macOS 11 Big Sur review: the Mac, iPad-ified for the future

Apple’s big update adds colour, iPhone-like icons, settings and apps, ready for new and old Macs alike

Apple macOS 11 Big Sur review
Big Sur is Apple’s big new update for macOS, which makes the Mac more colourful and more iPhone-like than ever before. Photograph: Apple
Big Sur is Apple’s big new update for macOS, which makes the Mac more colourful and more iPhone-like than ever before. Photograph: Apple
Consumer technology editor

Last modified on Fri 13 Nov 2020 02.14 EST

Apple has just released Big Sur as a free update, marking the biggest redesign for macOS in years. The core system of every Mac computer is now equal parts traditional desktop computer and features many will be used to seeing from the iPad and iPhone.

Big Sur marks the end of an era for the Mac’s software in more ways than one. For years Apple has been slowly blending the design and operation of its desktop and mobile software, bringing features from the iPhone or iPad to the Mac and vice versa. With Big Sur comes a significant step toward the goal of merging the two.

It will be the first macOS to straddle the traditional Intel Macs that have been in use since 2004 and the brand new Apple Silicon Macs – launched this week – which run on the firm’s own ARM-based M1 processors similar to the A14 chip used in iPhones and iPads.

Bold colours, greater transparency and iPhone-like icons

apple macos 11 big sur
The new squircle icons sit on the new flat, translucent dock, which now matches the one in iPadOS 14. Photograph: Apple

Big Sur is more like an iPad than ever before. The translucent menu bar, dock and interface all mimic that found on iPadOS. Even the program icons, which are now squircles (half square, half circle), look like those on an iPhone but with slightly more depth and detail in their designs. Some will hate the new icons, but I think most people will be used to them from the iPhone.

The Mac also inherits the on/off toggle switches straight from an iPhone, which work exactly the same, while the default colour scheme for the interface is now colourful, whether in light or dark mode. Apps also look cleaner with more icon-heavy toolbars and full height side bars, which look like those on iPadOS 14.

It is fresh and more colourful compared to previous versions of macOS, and leaves the door open for iOS apps to run alongside Mac apps on the new Apple Silicon Macs and to look like part of the system rather than just random add-ons. But most of Big Sur works the same as previous versions, with the same features in the same places as they were before, maintaining a familiar feel for anyone who has used macOS before. This isn’t a radical change ready for the iPad to just take over the Mac.

Control Center

apple macos 11 big sur
Control Center drops down from the menu bar to reveal a collection of quick settings and toggles. Photograph: Apple

Pulled from the iPhone and iPad, Control Center is a collection of settings and toggles for quickly changing common things, such as the volume, screen brightness, wifi, Bluetooth and so on. Most of the settings can be expanded to reveal more options, such as toggles for dark mode and night shift.

It’s a useful addition that consolidates a lot of quick controls in one place, but for those who like these controls to live in the menu bar, they still can.

Notification Centre has also been given a makeover. It has iOS-like cards for notifications as they come in. They can be grouped or expanded and it also introduces the new unified widgets that launched with iOS 14. They replace the traditional macOS widgets, and while most work the same, some more interactive ones such as the calculator have been removed.

Messages and Maps

apple macos 11 big sur
The Messages app now has integrated gif search and new group-messaging features. Photograph: Apple

The Messages app on the Mac has finally been brought up to par with the version on mobile and iPad. Users of Apple’s iMessage system now get all the new effects, memoji, pinned messages, new group messaging features including the WhatsApp-like @-mentions and Slack-like in-line replies, plus easier gif messaging.

Apple Maps has also been aligned with iPad version making it more fully featured for route planning, finding shops and an improved 3D view for exploring streets remotely.

Revamped Safari

apple macos 11 big sur
Safari gains favicons on tabs by default and pops up a small preview of the site when you hover over a tab with your pointer. Photograph: Apple

Safari has also been given a fairly large overhaul. It looks a little different here and there, with favicon symbols now visible on tabs by default, making it easier to see which site is open, and new pop-up previews appear when you hover your pointer over a tab. There are plenty of new options to customise the start page, too, with features such as bookmarks, the reading list, Siri suggestions, iCloud tabs which sync tabs between devices and the new privacy report.

But the two biggest changes are the addition of Chrome-style extensions and the aforementioned privacy report, which shows all the trackers on any given website and how many are monitoring your movements around the web over the last 30 days. The report is certainly illuminating and another tool in the privacy armoury.

Extensions are few and far between, as they have been put into the Mac App Store, but for those who have clung onto Chrome because of a particular extension there might be less of a reason to use it now. You can also choose when an extension can run, whether it’s all the time or just on particular sites, for greater privacy protection.

Finally, Apple’s new translation service is part of Safari, which supports seven languages and operates similarly to Google’s translate features in Chrome.

Verdict

Overall, macOS 11 Big Sur manages to blend the visual design of the iPhone and iPad with the functionality of the Mac very well, which makes an excellent starting point for both the new Apple Silicon-based Macs and older Intel Macs alike.

Performance on an Intel 13in MacBook Pro from 2020 matched previous versions of macOS, which is encouraging, but the real test will be how it performs on the new Apple Silicon Macs, particularly compared to traditional Intel machines.

Big Sur may look different on first boot, and some may hate the brighter colours, greater use of transparency and the squircle icons, but fundamentally it works the same as previous versions of macOS, but with a few useful additions that you can safely ignore if you don’t want them.

  • MacOS Big Sur will run on MacBook Pros and Airs from 2013 onwards, iMacs and Mac minis from 2014 onwards, the iMac Pro from 2017 onwards and the Mac Pro from 2013 onwards.