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Just as iPadOS is starting to look more and more like macOS, the newest version of Apple’s desktop operating system, macOS Big Sur, borrows heavily from the California tech giant’s mobile OSes, iOS in particular. The update is so big that Apple gave it a new major version number (11)—the first time the company has done so in 19 years.
A major new development for macOS is that it will run on Macs using Apple’s own ARM-based Apple Silicon processors. The new Macs powered by the 5-nanometer Apple M1 chip were announced at an event titled “One More Thing” on November 10. Macs powered by the new chips will be able to run iOS apps, which makes sense, since iPhones use ARM-based processors. But there’s still plenty of news for macOS aside from the new chip.
A new design language makes the Mac interface even slicker—a tall feat—and more consistent with the iPhone and iPad interfaces. Notice, for example, that the app icons now resemble the square iOS ones rather than the traditional circular macOS ones. The visual updates extend to built-in standby apps including Maps, Mail, Calendar, and Photos. The Safari web browser and Messages app get particular attention, with new features as well as a new look.
Even though Apple has pegged its future on Macs running its own CPUs, macOS Big Sur will still support a healthy list of older computers, including MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac Pro models dating back to 2013. The OS is available now as an update in the System Preferences > Software Update menu and will ship with all new Macs.
New Design Language
With Big Sur, Apple gives macOS an updated look, with more translucent, simplified 2D system icons, and controls that light up when you use them. I can’t help thinking that it resembles Microsoft’s Fluent design system, though Apple hasn’t given its new style a name. Rounded corners for windows and dialog boxes are a distinctive part of the new look (something that was rumored to be coming to a Windows 10 update but is a no-show so far). It supports light and dark modes, while the menu bar and menus themselves are now translucent.
Big Sur also updates the OS’s sounds. The Mac startup sound has been unmistakable for over a decade, but the new system sounds have been “remastered and refined,” says Alan Dye, Apple’s VP for Human Interface, while remaining recognizable.
Though Apple added a Notification sidebar before Microsoft did the same with the Windows 10 Action Center, I’m surprised it took so long for macOS to include basic system controls in Notification Center the way Action Center does. Big Sur’s new Control Center options include sound volume, screen brightness, Wi-Fi settings, and even keyboard brightness. To my eyes, the design looks touch-friendly, making me speculate about a touch-capable Mac in the future—and with all the echoes of iPadOS in the new macOS design, it doesn’t seem far-fetched. You can drag any Control Center features onto the menu bar, but you cannot customize which controls appear in the Control Center itself (aside from Accessibility features), as you can in Windows 10’s Action Center.
Just like iOS and iPadOS, macOS Big Sur introduces widgets. In fact, the new macOS widgets are nearly indistinguishable from their mobile counterparts. On the Mac, the new widgets live in the Notification sidebar, and just as on the mobile devices, they can appear in various sizes. You can add clock, weather, Notes, and even third-party widgets.
The Finder now looks nearly identical to iPadOS’s Files app. That’s a good thing for consistency among people moving between tablets and desktops. The Finder app on macOS still, thankfully, offers a tabbed interface, though that’s not apparent at first glance. The new design is compact and good-looking.
Apple’s syncing of Messages between iPhones and Macs has been a feather in the platform’s cap for years. With Big Sur’s new Messages implementation, your Mac has become something of a big iPhone: You can now create Memoji on the desktop. Pinned conversations keep important chats at the top between devices, and threaded responses make the app more useful. Finally, a new search box lets you find text within messages.
Big Safari Updates
Safari, while always an excellent browser choice, has nevertheless fallen behind Google’s Chrome and Microsoft’s new Edge of late, and the updates announced at WWDC 2020 seem intended to right this ship. That includes privacy and tracking protection, a customizable home page, password saving, and translation—all of which bear a striking resemblance to what Microsoft highlighted in its new Chromium-based Edge browser.
But as the market-dominating web software, Chrome is the real target, and Apple’s Craig Federighi started off his WWDC Safari presentation this year talking about how it’s 50 percent faster than Chrome. Like Firefox and Edge, Safari will offer a Privacy report panel to see what trackers a site attempted to use. It also monitors your saved passwords to see if they’ve been involved in a data breach (Firefox started doing this two years ago).
One aspect of Safari not mentioned at WWDC was web standards support, an area on which Safari has trailed Firefox, Chrome, and Edge lately. One new element of support, however, is for the Web Extensions API, a cross-platform initiative. A very laudable new capability lets you limit which sites an extension can access—this is a real issue for extensions in all browsers today, since the extensions can access any sites you visit. Safari will also let you limit the time span that extensions have access.
Updated Stock Apps
The new design language mentioned above has been applied to Apple’s built-in apps as well as to the system itself, though the app icons maintain their colorful skeuomorphism. Mail gets the new icons, a collapsing search box, and color highlights for message entries. Photos has also been updated with the new control icons, and it now lets you zoom out to see your entire collection as the tiniest of thumbnails. Calendar, Notes, Music, and Podcasts all have been redesigned; the latter has a new Listen Now pane. Oddly, Apple hasn’t included its new Translate app on macOS with the Big Sur update; the app debuted in iOS 14.
Apple Maps has a bad rap thanks to its shaky start in 2012, but the Apple Maps of today is miles better that that. One drawback compared with market-dominating Google Maps is that the search ad giant offers bike routes, but Apple Maps is catching up there and will do the same. It also gets Favorites for locations and indoor maps for places like airports.
Catalyst: Mac Versions of iPad Apps
Apple also has delivered a new way to create full-fledged Mac apps from their iPad equivalents using Catalyst, which now lets apps take advantage of the larger screen surface and additional controls. Apple used Catalyst to build the new Apple Maps and Messages apps.
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