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Apple macOS Big Sur preview: The look-and-feel of Macs to come

Written by Cliff Joseph, Contributor

Apple's announcement that it would abandon Intel processors and move the entire Mac platform to its own Apple Silicon over the next two years overshadowed all the other announcements at its WWDC in June. But, just as Mac hardware is moving towards the same Arm processors used in Apple's mobile devices, so it seems that the macOS operating system is also increasingly converging with its iOS counterpart.

The next version of macOS, called Big Sur, isn't due for its final release until later this year -- probably around September if it follows Apple's usual pattern of product launches. However, it is now available as a public beta from Apple's website. 

According to Apple, the redesigned interface of Big Sur represents the "biggest change since the introduction of Mac OS X" in 2001. In fact, it also marks the end of OS X, as the Mac operating system has been known since its introduction in 2001, as the official version number for Big Sur will be macOS 11.0. That numbering change reflects the fact that Big Sur will run on Macs using Apple's forthcoming Arm processors. Thankfully, it will still be compatible with most Intel-based Macs released since 2015, and even a few older models going back to 2013 as well.


With macOS 11.0 (Big Sur), Apple is making the Mac look and feel more like a big iPad.

Image: Cliff Joseph / ZDNet

Look And Feel: Candy Corners

Only a company with Apple's love of eye-candy could get excited about the curvy corners on application icons, and many of the interface changes in Big Sur are essentially cosmetic. Even so, there's a clear direction to these changes as the overall thrust of Big Sur's redesigned interface is to make the Mac look and feel more like a big iPad. So, as well as new icons with more rounded corners for applications located in the Dock, the Dock itself has been raised a little so that it now hovers slightly above the bottom of the screen, just as it does on iOS devices.


The vertical sidebar has a more translucent background in the redesigned Finder windows -- a design feature that permeates the new UI.

Image: Cliff Joseph / ZDNet

Finder windows have "a gorgeous new top-to-bottom design", which removes the solid line separating the vertical sidebar and horizontal toolbar in windows, and uses a more translucent background in order to create a greater sense of space. That new design also carries over into many of the apps that are included within macOS, such as Mail and Photos, which use the sidebar to display lists of mailboxes or photo albums.


Big Sur adopts an iOS-style Control Center, accessed via a new icon on the menu bar.

Images: Cliff Joseph / ZDNet

There are more substantial changes, though, which are also influenced by iOS. The menu bar at the top of the Mac screen traditionally houses controls for wi-fi, volume, and other settings in the top-right corner of the screen, but Big Sur now adopts the iOS Control Center as well. Apple's longstanding aversion to using touch-sensitive screens on the Mac -- which is now starting to look rather irrational -- means that you can't simply 'pull' the Control Centre down from the corner of the screen with your finger. Instead, there's a new Control Center icon on the menu bar that you can click to display a wider selection of settings. Clicking again on individual settings, such as Display or Volume, allows you to quickly drill down into more detailed controls that are normally buried within the Mac's increasingly cluttered System Preferences panel. You can also customise the menu bar by dragging and dropping tools from the Control Center onto the menu bar, which will be a welcome time-saver for many people.


The updated Notification Center now includes redesigned widgets.

Images: Cliff Joseph / ZDNet

The Notification Center still lives in that top-right corner, and gets its own facelift as well. Related notifications such as message threads and widgets are now linked together and displayed alongside notifications rather than in a separate panel. I confess that I seldom use widgets, but if you're a widget fan then you can squeeze even more of them onto the screen by altering the size of the widgets as you select them from the new on-screen widget gallery.

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Safari gets "the biggest update ever" in macOS Big Sur, according to Apple.

Image: Cliff Joseph / ZDNet

Surfin' Safari

As is often the case with macOS updates, many of the biggest changes appear within the various apps that are included with the operating system, and this time around it's Safari that gets the most attention. 

SEE: Top 10 iPad tips (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Apple claims that Big Sur represents "the biggest update ever" for the Mac's built-in web browser, including performance enhancements for page loading and running JavaScript that "significantly outpace all other browsers". Power efficiency has also been improved, with Apple boasting that Safari on a laptop will deliver "up to three hours more streaming video" than Chrome or Firefox.


Customisation options for Safari are available via a new pop-up menu in the bottom right corner.

Image: Cliff Joseph / ZDNet

As well as the new interface design with translucent backgrounds and new icons, Safari's main Start page now provides additional customisation options, which are controlled from a new pop-up menu in the bottom-right corner of the page. This menu includes features such as the ability to select your own background image for the Start page, and to quickly hide or show your favourites and most frequently visited sites. You can add your Reading List of saved web pages to the Start page, or Safari tabs saved in iCloud from other Apple devices.


Privacy features in Safari include a Privacy Report on the Start page and an Intelligent Tracking Prevention button in the main toolbar.

Image: Cliff Joseph / ZDNet  

Apple is putting a big emphasis on privacy as well, with an option to display a new Privacy Report on your Start page, which provides information about the cross-site trackers that Safari has blocked on all recent websites. Alternatively, you can just get a quick report on individual websites that you visit by clicking the new Intelligent Tracking Prevention button in Safari's main toolbar. Safari can also monitor saved passwords and notify you if the password has been compromised in a data breach.


Hover the mouse over a Safari tab and you get a preview of the website in question.

Image: Cliff Joseph / ZDNet    

Tab management has been improved as well, using 'favicons' and displaying a preview of each web page when you hover the mouse over the tab. Safari can also translate pages from one language to another. And, just as Apple has tried to encourage the use of widgets in Big Sur's redesigned Notification Centre, it's also attempting to promote the use of extensions in Safari, which -- as with rival browsers such as Firefox -- can be used to add new features to the browser. Perhaps recognising that Safari has lost ground to rival browsers such as Firefox and Chrome in this respect, Apple is adding support for the WebExtensions API, which will make it easier for developers to port their extensions from Firefox and other browsers to Safari. Apple is also maintaining its focus on privacy by providing controls that restrict extensions to working only on specific websites, or to only working for one day at a time.


The resedigned Maps adds new features like Guides from trusted resources.

Image: Apple

Other macOS apps get updates too, such as better controls for group conversations in Messages. The Maps app gains indoor views of locations and a 3D 'look around' view, but Maps remains very US-centric, with other countries still waiting for previous updates to become available. There are also reports of other new features waiting in the wings, such as support for FaceID on Macs for the first time, although it's unclear if this will be available on current Mac models or only on new models released in the future.


Long-time Mac users may feel that macOS -- the jewel in the crown that put Apple on the map in the first place -- is now playing second fiddle to iOS. Even so, features such as the new Control Center should still be welcomed if they can help to streamline the often tedious process of navigating through the Mac's ageing and cluttered System Preferences. And, for many, the improvements to Safari alone will be worth the price of admission (which, after all, is completely free). 

Big Sur may be a case of evolution rather than revolution, but it's definitely a step forward -- and makes it clear that the evolution of the Mac platform is increasingly entwined with that of iOS and Apple's mobile devices.


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