Article updated on December 2, 2020 at 7:34 AM PST

MacOS Big Sur review: The other half of the Mac's 2020 rebirth

MacOS 11 brings new capabilities and more unity with the rest of your Apple devices.

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MacOS 11 Big Sur arrived last month, and it's got a few geeky features for long-time Mac users. But it also teams up with Apple's new M1 chip (the first in a line known as Apple silicon) to turn the page on a new chapter for the Mac. So let's break it down.

If you're a traditional Mac user, you're going to like the return of the classic Mac startup sound -- once made more famous in the movie Wall-E. Now it's back in Big Sur. It's a nice touch because there are changes in Big Sur that are going to make some Mac veterans uncomfortable. 

That's because Big Sur imports a bunch of stuff from iOS , from design elements to popular features. In most cases, that's a good thing, because it brings consistency across the  iPhone , iPad and Mac, and that makes a more user-friendly experience for most people.

Let's get this quibble out of the way

We'll talk about the most interesting new stuff in Big Sur in a minute, but first I want to talk about the most annoying thing to get it out of the way. There's one nitpicky thing I noticed right away, and which I think plenty of you will notice too when you first try Big Sur. And that's the new icons. 


Shadowy 3D icons in Big Sur.

Screenshot by Jason Hiner/CNET

Going all the way back to the launch of the Mac in 1984, icons have been one of the things that made the Mac the Mac. Big Sur does some weird stuff with its icons. It brings them more in line with iOS, which isn't a bad thing. For example, the icons for Messages and Mail -- which used to look completely different between the Mac and the iPhone or iPad -- now use the same colors and shapes in their icons across the different operating systems . Great.

The problem is that in Big Sur, Apple went backwards with these icons by adding 3D shadows, which are especially apparent in the new icons for Messages and FaceTime on Mac. While the iOS versions use a clean, simple flat design, the Mac versions look like a throwback to the pre-2013 iPhone days when Apple used heavy-handed 3D icons that leaned into skeuomorphism, where icons look like the real-world counterpart of whatever they represent, such as a physical calendar or envelope. In recent years, Apple -- along with Google and Microsoft -- has adopted more modern, flat design and that's generally easier on the eyes. 


Flat icons in iOS 14.

Screenshot by Jason Hiner/CNET

These new 3D icons stick out like a sore thumb, because they feel like dated design elements -- especially when the rest of the new UI in Big Sur is so clean and crisp, as we'll discuss in a second. The effect is like having the beautiful minimalist interior of the new Tesla Model Y and then dropping in floor mats that use green shag carpet. It's an eyesore, and every time you look at those icons, it takes away from what's otherwise a pleasant UI experience.

Transparent beauty

Apple's software chief Craig Federighi has called Big Sur the biggest leap forward in design since MacOS 10 was launched almost 20 years ago. That's one of the main reasons why Apple finally decided to call this MacOS 11. And overall, there's a lot to like about the new look and feel.

The dock is now more translucent and floats like the dock on the iPhone and iPad. The Finder is redesigned and is also more see-through with new, simpler (and flatter) icons. The Menu Bar is more translucent, too, and it's easier than ever to make it auto-hide using the new Dock & Menu Bar section in Settings. In fact, if you auto-hide both the Dock and the Menu Bar, you can have a super clean desktop. My only problem when I do this is that I keep looking for the clock in the upper right-hand corner (even when I'm wearing a watch and could easily check that). 

iOS imports: Control Center and Widgets

Big Sur also brings over two features from iOS that will make a lot of people happy, if they use both a Mac with an iPhone or iPad. One is the Control Center. This is a favorite in iOS, which allows you to swipe down from the upper right corner for easy access to airplane mode, volume, brightness, Wi-Fi, the flashlight and a bunch other buttons that you can customize. The version in Big Sur is also in the upper right-hand corner, and you access it by clicking the slider icon next to the clock. 

Screenshot by Jason Hiner/CNET

The Mac version of Control Center doesn't have nearly as many options as the iOS version yet, but it's a start. One nice feature is the ability to drag settings from the Control Center up to the Menu Bar -- although removing them isn't as easy. You have to act like you're dragging it to the Menu Bar, but then drag it back and drop it in the Control Center.

The other big feature imported from iOS is Widgets, which you access by actually clicking on the clock in the upper right corner of the screen. Widgets have already made a splash in iOS 14: You can now place them on the iPhone home screen for the first time (something Android phones have been doing for over a decade). 

