MacOS Big Sur: Every change made in Apple’s massive software revamp

MacOS Big Sur is major revamp of the Mac operating system. Most notably, it is the first time in years that its visual appearance has been radically altered.

But it is not all about aesthetics — Big Sur rethinks almost every one of Apple’s own apps, as well as its operating system features like Spotlight and Siri, and its overall performance.

Even though it’s still in public beta, there’s a lot to dig through.

Design

MacOs Big Sur

The most obvious change Big Sur has brought to MacOS is its visual redesign. Almost every element of the user interface has been polished up and tweaked, bringing a lighter, more spacious feel to the Mac.

For instance, Apple apps now feature full-height sidebars, increased spacing between menu items, and new toolbar buttons that blend more seamlessly with the app’s background. But the changes do not affect only apps — the menu bar is now translucent, the dock has rounded corners, and dock icons for Apple apps all use the same rounded-square style, giving more visual uniformity. The overall effect is of a smoother, cleaner operating system that looks and feels great to use.

Full list of changes: Design

  • Full-height sidebars, with more space for sidebar items
  • New style for toolbars
  • Lighter design for windows
  • Share sheets/dialog boxes redesigned
  • Rounded corners on the edges of the dock
  • Uniform app style in dock
  • New design for menu bar
  • New sounds (made using snippets of previous MacOS sounds)
  • New symbols for buttons, icons, etc.

Settings and notifications

How to use Control Center in MacOS Big Sur
Howard Bouchevereau/Unsplash

MacOS Big Sur has made it a lot easier to access commonly used system settings. Instead of digging through System Preferences, a lot of settings are now housed in the Control Center. This is one of the most helpful changes in Big Sur, as it puts common controls at your fingertips. Not only that, but you can customize it to add or remove settings, and even drag settings onto the menu bar for even quicker access.

The Notification Center has also been revamped. Mac notifications from the same app are now grouped together to save space, and alerts are more interactive, making it easier to act on your notifications. The widget system from iOS 14 has come to Big Sur as well, and you can choose between several sizes of widgets to display in the Notification Center.

Full list of changes: Control Center and Notification Center

  • Control Center added to MacOS
    • Add or remove Control Center options
    • Pin settings to the menu bar
  • Notification Center tweaked and updated
    • Widgets in Notification Center
    • Customize widget shape/appearance
    • Third-party widgets on the App Store
    • Grouped, interactive notifications

Safari

Apple MacOS Big Sur Safari

Of all Apple’s Mac apps, Safari has received perhaps the biggest renovation in Big Sur. There are security improvements, such as the introduction of the Privacy Report, which shows you how many trackers each website attempts to use (and blocks them). Safari will also tell you if one of your passwords has been leaked in a data breach and will suggest a strong replacement.

Elsewhere, Safari’s Start Page can now be customized to your liking, and tabs display more information (such as page previews when you hover over them). An on-page translation feature has been added, and performance has been tuned to give a speedier experience that uses less of your battery.

Full list of changes: Safari

  • New Start Page: Change the background image, show/hide elements like favorites, Privacy Report, etc.
  • Privacy Report to show and block trackers (can be customized for each website)
  • Tab width expands when you mouse over it, and website previews are shown when you hover over them
  • Favicons on tabs
  • Safari extensions in the App Store. You can grant extensions website access or restrict them, and there is support for WebExtensions API, so developers can now bring Chrome extensions to Safari
  • On-page translation
  • Password monitoring
  • Performance improvements to speed and battery life
  • Import passwords and settings from Chrome

Messages

Apple MacOS Big Sur Control Messages

The Messages app on the Mac has long been overshadowed by its iOS sibling. MacOS Big Sur corrects a lot of these disparities: You can now create Memoji and Memoji stickers on the Mac just like on iOS, pin conversations, and add inline replies and threads, all of which are already on iOS. When you search the Messages app, your results are sorted into categories, also like on iOS.

Group messages have had some tweaks, too. You can choose an image to use as an icon for the group or use a combination of the participants’ profile pictures (this option also indicates who last wrote in the group). Big Sur also makes it easier to share your name and photo with others, as well as add GIFs and message effects such as balloons and confetti to your conversations.

Full list of changes: Messages

  • Change image for group messages
  • See who last wrote in the group
  • Inline replies and mentions
  • Create Memoji on your Mac, including Memoji stickers
  • Pin up to nine conversations
  • Search for and add GIFs to conversations
  • Message effects, i.e., confetti, balloons, etc.
  • Search results sorted into categories, people, etc.
  • Share your name and photo
  • Enhanced photo picker

Apple Maps

MacOS Big Sur hands-on review: Apple Maps guides

Unlike Safari and Messages, Apple Maps has undergone more of a gradual shift in MacOS Big Sur, but there are still plenty of notable new features. For instance, Big Sur sees the introduction of guides. These are curated collections of nearby places — such as the best hiking trails in your area — from popular websites and publications. You can make your own guides and share them with friends, too.

