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Big Sur, macOS 11, refreshes the design and ultimately enhances the Mac

CNN logo CNN 8/6/2020 By Jacob Krol
a screenshot of a computer © APPLE

The Mac is getting a big upgrade with Big Sur (macOS 11) this fall. It's arguably the biggest change since the original macOS and lays the groundwork for Apple Silicon, an Apple-made chip that will replace Intel in Macs.

You can join the prerelease fun with the macOS Big Sur public beta, starting Thursday. But if you dive into the public beta, know that slowdowns and bugs are common and expected. We highly recommend you first create a backup.

a screenshot of a cell phone © APPLE

So what's new with Big Sur? The big story is all about design.

To some degree, it's classic Mac, infused with iOS. Corners are rounded throughout, and we mean the honest-to-goodness corners of all windows are now rounded. Control Center is now on the Mac and fits the bill with quick access to settings. Widgets, the highly anticipated new design in iOS 14, are coming to the Mac as well.

a screen shot of a computer © APPLE

Core applications are finally getting the attention they deserve. We begged for updates to Messages, and Apple didn't disappoint. Safari received an overhaul with new features and speed improvements. And as you explore Big Sur, you'll find more features and tidbits.

For now, as we did with iOS 14 and iPadOS 14, we're previewing Big Sur (we've been using the developer beta since June 22). A full review will come this fall, but for now, let's talk about what stands out.

It's a refreshing design

As we said right after WWDC 2020, Big Sur is essentially a full redesign of the user interface. It can be jarring for some at first, but we've quickly fallen into a groove. Keep in mind that we haven't used it as our daily machine, given software applications that need updates, but we've become familiar with it.

The first big change? Well, up until now, any corner of any window in macOS has been square with subtle curves. But now in Big Sur, they're noticeably rounded. It's a sleeker design look that feels in line with the rest of the WYSIWYG experience of the Mac. There's also a lighter casting on all the windows that makes the edges more see-through and helps you navigate or find your desktop a little quicker.

But most importantly, it equalizes the palette of colors across macOS, iOS and iPadOS. Apple has made it clear that the Mac (and macOS) isn't going anywhere, but the ecosystem is going to work even better together. Apps for iPad and iPhone will be able to be turned into Mac apps with ease. It's why we saw the new Sidebar interface on the iPad that looks more like a computer. It all works together better.

a screenshot of a cell phone © APPLE

Similarly, when you save or export a document, you'll see a new interface that reminds us of the share sheet on iOS and iPadOS. It's clean, has larger buttons and puts the focus on helping you leave the window faster. It especially cleans up the printing interface.

You'll also notice that since the top menu bar is nearly fully translucent, it lets your desktop shine through more.

But arguably, the bigger point of discussion is the new icons for nearly every stock app on the Mac. For starters, they're more rounded, which is similar to iOS and iPadOS, but some of them just look entirely different. We'll let you judge, but check out the photos.

For the most part, the design changes streamline macOS and help it fit in better with iOS and iPadOS.

Control Center is terrific

We never would have thought to bring the Control Center to the Mac, but it's been our go-to feature of Big Sur, alongside Messages.

It's built into the menu bar on the top right side, next to the time and date. From there, you can access Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, AirDrop, Do Not Disturb, Keyboard Illumination, Brightness and Sound with relative ease.

And like Control Center on iOS or iPadOS 14, you can customize it. We really like the Now Playing bar, especially if you have the Music tab hidden or minimized.

The redesigned Notification Center, which pulls a lot from iOS 14, is in the same boat. Namely, widgets are here, and the Mac will support third-party ones. With our testing, we opted to keep the normal push notifications at the top and have a grid of three widgets that we handpicked: a rectangular calendar and two squares containing weather and photos, which is more for quick doses of info.

Messages is what we've been waiting for

Redesigned Messages is what we've been craving. Essentially, Apple imported Messages from iOS and iPadOS to the Mac, and it's a tremendous experience.

It's also a familiar one. You still have the Messages app split into two core sections: the left has all of your messages and the right spotlights the one you've selected. The ability to pin a contact, like on iOS 14 and iPadOS 14, is on Big Sur as well.

It's handy and a great way to show off Memojis or contact photos. Search is also enhanced, allowing you to find specific documents and Messages dating back in time, thanks to Messages in the Cloud. The latter serves as a backup for your iMessages and uses iCloud storage.

The best news? Well, Memoji, Memoji Sticker and effects are finally arriving on the Mac. This way, when you say "Congrats," it won't just say "sent" with confetti below, but you'll see the confetti effect. Memoji on the Mac might seem underrated, but it's a great way to showcase emotions or respond with a sticker. GIFs are fully supported in the same way they are on your iPhone. You'll click the little icon and can search to find the perfect one. Similarly, you won't need to open Photos to send a specific shot, as there's a mini selection window built into Messages.

It's well done and doesn't sacrifice the core features. You can still send iMessage and SMS messages via your Mac in record time.

That's just a snippet of macOS Big Sur

As we said in our iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 preview, there's a lot to unpack in macOS Big Sur, so we'll update this as we get closer to a full launch. If you decided to jump on the public beta, which is rolling out now, you'll also want to look at other core apps like Safari to see massive improvements.

At the end of the day, we feel that macOS Big Sur doesn't just refresh the design but brings new value to the Mac. Dare we say it can make an older Mac feel new again. It also will arrive on a large number of Mac laptops and desktops.

We can't stress enough: This is a beta of Big Sur, which means bugs, glitches and slowdowns are to be expected. Public betas are known for being more sturdy and stable than the developer beta. But either way, be sure to back up your Mac to an external hard drive before installing the beta. We also recommend using it on a secondary Mac or partitioning the hard drive.

If interested, head to Apple's Beta Software Program portal and sign in with your Apple ID. From there, it will prompt you to download an installer and to see the terms and conditions. It will then install and you'll navigate to System Preferences > Software Update and Check for Update.

The public beta can take time to download, especially if many people enroll on this first day, so don't be worried if it's a long estimate. Once downloaded, you'll open the installer and be on your way to running macOS Big Sur.

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