Apple gives the Mac a giant visual overhaul with macOS Big Sur

in General Discussion edited November 2020
This is not your usual macOS upgrade. Both visually and underneath the hood, macOS Big Sur brings considerable changes -- and they're mostly all for the best.

Apple's new macOS Big Sur
Apple's new macOS Big Sur

You're an AppleInsider reader so you follow Apple, you know how macOS upgrades usually go. After months of information about its features, you install the new OS, it goes smoothly, and then you can't see what the difference is.

That does quickly change as you actually work on the new macOS. At first glance, though, there's rarely all that pronounced a difference. And the point when you really get that it's new is if you ever have to go back to the previous one after a few weeks of use.

It's different with macOS Big Sur. As well as the legion of changes to just about every feature, there is also a very marked visual change to the entire OS.

Really, more than any previous macOS update, this is truly a new OS. It's even literally so, as this is macOS 11, instead of just the next point update to macOS 10.

If you don't like it, you think it's turning macOS into iOS and you have a very good point. If you do like it, you may even so still find some elements look less like productivity tools and more like candy.

The new user interface

It's hard to find words to describe the new default background in macOS Big Sur that don't sound critical. Yet they have an energy and a clarity that makes everything pop in a way that feels positive and ready to do some work.

Nonetheless, the solid color patterns mean it is on the gaudy side, and very different to the photography of California locations that we've been used to in the last few years. You can change it, of course, through during the beta we would keep finding that every now and again our lock screen would be this candy store poster.

Wallpaper on the Mac is chiefly decorative -- it should help you quickly spot what you're looking for on the desktop, but that's the limit of its functionality. Also having the new candy-color design, though, are three key tools on the screen.

The dock and the menu bar have been revamped, and the previous controls like Bluetooth have been grouped into a new window.

Top: Finder in macOS Catalina. Bottom: a roomier, more spaced Finder in macOS Big Sur
Top: Finder in macOS Catalina. Bottom: a roomier, more spaced Finder in macOS Big Sur

Everything in the Finder, and across the whole of Big Sur, has a slight but noticeably wider, longer, more spaced-out feel. Menus get more space, for instance, and Apple has redesigned Finder windows to give what it calls a full-height sidebar.

That really just means that the dividing line between the sidebar and the controls at the top of the window has been removed. Controls are now pushed to the right, which is fine except for two elements that take getting used to.

It used to be that the folder being shown in the Finder window would have its name at the top. Long-time Mac users knew they could option-click on that name and move up through all the hierarchy of folders within folders.

Now that name is in line with the other controls, such as where you choose Icon or List view. Old hands will soon find that you can still option-click on the name, and newcomers will remain as in the dark as they were before.

Except there is an oddity in Big Sur. If you click on the name of a window, it first moves aside to show you an icon next to that name, typically a folder icon. It looks like a mistake because nothing else happens, but this is how you now access some more folder functions.

Previously you could click on the folder next to the name in the top of the window and drag it to another window, another disk. You can still do that, but before you click and drag, you now have to click on the name to first reveal that icon.

It's two steps where it used to be one. But fortunately, if the number of Mac users who know about option-clicking to go back through folders is small, it probably still dwarfs the number who know you can drag this icon away from the window.

The dock and menu bar in Big Sur

The very top of your Mac screen and, by default anyway, the very bottom, have seen significant changes. The dock now contains icons that more like those on iOS, although when you first start using them, they seem to be more 3D.

It takes time to get used to the change to these familiar icons, but in this case it's a change that ultimately doesn't make a difference. Some icons are harder to spot -- such as Preview -- while others are easier.

The Dock is a bit candy-colored
The Dock is a bit candy-colored

You'd hope for clarity from all of the app icons, but it was the same with the previous dock. What's easier and what's harder to distinguish has just changed.

There's nothing you can do about it, either, so fortunately after a little while you get used to it. You very quickly forget what the dock and the app icons used to look like.

Whereas the menu bar's visual change is potentially more problematic. The idea of the menu bar now is that its color blends in better with your background. The menu bar shouldn't be so prominent that it gets in the way of your concentrating on the work you're creating.

The menubar changes color to match your wallpaper, which sometimes means menubar apps look little toothless
The menubar changes color to match your wallpaper, which sometimes means menubar apps look little toothless

Unfortunately, this blending only works well if the developers of menubar apps play along. As the betas rolled out and we neared this final public release, things got better because developers did update their apps to be visible on the menubar.

