Big Sur is different from Apple’s usual annual macOS upgrades: the company calls it the “biggest design update” since Mac OS X arrived way back in 2001. That’s a little bit of a stretch, as 2014’s macOS Yosemite brought major design influences from iOS to the Mac, but Big Sur’s changes are nonetheless dramatic and significant. It’s not just visual, though; Big Sur also features major updates to key UI elements like notifications and control center as well as changes to core apps like Messages and Safari. Add it all up, and Big Sur feels like one of the more significant macOS updates in years.
I’ve been using Big Sur daily since the public beta was released this summer, and I’ve had the final version for a few weeks. If you’re used to how your Mac works and are concerned that the new software will be too much of a change, fear not. As with most recent macOS releases, Big Sur tweaks some things for the better without fundamentally changing how the system works. While the macOS and iOS get closer than ever in terms of design, Big Sur still feels unmistakably like a Mac — just with a fresh coat of paint.
As usual, upgrading to Big Sur is a pretty simple process — if you’re running macOS Mojave or Catalina, you can install Big Sur through the System Preferences app. If you’re on an older system, you’ll find it in the Mac App Store. After downloading, it took around 45 minutes to install Big Sur. Apple has all the details on how to install and what Mac models are supported here, but basically any Mac released in the last five years will work.
I dug into Apple’s Big Sur redesign extensively earlier this summer, but suffice it to say that there are a number of elements subtle and significant that make the OS feel different than its predecessors. A bright desktop background, translucent menu bar, uniform icons in the Dock, rounded window edges and revamped toolbar buttons all immediately make Big Sur stand out. Apple has also updated the macOS system sounds, so things don’t just look different, they sound different too. But fear not — just about everything is still where you’d expect it to be.
While a bunch of Apple’s default apps, including Messages and Maps, have gotten significant updates, two of the most useful changes aren’t specific to any one app. Instead, they’re core changes to the UI: say hello to the new Control Center and Notification Center. For years, the Mac menu bar has hosted a variety of system controls like battery, bluetooth and WiFi as well as plenty of third-party utilities. That’s still the case, but there’s a way to make the menu bar a lot less cluttered while still having quick access to loads of settings. Like on the iPhone, Control Center offers one-click access to WiFi, Bluetooth, AirDrop, Do Not Disturb and multiple other controls.
For example, I’m at home pretty much constantly now, so I don’t change my WiFi settings… ever. So now I don’t have a persistent WiFi symbol in my menu bar, but it’s quickly available under the Control Center. On the other hand, I like having fast access to light and dark mode, so I pinned display preferences to my menu bar. And, if you’re on a billion Zoom calls every day, you can pin the “do not disturb” toggle.
The changes to Notification Center are useful, as well, and have improved since my early experiences. The fact that notifications are finally grouped by app is a major improvement, though you can turn this off if for some reason it offends you. I find that being able to clear all notifications from a specific app to be extremely handy, though. When you go into Notification Center, your most recent notifications are grouped at the top, and the rest are hidden and can be expanded. Below those most recent notifications are widgets, which were previously hidden on a separate page.
While I still feel a slight cognitive dissonance having widgets and notifications in the same pane, it’s nice that they’re always one swipe away. More importantly, the new widget design Apple introduced for iOS 14 and Big Sur is a huge improvement over the old style, with multiple sizes and actionable notifications. For example, I just got one for a new podcast episode, and clicking the “expand” arrow pulls up a sheet with more details and a “play” button. Of course, it’s up to third-party developers to implement rich notifications and these new widgets, so my Trello notifications are still pretty useless and static. But lots of Mac developers are already taking advantage, and support should only improve in the coming months.
While Big Sur’s visual refresh is the most obvious change, Apple has made a number of noteworthy functional updates to some core apps, as well. Safari received some of the most significant changesAs usual, Apple says that Safari is faster and more battery-efficient than Firefox and Chrome; all three browsers seem plenty fast to me at this point. I do generally find Safari to be less power-hungry than Chrome, but I also noticed that some tabs forced my 16-inch MacBook Pro into using the dedicated graphics, which murders battery life. I wasn’t able to determine what sites specifically caused the switch. But most frustrating was the fact that after a site pushed my Mac into using dedicated graphics, I had to quit Safari to get it back to running on the integrated chipset — even if I closed all my windows, it wouldn’t revert until I closed the app.
Probably the most noticeable change to Safari is a new start screen, which pulls together your favorite sites, frequently visited pages, Siri suggestions, stories saved in your reading list, tabs open from your iOS devices, and the new Privacy Report (more on that later). It’s a lot of info, but organized in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming; you can also turn off any of these groups if you don’t want to see them. Plus, you can set a start page background, just like you can on Chrome. This is one of my favorite new Safari features, and it makes the default start page in Chrome feel pretty spartan.
Apple is also finally using favicon for all tabs — previously, you’d only see these handy little site markers if you had a tab pinned, but now every tab has a favicon. As you add more tabs, eventually the page title disappears but the favicon remains, and your active tab is a little larger with part of the title displayed. Other quality-of-life improvements include tab previews when you hover the mouse over a tab and more widely available browser extensions in the App Store. Safari now supports the WebExtension API, which Apple says will make it easier for developers to port over existing extensions.
Probably the most noteworthy change is the aforementioned Privacy Report. Safari has had a feature to block website trackers for a few years now, but with Big Sur that information is front and center. Clicking a shield button next to the URL will show you the trackers that Safari identified and blocked on a particular site. From there, clicking a more info button shows you the full Privacy Report, which includes a more detailed look at how various sites follow your behavior around the internet, including on how many total trackers Safari blocked in the last 30 days and a full list of every site that you’ve visited that users trackers.
This just drove home how bad the state of website tracking is, but it’s not particularly actionable. I can’t stop (or don’t want to stop) visiting most of the sites on my list, but I can take comfort in the fact that Safari is actively blocking many of them. One security feature Apple added that is actionable is password monitoring. If you have a password saved for a particular site, Apple can identify if it has been involved in a data breach. Plenty of other password managers can do this as well, but it’s still a useful feature if you’re saving site login information in Safari.