The new Mac operating system is called Big Sur and it arrived on 12 November - but it's been updated multiple times since. Here's all you need to know about macOS Big Sur, the latest version, and the problems people (including us!) are having with it.

If you are wondering about the name: Big Sur is a mountainous area in California. There is one other thing to say about the name: it's not macOS 10.16 as you might have been expecting. It's macOS 11. Finally, after nearly 20 years, Apple has transitioned from macOS 10 (aka Mac OS X) to macOS 11. This is big!

The latest version of Big Sur is 11.3. We have more information about what that version will bring below.

If you aren't running the latest version of Big Sur you should go to System Preferences and select the Software Update option. For more help, here's how to update the software on a Mac.

We also have a round up of the possible features coming in macOS 12.

Big Sur release date

The first version of macOS Big Sur arrived on Thursday 12 November 2020.

As long as your Mac is supported by the update you should have seen an alert pop up on your screen via Notification Centre. Alternatively you can go to Software Update via System Preferences (or by clicking on the Apple logo in the top left). If the update is there you will see it. If you still can't see Big Sur click on this link for Big Sur on the Mac App Store.

Before you begin installing read:  macOS Big Sur: should you update your Mac?

And you may find How to update to Big Sur from Catalina helpful.

Latest version of Big Sur

The latest version of Big Sur is macOS 11.3.1 which arrived on 3 May 2021.

macOS 11.3.1

Apple released MacOS Big Sur 11.3.1 on Monday 3 May. The update addresses two vulnerabilities in Webkit (the rendering engine used by Safari).

macOS 11.3

The newest version of macOS 11 is macOS 11.3. The update brings new Safari features, a bunch of new emoji, Autoplay for Apple Music so that the music won't stop when the playlist does, details about your Mac's warranty in About This Mac, more support for games controllers, and better compatibility with iOS apps on M1 Macs.

macOS 11.3 also closes a vulnerability that was being used by a group of hackers to distribute malware. A flaw with Apple's usual security measures built into the macOS meant that apps that were based on scripts and enclosed in a bundle could be run without warning. We have the details of this dangerous security hole in a separate article.

We also have a separate article if you'd like to read more about the new features in macOS Big Sur 11.3.

macOS 11.2.3

macOS Big Sur 11.2.3 tackled a serious vulnerability in Webkit, the rendering engine used by the Safari browser. This vulnerability also affects iPhone, iPad, iPod touch and Apple Watch. Read more here: iPhone & Mac updates tackle serious Webkit vulnerability.

macOS 11.2.2

Apple updated Big Sur on 25 February. macOS Big Sur 11.2.2 focused on bug and security fixes including a serious bug with third-party accessories that in the worst cases could damage newer models of MacBook Pro and MacBook Air.

macOS 11.2.1 (two different builds)

There were a few problems with macOS 11.2 which lead Apple to quickly issue a Big Sur 11.2.1 update on 9 February. The Big Sur 11.2.1 update fixed a problem where 2016 and 2017 MacBook Pro models were failing to charge past 1%. It also provided some important security patches - including one for a serious vulnerabilty in Sudo.

A second version of the 2.1 update (build 20D75) was released a week later on 15 February and addressed a macOS installation issue where the installer would fail to check whether enough space was available before installing the operating system update - which would then run out of space before finishing leaving the Mac user with no option but to reinstall macOS Big Sur as a clean install.

macOS 11.2

macOS 11.2 brings a number of changes including fixing Apple's firewall bypass and stopping people installing iOS apps on M1 Macs if the developer hasn't approved it.

The first change meant that Apple programs can no longer bypass firewalls such as Little Snitch and VPNs. For more information read: Apple's own programs bypass firewalls and VPNs in Big Sur.  Apple has removed a whitelist for some of its own processes and programs that meant that traffic from these always went straight to the internet.

There is also a change in DRM protection to stop the installation of apps that have not been approved by the developer of that platform. It was previously possible, via a workaround, to install any iOS apps on M1 Macs. Now an error message will appear indicating that "This application cannot be installed because the developer did not intend for it to run on this platform." For more information read: Apple has banned 'sideloading' of iOS apps on M1 Macs.

For additional information read: macOS 11.2.

macOS 11.1

The focus in 11.1 is mostly bug and security fixes, but there are a few other new features including:

For those with an M1 Mac a new option enables iPhone and iPad apps to switch from portrait to landscape orientation and expand a window to fill the entire screen.

