Big Sur will be arriving on Macs later this year and when it does, the Island of Catalina will no longer have to compete with an operating system in web searches. Now it's the chance of the stretch of Californian coastline known as Big Sur to get all the attention.

The rugged and mountainous Big Sur is famed for its stunning views. Apple's Big Sur, the next version of macOS, is also likely to be celebrated for the beauty of its updated design, but underneath the surface Apple is shaking up the foundations and laying the ground work for its transition to the Apple Silicon-powered Macs coming later this year.

While the design changes may be welcome if you are tiring of the macOS Catalina look, those Silicon-related changes won't matter to you unless you have a Mac powered by one of Apple's homemade processors. What else is there to encourage you to upgrade from Catalina?

We've had a look at what's coming in Big Sur - here's our verdict: macOS Big Sur: should you update your Mac?

Design

Apple's describing the move from macOS 10.16 Catalina to macOS 11 Big Sur as "The biggest design upgrade since the introduction of Mac OS X". We feel a sense of Déjà vu - it is after all only six years since Yosemite bought its own iOS-flavoured overhaul to the Mac, which at the time we said changed the look of Mac OS X more radically than any other upgrade since the switch from OS 9 to OS X (which arrived back in 2001). Is this redesigned macOS really the biggest overhaul in two decades? Probably, although due to its parallels with iOS you probably will have a sense that it's more familiar than ever.

We'll start by running thought some of the major design changes from Catalina to Big Sur. As you can see from this first image, there are a number of changes to the design and some entirely new elements, such as the Control Centre in the top right (more on that later).

Big Sur Design

The Dock is a good place to start. Right now in Catalina (below) the Dock is a jumble of mismatched icons, some circular, some square and some neither. In Big Sur (above) the app icons in the Dock will be more uniform - you'll see from Apple's example below that the new icon are all square - just like they are on the iPhone and iPad. In fact many will be identical to those icons on the iPad and iPhone.

Dock comparison Big Sur Catalina

You'll note that the Mail icon in Big Sur is no longer the eagle stamp icon but rather the same envelope icon from iOS. Similarly, the blue Messages icon from Catalina will be replaced with the green Messages icon seen on your iPhone and iPad. And Pages seems to have an entirely new icon that's similar to the iOS equivalent.

There's more to this design overhaul than a few new app icons though. When you open the apps elements of the interface will have changed. There will be greater use of full-height sidebars, for example, which Apple says will make it easier to find what you want. Controls appear to be more integrated into the menu bars. The first of the images below shows Big Sur with simplified controls that blend into the menu bar. Below that you will see an example of how a similar screen would look in Catalina.

Big Sur Photos screen

Catalina screen

The other big change is over on the top right, where, alongside the little cluster of icons for things like Wi-Fi, battery, Spotlight search and the date and time you'll see a new icon for the Control Centre. Click on this to bring up a handy bunch of controls for things like display brightness, sound, Do Not Disturb, AirPlay and AirDrop and Music controls. The best thing about this feature - which people have been calling out for ever since it arrived on in iOS a few centuries ago - is that you will be able to customise controls and add tools for the things you do most often. We hope to have the opportunity to add tools like Timer, Calculator, Home and Dark Mode here like you can on in iOS.

Big Sur Control Centre

Another element that appears on the right side of the screen, Notification Centre, is also getting a revamp in Big Sur. Here the new design means that you will see Notifications and Widgets together in the same view. In Catalina when you bring up Notification Centre there are two tabs, Today and Notifications: Today being where your Widgets for Calendar, Weather, Calculator and so on sit; and Notifications being the home of all the Notifications you receive from your apps, such as important emails or other messages. In Big Sur everything will appear at once - but notification will be grouped by app and you'll be able to choose the Widget design that suits you. Notification Centre can get pretty cluttered in Catalina, so the changes coming in Big Sur will be welcome. Read more about how to use widgets on the Mac here.

Notification Centre

One final 'design' change we will mention isn't actually the way the Big Sur interface looks but rather how it sounds. Apple says that it is updating the system sounds - and probably the first thing you will notice is that the chime when you start up your Mac starts up. Many will be pleased to hear the return of the familiar Mac chime that we used to hear when Macs stared up (most Macs sold since 2016 have been silent in their start up).

Apps

Now that we've run through the major design changes coming in Big Sur, on to the big changes coming to the apps that ship with macOS. In Big Sur there are a number of small tweaks coming to apps - often these are the same changes as you will see in iOS 14 and iPad OS 14. However, three apps in particular are getting a more significant overhaul: Safari, Messages and Maps. Of those three Messages is probably the biggest deal. The changes coming to Safari are significant - but Safari changes won't be limited to Big Sur, you will get them in Catalina too.

As for the changes coming to Maps these are nice, but Maps on the Mac always feels a bit pointless. Maps is for when you are out and about, not when you are stuck at your desk. (If you want to learn more about Maps on the Mac read this.)

Maps Big Sur

Messages

Before WWDC there were rumours that Messages was getting a big overhaul in the new 2020 macOS and it is indeed. Those changes are partly made possible by Catalyst - Apple's tool for translating apps from iOS to the Mac.