Maps has added Look Around (Apple’s version of Google Street View) in Big Sur, and introduces routing for bicycles and electric cars, plus more detailed interior maps for airports and shopping centers. There is also more detailed information for navigating congestion zones such as those in London and Paris.

Full list of changes: Maps

  • Guides (from third-party publishers or create your own)
  • Bicycle and electric vehicle routing (including charging stops). You can send the route to your iPhone
  • Look Around for certain locations
  • Improved interior routes for airports and shopping centers
  • Live updates for shared ETA
  • New detailed maps available in more countries
  • Info for congestion zones, including tolls, plus info for areas that restrict access based on your license plate

Small Mac app changes

Photos and Music in MacOS Big Sur

One of the things that makes Big Sur such a large update is the sheer number of apps that have been refreshed. Many of these apps have only received small upgrades, but those upgrades add up.

Apple’s Mac Catalyst apps have had a lot of changes. Music and Podcasts now feature a new Listen Now screen to surface content you might be interested in, Notes has more text styles and a collapsible Pinned section, and Reminders comes with smarter suggestions and organization tools.

Apple Arcade, Apple’s gaming subscription service, also sees a noticeable overhaul to improve the user experience. It is now more easier to see what your friends are playing and find new games, and you can prepurchase games and download them as soon as they are released.

Apple has also upgraded a whole heap of its other apps and services, from the Home app and Photos to FaceTime and Weather. See below for the complete rundown.

Full list of changes: Other Apple apps

  • Photos
    • Improved editing for photos and videos, i.e., filters, adjustments, cropping, etc.
    • Improved Retouch tool
    • Improved navigation, i.e., zooming in/out
    • Add context to photos and videos with captions
    • Improvements to Memories, with more relevant selections, more music tracks to choose from, enhanced stabilization, and more
  • Music app
    • Listen Now screen to resume listening or discover new content
    • Improved search based on music/activities you like, with more helpful suggestions as you type
  • Podcasts
    • Listen Now screen to resume listening or discover new content
  • Notes
    • Collapsible Pinned section
    • Top Hits in search
    • Access additional text styles from the Aa button
    • Enhanced scanning with Continuity Camera: Sharper scans, more precise autocropping. Ability to automatically send results to other devices
  • Reminders
    • Assign reminders to people you share lists with and they will get a notification
    • Smart suggestions for dates and locations
    • Personalized lists with emoji
    • Reminder suggestions from Mail
    • Organize smart lists or hide them
    • New keyboard shortcuts
    • Improved search
  • Weather
    • Next-hour precipitation in medium and large weather widgets
    • Weather widget shows significant shifts in weather
    • Weather widget shows government alerts about severe weather
  • Apple Arcade
    • Game recommendations based on what your friends are playing
    • Achievements
    • Pick up progress from one Apple device to another
    • Browse/filter entire Apple Arcade catalog
    • Game Center in-game dashboard shows your game progress and that of your friends
    • See upcoming games and download them as soon as they are released
  • HomeKit Secure Video notifications
  • Home app
    • Home status shows any devices/accessories that need attention, updates, etc.
    • Adaptive Lighting for smart light bulbs
    • Face Recognition for video cameras and doorbells
    • Activity Zones for video cameras and doorbells
  • FaceTime detects when someone is using sign language and makes them prominent in the call

Every other change coming to MacOS Big Sur

Apple's Andreas Wendker speaking at WWDC 2020

That is not all. Apple has made improvements under the hood as well. Alongside Safari’s privacy features, Apple is doubling down on App Store privacy. Apps now have to self-report what trackers they install and what user information they harvest. This information is then displayed prominently on an app’s page on the App Store, giving you a clearer idea of whether the app is a good privacy citizen.

Big Sur is also kinder to your Mac battery life, with an Optimized Battery Charging feature that learns when you need power and helps to reduce battery wear. You will also be able to see your battery usage history.

Elsewhere, Spotlight is streamlined and more performant, works with Quick Look previews, and is integrated into the Find menu in various apps. The Siri virtual assistant now makes greater use of the internet to help you answer a broader set of questions.

Full list of changes: Everything else coming to Big Sur

  • App Store
    • Privacy info for each app on the App Store
    • Share third-party app subscriptions with family members
  • Battery
    • Optimized Battery Charging reduces wear on battery
    • Battery usage history
  • Spotlight
    • Improved performance
    • Streamlined list of results
    • Support for Quick Look
    • Spotlight now powers Find menus in apps, i.e., in Safari, Pages, Keynote, etc.
  • Siri has deeper web knowledge

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