Sadly, you can't drop the Big Sur versions of Widgets onto the desktop on Mac, which is a bummer because your Mac has a lot more desktop real estate where you could do interesting stuff with them. But I bet we'll see that in a future release. Another drawback to Widgets is they're mostly just visual bits of information. If you click them, they simply open the app they're associated with. 

Ideally, they'll eventually be much more functional. For example, I'd love an Apple Music or Spotify widget where you could play or pause, skip forward and back and even flip between playlists or pin two or three of your favorite stations. Again, I'd expect this kind of widget expansion is likely on Apple's roadmap. Even in their static state, there aren't many widgets to try at the start. Both Apple and third-party app makers will need to make a lot more widgets for this to be really interesting. But we can see the potential.

Screenshot by Jason Hiner/CNET

The main event: Safari

So that's the look and feel, the features being imported from iOS and the stuff that's likely to make future Macs even more powerful and friendly to use. But let's talk about the one new thing you're likely to use the most right now. Fortunately, in Big Sur, it's also the thing that brings the biggest and best improvements for everyday use. I'm talking about Safari, since so much of what all of us do happens through the web. 

I was a longtime Chrome user until the last few years, when Chrome started getting slow and hogging a lot of power and RAM. Like many people, I've had natural privacy concerns since Google's whole business is built around farming our data. There are a number of browsers like Firefox and Brave that are much more privacy-friendly for consumers, but I've liked the speed of Safari in recent MacOS releases. Safari has lagged behind, however, in features like tab management and user interface.

Thankfully, the Apple web browser makes a huge leap forward in Big Sur. If anything, the speed of loading pages is even faster. But the real improvements are in usability and privacy. Apple has included a brand-new Start Page that's highly customizable. You can select or add a background image and you can choose the elements you want on your Start Page, including bookmarks, saved articles to read later and open tabs from Safari on your iPhone or iPad.

The way Safari handles tabs in Big Sur is the biggest improvement of all, and the one thing that's likely to make me use this browser a lot more. It now shows the favicon logo for the website, by default, which makes it easier to identify your open tabs. If you have a lot of tabs open, like I do most of the time, it no longer squishes the tabs on the right side and the left side, making you mouse over them to expand them -- which used to drive me insane. Big Sur also adds a new tab preview feature where you can mouse over a tab and see a live thumbnail to help you find the tab you're looking for. 

Screenshot by Jason Hiner/CNET

Safari now has a built-in Privacy Report as well. You can click the Privacy Report button on any web page and see the number of trackers that Safari blocked from trying to digitally fingerprint and track you. You can also see which sites they were trying to send your data to. 

Safari is the cream of the crop for Big Sur, but there are other useful new upgrades, including the Messages app -- which despite its ugly icon is now functionally almost identical to iMessage on iOS. Same for the Maps app, which now includes electric vehicle routing and cycling directions. That makes it better than ever for planning your route on your Mac and then sending the directions to your phone. And with the new Macs announced in November running Apple's own M1 processor, Big Sur will also be able to run iPhone and iPad apps on those systems

The Mac's 2020 turning point

Apple has devoted a ton of attention to the Mac in 2020. The new Macs running Apple Silicon are going to allow even tighter integration between hardware and software to make Macs run everything faster and have more efficient battery life. But it's also going to allow even better integration between the Mac and other Apple devices. That's where features like Universal Clipboard come in -- where you can copy text or a web address from your iPhone and immediately paste it directly on your Mac.

The combo of Apple silicon-based Macs plus MacOS Big Sur will also allow Apple to take some of the advancements it's made on the iPhone and iPad and bring them more directly to the Mac. For example, the new MacBook Air running Apple's M1 chip and Big Sur brings the Image Signal Processor software from the iPhone to the Mac's webcam to improve sharpness, white balance, noise reduction and facial recognition. The end game here is making video calls better, and this software-hardware integration is what allows Apple to bring what it's developed on the iPhone to the Mac. 

Big Sur is a free upgrade, so there's no buying decision to make here, only a download decision. When upgrading to a new operating system, the biggest questions are always, "Will all my stuff work, or will it break anything important?" That's why it's wise to hold off for a couple months to upgrade your primary machine for getting work done. 

That said, after using Big Sur on a MacBook Air all summer, I didn't encounter any major bugs or crashes. So I don't think it will be long before Big Sur is reliable and any incompatibilities are made known. At that point, it should be an easy upgrade decision for most people with a compatible Mac. To learn if your Mac can run Big Sur, check out CNET's rundown of which machines made the list. Remember that nothing can make your old computer feel new again like upgrading the operating system, and Big Sur is one of those kinds of upgrades.

First published Nov. 12