macOS preview

macOS Big Sur preview: Five things you should know before installing – Engadget

I generally find these changes pleasing enough, though obviously that’s a matter of personal taste. What’s been most jarring to me is probably that toolbar buttons are now just floating symbols, like you might find in iOS. There’s no “border” showing where to click, though when you hover your mouse over there’s a gray shadow showing what is selected. Most importantly, these visual changes don’t change the fundamental Mac experience.

Control Center is great, but Notification Center needs work

macOS Big Sur Control Center


That said, Control Center represents a fairly significant change in how you manage your Mac. Like its iOS counterpart, Control Center on macOS groups a bunch of commonly used settings (e.g., WiFi, Bluetooth, Do Not Disturb) in one place. To see everything, just click the small “sliders” icon in the menu bar, up near the clock. 

Previously, settings like Bluetooth and WiFi sat directly in the menu bar for easy access, but too many of these buttons made the menu bar feel cluttered very quickly. Now, you can pick items you want one-click access to and place them in the menu bar; the rest you can find in Control Center. This means that I only see what I want to see (like battery life and the clock), while settings I don’t adjust often (like WiFi and Bluetooth) remain hidden but still easily accessible.

Apple macOS Big Sur


Notification Center still sits in a pane that slides out from the right side of the screen, but now it’s one space for widgets and notifications. At first, it seemed like both things would get shortchanged. But if you have a lot of notifications to dig through, you can just hit the “show more” button and go through everything. The rest of the time, widgets are more accessible than they were before. As in iOS 14, Apple’s first-party widgets now come in multiple sizes too. No third-party widgets are enabled in the Big Sur beta (at least as of this writing), but I’m looking forward to seeing how other apps take advantage of the much-improved widget system.

Unfortunately, notifications themselves need some polish. That’s mostly because it’s not always obvious how to clear them. On some notifications, you can hover over them and get an X to remove them, but it’s buggy. Sometimes the X appears and disappears at random as you mouse over it, and sometimes it doesn’t show up at all. These are the kinds of bugs that’ll probably be ironed out before launch, but right now they’re a bit frustrating. 

Safari’s details on tracking protection are interesting, but not actionable

macOS Big Sur Safari Privacy Center


As usual, Apple is promising a variety of performance improvements and new features for Safari. I can’t quite judge yet if it’s as fast as they say, or if the battery life improvements are real. But one thing that I do very much appreciate is Privacy Report. Next to the URL bar is a small shield symbol that you can click to find out what web-browsing trackers Safari detected on the page. Safari has had built-in tracking protection for a few years now, but that info is a lot more visible now. 

The privacy-tracking drop-down can be expanded into a full view of everything tracker-related that Safari is blocking. It shows how many trackers it blocked in the last 30 days, the percentage of sites you visit using trackers, what the most contacted tracker is, and then the trackers on every site you’ve visited. It’s more information than most people probably need, but the transparency is pretty great, especially when this information is otherwise so hard to find. On the other hand, it isn’t terribly actionable information, it just pulls provides more granular information on what Safari does to protect your privacy online.

Messages should finally be on par with the iOS app, but it’s hard to tell just yet

Messages has become one of Apple’s killer apps and one of the best reasons for having multiple devices in Apple’s ecosystem. As such, Messages is probably one of the most important apps on the Mac for a lot of people, but it’s been lagging a bit behind its iOS counterpart for years. Between Big Sur and iOS 14, Messages is getting a handful of nice upgrades that should put the Mac and iOS versions at feature parity again. 

macOS Big Sur Messages app


That means that you’ll be able to send messages with effects like confetti and balloons, and you’ll have access to Memoji stickers and one-click GIF searches too. More useful are things like the ability to pin conversations to the top of the app, improved search, inline replies, and mentions. Unfortunately, a few of the most useful things like replies and mentions I haven’t been able to really test, because there aren’t many people I know out there running beta software to exchange messages with.  But there’s little doubt that the messaging situation on the Mac is getting better this year — pinned conversations, message reactions and easy GIF searches have already made using Messages on Big Sur better. 

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Apple's macOS

Apple’s macOS 11 Big Sur marks the end of OS X, not the Mac – AppleInsider

Apple’s slickly produced WWDC20 keynote didn’t directly emphasize it, but the new macOS Big Sur that will ship to the public this fall is officially “macOS 11,” marking an end to the twenty-year progression of “Mac OS X” branding. But don’t worry, it’s not the end of the Mac.

Turn it up to 11

Apple’s first beta of macOS Big Sur was made available to developer program members with the version designation of “10.16,” which is what one might expect from the successor to last year’s Mac OS 10.15 Catalina. But Apple likes to switch things up and keep things interesting.

Big Sur beta

The Big Sur beta was originally called 10.16

In this case, the move to macOS 11 was a subtle reveal. Speaking from the hands-on area of the Steve Jobs Theater during the WWDC20 keynote, Apple’s head of software Craig Federighi showed screenshots that indicated the new release was finally pushing past the big “X” that has defined the Mac experience for 20 years.

Apple’s fresh 2020 update to its developer Human Interface Guidelines now consistently refers to Big Sur as “macOS 11,” rather than being another incremented version of the “Mac OS X” brand that first shipped as a public beta in 2000 and as an initial “Mac OS X 10.0” public release in 2001.

