macOS Big Sur: Features, release date, how to install the beta, and everything else you need to know

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At the WWDC20 keynote, Apple took the wraps off of macOS Big Sur, the next version of the Macintosh operating system. Big Sur will replace macOS 10.15 Catalina this fall.

Big Sur is a major upgrade with several features that users can take advantage of. Here are the features that Apple highlighted during its WWDC20 keynote presentation. We’ll follow up with more details on these features as they are revealed.

What version of macOS is this?

Apple revealed that macOS Big Sur is officially version 11 of the operating system. It marks the end of version 10, which was introduced on March 24, 2001.

macos big sur about this mac Apple

What are the new features?

Refined user interface

The user interface inconsistencies between Apple’s mobile and desktop operating systems are notable, and compared to iOS, macOS looks a little dated. With Big Sur, Apple finally addresses the macOS UI, implementing the first major changes since the release of Mac OS X.

“Depth, shading, and translucency are used to create hierarchy,” said Alan Dye, VP Human Interface, during the WWDC20 keynote. “These new materials are rich, and they’re vibrant.”

mac os big sur widgets Apple

The UI in macOS Big Sur features reworked icons, menus, Notification Center, and Widgets.

Apple has changed the icons of the built-in apps so they more closely resemble iOS icons, yet still maintain their “Mac personality,” as Apple puts it. The Dock, which prominently displays app icons, appears to float on the screen. Toolbars and Sidebars in apps look cleaner, and buttons disappear when they aren’t in use.

macos big sur menus menubar item Apple

Menus in macOS Big Sur are translucent, and menu bar items display more functionality.

Apple also updated the menu bar so that it is even more useful. It is now translucent, and menus have a cleaner look and more space. Apple has also added Control Center to the menu bar, which works like the Control Center in iOS. It gives you access to many system controls, such as network connectivity, display brightness, sound volume, and music controls. And, like in iOS, you can customize it with the controls you want. If there’s a Control Center control you want to make a permanent part of your menu bar, you can drag it out of the Control Center and on to the menu bar.

macos big sur control center Apple

The Mac now has Control Center, like the one found in iOS.

The Notifications menu bar icon is gone in Big Sur. Notification Center can be accessed by clicking on the time in the menu bar, and you can now click on Notifications and Widgets in the Center to get more information. Big Sur will also have a gallery that displays all the Widgets you can add (including third-party Widgets) to the Notification Center.

Apple has refined the system sounds, too. They are variations of the sounds we are all familiar with in prior versions, so they are recognizable but fresh.

Messages

Messages on the Mac has lagged behind the iOS version in its feature set. Apple changes that in Big Sur, having used Mac Catalyst to convert the iOS version of Messages to a version that runs on the Mac.

Messages now has improved search to make it easier to find what you are looking for in your message list. Search results are grouped into Conversations with the search term highlighted, Links (website URLs), and Photos.

macos big sur messages search results Apple

Apple has improved search in Messages so it is easier to find what you need.

Apple made a ton of improvements to the tools you use to create a message. A redesigned photo picker makes it faster for you to find the photos and videos you want to send. Your name and photo or Memoji can be set to automatically share with the person you’re communicating with, whether that person is in your contact list or not. Speaking of Memoji, Apple will provide a Memoji editor so you can customize your look, and the new Memoji stickers can be used to graphically communicate a feeling or idea. A new #images feature can help find GIFs and images on the internet.

Other Messages features help organize your conversations. You can pin up to nine conversations at the top of your list, and your pins appear on your iPhone and iPad, too. In a group conversation, you’ll be able to reply to a specific message to maintain context; you don’t have to worry about your response being out of the flow. And you can assign an image to a group conversation, which helps it stand out in your listing.

macos big sur messages effects Apple

New effects such as confetti and lasers can help set a tone to a conversation.

Safari

Apple says that Safari in Big Sur has been optimized so that it is even faster than before. The company claims that the new Safari is up to 50 percent faster than Google Chrome.

A new Privacy toolbar button can show web trackers and also display a full privacy report that shows a list of blockers trackers from the past 30 days. You can also add a Privacy Report to your start page.

If you use the web often, you probably use a lot of passwords to log into sites and services. Safari’s password monitoring checks if passwords have been involved in a data breach and generate new passwords if necessary.

macos bigsur safari privacyreport Apple

Safari’s Privacy Report tells you what trackers can be found on a website.

