Mac OS 11 “Big Sur”: Everything Announced at WWDC 2020

This WWDC was probably the biggest for the Mac in a long time. While some of the new tweaks and features bring interface similarities from iOS as well as its features, there are also a number of new features that many users have been clamoring for, and the big shakeup for Mac processors.

Design overhaul: Mac’s interface is getting quite the visual overhaul. If you’re using the regular “Light Mode” on your Mac, in Big Sur you’ll find the gray theme to be replaced with a coat of white paint, much like iOS. You’ll likewise find the menubar much more translucent.

Overview Image of Apple's "Big Sur" update - Image courtesy of Apple
Image courtesy of Apple

Many apps have also had their design languages updated to fit inline with this more unified aesthetic. Many apps, like Mail and Photos, now have a similarly designed sidebar to their iPad counterparts with similar options. Some like Finder having context aware buttons that can appear in the top bar depending on the actions taking place and what the user is doing, which I could see being really helpful, but also problematic if you’re used to always having a button there to click and now it only appears when it thinks you need it.

Some of these apps, like Mail and Photos, do get some other benefits. Mail will get a little more color, and a search bar that can expand when you need to search and shrink down when not needed. Photos is also getting the ability to use Metal, the graphics framework that Apple allows developers to use to get more performance out of the graphics cards and chips of Apple devices without needing to code specifically for those parts, which means Photos should perform even better now when dealing with large batches of photos, effects, and transitions. This is also good for Photos because the app is getting some new features built in like the Vibrance effect, new retouching tools, and some limited video editing features.

Many of the icons for the standard Mac apps have also been updated to have a unified squared design being similar to their iOS counterparts, rather than the mix of square, round, and slanted icons, though some of the new icons seem to be a little more 3D or compact versions of the iOS icons. I have mixed feelings about this. While some of the new icons are rather charming, I’m rather fond of some of these traditional Mac icons. It could be me just be a bit nostalgic. You’ll see many of these new icons designs in the Dock, which is also raised and detached just slightly from the bottom of the screen.

I have mixed feelings about the new design. On the one hand, I think most of the designs are great and will help unify the experience for a lot of people, and if people are joining the Mac from iOS things will be a lot more recognizable. On the other hand, as a long time Mac user I really like that the Mac had an aesthetic that felt like it’s own and had some character to it, and some of these icons and their little details I’ll miss. I recognize I’m being a bit nostalgic, and in the end most of these changes won’t affect my workflows, plus I’ll probably get over it after a month of using them.

The new Control Center for Mac - Image courtesy of Apple
Image courtesy of Apple

Notification Center and Control Center: Control Center is coming to the Mac. Starting in Big Sur the new Control Center will sit as an icon in the menubar and, much like it’s iOS counterpart, give you quick access to toggle your WiFi and Bluetooth, see what audio is playing and pause or skip through it, and many other tools. They also show how some of these things, like the accessibility menu, can be dragged into your menubar as a icon, or things that need more of a selection menu rather than a toggle or slider, such as the WiFi indicator and selector icon.

Notification Center is still a part the menubar, but now will be part of the date and time menu. When you click on that, the notification center will slide out from the right, with notifications grouped by type and not just by time. The widgets will now also not be cordoned off, but will be mixed in with your notifications and can be resized. While these won’t be exactly the same, they are coming from a similar place and design as the new widgets in iOS 14. They do seem a little more useful, but we’ll have to wait and see how much more useful they really are. That said, the cleaner interface for notifications will be a welcome improvement, as it’s easy to let notifications build up. And unlike iOS, they don’t seem to go away unless you manually clear them or wait more than a week.

Messages: Messages was one of the apps that got the most attention, and rightfully so. Many of the features its getting are also coming to iOS 14, but to some up some of the new features, you’ll have things like inline replies, mentions in conversations, pinned conversations, and new group conversations photos.

Gif Search in Messages for Mac - Image courtesy of Apple
Image courtesy of Apple

The Messages app for Mac is also getting a number of features from iOS that it’s definitely needed for a while. Messages will be getting improved search and photo picker, but also a gif search tool. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on my Mac, knew the perfect gif to reply with, but had to pick up my phone to do that. Another feature coming over from iOS are measure effects. In iOS, you could press and hold the Send button on an iMessage to select a special effect to be played upon delivery such as fireworks or confetti, or send text effects like invisible ink. iMessage for Mac will now be able to display and send those effects. Lastly, you’ll now be able to create, edit, and send Memoji stickers. It doesn’t look like you’ll be able to do the video/audio ones from your Mac at this point, but that’s likely do to the less sophisticated in the Mac compared to the iOS lines.