Even now, though, you can look up at your menubar and it seems to have a toothless grin. A app that you know is there, and which you can click on to use, appears to be showing no icon at all.

So where dropdown menus from the menubar have been made clearer by being given greater space, the menubar icons themselves may not be clear at all. This is not going to be a problem forever, though, as even through the beta period, developers were changing icons to be visible.

Control Center

What's more likely to stay the same is the Control Center, which is overall a great improvement, which includes many excellent features -- and unfortunately one clunky one.

The overall excellence is that you can now see all the controls from Bluetooth to Do Not Disturb in one place. As with the iPhone, you have to know that there is more detail hidden behind each displayed piece of information, but it is all there.

If you use one of these controls often enough, you can elect to add it to your menubar. That is particularly smoothly done, as you just open the Control Center, find the control, and drag it to the menubar.

Very oddly, though, you can't then drag a control back.

You can drag items out of the new Control Center
You can drag items out of the new Control Center

Any control that you drag out to the menubar actually stays where it is, too. It remains where it was in Control Center so you can't denude that, you can just make a copy of favorite controls in the menubar.

To get rid of it in the menubar, then, you have to switch it off. Unlike many or most third-party menubar apps, though, there isn't a control to quit any of Apple's.

Instead, you have to go through system preferences to remove them.

How to remove Control Center options from the menubar

  1. Open System Preferences

  2. Choose Dock & Menu Bar

  3. Look for the control in the left-hand bar's Control Center section

  4. Click on the control

  5. Untick Show in Menu Bar

As you go through Dock & Menu Bar, the list of controls tells you whether each one is just in Control Center, or both there and the menu bar. By default, Apple adds many of the controls to the menu bar anyway.

Differences in apps

Apple's macOS underpins everything on the Mac. When you press a button on the keyboard and a letter appears in Microsoft Word, it's the OS that did it. So changes to macOS effect everything, can be seen in everything.

With macOS Big Sur, that's mostly for the good. During the beta versions, a Finder window with several tabs would be difficult to use. It was often impossible to be quite sure which tab you were currently seeing.

That's been addressed now and the current tab has a lighter color to match the rest of the window. A tab you haven't currently selected now has a faintly darker title tab, and it also appears recessed. It still takes getting used to, but it's no longer guesswork which tab you're in.

If you find you're taking a long time to adjust, you may be able to do something about it. Apple has added two new color options that are available system-wide from System Preferences, General control panel.

System Preferences adds to the Accent and Highlight colors
System Preferences adds to the Accent and Highlight colors

One of the options is an addition to the existing Accent Color, which controls the look of buttons and icons. By default, this is set to the new choice of Multicolor, which actually means that it will be whatever color an app developer chooses. You can override that and select any other color, then all apps will use that.

Similarly, the existing Highlight color setting now includes a new default called, possibly confusingly, Accent Color. Again, if that default is left, then it's up each app what color is shown as you drag across text to select it.

Safari's new look

Safari tabs resemble those in the Finder, but they have the new advantage that you can see a preview of their contents without opening them. Hover over a tab and you get a large thumbnail view of it.

That proves to always be handy, but it is especially so when you have very many tabs open. When you get to a certain point, Safari just shows you a favicon instead of a tab name, yet the thumbnail preview always works.

Safari can now translate between seven languages
Safari can now translate between seven languages

Above the row of tabs, there is the regular combination search and address bar, but it, too, has been improved. Now if you go to a website that is not written in the default language for your location, you may get an option for translation.

Originally promised to come first to the US but more recently also rolling out to the UK, Safari translation works with seven languages at first. These are English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Brazilian Portugese, and what Apple calls Simplified Chinese.

Go to a site with any of these languages and you will at first, and very briefly, see a line in the address bar that says "Translation available." When that vanishes, there is a Translate icon toward the far right of the address.

Click on that, and you can choose language preferences, or just select Translate to English. It can take a moment, and sometimes the translation connection fails, but usually you will very soon find yourself reading that site in English.

It's remarkable. If you're used to copying a few paragraphs and pasting them into Google Translate, it's revolutionary.

Widgets become more useful and more iOS 14-like
Widgets become more useful and more iOS 14-like

There's one more thing with the address bar. To the left of it, there's now a Privacy icon.

