Apple has a major update to its macOS operating system coming, although if you’re particularly keen — and happy to take on a few risks — you can install the next generation of macOS onto a qualifying Mac computer right now. I’ve been testing out the new macOS in its beta form for a little while, and Apple’s just made it possible to install as a public beta for anyone who wants to sign up over at Apple’s beta software site.
Be warned however that when Apple says it’s in beta, it’s not kidding; it’s not really a good idea to install this on your work Mac, or a personal one if it’s the only machine you’ve got, because as early software it can be a little buggy at times. In all cases you absolutely must back up your personal files before switching to Big Sur, and that’s advice that will be true once the final version arrives as well.
Formally, it is called macOS Big Sur, but also Mac OS 11, the first numerical update to Mac operating systems in more than a decade. Apple’s been rolling out annual updates over that time, but they were all Mac OS X.1, X.2 and so on.
It won’t take you long once it’s installed to see why Apple’s decided that this release deserves the full numerical point release, though, because it’s both a major visual overhaul of the way the Mac looks, as well as a pretty big revision under the hood.
In terms of the user interface, everything is a lot more reminiscent of Apple’s iOS in terms of the way icons are laid out, as well as the use of colour — and a lot of white space — around application menus. Elements that you might not need are popped out of view until you mouse over them, and design ideas like the control center from iOS are now present for quick checking of WiFi, Bluetooth, volume and battery status on laptop Macs.
It’s a design that’s meant to make you focus more on the apps you’re running, although long term Mac users may find it a bit disorienting at first because it feels like all the menus are missing. Although if you are a long term Mac user, you might be pleased to find out that the classic Mac startup chime is back when you first fire up your Mac running MacOS Big Sur.
There’s a raft of new changes to the core Mac apps such as Safari, Mail, Photos and Calendar of course, and because it’s still in beta there’s some small scope for further changes to appear there.
Under the hood there’s a slew of software upgrades, with a strong focus on security. Apps that run on Big Sur are meant to tell you more about the information they’re sharing online, especially when surfing the web. What you do with that information is up to you, and there may be some balancing required for some sites that rely on tracking cookies for matters like simple sign-in to consider.
Apple’s MacOS Big Sur also looks forward to the next generation of Mac hardware that will run on Apple’s own ARM processors. Current Intel-based Macs will run macOS Big Sur now, but it’s also the software foundation for the Macs that Apple will release in years to come.
The full upgrade to MacOS Big Sur is scheduled to appear as a full non-beta upgrade later this year; Apple typically releases it around the same time we see new iPhones hit the market, but there’s a lot of indications that the pandemic issues of 2020 may see that schedule disrupted a little. It will run on most Macs from around 2014 or later, but 2012 and some 2013 models will not be able to install it when it becomes fully available.