Personally, iMessage as a whole is one of my favorite parts of the Apple ecosystem, and the iMessage and text function is one thing that keeps me on the Mac, so I’m very happy to see some feature parity being brought to it from the iOS version, as well as some other features from messaging apps.

Maps: Maps for Mac is another app that’s getting some love and feature parity on the Mac. Admittedly even though I use Apple Maps on a regular basis on my iPhone, I sometimes forget it’s on my Mac as well, even when there are some great features like making a walking or driving path on the Mac and being able to send that directly to my iPhone.

View of indoor maps in the Maps app on Big Sur - Image courtesy of Apple
Image courtesy of Apple

Starting with new features, Maps is another on of the Mac apps getting a new design more unified with its mobile version. Part of this comes from the new Catalyst build of the app. Catalyst is a toolkit Apple provides to developers to more easily create apps that will work on iPhones, iPads, and Macs with few tweaks by developers. Using Catalyst means developers can still get many of the powerful functions native to each platform while not having to create a lot more code to do it. Apple is dogfooding Catalyst, meaning they are trying to use the same tools they give to developers for their own apps, which is great because it means not only are they working on the same playing field as developers, it also they can more easily see issues in the platform or toolkit that they’re having to work with and then work to improve them.

Back to Maps. Maps for Mac will be getting the same options for biking and electric vehicle options as in iOS 14, which can be sent between devices. Users will also have access to pre-made guides as well as the ability to create their own guides and share them with other users.

The new update also brings some long needed features such as synced favorites between your other Apple devices, namely your iOS devices. So not just your Home and Work or frequently traveled places, but places you’ve explicitly marked as saved and favorite locations. Users will also now be able to see indoor maps of certain buildings, such as airports and malls, which is great for trip planning and is definitely the next step. iOS features like Look-Around (Apple’s name for Street View) will also be coming to the Mac, and you’ll be able to track friends’ progress that have shared their location or ETA with you.

Messages and Maps weren’t the only app that got a lot of attention though. In fact, one more app got even more attention .

Safari: Safari got a lot of love and attention in this update. Much has been a running theme in this article, some of these features are coming in step with the iOS 14 update or from other browsers, though there are a few cool unique features coming as well.

First, Apple says that Safari is now 50% faster than Chrome on average, and that it’s even more battery efficient and can provide an additional hour of browsing time on battery and 3 hours on streaming video. The battery metrics aren’t necessarily too surprising, given that Safari has indeed been on of the most energy efficient browsers on the market, though some of that likely has to do with it being built into the OS. The speed metrics will have to be compared more once the full version is released, and part of the speed increase is likely due to Safari’s privacy additions preventing trackers and other things from loading and using resources to begin with, though at this point I’m not sure how much that matters. Don’t get me wrong, a fast browser is not a bad thing certainly, but on most sites, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari are about as fast. There aren’t many places I notice one browser being particularly fast or slower than others when controlling for the Internet speed, specs of the machine, and extensions. Chrome is obviously a huge resource hog, and I think that has impacted its performance in my mind, so I think that’s one place we do see differences that can affect speed, but even then it’s not particularly that much faster or slower than the other browsers. Again, certainly not against this or brushing it off, just need to wait and see if there’s any noticeable improvement to this.

Apple extensions - Image courtesy of Apple
Image courtesy of Apple

On a more positive front, let’s talk about Extensions in Safari, because this was where a lot of attention was clearly given. And it has been needed, because Safari extensions have been kind of second class citizens compared to other browsers. Like they’ve been there, but they’ve not been as heavily pushed since their initial release and have been moved from their own dedicated page to being in the Mac App Store but being mixed in with all the other apps. First off, Safari will now support the Web Extensions API, which is the same standard that Google Chrome started and Firefox also supports for developing extensions. This should make it a lot easier for developers to make an extension that can easily be pushed out to all the major browsers, including the new Chromium based Edge. On top of this, Safari Extensions will be getting their own dedicated sidebar in the Mac App Store, making it far easier to find extensions for Safari. But Safari doesn’t stop there, as they’ve take a strong step towards privacy with how these extensions are implemented. After you install an extension for Safari, you’ll see it in the Safari toolbar to the right of the url bar. However it won’t start running until you click on it, where you’ll be prompted to select what permissions you want to give the extensions, specifically whether it can run on all websites, only a specific site, or only once. This is a setting I think is great, because there are extensions that I’d like to use but maybe only on certain sites. There are extensions like Honey were I wouldn’t mind being able to use it for finding better prices for items, but I don’t know that I want it to see my entire browsing history. And on all the browsers currently, that means manually disabling any extension I don’t want running at that time. Honestly I hope all browsers, but especially privacy conscious ones like Firefox and Brave, adopt this practice as well. Plus if you think about malicious or unwanted extensions that can creep into Chrome and Firefox, like search engine changers or those that add their own ads to whatever site you visit, this would prevent them from running if a user accidentally gets them in their system. This could be a boon for all desktop computers and browsers if others implement this. Here’s hoping, but for now I’m really happy to see Apple leading the way in.

