With macOS Big Sur taking the label of macOS 11.0, Apple has officially bid adieu to the OS X generation that started with Mac OS X 10.0 way back in 2001.

macOS Big Sur displayed on a MacBook

The latest version of macOS, launched in November 2020, features a complete design makeover with a wide array of upgrades across most of its native apps. We now see a prominent convergence of design and functionality across Apple's mobile iOS and its desktop macOS.

Let's look at the biggest changes in macOS Big Sur to see what you can expect from this major update.

Can I Upgrade to macOS Big Sur?

If you own any of the Mac models listed below, you can upgrade to macOS Big Sur:

  • MacBook (2015 and later)
  • MacBook Air (2013 and later)
  • MacBook Pro (late 2013 and later)
  • Mac mini (2014 and later)
  • iMac (2014 and later)
  • iMac Pro (2017 and later)
  • Mac Pro (2013 and later)

Follow our guide to prepping for a new macOS update, then visit System Preferences > Software Update to download and install Big Sur.

1. The Much-Awaited macOS Redesign

The highlight of macOS 11 Big Sur is undoubtedly the redesigned interface. The operating system gets a major overhaul that's slick, modern, refreshing, and as Apple states, its "biggest design upgrade since the introduction of Mac OS X."

Apple's effort to make the macOS more akin to its iOS and iPadOS counterparts is much more evident in Big Sur. You'll immediately notice the familiarity with the Control Center and Notification Center, the Messages app, and Widgets.

Other subtle tweaks include a refreshed floating Dock, a translucent menu bar, better spacing between icons in the menu and sidebars, and even the curvature of window corners. Overall, the interface looks highly polished and elegant.

2. Control and Notification Center

Control Center displayed on macOS Big Sur

Similar to iOS, you can now access a bunch of quick controls, settings, and toggle options in the Control Center. These include the volume, screen brightness, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and similar.

Like in iOS, you can expand some of these settings to view other options, like toggles for dark mode. You can also drag favorite controls to customize the menu bar. Open the Control Center by clicking the slider icon next to the clock on the menu bar.

The Notification Center is accessible by clicking the clock on the menu bar, or with a two-finger swipe from the right on your trackpad. The new design features stacked cards for notifications, as they appear in iOS.

You can choose to group or expand them, as opposed to browsing through a single feed. You can also respond to messages directly from the Notification Center without opening any of the apps.

3. Safari 14

Safari's competition with Chrome over the years has led Apple to refine the Mac browser so more people use it. Enter Safari 14, which brings a slew of enhancements and key features.

First off, there's the addition of a new start page that you can customize with wallpapers, along with sections such as Reading List, Bookmarks, Siri suggestions, and iCloud Tabs.

Two of the best new features of Safari 14 are Chrome-styled extensions and a new privacy report feature.

Safari 14 privacy report tracker

Clicking the shield icon in the address bar reveals all the trackers on any given website, letting you also see how many have monitored your activity around the web over the last 30 days.

You'll also notice favicon symbols visible on tabs by default, making it easier to see which site is open. Also helping with this are new popup previews that appear while hovering your pointer over a tab. This is extremely useful if you find yourself switching back and forth between multiple tabs all the time.

The company's translation service also debuts on Safari 14, with support for a handful of languages. Apple claims that the browser is now faster and more battery-efficient, too.

4. Messages

Messages displayed on macOS Big Sur

The Messages app goes beyond just sending and receiving functionality in Big Sur. It now has upgrades that put it on par with Messages on the iPhone and iPad. You can add inline replies to individual messages, pin conversations to the top of the sidebar, and reply directly to a person by typing their name or @-mentioning them in group chats.

There are more choices for adding message effects, the ability to customize your Memoji, and also the ability to share images, videos, and GIFs with a new photo picker. You can use #images to see and share what's trending. Any changes you make in the Messages app will sync across all your Apple devices.