Across the last two decades, Apple has released major new versions of its modern OS for the Mac at regular intervals. Since 2016, it has deemphasized the Roman numeral “X,” shifting its marketing name to simply “macOS.” It has also increasingly capitalized on its annually changing “code name” assigned to each release — first big cats, then places in California — relegating the actual version number increasingly out of prominent view.

The move beyond “X” to 11 may seem concerningly ominous, but it really just reflects a series of moves Apple has made to better align its work on the Mac desktop with its mobile platforms. After 14 years of iOS releases, we are now getting a simple, streamlined annual version number for the Mac as well.

The Mac isn’t going away, it’s catching up

A number of observers have suggested that Apple is losing its interest in the Mac platform, and fear that Apple is making plans to replace its 35-year-old, conventional computing platform with, effectively, a scaled-up version of iPadOS. They cite developments such as Catalyst, which helps developers bring their existing OS code to the Mac, or the new move to Apple Silicon Macs, which will enable future hardware to run iOS software without any modification.

Some have pointed to the new UI refinements in Big Sur that look like a modern departure from the traditional Mac appearance with its squared panels, rigid alignments, and more dramatic contrasting of dark monochrome regions. The default Big Sur desktop in the first beta makes the new, updated appearance took particularly radical due to its use of intense colors (below). Is this the end of the beloved Macintosh? Is it becoming “just a big iPod touch”?

Big Sur beta desktop

Change the default wallpaper (above) to the photo of California’s Big Sur (top) and the whole thing looks less foreign and garish

I don’t think so. Instead, I think the changes Apple is making to the Mac are in the right direction, even if they do touch that part of the brain that incites fear and concern simply because things are new, different, and slightly less familiar. There are some transition issues and rough edges— like the brand new Battery panel that replaces the confusing old mess of “Energy Saver”— but this is the first developer beta. Things are still in flux and changes are being hammered out.

Big Sur Battery panel

Did Apple hire Google’s emoji team to draw up this weird condom battery?

Rather than being disgruntled that some things on the Mac are changing and — horrors! — reflecting the work Apple’s already done for iPadOS, it’s useful to look at things from the other direction. For years, the Mac has received less of Apple’s attention and resources simply because the market opportunities afforded by iPhones and iPad were vastly larger.

Over the last decade, the work needed to deliver leading smartphone and tablet technology was urgent, while the Mac mostly just needed refinements to keep it comfortably competitive with commodity PCs and netbooks. Three years ago, Apple was consumed with reinventing iPhone X, and since then it has focused on differentiating and radically enhancing its “new” iPadOS platform.

Back to the Mac

The new Big Sur borrows a series of familiar, functional improvements from Apple’s years of work that focused on iOS. One great example is the new Control Center, which brings the same clean, intuitive, configurable layout of quick settings to the Mac.

Control Center in Big Sur

Big Sur’s new iOS-inspired Control Center is beautiful and brilliant

One of Apple’s biggest efforts in last year’s macOS Catalina was to break up its monolithic iTunes into a series of modern, streamlined apps, reflecting how things worked under iOS. In our review of Catalina, one of the problems we noted was the increasing lack of visual and user interface consistency across its various bundled apps, a gap that kept growing as batches of new apps with their own fresh interface style erupted with each new release.

Certain older apps looked like they were stuck in different points of the past because they literally were. As Apple’s internal development tools kept changing over the years, some of the oldest code remained difficult to modernize or harmonize with the rest of the system.

Instead of spending the last couple years working to bring various old macOS components up to date with the Mojave appearance, Apple instead began charting out a much bolder and material leap: a jump to its own Apple Silicon at the lowest layer of the stack, as well as a radical new approach to building high-level appearance and behavior in the new Swift UI. In tandem, Apple also introduced Catalyst as a way to bring existing iOS code to the Mac.

All three represent huge investments in enhancing the Mac platform and preparing it for the future. They expand the library of software that Macs can run while transferring and adapting some of the tremendously valuable UI work already performed for mobile devices to desktop Mac systems tuned to handle larger and more complex tasks. These changes actually make the Mac more commercially relevant and a stronger platform.

Critics have fixated on niggling appearance issues in the initial Catalyst apps and worried that the cherished Mac look and feel was going away. The truth is: it is. The Mac is increasingly modernizing, leveraging new, more flexible code that supports features ranging from accessibility and internationalization to Dark Mode. Mac stalwarts might be tempted to blame the iPad or iOS, but the real force for change is Swift UI, Catalyst, Symbols, and other modern UI techniques and technology that simply appeared on iPad and iPhone first because they were receiving the most attention from Apple.

Apple Music Big Sur

Big Sur borrows tech from iOS, such as Symbols, to enhance the Mac and make it more consistent

It’s fine to critically examine the visual changes Apple is introducing in Big Sur, but consider evaluating these as inherently positive changes that are not yet finalized. The impact of Big Sur changes may seem more radical simply because they are more consistently applied across the entire macOS than in previous releases. That in itself indicates that rather than just being an arbitrary “new look” for new apps, the changes are a more fundamental rethinking of how to keep software modern and maintainable, and therefore more consistent.

At WWDC20, Apple has devoted a lot of work to show developers how they can leverage the latest tools, particularly Swift UI, to create clean app interfaces that are uncluttered, consistent, and intuitive to use, while also supporting modern functionality and being prepared to adapt to future OS features as they are delivered.

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