Click on that and you get a list of all the ads or other site resources that have attempted to track you -- and Safari has thwarted.

Behind the scenes

These are the most visual changes to macOS Big Sur, but more than ever, it's what's changed underneath that is ultimately going to be most significant. This update breaks away from the macOS that began with OS X, and it prepares the way for Apple Silicon.

When this macOS Big Sur is running on Apple Silicon, it's also going to be able to run iOS apps, for instance. Well, most of them, at least, as developers can opt-out of cross-platform availability.

Perhaps most notably, though, Big Sur is also introducing greater security and privacy. These features are not always as visible a difference, but they protect us from problems and let us carry on using those aspects that are visible, that do make macOS Big Sur productive for us.

Keep up with AppleInsider by downloading the AppleInsider app for iOS, and follow us on YouTube, Twitter @appleinsider and Facebook for live, late-breaking coverage. You can also check out our official Instagram account for exclusive photos.


  • Reply 1 of 31
    “Update not found” ... the quality of service has dropped at Apple...
  • Reply 2 of 31
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 6,516administrator
    iOSDevSWE said:
    “Update not found” ... the quality of service has dropped at Apple...
    CDN propagation. Happens all the time. Should be good to go.
  • Reply 3 of 31
    Yeah, I'm getting an "Update not fund" error too on my BRAND NEW IMAC.

    Software update says I'm up to date.  I can see Big Sure in the Mac App Store but when I click
    on get I just "get" an error.   :s
    edited November 2020 Grayeagle
  • Reply 4 of 31
    sflocalsflocal Posts: 5,993member
    iOSDevSWE said:
    “Update not found” ... the quality of service has dropped at Apple...
    iOSDevSWE said:
    “Update not found” ... the quality of service has dropped at Apple...
    CDN propagation. Happens all the time. Should be good to go.
    Typical.  Anyone in the know, knows that these kind of updates go to other distributed servers to better serve local users.  

    But let's blame Apple for something out of their control because.... Apple.

    I suspect iOSDevSWE is more a weekend coder than (if even that) than someone that actually understands technology.  Just complain first... because he's not getting his immediate 5-minute fix.
  • Reply 5 of 31
    iOSDevSWE said:
    “Update not found” ... the quality of service has dropped at Apple...
    Some people have no patience. I'm sure that it will be available soon.
    Those of us rather longer in the tooth will wait a bit before even thinking about the upgrade.
    I waited six months before going to Catalina.

  • Reply 6 of 31
    iOSDevSWE said:
    “Update not found” ... the quality of service has dropped at Apple...
    Absurd. That isn’t a sign of some doom or the other shoe dropping, it’s what happens every year when the OS drops. My own update is barely downloading, the demand is just high. 

    You don’t really develop software, do you?
    edited November 2020 williamlondonAlex1NcornchipGrayeaglewatto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 31
    iOSDevSWE said:
    “Update not found” ... the quality of service has dropped at Apple...
    And the first post, have you recently exited your MacRumors training and decided to come here to spread that ridiculous shit?
  • Reply 8 of 31
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 10,044member
    iOSDevSWE said:
    “Update not found” ... the quality of service has dropped at Apple...
    Yeah, Apple is such a cluster-fuck. Why are you still on the platform by the way? Or are you?
  • Reply 9 of 31
    Well its hours later and I've progressed from "Update Not Found" to it showing the update to install, but going to "an error occurred during installation" immediately when clicked. I love the people excusing this away as "everyone knows" these releases are spread out to local servers, etc. Um... this is the most trouble I've had installing a Mac OS update since they went to online OS upgrades.
  • Reply 10 of 31
    The new Finder windows look is a no go for me: a lot of things I used to do with just one click now become a two click thing. I really don't understand some design choices, like the folder name in the tool bar, which by the way breaks the Apple GUI guidelines: that alone arises many problems, longer folder names get truncated, dragging the folder icon to other folders to move or copy has become a 2 step process, it uses a lot of the tool bar space which I used to reach with just 1 click other common commands like "New folder"
    edited November 2020 CheeseFreezewilliamlondon
  • Reply 11 of 31
    flydogflydog Posts: 1,095member
    It's a pretty disappointing release, especially given that it's the first major release since X was released almost 20 years ago.  A lot of sake for the sake of change, like redesigned icons, which actually look hideous, and goofy new sound effects.  Yes there is a control center and other tweaks, but still same bugs as X and no apparent performance increase.