5. Maps

Apple Maps has come a long way since it first launched to a lot of criticism. But Apple has gotten better at bringing much-needed improvements; the updated Maps in macOS Big Sur is a continuation of this.

The app now includes electric vehicle routing and cycling directions for better route planning on your Mac (though cycling directions are only available in a few major cities). You can send directions from a Mac to your iPhone for access on the go.

Maps displayed in macOS Big Sur

In some ways, the app now feels on par with Google Maps. This is due to features like Look Around, which gives a 360-degree view of destinations. Apple Maps now also populates roads and real-time traffic congestion.

The service now lets you save locations as Favorites, which previously was restricted to iOS. You can also explore places to visit, shop, or eat with the newly curated Guides feature, which can be customized based on places you visit. The indoor maps feature lets you browse details of indoor locations, such as airports and shopping centers.

6. Widgets

Widgets displayed in macOS Big Sur

Launched with iOS 14, Widgets are another iOS favorite that have now been imported to macOS. They are pretty straightforward, allowing you to add various kinds of shortcuts like Clock, Notes, Calendar, Stocks, and Podcasts.

Access Widgets by clicking the clock in the menu bar. Click Edit Widgets at the bottom to perform various functions like adding and remove widgets, customizing the widget arrangement, and resizing them as small, medium, or large.

7. iPhone and iPad Apps

iPad and iPhone next to each other

macOS Big Sur will be the first version designed to run on the new Apple M1 chip, which the company claims is the world's fastest CPU core. In theory, this means macOS can now run iOS and iPadOS apps.

That said, you'll need to own one of latest Macs to natively run mobile apps. There are several iOS apps that will be able to run on your Mac alongside normal macOS apps. Once you buy an app on iOS, you can then download it for macOS without having to pay an additional cost.

But there are app updates in Big Sur even if you don't have a brand-new Mac. The App Store now has links to summaries of each app’s privacy policy, likened to food nutrition labels (something you check before you buy). These include information on tracking and data collection like usage, contact information, and location—as well as whether or not these details are shared for third-party tracking.

This certainly gives you a better level of transparency while downloading apps.

8. Photos and Videos

iPhone and iPad with photo effects

A new Retouch tool "powered by machine learning" comes to Photos, letting you easily get rid of blemishes and other unwanted elements in your pictures. Now you can apply what Apple calls "the Vibrance effect" to photos for adjusting the intensity of filters and Portrait Lighting.

You can add and edit captions (previously called Descriptions) to your photos, which will sync across all devices if iCloud Photos is enabled.

Related: The iCloud Photos Master Guide

Some additional video-editing features have also made their way to the desktop app in Big Sur. You can tweak and play around with colors and white balance, crop your videos, and also apply different filters.

Other macOS Big Sur Enhancements

You can now closely monitor battery health by clicking the battery icon in the menu bar; accessing Battery Preferences lets you see usage (and screen time) over the past 24 hours or 10 days. Based on your usage, Big Sur learns your charging habits and accordingly adjusts the charging rate for improved battery life.

Spotlight has also received some improvements under the hood, allowing for faster search results when you start typing. It also comes with Quick Look support to allow viewing and editing certain files without opening up the app in question. Furthermore, other native apps like Pages and Keynotes are also fueled by the Spotlight engine.

FaceTime can now detect sign language, while Music has new Listen Now tab. Apple Arcade introduces game pages to view your achievement progress and offers a more seamless way of continuing a game from another Apple device via the Apple Arcade tab.

macOS Big Sur: Are You Ready for an Upgrade?

As we've seen, macOS Big Sur has plenty to offer for all Mac users. While this might make you want to upgrade right away, you should be cautious, since new OS versions often come with issues early on.

No matter when you upgrade, it's smart to back up your Mac so you don't lose important data if something goes wrong.

Image Credit: Apple

Mac connected to external backup drive
How to Back Up Your Mac

Here's how to back up your Mac safely using the built-in Time Machine or iCloud methods.