The iOS 14.3 update brought the ProRAW format to the iPhone 12 Pro and Max models and the Big Sur update means you can edit these images on your Mac.

Here are some of the other features in 11.1:

  • Support for the new AirPods Max.
  • Interface improvements for the TV app, including a new Apple TV+ tab and improved search.
  • A new section of privacy information on the App Store.
  • A new dashboard inside Arcade Games recommending new Arcade games.
  • The eco-friendly search engine Ecosia is available as an alternative in Safari.

For more information read: What are the features in macOS 11.1.

macOS 11.0.1

This is the version that Apple shipped out on 12 November. The update included a number of security fixes.

The security fixes addressed the following issues:

  • An issue where an application may be able to gain elevated privileges
  • A problem where maliciously crafted audio file could lead to arbitrary code execution; a malicious application may be able to read restricted memory
  • A remote attacker may be able to cause unexpected application termination or heap corruption
  • Processing a maliciously crafted audio file may lead to arbitrary code execution
  • An application may be able to execute arbitrary code with kernel privileges
  • Processing a maliciously crafted image may lead to arbitrary code execution
  • A local attacker may be able to elevate their privileges
  • A memory corruption issue
  • Users may be unable to remove metadata indicating where files were downloaded from
  • Processing a maliciously crafted font may lead to arbitrary code execution

It's a scary list for the first version of the software and a good reason to update straight away! Read the full run down of the changes on Apple's website.

A few days later on 19 November the company issued a revised version of this 11.0.1 update with build number 20B50.

Latest beta version of Big Sur

Apple runs a beta program for Big Sur, so registered developers and other beta testers can test the upcoming new features and bug fixes coming in the next verison. Thanks to the beta program we can get an insight into the new features and other changes coming in the next verison update.

If you want to get involved with testing the new version you can sign up for the Apple Beta Software Program. In addition to new versions of macOS, you can also test upcoming versions of iOS, iPad OS, TV OS and Watch OS.

If you want to start testing the next update to Big Sur you can sign up for the Apple Beta Software Program. Read: How to get macOS beta for more information.

Problems downloading/installing Big Sur

Big Sur was perhaps one of the most problematic macOS updates of recent years. Not only did we encounter problems with the download, the installation was a huge problem because Big Sur wanted 35GB of free space to install. We're also hearing that Big Sur is bricking some 2013-2014 MacBook Pro models

There has also been an issue where the installer wasn't checking that there was sufficient space on the Mac prior to installing the update - leading that Mac to run out of storage before the update was completed. Apple has issued a fix for this problem in Big Sur 11.2.1 (build 20D75) so we suggest that is installed. Otherwise a user may need to do a clean install and could risk losing data.

Big Sur download time

If you were one of the early downloaders you will have found that the download was incredibly slow. It turns out that Apple's servers went down on the day it was released.

Those are just a few of the many issues. If you have any problems installing Big Sur read Fixes for Macs that won't update macOS.

Problems with Big Sur

In Big Sur Apple's own programs are bypassing VPNs and firewalls, which could pose risks to both security and privacy. Read about it here: Apple's own programs bypass firewalls and VPNs in Big Sur.

A researcher has claimed unencrypted logs are being sent to Apple's servers containing identifying data. More information here: Macs 'call home' unencrypted to notarise apps. Another criticism is that firewalls like Little Snitch and Lulu cannot filter traffic from some of Apple's own programs because Apple has white listed them. 

Similarly, some VPN programs couldn't capture the traffic of Apple processes.

All the above issues were addressed in macOS version 11.2. 

A serious bug with third-party accessories that in the worst cases could damage newer models of MacBook Pro and MacBook Air was addressed in macOS Big Sur 11.2.2.

Further issues include:

Bootable Backups: Another issue affecting some M1 Mac users who have updated to Big Sur 11.2 means that they cannot use a bootable backup. Apparently booting from a Big Sur 11.1 volume is no longer possible after an update to 11.2. This issue is affecting software from Super Duper and Carbon Copy Cloner, as the manufacturer of Super Duper has detailed. Super Duper have to use an older version of the macOS. Carbon Copy Cloner users currently have no solution for M1 Macs available.

SoftRAID: Users of SoftRAID are also encountering problems with Big Sur. SoftRAID users running macOS 11.2 on an M1 Mac can no longer make a back up.

Screensaver: M1 MacBook Pros users are complaining about a Fast User Switching bug that results in them being unable to close the screensaver.

