An hour ago, I took the plunge and updated to Apple’s latest operating system, Big Sur, which was overnight (Australian time). Big Sur is macOS 11, a significant milestone in the history of the Mac. OS X/macOS powered the Mac for 20 years, beginning life when Apple acquired Steve Jobs’ NeXT company, which Jobs founded after he was booted from Apple in the Dark Ages. NeXT’s operating system, NeXTSTEP was based on UNIX and it eventually became OS X. I started using the Mac way began in the 10.3 and have used every release.

Cranking the dial to 11 is a big step (pardon the pun), and one that marks yet another CPU architecture transition for Apple, this time from Intel to custom Apple Silicon based on ARM. As I write this on what’s probably Apple’s very last Intel-powered MacBook Pro, it will be several years before I make the switch to ARM. Fortunately, Apple’s promised to continue Intel support for some time, and Big Sur is the first instalment of that promise.

The download of 12 GB went fast on my NBN connection, and the installation process was smooth, requiring only a single restart, and I was in business. The installation also kept all the packages I’ve installed with brew.sh. So far, things are holding up well. The system seems stable, my Mac is running cool, and touchwood it seems to have fixed a bug I was experiencing when hot-plugging my Thunderbolt dock. I’ve done a slew of updates for most of the apps I use, with others due for release in coming days. Ulysses 20 was among them, unifying the app’s feature set with Ulysses 20 for iOS, which was released a few weeks ago.

The first thing I noticed, of course, is how different the UI is from Catalina and earlier versions. Colours are much more vibrant (almost garish like iOS 6), contrast is greatly reduced, and text and icons are noticeably smaller across the system. As someone who wears glasses, this change isn’t something I appreciate — at least in light mode, dark mode is better.

The Mac’s persistent menu, dock, application toolbars and save window are also very different, and if I’m completely honest, I’m not sure if I like them.

macOS Big Sur
macOS Big Sur
Save window is very different
Save window is very different

Comparisons to iOS’s design language are obvious, especially in the new control centre and notifications, which now float over the UI and feature widget that look and function similarly to their iOS counterparts. These are certainly areas of improvement, and they are nice to see.

I also see a lot of GNOME 3 in Big Sur, particularly in the application toolbars, though I’ll admit this trend in macOS started several releases ago and I think there’s enough separation in the two operating systems’ design language.

GNOME 3.24 (night light mode)
GNOME 3.24 (night light mode)

Performance-wise, I don’t notice much difference, though I was surprised when I first opened GarageBand and was told to connect my Mac to a power supply for best performance. Speaking of battery life, that’s not taken much of a hit, beyond the usual dip you experience in new OS installation thanks to indexing and other post-installation tasks. My Mac does feel a little warmer on my lap than before, but I’m putting that down to spotlight indexing.

Concluding thoughts

In all, Big Sur seems like a decent update, though I think it will take me a little time to get used to the UI changes. The lack of contrast bothers me, but I’ll live it. If I find in gotchas or problems in the coming days and weeks, I’ll report my findings, but here’s hoping Big Sur gets off to a smoother start than Catalina did.

As for what Big Sur represents, I suspect that’s going to take me longer to appreciate. OS X was a part of my life for more than 15 years, and it’s been the cornerstone of my creative and professional life. I jumped early on the Intel wagon early, and for the most part I’ve been very pleased with the 5 Intel Macs I’ve owned since 2007. I’m quietly excited, if somewhat cautious, about the dawning of the macOS 11 era with its transition to Apple Silicon — early reports and impressions are very promising. Moreover, it affirms Apple’s commitment to the Mac, which I hope will last at least another 20 years.


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