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

Guardian Technology 13 Nov 2020 07:00

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

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.

Control Center

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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