Apple News: An issue with Apple News has been reported that is seeing extremely large background downloads for some users. To find out if this is happening to you check in Activity Monitor and look to see if there is an app process app process called newsd. You can fix this problem by turning off News in iCloud syncing.

Which Macs run Big Sur?

These Macs will be able to run Big Sur:

  • MacBook models from early 2015 or later
  • MacBook Air models from 2013 or later
  • MacBook Pro models from 2013 or later
  • Mac mini models from 2014 or later
  • iMac models from 2014 or later
  • iMac Pro (all models)
  • Mac Pro models from 2013 or later

However, note those reports that 2013-2014 MacBook Pro's are being bricked by Big Sur, as mentioned above. Also remember that you will need about 35GB free space once you have downloaded the 12.2GB Big Sur before you can even install it, also mentioned above.

There were more Macs supported by macOS Catalina. In 2019 the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models from mid-2012, Mac mini from late 2012 and the 2012 iMac were also supported.

Read more about the Macs that can run Big Sur here. We also explain How to install macOS Big Sur on an old Mac.

What's new in macOS Big Sur?

As we explained above, Apple considers Big Sur a big enough update that it has finally moved from macOS 10 to macOS 11. However, if you are expecting a completely new operating system then you will probably be disappointed. Sure Apple's given the icons and apps a bit of a makeover, but generally there isn't anything that is dramatically different... unless you look behind the scenes.

As we explain in our article about Apple's decision to ditch Intel and start using its own processors inside Macs - known as Apple Silicone or the M1 - this version of macOS is the first version that can run on the new Apple Silicon Macs (sometimes described as ARM Macs). One of the biggest impacts of this transition will be that you will be able to run iOS apps on future Macs that use these new Apple Silicon chips.

Find out more about the changes in Big Sur and how it compares to Catalina here: macOS Big Sur vs Catalina: Will it be worth the upgrade?

Update January 2021: Apple is already testing macOS 12, the successor to Big Sur. 

Design & Interface Changes in Big Sur

Big Sur is, according to Apple, "The biggest design upgrade since the introduction of Mac OS X". That strikes us as a big claim, given the changes that came with OS X Yosemite in 2014, when the original Aqua interface took on a flatter, more modern look. We're sceptical that this is the biggest design change - perhaps Apple has a short memory.

Apple says that design elements should seem familiar and similar to iOS, which was the overall message of the transition in 2014 - itself based on changes that had played out in iOS 7. In the 2020 WWDC presentation, Apple showed off the icons representing the apps (as seen in the Dock), indicating that they have have been redesigned (where appropriate) to be more consistent with the icons seen on the other Apple products. But just in case you think that Apple has changed your beloved icons too much, fear not, the company says they will retain their "Mac personality".

Regardless of how big a change it is, the new design is intended to make navigation easier and it brings with it many of the controls that iOS and iPadOS users will be familiar with, including a new Control Centre, changes to Notification Centre, and changes to app interfaces; which we will look at in more detail next.

Since the arrival of the beta, we have learned of a change coming that will affect Dark Mode. There will be a new setting to turn off the behaviour where windows let colour from the background shine through. This should mean Dark Mode isn't brightened by the other apps you are running.

Apps

The changes don't stop with the icons in the dock, you'll also find full-height sidebars and changes to the toolbar in apps, which Apple says gives apps a cleaner look.

BIG SUR APPS

Dock

App icons adopt a more uniform shape, along with greater consistency against their iOS and iPad counterparts.

BIG SUR DOCK

Control Centre for Mac

This was actually one of our most desired changes for macOS. The Control Centre makes it super easy to control our iPhones and iPads, and bringing similar functionality to the Mac is unquestionably welcome.

You're able to customise Control Centre - which lives in the menu bar - and take advantage of quick access to popular controls, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth settings, music playback, access to Dark Mode and more.

Here's what you need to know about using Control Centre on the Mac.

BIG SUR CONTROL CENTRE

Notification Center

Notification Centre has also received some attention. It brings more interactive notifications and redesigned widgets. You're able to see all your notifications and widgets together, with Notifications grouped by app and many interactive. In theory, you can now play a podcast episode straight from the Notification Centre itself.

Widgets are also available in a choice of three sizes so you can pick the one that suits you. Read more about how to use widgets on the Mac here

BIG SUR NOTIFICATION CENTRE

New & Updated Apps In Big Sur

As usual, Apple is taking this operating system upgrade as an opportunity to update its native Mac apps.

