macOS Big Sur: Everything you need to know

Macos Big Sur Preview California Wallpaper Hero
Macos Big Sur Preview California Wallpaper Hero (Image credit: Rene Ritchie)

The next version of macOS has arrived, and it's a big one that was well received since the day it was announced. macOS Big Sur includes many exciting new and enhanced features starting with its refreshed look. Here's a look at what's new on Mac.

What's new with macOS 11 Big Sur?

Apple has refreshed the design for macOS significantly both as an operating system and streamlining apps. Mail and Photos look at lots like iOS/iPadOS, and Notification Center includes a single view for the first time.

Design changes

macOS Big Sur Control Center

macOS Big Sur Control Center (Image credit: iMore)

Called the "biggest design upgrade since the introduction of Mac OS X," Big Sur has easier navigation and more controls for users. Everything here has been refined, from the curvature of window corners to the palette of colors and materials.

  • Icons in the Dock have been designed to be more consistent with icons across the Apple ecosystem.
  • Buttons and controls now appear when needed and recede when they aren't necessary.
  • A customizable menu bar includes an all-new Control Center that delivers quick access to controls from the desktop. From here, for example, you can find Wi-Fi and Bluetooth controls, and ones to play music and enable Dark Mode. You can also add your favorites.
  • An updated Notification Center includes a new design and features both alerts and widgets in a single view. Notifications are now grouped according to the app, and some of these are also interactive.

Notable App changes

macOS Big Sur Safari

macOS Big Sur Safari (Image credit: iMore)

Safari: The native web browser includes a significant update in macOS Big Sur. New features include a privacy report for every site visited and password monitoring. Safari now uses tracking prevention to identify and prevent would-be trackers from profiling or following you across the web. The latter matches known security breaches and shows you had to change your affected passwords.

Extensions have also been refreshed, and you can now decide which sites are allowed to access these extensions and for how long. Extensions now have a more prominent place in the Mac App Store.

You'll also find a custom Home page feature in Safari that includes the ability to add shortcuts, your Reading List, and more. Built-in language translation has also been added. Apple also promises an improved tab design.

Finally, Apple says the next version of Safari is 50 percent faster than Chrome in loading times and more power-efficient.

Messages on the Mac: After Safari, Messages is the native app that got the most updates. Most of the new features come from iOS/iPad, but not all.

With pinned conversations, you can put your favorite conversations at the top of the screen. You'll also find tap backs, typing indicators, and recent messages animations above the pins.

Meanwhile, with inline replies, you can now reply directly to certain messages in any conversation. In doing so, a new thread under the original reply automatically gets started.

Messages also now include group photos, trending images and GIFs, effects, highlighted mentions in group chats, and finally ... Memoji.

Finally, the app offers a new take on search. It's faster and easier to use and now organizes your results into links and photos and highlights matching terms.

Apple Maps: On Mac, you'll find a new version and design. It offers all-new guides from trusted resources and the ability to create your own. These guides can include your favorite restaurants, parks, and vacation spots. Apple Maps for Mac also now includes detailed indoor maps of major airports and shopping centers. Cycling and electric vehicle trips can now be routed on a Mac and sent directly to the iPhone to have when on the go.

Mac App Store offers new privacy tools in macOS Big Sur. For each available app, you'll find a summary of its developer's privacy practices before you download it. Like nutritional labels, you'll learn what data each app collects and whether that data is used across other apps and websites.

Other changes

The macOS Big Sur update includes other useful new features. Like the others, these will also be discussed in the coming weeks at iMore. These include:

  • AirPod device switching means your tunes will carry with you across all your active Apple devices, so you're always using the one closest to you.
  • The Photos app has new editing tools, including an improved Retouch tool powered by machine learning.
  • Listen Now is the new home for Apple Music, featuring new releases, artist interviews, and playlists personalized for you — all in one place.
  • Cameras that support HomeKit Secure Video can now use facial recognition and activity zones, allowing you to tailor notifications to specific people or specific areas in your camera's view.
  • A smarter Siri also awaits you in macOS Big Sur as the voice assistant adds more web knowledge.

You can find the full list of macOS Big Sur features on the Apple website (opens in new tab).

My Mac is old. Can I upgrade to macOS Big Sur?

The latest Mac operating system will run on the following devices:

  • MacBook (2015 or newer)
  • MacBook Air (2013 or newer)
  • MacBook Pro (Late 2013 or newer)
  • Mac mini (2014 or newer)
  • iMac (2014 or newer)
  • iMac Pro (2017 or newer)
  • Mac Pro (2013 or newer)

If your Mac doesn't support macOS 11 Big Sur, you might want to consider buying a new iMac, MacBook, or other Mac.

Why Big Sur?

Over the years, Apple has done a great job of not leaking the name of the newest version of macOS. This year, it once again kept quiet before the official macOS 11 Big Sur announcement.

Since 2013, Apple has named operating system updates for Mac after locations in California. Before macOS X, we had Mavericks, Yosemite, El Capitan, Sierra, High Sierra, Mojave, and Catalina. This year it's Big Sur, a rugged and mountainous section of the Central Coast of California between Carmel Highlands and San Simeon.

How to download

You can download macOS Big Sur for free on any supported Mac through the Mac App Store or under Settings on your computer.

Lots to see

Which macOS Big Sur features are you most excited about seeing?

Bryan M Wolfe
Staff Writer

Bryan M. Wolfe has written about technology for over a decade on various websites, including TechRadar, AppAdvice, and many more. Before this, he worked in the technology field across different industries, including healthcare and education. He’s currently iMore’s lead on all things Mac and macOS, although he also loves covering iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. Bryan enjoys watching his favorite sports teams, traveling, and driving around his teenage daughter to her latest stage show, audition, or school event in his spare time. He also keeps busy walking his black and white cocker spaniel, Izzy, and trying new coffees and liquid grapes.

1 Comment
  • Was definitely not expecting a big redesign this year...