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Hands-on: 85+ macOS Big Sur changes and features [Video]

After going in depth with iOS 14 earlier this week, today we focus on macOS Big Sur. The biggest takeaway from my hands-on time with the follow up to macOS Catalina is that Apple’s latest OS is clearly being designed with the future in mind.

Although it’s unmistakably Mac, Big Sur is a departure from previous versions of macOS in terms of aesthetics. Everything, from the dock, to the menu bar, to window chrome, icons, and even sounds have been updated.

Watch our hands-on video walkthrough as we discuss over 85 macOS Big Sur changes and features, and be sure to subscribe to 9to5mac on YouTube for more videos.

UI changes

One of the biggest changes that you’ll notice are the full-height sidebars, which are found in the Finder and within apps like Notes, Reminders, Music, etc. The new side bar design lends more space for frequently used elements within your favorite apps.

Another big change are the UI symbols, which give apps a more consistent look. Although full uniformity isn’t all the way there yet in this initial beta, I suspect that future betas will continue to bring apps and utilities in line with macOS’ new design language.

Video: macOS Big Sur changes and features

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Outside of the new floating translucent dock and translucent menu bar, the most noticeable visual change involves app icons. Although many of the app Icons feature unique textures and Mac-like stylistic elements, the updated rounded rectangle icons are unmistakably influenced by iOS.

The updated sound effects are a breath of fresh air for those of us who’ve grown tired of the typical macOS sounds. The new sounds complement the new UI in that they seem a bit more lighthearted and airy. Oh, and the wonderful startup sound that Apple disabled a few years back has made a return; it can now be toggled via Sound preferences.

Safari is awesome

Safari is even faster and more power efficient in macOS Big Sur. Apple notes that frequently-visited pages load up to 50% faster than competing browsers, and users can stream video for up to three hours longer and browse the web for up to one hour longer. These changes shouldn’t evoke surprise, as Safari has always been the most efficient browser for Mac users.

Tab improvements

Safari in Big Sur is also focused on the user experience when it comes to managing lots of tabs. Favicons on tabs are now enabled by default, and when you have lots of open tabs, Favicons become the tool to help you quickly identify them.

All new in the latest version of Safari are website previews. Website previews allow you to hover your cursor over a tab to view a quick preview of what the tab contains.

Translation

There’s now a native translation utility baked into Safari, just like you’ll find in iOS 14. In years past, the lack of a built-in Safari translation tool caused me to use Chrome from time to time. Thanks to macOS Big Sur, I now have one less reason to use Google’s browser.

Custom Start Page

Finally, there’s a new Custom Start Page, which allows you to add a background image, Privacy Report, iCloud Tabs, Frequently Visited sites, Reading List, and more. Watch our video walkthrough embedded above for a hands-on look.

Mac Catalyst shows its value

In macOS Big Sur we gain two more native Mac Catalyst apps in Messages and Maps. These apps, which are based on their iPad versions, are massive improvements from a functionality standpoint over the Maps and Messages apps found in macOS Catalina. Now both Maps and Messages more or less gain parity with their iOS counterparts.

The enhancements mean that you’ll now be able to use the Street View-like Look Around feature in Maps, use Guides, and access indoor maps, among other improvements. In Messages, the update is even more useful, with the ability to use Memoji stickers, insert GIF animations, use Message effects, inline replies, pinned messages, rename groups, and more.

Control Center

The implementation of Control Center into macOS is finally here in Big Sur, and its closely tied to the traditional macOS menu bar. Control Center, like its iOS counterpart, allows users to control many system functions within a common area. Mac users will be able to control volume, screen brightness, keyboard backlight, Bluetooth and Wifi, and other functions directly from Control Center in Big Sur.

Traditionalists will be happy to know that you can drag elements from the Control Center block of controls directly into the menu bar for quick shortcuts access. Unfortunately an implementation of AirPlay 2 isn’t yet present in this early version of Control Center, and it still has its fair share of quirks. I suspect that we’ll see many of improvements come to Control Center during the macOS Big Sur beta lifecycle.

Notification Center

Notification Center in macOS has been revamped to combine notifications and widgets into a page interface. Like previous versions of macOS, notifications and widgets are accessed from the right side of the screen, with notifications displayed at the top of the interface and widgets residing directly underneath.

Grouped notifications

In Big Sur grouped notifications are finally here. No longer are you needlessly subjected to a long list of notifications from the same source. Grouped notifications can be toggled via System Preferences.

Customizable widgets

Widgets are similar to their iOS 14 counterparts, in that they come in one of three sizes and can be dragged around the widget area. Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities end, as widgets are relegated to this area and can’t be moved out to the desktop. There’s also a conspicuous lack of widgets like News, and Siri suggestions. Here’s hoping that Apple will continue to devote resources to widgets and bring them more in line with what we have in iOS 14.

This is just a small taste of everything new in macOS Big Sur. It’s the biggest visual change that we’ve seen in macOS in years with this being the last macOS release that we’ll see before the first Macs powered by Apple silicon begin shipping to customers.

What’s your favorite new macOS Big Sur feature or change? Sound off down below in the comments with your thoughts.

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