Speaking of privacy, there will now be a new privacy and transparency report. Similar to Firefox and Brave, Safari will now have a button that you can press next to the URL bar that will show you all the trackers blocked. This will also generate a weekly report that can be shown on your homepage. Again, not a unique feature in the browser world per say, but a welcome one nonetheless, and one that may be eye-opening for many the average user.

The new default homepage of Safari - Image courtesy of Apple
Image courtesy of Apple

Safari is also getting some interface tweaks and refinements as well. On the homepage, you’ll have some new customization options, which make it feel a lot more like Firefox, but with a few additional tweaks. Rather than the standard Top Sites, users will now be presented with the favicons for their favorite sites. That’s not all, as you’ll be able to add other things to the homepage, including as frequently visited sites, Siri Suggestions, synced tabs, the new privacy report, and your Safari Reading list. You’ll also have the addition of setting a custom background image, which is something I liked from browsers like Brave, even if it was just their own images rather than letting you have your own. While none of these things individually are unique, I don’t think there’s any one browser that had all these together on their homepage, so that’s pretty cool.

The tabs also will have a hover over view, meaning that if you have several tabs open, you can hover your mouse over any of them to get a small image of what’s on that tab. Pretty handy if you have multiple tabs open from the same site and can peek at a tab to see if it’s the one you need rather than having to click on each one.

The last thing to note is that the new Apple Translate feature is coming to Mac just like iOS 14. It will be a button that appears if you’re on a page that Apple detects in not in your system default language. Apple will offer to translate it on the fly as you scroll through the page into your language. This could be faster than other systems that parse through the whole page to get you the translation, though as to how well the translation works, we’ll have to wait and see. Still, helpful to have it built in natively rather than needing an extension for it.

Processor: The last thing we need to talk about is easily the biggest change in the Mac world. Apple announced they are beginning the process of leaving Intel chips and switch to their own Apple Silicon. Apple has been making its own chips for iPhone and iPad, and have been absolutely phenomenal chips, even so far as pointing out that the cheapest iPhone’s chip beats the most powerful chips in Android devices. On top of that, the A12 chips in the iPad Pro actually are reported as running better than Intel’s own, even those in MacBooks. On the flip side Apple has reported been struggling waiting for Intel to make new advancements with its chips, that it seems their finally wanting to take more control over their own hardware.

There are some questions about this of course, and Apple was quick to try to cover many of these. First, while Apple never said the word “ARM”, instead using the term “Apple Silicon”, these chips would be based on ARM, which has a bit of a negative connotation regarding desktop and laptop computing. So, is the However, Apple revealed that all their demonstrations for the Mac had been running on their latest A12Z processor running in a Mac and seemed to run fine. The counter to that is this was a pre-produced video, so they could have made it better than it actually was, plus the machine may be better specced to handle the difference. Personally I don’t think Apple is trying to hide much, given that this is such a massive change it would be apparent very quick if their own chips weren’t able to measure up.

Apple image from keynote laying out the benefits of switching to ARM mean a family of Mac SoC's, incredible features and performance, and a common architecture between platforms - Image courtesy of Apple
Image courtesy of Apple

Speaking of work, what about apps? While things like Catalyst are helpful for developer porting over their apps for iOS or new developers to the platform, there are still a number of existing apps on Mac. Will they be able to run? What about major apps that really take use of the Intel framework. Apple has answers for that too.

Apple is adding what is called Universal 2 into XCode for developers to make their apps. This allow developers to write their applications in XCode and use a single binary that will support both Intel chips and Apple’s Silicon, so they won’t need to worry about making an app for Intel chips and another for Apple Silicon (referred to from here on as Apple SoC). Apple demonstrated this by showing off Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint running natively with the Universal 2 binary, with PowerPoint now taking advantage of Metal for it’s more graphically intensive functions. Going further Apple showed off Adobe Photoshop running a 5 GB photo project with little issue as well as Lightroom. Even further down the intensity lane it showed their own Final Cut video editor running three simultaneous 4K streams. Those are 3 sets of the biggest apps on the platform by professionals, so Apple knew exactly where it needed to hit to convince its Mac users that things are going to be functionally no different at worst and even better at best.

