reminder that beta operating systems are not ideal for the machine you use to earn a living. 

(Image credit: Apple)

Widgets, throughout iOS 14, iPadOS 14 and Big Sur, have been the other bad and buggy part of this release, often not updating in the background. Or, in the case of the Forecast widget in the current version of the Big Sur developer beta, there’s just the text that says “Forecast Failed.”

macOS Big Sur: Features also found on iOS 14

In Messages, macOS gets the pinned messages (up to 9) that we see in the iOS 14 and iPadOS 14, but also threaded messages for replies in group chats. Those are nice, but I’m more happy to see the GIF search engine finally built into the OS. Now, when you tap on the Messages Apps icon next to the text entry field, you get the #images search option, to pull GIFs off the internet. 

(Image credit: Apple)

I don’t know if or when folks will give Apple Maps another shot, but if they pull up Maps on macOS Big Sur, they’ll get a pleasant surprise at how full featured it is. In the left rail, you see our favorites (home, work, the movie theater you used to go to before COVID-19) and recent locations, such as the one NYC park that’s actually quiet and  my nearby UPS store.

What I really like is how the Music app mini player can be turned into a beautiful full-screen experience presenting lyrics and artwork on a larger scale. Hit Shift + Command + M to open the Mini Viewer, and click the Green full screen button to see it for yourself. 

(Image credit: Henry T. Casey)

You’re supposed to see automatic device switching for AirPods, when you move between iOS 14 and macOS Big Sur, but it hasn’t worked for me yet. This seems sort of tricky, but I look forward to it happening in later betas or the final release in the fall. 

macOS Big Sur: Outlook

I tested Big Sur on a MacBook Pro review unit for two reasons. First of all, my personal MacBook Pro is not supported, as it’s a 2012 model. And the other reason? My main laptop isn’t the kind of machine I want to run less-than-perfect updates on. 

And so, while I like a fair share of macOS Big Sur’s features, I have a hard time telling people to install it now. If you have a secondary laptop for testing, you’ve got a good place to try it out and see how much better Safari is now, and what you think of Apple’s new design changes.

But for those who only have one laptop, you can wait until the final release of macOS Big Sur comes out this fall. The design changes and Safari improvements are nice, but this is arguably not where all the big news in the land of Macs is happening. 

The arguably big story in macOS is the impending arrival of Apple Silicon Macs that run on ARM-based chips, the first of which will debut this fall. Not only will those bring iOS apps to the Mac, but the performance and endurance gains found in Apple Silicon chips have a chance to reshape the Mac as we know it.  

Maybe you can wait until your first Apple Silicon Mac to get Big Sur, but if it feels like this year’s macOS update isn’t as important as you might have hoped for, know that there’s a lot to come — and soon.

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