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macOS Big Sur: The MacStories Overview

It was a big day for the Mac. At WWDC’s opening keynote, Apple announced that the platform will transition to Apple-designed chips dubbed Apple Silicon. That switch was highly anticipated, and I’ll cover it in a separate story tomorrow. What was a bigger surprise, though, was the complete makeover of macOS that was revealed.

The latest version of macOS, which has been incremented to version 11.0 and is known as Big Sur, ushers in a new design language that reduces chrome and takes cues from aspects of iPadOS. The design changes to macOS weren’t the only big change announced today, though. Safari got what Apple describes as its biggest update ever, which includes under-the-hood performance enhancements, design tweaks, and all-new features. Big Sur will gain many of the features coming to iOS and iPadOS, too, bringing feature parity across platforms to more apps than ever.

A New Design

Apple led off the Big Sur presentation with a video of designer Alan Dye who explained the philosophy behind the design changes to macOS. As Dye explained, the goal of the redesign is to reduce visual complexity and focus the user on their content instead of the OS’s chrome.

The new Dock and icons.

The new Dock and icons.

There appear to be changes to nearly every aspect of the OS. App icons resemble iOS and iPadOS icons but retain a depth and fine detail consistent with existing Mac icons. The pointer’s updated interaction with buttons in toolbars reminds me of iPadOS. As the pointer hovers over a button, it springs to life, highlighted with a little animation. The toolbars themselves are greatly de-emphasized, too, blending into the window itself.

There are many other notable touches. Sidebars run the length of windows and employ a touch of color that helps identify the app you’re using. Apple’s SF Symbols are found throughout Big Sur, lending a consistent design language across apps and system features. Menu items are spaced out more, and the menu bar itself is translucent. Controls have been redesigned, and even system sounds have been remastered.

Control Center is coming to Big Sur from iOS and iPadOS too. On the Mac, the feature provides quick access to frequently-used system controls. Clicking on individual controls lets users access additional functionality. Favorite items in Control Center can be dragged out onto the menu bar for even easier access. The feature is both familiar to iOS and iPadOS users and serves to eliminate clutter in the menu bar the way third-party app Bartender has for years.

Control Center.

Control Center.

Notification Center has been redesigned too. The feature is accessed by clicking on the time in the menu bar, which causes Notification Center to slide into view. Notifications are grouped by app above widgets, which are similar to the widgets found in iOS and iPadOS. Multiple notifications are stacked and can be clicked to see them all at once. An entire group of notifications can be cleared all at once, which is a terrific addition. System and third-party widgets can be offered in multiple sizes and are displayed in a gallery that provides a preview.

The result of the design changes is a refinement of the entire OS in a way that is at once familiar and new. There’s a freshness to the redesign that I love. As Dye explains, depth, shading, and translucency are used to create hierarchy without visual clutter in a way that appears to work well in both light and dark modes. I’m sure the new design will take some getting used to, and I’ll have to spend the summer using Big Sur daily before I can draw any conclusions about the new design, but my first impression is positive. I like what I saw in the keynote and have high hopes for the changes.

Safari

Safari's new start page.

Safari’s new start page.

The other pillar of Big Sur is Safari, which Craig Federighi described as the biggest update since the browser’s introduction. The updates run the gamut from low-level performance enhancements to new features and privacy enhancements.

According to Apple, Safari is 50% faster than Chrome when loading frequently-visited websites. At the same time, Safari now uses less power too. Apple says you’ll be able to stream video up to three hours longer and browse up to one hour longer on Safari than on Chrome or Firefox.

Apple has rethought the start page too, which is now highly customizable. The page can include Safari Reading List items, your Favorites, iCloud Tabs, Siri Suggestions, and even a Privacy Report, which I’ll cover further below. In addition, there is a curated set of background images that can be used for your start page, or you can pick one of your own.

Safari extensions are coming to the Mac App Store, making them easier to discover than before. The extensions are built using the WebExtensions API, which should make it easier for developers to bring extensions from other browsers to Safari. Unlike other browsers, though, Safari users will be in control of which sites extensions work with and can limit extensions to single-day access.

Safari's privacy enhancements

Safari’s privacy enhancements

Privacy has long been a hallmark of Safari, with new features being introduced annually. This year, Safari gains a privacy report button in the toolbar that reports which services and sites are accessing your data when you visit a website. Also, the password manager built into the OS will alert users when their passwords have been compromised. It’s great to see these sorts of tools being put into the hands of users.