As for existing apps not yet using Universal, Apple announced Rosetta 2, named after the Rosetta Stone tablet and the software Apple used when it initially switched from PowerPC chips to Intel. This will as an extra layer when using an app that uses calls to Intel chips on one of the future Macs running Apple SoC, and will on the fly translate apps making calls to Intel functions into their equivalent Apple SoC commands, meaning that these Intel apps can still run on Apple SoC Macs without issue. To demonstrate this, Apple showed off existing versions of the Tomb Raider game and Maya running in real time and fairly well for having to go through a translation layer.

Icons for Universal 2, Rosetta 2, and Virtualization - Image courtesy of Apple
Universal 2, Rosetta 2, and Virtualization – Image courtesy of Apple

Apple also showed virtualization of other systems through things like Parallels and VirtualBox will still be supported, though notably they did not show Windows. This might possibly be due to Microsoft not allowing anyone to purchase a copy of Windows for ARM chips unless they are an OEM, meaning that unless Apple decides to sell Macs that come with Windows preinstalled, they can’t run Windows. It is also why Apple has confirmed that Boot Camp will not be available on Macs running Apple SoC, though it will still be available on Intel Macs.

What are the benefits to switching? Why are they doing this? As previously mentioned part of this may have to do with their frustrations at Intel as well as the desire to control more of their own hardware and software together, which Apple is well known for doing as well and doing very well at. Apple says that by all running variations of their Silicon, it will mean that all Apple devices will have a common chip architecture across all platforms. For developers, that means it will be even easier to port their apps and games between Mac, tvOS, iOS, iPadOS, and even WatchOS all while taking advantage of native features. Or that users may not even need to wait for specific Mac versions of Apps, as Apple showed off iPhone and iPad apps like Monument Valley running and being available directly without porting. These could even be available through the Mac App Store. It would also make it that much easier to stop working on one device and picking up exactly where you left off in that same app. On top of this, ARM processors are some of the most power efficient in the world, meaning we could expect the same if not longer battery life from our MacBooks and lower power consumption in desktops, which helps Apple’s environmental streak, but that battery life could be phenomenal. MacBook battery life is already some of the best there is; I have newer enterprise grade Windows machines whose batteries have weakened far faster than my 2015 MBP. If the MacBooks started get the same proportional battery life as the iPads do, that would be impressive

So when is this all supposed to happen. Apple said the first Mac running an ARM chip should be released by the end of 2020, though Apple made it clear that it was still going to be making new Macs with Intel chips for a while longer alongside the new Macs coming with Apple SoC. Likewise, their existing Macs running Intel chips will still be supported for a number of years. The MacBook Pros, Airs, and even Mac Pros from 2013 are still being supported with “Big Sur”, so Apple isn’t fully giving up on Intel support yet. They said they expect the transition to their own SoC should take about 2 years, which is in line with their previous transition back in 2006.

The last thing to note for developers is to help with this transition, developers can get a standard Mac Mini running their A12Z chip inside for use to test and develop their apps. The Mac Mini, known as the Developer’s Transition Kit (DTK for short) will be specced with 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD, a pair of 10 Gbps USB-C ports (not Thunderbolt 3), a pair of 5 Gbps USB-A ports, and an HDMI 2.0 port, with WiFi AC, Bluetooth 5, and Ethernet support included. The DTK is only available to developers, as to get one you have to tell Apple what app you’ll be making with it, and must be returned to Apple after a certain amount of time, with restrictions regarding loaning it out, leasing it, or tearing it down.

So how well will this work? I expect we’ll see these first in the lower end, more typical consumer Macs like the Mac Mini and MacBook Air, and gradually start seeing them in the higher end powerhouse Macs that still need some of Intel’s architecture for their apps. But I also suspect we’ll see something beyond the iPad Pro chips for some of these Macs, particularly where multi-core processing is needed. Something like an A12-M for Mac, though hopefully their chip name will be better than that one. I imagine we are going to see some apps like games from Steam no longer able to be run because of the Switch to Apple’s SoC. I could also see some enterprises being nervous about deploying ARM-based computers to their staff given how Windows on ARM has been less than successful, and the places where it has been successful has been on lower powered and lower priced machines like Chromebooks. That said, Apple’s Silicon has been the best in the game when controlling for generations. Their iPad Pro chips are better than several Intel ones, their phone processors are best in class, and there really isn’t a smartwatch maker that can compete. We could really see some major performance gains on Macs, and if the pro apps like Adobe, Final Cut, Microsoft, and Maya really perform as well as in Apple’s video, then the Mac might be able to keep on trucking. I’m tentatively optimistic, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

So that’s the news about Mac from WWDC. What are you excited about? Are you nervous about the transition to ARM? Let us know in the comments and on social media.

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