The new Mac operating system is called Big Sur and it arrived on 12 November. Here's all you need to know about the new version - and the problems people (including us!) are having installing 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!
We've had a look at what's new in Big Sur - here's our verdict: macOS Big Sur: should you update your Mac?
Big Sur release date
As we expected, Apple's 10 November 'One More Thing' event played host to the first wave of Apple Silicon-powered Macs and gave us the release date of macOS Big Sur - Thursday 12 November. macOS Big Sur is out now!
Can't see Big Sur? You should see an alert pop up on your screen via Notification Centre, or you might have to go to Software Update via System Preferences (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 it click on this link for Big Sur on the Mac App Store.
Latest version of Big Sur
The latest version of Big Sur is macOS 11.0.1. That's the version that Apple shipped out on 12 November.
Just days after Big Sur arrived Apple updated the beta version to macOS 11.1. This is currently with registered developers and other beta testers.
It appears that the macOS 11.1 update focuses bug and security fixes, but we may see new feature added before the final version is issued to the public.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
App icons adopt a more uniform shape, along with greater consistency against their iOS and iPad counterparts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.