Tabs have been redesigned too. More are visible at once, they use colored favicons to make distinguishing one from another easier, and hovering over a tab displays a mini-preview of the page. Also, Safari will gain the ability to translate webpages into one of several languages on the fly.

Messages and Maps

Messages.

Messages.

Messages is finally gaining feature the vast majority of the features found in iOS and iPadOS. Search will highlight query terms and divide results between conversations, photos, and links. There’s a new photo picker too that includes the ability to view trending images and GIFs. Memoji can be created and edited in Big Sur and shared as Memoji stickers. Effects, pinned conversations, threaded replies, mentions, and the same group messaging enhancements from iOS and iPadOS are also coming to Big Sur.

Maps.

Maps.

Maps is catching up with iOS and iPadOS too. The app, which is built with Apple’s Mac Catalyst technology, has been redesigned with the new omnipresent Mac sidebar. At the very top of the sidebar are favorites for things like your home, work, and any other locations you want to add. Curated guides are available, or you can create your own. Also, indoor maps are supported, as is the Look Around feature, progress updates from people who share their ETA with you, and cycling directions.

Mac Catalyst

New features coming to Mac Catalyst.

New features coming to Mac Catalyst.

A long list of new controls and features will be available to developers who want to bring their iPadOS apps to the Mac including:

  • Date pickers
  • Better popovers
  • Pull-down menus
  • The color panel
  • Photo editing extensions
  • Full keyboard control
  • Recent documents
  • Mac-style checkboxes
  • Universal Purchases

That is just a taste of some of the more notable additions to Mac Catalyst in Big Sur. The list is long, but for users, the promise is simple: More Mac-like Catalyst apps. Based on this list, Apple has clearly listened to feedback from the developer community. Both Maps and Messages have been rewritten in Mac Catalyst and looked terrific during the keynote, but most of all, I’m eager to see what third-party developers can do with these new features.

All The Rest

Big Sur’s privacy features extend to the Mac App Store. Like iOS and iPad OS, the Mac App Store will gain app privacy summaries that are self-reported by developers. The summaries explain what data apps collect and how they use it.

Photos has been redesigned with the sidebar and toolbar treatments seen throughout Big Sur. Also, the retouching tool has been improved with the help of machine learning.

Other features coming across iOS, iPadOS, and macOS include:

  • AirPod auto-switching between devices
  • Support for activity zones and facial recognition in the Home app for cameras
  • The new Listen Now section of Music, which replaces the For You section
  • Deeper web-based Siri knowledge

Updates will also be faster on Big Sur because the download will begin in the background.


I’m excited by what’s coming in Big Sur. I don’t think anyone expected a major UI redesign, but with the leap from Intel-based chips to Apple Silicon, the timing makes sense. The design changes looked terrific during the keynote, but I’ll need to work in beta a while before making any final judgments. What’s clear, though, is that Apple is moving toward a unified design language that is clearly meant to make moving from one system to another easier. That’s a transition I make every day as I work on my Mac and iPad, so I’m glad to see the two converging where it makes sense.

There have been updates to more system apps than I expected too. As someone who works in Safari all day long, I can’t wait to try the new tabs and extensions. With more control and transparency over my extensions, I expect I’ll use them more often, too, because I won’t have to worry about whether they are collecting more data than I’d like.

I’m also heartened to see Apple’s apps reaching feature parity across iOS, iPadOS, and the Mac. Too many of the Mac apps had fallen behind in recent years to the point where I found myself reaching for my iPad or iPhone when I wanted to use apps like Messages or Maps.

My sense is that we’re moving closer to a world where you won’t have to think about which platform you use. Apps will be available and work the same way regardless of what device you use. Of course, there will always be differences based on hardware, and certain apps will make more sense to use on one platform than another, but that’s no different from today. What’s changing is that the friction of moving from one platform to the other is being reduced, which is a big win for users.

Big Sur is just part of the Mac story revealed during today’s keynote. Tomorrow, I’ll dig deeper into the upcoming transition to Apple Silicon-based Macs, which will begin later this year.

You can also follow all of our WWDC coverage through our WWDC 2020 hub, or subscribe to the dedicated WWDC 2020 RSS feed.

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