Messages has been on the Mac for some time. It arrived in OS X Mountain Lion in 2012, but actually that replaced iChat, which was the messaging app that had existed on the Mac since 2002. But this time Apple has gone back to the drawing board with the app and basically taken the iOS app and turned it into a Mac app.

This means that Messages will offer more of the features you find in Messages on your iPad and iPhone.

  • You will finally be able to create Memoji (and there are some new Memoji options coming including masks).
  • You'll have the ability to attach fun animations to your messages (such as balloons or lasers).
  • You will get access to the Gif and #Image library found in Messages in iOS.

Along with those features Messages on the Mac will also get all the new features coming to Messages on iOS and iPadOS. These include:

  • The ability to Pin conversations that you want to keep at the top. You'll be able to have up to nine pinned conversations and these will be kept in sync across all your devices.
  • If you are in a group message you will be able to direct your reply to one of the participants by typing their name (you can also use @ sign). Mention in Messages
  • You will be able to choose to only receive notifications when you are mentioned in a group chat.
  • You will also be able to send Inline replies. So you will be able to reply directly to a specific message in a group conversation, rather than it getting buried below the general chit chat. Messaegs in Line

Read more about using Messages on the Mac here.

Safari

Although, as we said above, the Safari changes won't be limited to Big Sur - new versions of Safari usually run on the three currently supported operating systems, so we anticipate that Safari 14 will also run in Catalina and Mojave. However, there are some pretty neat features that will arrive with Big Sur, so we will detail them here.

First up is the new Start page which will be personalised to such an extent that you will even be able to use one of your own photographs in the background. Whether this will make us use the start page more remains to be seen - we tend to pin tabs to the menu bar and click on the ones we need when we need them, so we rarely see the Start page.

Safari Start page

Speaking of tabs one of our frustrations with the current version of Safari is the fact that, with more than half of the tab bar given over to pinned tabs, the tabs representing open pages end up concertinered to such an extent to make them unusable, so we frequently have to open up the Tab Overview in order to find the tab we want. Apple has a neat solution to this problem in Safari 14: you will be able to hover over a tab to see a preview of the webpage. This is excellent news. We just think Apple should go a step further and let us attribute pinned tabs to a row of their own.

Safari Preview Tab

Another exciting new feature coming to Safari - which we imagine will be carried across to all operating systems that run it - is Translations. Apple highlights that the Translation feature will be in Beta even after the official launch, kind of like when Siri first arrived. Thanks to the new feature you will be able to view translated versions of *any compatible webpage (*translations are limited to English, Spanish, Chinese, French, German, Russian, and Brazilian Portuguese). We are excited about the fact that we won't have to visit Google Translate every time we want to translate a web page, instead just being able to click on the translate option to see the page in our own language. Read about how to translate webpages here

The other big change coming to Safari is more control over Extensions (you will be able to choose which websites extensions can work with). Plus more Chrome Extensions should be coming to the Mac because Apple's going to make migration easier. Extensions will also get their own section in the Mac App Store - more on some of the other changes coming to the Mac App Store below.

Before we go to the App Store, we'll quickly mention that there are some new privacy features coming to Safari. Most notable of these is Privacy Report - Apple's going to let you know what it's been doing behind the scenes to stop websites tracking you. You'll be able to see a report for each page you visit, and you will be able to get a Privacy Report that shows every cross-site tracker that was blocked over the past 30 days.

Big Sur Privacy Report

To be frank, we're not that sure that people really want to see what was blocked, they just want to know it was blocked. This feels a bit like Apple saying "appreciate what we are doing here".

Another way Apple is protecting our security in this new version of Safari is by Password Monitoring. The company says that it will be able to let you know if your saved passwords have been involved in a data breach and will alert you to this and help you change your password.

We have more about Safari on the Mac here.

App Store

There are a few changes coming to the App Store in Big Sur. As we have already mentioned, Safari Extensions and Widgets will get their own shelves in the store, but perhaps the biggest change will be Apple's insistence on app developers sharing more information with customers about how they will be handling their data.

When you view an app in the App Store you'll be able to see details about that apps privacy practices summarised. Apple is likening these summaries to the nutritional information labels we see on food. You'll be able to see the data that the app will collect - and whether it will be shared with third parties.

App Store Privacy

One final change coming in Big Sur is the way apps will be installed - including system updates. Apple says that software updates will be able to begin in the background therefore completing faster than before (please tell us that this means operating system updates won't take hours anymore!)

Verdict

Primarily what macOS 11 Big Sur will bring to you if you upgrade from Catalina is a design refresh, Control Centre, a revamped Notification Centre, and a new version of Messages. Are these big enough reasons to update? Right now we aren't sure - it's still very early days.

The real work of Big Sur will be what's happening under the cover - this will be the first macOS to support Apple Silicon and the potential that the transition from Intel to Apple's own processors will bring. macOS 11 is a big deal, but for the average user it probably won't be ground breaking but if you were to buy an Apple Silicon-powered Mac then, features like being able to run iPad and iPhone apps on your Mac could be life changing.

Raady to update? Read: How to update to Big Sur from Catalina.