Apple also put more focus on extensions made by third parties. Developers can get tools to convert Google Chrome extensions into ones for Safari. Users will be able to peruse extensions in the App Store, with descriptions to tell you about each one, and a chart to let you know which ones are popular. And you can designate when an extension works on a website.

As for the user interface, Safari’s start page will have more customization options. Favicons will appear in page tabs, and if you hold your cursor over a tab, you can see a preview of the webpage. Safari will also have tools so you can translate websites in English, Spanish, Chinese, French, German, Russian, or Brazilian Portuguese.

macos big sur safari start page Apple

Safari can be customized with your own wallpaper.

Photos

The Photos app is probably the most used app on the Mac. (It’s the app most people ask about in our Mac 911 column.) So new features that make Photos better to use are always a good thing.

Photos in macOS Big Sur will have more editing tools. For photos, there is now a Vibrance effect, where you can adjust the intensity of filters and Portrait Lighting. The Retouch tool is enhanced with machine learning to make your adjustments look better. There are also more tools you can use on videos.

To provide more context to your photos and videos, Photos will let you add and edit captions. With the help of iCloud, captions will sync with your iPhone and iPad.

Maps

Apple hopes the improvements to Maps will make it more useful for planning trips on the Mac. Apple said that the new version of Maps started with the iOS version, which was converted to the Mac using Mac Catalyst.

You can finally save locations as Favorites. This is one of those features that you can do in on the iPhone and iPad, but could never do on a Mac.

Maps’ new Guides give you information about locations on display. This could be helpful for travelers, but at launch, guides will be available only for London, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. More guides are in the works, but in the meantime, Maps will let you create your own guide.

macos big sur maps favorites Apple

Maps on the Mac finally has Favorites.

New route planning is available for cyclists and electric vehicles. Cycling routes show elevations, traffic, and other potential obstacles. Electric vehicle routes help track your car’s charge and show charging stations. Both types of routes can be sent from your Mac to an iPhone.

Other Maps features include:

  • Indoor maps
  • Look Around, which shows eye-level photography of a location
  • The ability to monitor a person’s commute
  • Estimated time of arrival of friends
  • Congestion zones

Notes

The Notes app currently lets you pin notes so they always appear at the top of your listing. In macOS Big Sur, you’ll be able to collapse and expand the list of pinned notes, which is a nice if you have a lot of them.

If you want to make your notes more functional, the Big Sur version of Notes will have several text style that you can apply.

The search results in Notes will now show Top Hits to help you find what you need.

What is Mac Catalyst?

Introduced last year, Catalyst is used by developers to bring their iOS apps to the Mac. Apple said that Catalyst has been updated so that apps can take advantage of the Mac display’s native resolution. Developers will also have access to new menu and keyboard APIs.

Mac Catalyst is a developer’s tool, but users will benefit from it. If you have an app you like to use on your iPhone, you could be able to use it on your Mac, too.

When will macOS Big Sur be released?

Apple usually releases the operating systems it previews at WWDC in the fall. Look for macOS Big Sur to be released in September or October. It could be later though, since the COVID-19 pandemic has affected production schedules for all companies.

What Macs are compatible with macOS Big Sur?

  • MacBook: 2015 and later
  • MacBook Air: 2013 and later
  • MacBook Pro: Late 2013 and later
  • Mac mini: 2014 and later
  • iMac: 2014 and later
  • iMac Pro: 2017 and later
  • Mac Pro: 2013 and later

Can I try a beta of macOS Big Sur?

If you’re a software developer, you can get a beta right now. You have to register as a developer with Apple, which you can do at developer.apple.com. You have to pay a $99 annual fee, but you get access to videos of all the developer sessions at WWDC, software developer tools, support, and more.

Apple does have a public beta program available to users who are willing to take the risk. You can sign up for the program at beta.apple.com and you can download and install not only the macOS Big Sur beta, but also the iOS 14, iPadOS 14, watchOS 7, and tvOS 14 betas when they become available in July.

If you want to try the betas, we suggest installing them on a secondary device, since beta software is prone to error and crashes. You’ll be expected to provide Apple with feedback if you do run into a problem. You can also opt out of the beta program if you change your mind.

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