It's that time of year again—a big new update has arrived to macOS, Apple's desktop operating system for its Macs. For several years, Apple has been naming its annual software releases after California locales, and this year we're treated to Big Sur. If you want to be technical, it's macOS 11.
You get a fresh look, widgets, and a whole lot more. Before we dive into some of the top new features, here's how to install it.
How to Download and Install Big Sur
Before downloading anything, your first step is to back up your Mac. You never know what can happen! You can back it up via Time Machine if you have an external storage drive, or you can use iCloud if you have enough space. This support page walks you through both methods.
If you have a Mac from 2013 or newer, there's a good chance your device is compatible with macOS 11 Big Sur. Here's the exact list straight from the horse's mouth:
- MacBook (2015 or later)
- MacBook Air (2013 or later)
- MacBook Pro (Late 2013 or later)
- Mac mini (2014 or later)
- iMac (2014 or later)
- iMac Pro (2017 or later)
- Mac Pro (2013 or later)
If you're unsure about your model, click the Apple icon on the top-left corner of your Mac's screen, then select About this Mac. Apple has a more in-depth guide here on finding your specific Mac to see whether it's supported.
You'll need to be running OS X 10.9 or later, and you need 4 GB of memory plus 35.5 gigabytes of unused storage. The Big Sur update is about 12 gigs. You should install it when you aren't in a rush to use your Mac, as the whole process can take about an hour.
To update, click the Apple icon on the top left, then choose System Preferences > Software Update > Upgrade Now. From there, just let the Mac do its thing. Now, on to the goodies.
A Fresh Look
You'll first notice that everything looks … different. Big Sur isn't a substantial visual overhaul, but there are small design tweaks that make the interface look a little more iPad-esque. Corners, whether you're looking at apps or the dock, are rounded. App icons are a squircle shape instead of round. Colors are bolder, grays are darker, and various icons and menus have been compressed to take up less room (looking at you, Finder). Overall, the entire operating system looks closer to a mobile OS and a great deal more modern.
A Control Center, Plus Widgets!
A part of this redesign includes the Control Center. Yep, that's right: The Control Center from the iPhone and iPad is now on the Mac. It's the icon with two toggles in the Menu bar on the top right. Tap it and you can get quick access to settings for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, brightness, Do Not Disturb, sound, and current media playback.
You can't move things around here, but you can add some extras to make the Control Center even more useful. Click the Apple icon, then System Preferences > Dock & Menu Bar and scroll down to Other Modules to add Accessibility Shortcuts, Battery, and Fast User Switching. It's here where you can also choose what items you want to show in the Menu bar itself, including the battery percentage.
Widgets aren't new to macOS, but the ones that debuted on iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 are now available through the Notification Center. Just tap the top-right corner (or the clock) and you'll find the new widget pane. Tap Edit Widgets to move them around, remove them, or add new ones in various sizes. Unlike on the iPhone, you can't put widgets wherever you want; they only stay in this hidden area.
Apple says Big Sur brings the "biggest update to Safari since its original launch in 2003." It's speedier than ever (50 percent faster than Chrome, according to Apple), and you can finally watch 4K HDR content on YouTube and Netflix. If you're like me and have dozens of tabs open at any given time, you'll like that you can now hover over a tab to see a preview of what's there. Plus, Safari now shows favicons in the tabs, so it's much easier to find the tab you're hunting for.
If you encounter a web page in another language, now you can use Siri's built-in translator to turn it into one of seven languages. Just go up to the menus at the top of the screen and click View > Translate > Translate to English.
The Safari Start Page got a makeover too. Instead of just showing your favorite or frequently visited websites, you'll also see a Privacy Report for how many trackers Safari has blocked. Also present are Siri Suggestions and access to your Reading List, and you can change the background to something more colorful. (You can remove some of these widgets by tapping the edit icon on the bottom right of Safari's start page.)
Speaking of the Privacy Report, if you click the shield icon to the left of the URL, you'll see how many tracking scripts on that web page Safari prevented from tracking you. Safari can also alert you if any saved passwords are compromised in a data breach, and you can restrict extensions so they don't needlessly collect data. (They're also now searchable in the Mac App Store.)
In an effort to get you to use its maps instead of the competition's, Apple has revamped the Maps app on the Mac, porting many new features that first showed up in iOS 14's version of Maps. There's Look Around, Apple's answer to Google's Street View; Guides, in case you're looking for the best coffee spots nearby; and cycling and navigation, though that's limited to a handful of cities such as New York and Los Angeles.
You can make your own guide if you're planning a trip (maybe in 2021), send directions from Mac to iPhone, and any saved Favorite locations are now far easier to access. It's a much-needed update.
Apple excels at providing users with a robust product ecosystem. If you have an iPhone, an Apple Watch is a must-have accessory for keeping up with notifications and tracking your fitness. If you have an iPhone, it's easier to share files between it and a Mac with the AirDrop feature, plus you can continue conversations on multiple devices through the Messages app, which is on both desktop and mobile platforms. But until now, the Mac version of the Messages app has offered the bare minimum functionality, only letting you send and receive messages. That's no longer the case.
Big Sur greatly upgrades Messages to bring in several new features from iOS 14. You can pin conversations to the top of your threads—that includes group messages—and you can add message effects like balloons or confetti for some pizzazz. The update lets you create Memoji on the Mac now too, which means you can send them from the Mac app, or you can click the icon on the left of the text field and click #images to send GIFs.
Group messaging is more powerful, with the ability to respond to folks in a thread (potentially reducing the number of pings). And if you're feeling inundated with notifications, you can set it so you receive alerts only when someone says your name.
There are several smaller updates in Big Sur. Head to Apple's macOS 11 web page to see the full list, but here are a few standouts.
iPhone and iPad Apps on Macs with the M1 Chip: This applies only if you have one of the new MacBooks with Apple's own M1 chip. You're able to download some iPhone and iPad apps! Just search for an app in the Mac App Store, and you'll see a new tab to find iPhone and iPad apps. Not every app is available—developers have to opt in to desktop support, and it could take months or longer for some to bring their apps over.
Better Spotlight Search: Spotlight, the Mac's search tool, is now faster, and you can preview many of the results right from the Spotlight interface, including web pages, weather, and files.
Nutrition Label in the App Store: Before downloading an app on the App Store, you'll find a Nutrition Label of sorts at the bottom. It shows a preview of data the developer will collect via the app and other data that may be used to track you. Developers have to provide this information starting December 8.
Automatic AirPods Switching: If you have AirPods and they're connected to multiple Apple devices, the earbuds can now automatically switch to your Mac when it's turned on. You'll see a banner notification asking for permission.
Take your time to get to know many of these helpful new features. If you have an iPhone or iPad, check out our guide on all the new features in iOS and iPadOS 14. And if you own an Apple Watch, we've got a roundup of all the new goodies in watchOS 7.