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macOS 11 Big Sur review: Homage to iPad

Apple macOS 11 Big SurLast week Apple released MacOS 11 Big Sur. The latest version of Apple’s desktop operating system is most significant update in two decades.

In part this is timing. MacOS 11 Big Sur arrives as Apple is moving Mac hardware from Intel processors to its own chip technology.

The first Apple Silicon computers launched earlier in the same week the OS dropped.

Discontinuity

Apple Silicon is beyond interesting. It marks a once-in-a-generation discontinuity on price-performance curves.

The ARM-based M1 processors are part of the same family as the A14 chip found in the latest iPhones and iPads.

While Apple is converging its hardware designs, something similar is happening with operating systems.

iPad fingerprints everywhere

MacOS 11 looks a lot like the latest iPadOS. The two share a similar translucent menu bar, dock, icons and other key parts of the user interface.

Apple has moved the on-off switches found on iOS and iPadOS to macOS. Likewise the full height sidebars will be familiar to anyone who uses iPadOS 14.

There’s a Control Centre that has more than a passing resemblance to the iOS or iPadOS Control Centre.

Here you can find settings for common control such as the volume, screen brightness and other things. In earlier versions of MacOS you could get at these through the menu bar. If you choose, you still can.

Apple has given the Notification centre a similar overhaul. Again it looks like iOS. The Mac Messages app is now much the same as its iOS or iPadOS counterparts. The Maps app has been given the same treatment.

Safari

Safari has been through a similar makeover. It looks markedly different in places. You can now see favicon on tabs, these are the little icons used to identify web sites. Pop-up previews let you know what to expect when you hover the cursor over a tab.

There are more customisation options. You can now roll-your-own Start page. And, very Apple 2020, there’s a built-in privacy report. It shows which websites are tracking you and how they watch you as you move around the web.

Much of the initial customer reaction to the update centres on this user interface redesign. There are high profile long-time Mac users who don’t like the changes. A handful hate them.

iPad convergence

The convergence is deliberate and strategic. Apple may not merge its operating systems in the foreseeable future, but it will be possible to run iOS or iPadOS apps on a Mac in ways that look and feel natural. Moving between the different devices won’t be a jarring experience.

While this is important for many Apple customers, the underlying MacOS remains much the same as before. The same features are there, in many cases they work as they did before.

One thing I’m now acutely aware of is how the new look and feel help with accessibility. This might seem counter intuitive. In places fonts are smaller and skinnier than before. The menu icons are also smaller.

Yet macOS 11 Big Sur arrived as I was recovering from an eye condition1 that, at times, meant I was down to 20 percent of normal vision. In practice I found the newer operation system is easier to see and navigate than before.

The more vibrant colours help. There’s more transparency than before, this can be bad from an accessibility point of view, but you can turn it off if you find it a problem. Oddly, and I find this hard to articulate, I didn’t. Even when my vision was at its lowest ebb, macOS 11 Big Sur was readable.

Likewise, while Big Sur has less contrast than early versions of macOS, it wasn’t an issue.

There are a couple of minor niggles. Since the upgrade, I can no longer use an Apple Watch to unlock the desktop iMac. If there’s a setting that needs tinkering with I can’t find it, not have I found help in the support forum.

Something strange is going on with Apple’s Continuity and the new OS. This could be linked to the Watch issue.

In the majority of cases Continuity works as before. Yet if I, say, go to Safari on the iPad to open a browser window that shows on my Mac, I can’t see the current batch of tabs. Instead I get a set from a few hours ago.

These problems are tiny. Apple may fix them in an update or it could be my settings aren’t right. They are not deal breakers.

Big Sur verdict

There’s a lot that’s new in macOS 11 Big Sur. Much of that is out of sight to everyday users.

Apple has been preparing the ground for this upgrade over the last year or two, which means it is not as jarring as major upgrades were a decade ago. You won’t get lost although you may need a degree of adjustment. A month from now this will be as familiar as your last macOS.

The iPad’s influence is everywhere. It feels as if Apple is using the iPad to push its vision of computing forward, then adopting these features on the Mac as they mature.


  1. Much better now. Thanks for asking. ↩︎

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