In recent years Apple has been moving apps over to the Mac from iPadOS using Catalyst; its set of frameworks that makes transitioning apps easier. Thanks to Catalyst, in Catalina we gained Music, Podcasts and TV apps. This time Safari, Messages and Maps have all received the Catalyst treatment. We'll run through each below.

Safari

It's not just the interface that's undergone a big redesign. Apple says Safari has received its biggest update since the web browser launched, back in 2003.

This refresh isn't just about design, though. Safari is already fast, and according to Apple it's now 1.9x more responsive, running on Apple Silicon-powered Macs. The company claims that Safari loads frequently visited sites an average of 50 percent faster than Chrome.

There are a number of design changes gracing this new Safari, but perhaps one of the biggest is the ability to customize your start page. You're able to choose a background image (which can be your own photograph) and add sections like Reading List, Favourites, iCloud Tabs and Siri Suggestions, so they can be easily accessed.

Tabs have also been redesigned, you're able to see more tabs onscreen and they now display favicons by default. But to make it easy to identify open tabs you're also able to see a quick preview of a page by simply hovering over the tab. One of our Wishlist requests was that Pinned Tabs would get their own bar as ours take up so much room that we don't have enough space for tabs. What Apple has implemented seems to be a more space-efficient design.

BIG SUR SAFARI PREVIEW

Safari's ability to translate entire webpages into your own language (from seven languages) - should make navigating the web much easier, if you frequently find yourself on webpages in other languages. We love that it's no longer necessary to pop over to Google Translate to find out what a page says. Apple says you're able to click on the translate option to see it in your own language - and it translates in real-time - even if text on the page is updated. Read about how to translate webpages here

Big Sur also brings 4K YouTube to the Mac (as long as you use Safari). Previously, Apple didn't support vp9, the video codec Google uses for 4K video - but it appears to have had a change of heart.

Extensions have also received some attention in Big Sur and get their own section in the Mac App Store.

With privacy and security in mind, users are able to choose when and which websites a Safari extension can work with, too.

Continuing the privacy theme you're able to see a Privacy Report for each website you visit, alongside a new weekly Privacy Report on your start page that shows what Safari has been protecting you from while you've been browsing.

One other privacy-first feature is a new data breach password monitoring utility that should ensure your password information is never revealed - and if it is, Apple lets you know and help to update them with you.

BIG SUR SAFARI

Messages

Messages is one of the latest apps to be ported from iOS to the Mac thanks to Mac Catalyst - the tools Apple introduced back in 2019 to make it easier to bring iPad apps to the Mac. As a result, Messages on macOS finally gets the full set of iOS features to compliment the iOS 14/iPad OS 14 versions. Those new features include:

  • The ability to Pin conversations that you want to keep at the top of the window (similar to how we can currently Pin Notes to the top of the screen)
  • The ability to create an image to represent your group including icons for those involved
  • A handy feature if you are in a group text, you're able to send inline replies. Meaning you can reply to a particular comment rather than adding your comment to the bottom of the pile.
  • If you want to make sure that someone doesn't miss your message you can 'mention' them - simply type their name - and they will see an alert.
  • You can also set it so you are only notified if you are mentioned.
  • Other features from the iOS app include Memoji design tools (with the addition of 20 new hair and headwear options, including masks. And there are three new Memoji stickers, including a fist bump.

There are lots more features coming to Messages, and of course the existing features - like being able to add fun elements such as balloons and confetti to texts - endure too.

Maps

Apple's Maps app has also received the Catalyst treatment, so it should be more iOS-like when you use it on Big Sur.

This means that Maps on the Mac gains the new Maps features found in iOS 14 and iPadOS 14; including the arrival of the new-style Maps to the UK, which itself includes features like a 360-degree view of a destination with Look Around.

Maps has a focus on "Helping you get there in a way that's better for the planet", so expect to see cycling directions, routing to help you get to somewhere to charge your electric vehicle and more in that vein.

BIS SUR MAPS

You'll also find guides from both trusted resources generated by other users. Apple says you can create custom guides of your favourite restaurants, parks and vacation spots, which can then be shared with friends and family.

You're also able to browse detailed indoor maps of major airports and shopping centres.

Security & Privacy Features

Apple says that it was inspired by the convenience and readability of food nutrition labels to create a new way of indicating what information is required by Mac App Store apps. For example, you're able to see if an app collects usage data, contact information, or location data and whether it shares it with third parties. This helps users understand the privacy practices of apps before downloading them, says Apple.

BIG SUR PRIVACY