    This morning I had to delete 100 fonts due to an issue in Adobe. Each font deletion required entering my password.  Something that should have taken half a second took 10 minutes.

    Simple absurd.
    edited November 2020 williamlondon
  • Reply 12 of 31
    spice-boyspice-boy Posts: 1,450member
    Been on the phone with Apple support all morning, my 2019 has a case of the "black screen of death" after installing Big Sur this morning. I suspect the install time has doubled if not tripled from earlier OS updates from 45-50 minutes to 2.5-3 hours. Hold off installing on your main Mac, I'm royally screwed if I can't get my iMac working again.
  • Reply 13 of 31
    sdw2001sdw2001 Posts: 17,895member
    Just upgraded about an hour ago.  Mid 2015 MBP-- 16GB/250GB/2.2GHZ.  Good download that was interrupted by me being stupid and switching to iPhone tether.  It then resumed right away when I switched back.  Took a few mins to have apps reload and everything fully populate.  The fans were running for a bit after restart.  

    Except for the God-awful default desktop (which I changed), it looks great and seems very snappy.  Interestingly, the additional desktops didn't update to the new picture until I closed them and re-opened them.  
  • Reply 14 of 31
    I’ve missed having the power of a desktop for certain tasks, but for 90+% of my daily computing tasks my iPad Pro is more than enough.
  • Reply 15 of 31
    spice-boyspice-boy Posts: 1,450member
    lkrupp said:
    iOSDevSWE said:
    “Update not found” ... the quality of service has dropped at Apple...
    Yeah, Apple is such a cluster-fuck. Why are you still on the platform by the way? Or are you?
    Typical nasty response which is not necessary since they were not trash talking you, just a dumb company.
  • Reply 16 of 31
    dewmedewme Posts: 4,405member
    Seems rather odd that Apple is trying to push an update to GarageBand that has a dependency on macOS 11 to my 2012 iMac that is not compatible with macOS 11. I haven't found a way to keep it from nagging me to do the update and it pops up an error when it tries to update the app in the background. 

    Hopefully these upgrade and installation issues will subside over the next few days. I guess this is a reminder that no matter how many beta release you put out, there's always a change for something to break when the curtain gets lifted on the day of the release's grand debut to the big wide world.

    Software is hard.

  • Reply 17 of 31
    I'm having big legibility challenges with my 68 year old eyes.The font is dark grey rather than black in all of the headers on Safari. Is the blackest black of lettering color too much to ask?  The increased contrast setting in Accessibility is of little help. I also immediately noticed that the menu bar and its drop down menus are much harder to read.  I am opting for "reduced dock and menu bar transparency, which I always have opted for in prior systems. That helps. The bottom line is that I have an easier time reading the menubar items and Safari's headings and tabs on my 11" 2011 MBA with High Sierra and Safari 13.1 than on my 13" 2020 MBP with all the latest software.
    Tomorrow I'm contacting Apple support to get help reverting my MBP to Catalina, until if and when they make their fonts more readable. I established a case number, and a complaint case number with Apple support this morning concerning the readability issue.
    There are also an amusingly large number of bugs on both my 2017 iMac and the 2020 MBP.
  • Reply 18 of 31
    Mac OS 11 is a very nice looking operating system. I love the new drive icons but wish I could change their colors to match my T7 drives. Hey Apple, if you are listening, consider using you own rendering technology to let users change the color/roughness/material of the 3D models for the icons. It should take no time to render an icon sized 3D image on any modern computer.
  • Reply 19 of 31
    XedXed Posts: 1,479member
    I've been loving this update since WWDC. I know a lot of people say it's now designed for touch. I see why they might think that at first place, but it's still designed for pointer when you're actually using it. Making it seem that way probably has a lot more to do with them knowing that iPhone and iPadOS apps would also be running on it with the M-series Macs, and what I predict will lead to a lot longtime iPhone and iPad "switchers" who are tired of their old WinPC collecting dust but aren't completely satisfied with just using Apple's handheld devices.
  • Reply 20 of 31
    I downloaded Big Sur on my 2013 MacBook Pro and tried FaceTime camera app, the image quality of my camera is soooo much better now, has anyone tested it?

    I know Apple said that the cameras will now use software to better image quality, but I thought that was for the M1 Macs only. Very happy with this feature
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