If you’re anything like me, you have multiple Apple devices in your home and have become accustomed to seamlessly handing off tasks between them. I can start searching for furniture on my phone and then click Safari to pick up the search on my larger MacBook screen. Or I can send a text on my iPad and then resume the conversation while I’m out and about on my iPhone.
After more than a month of using macOS Big Sur, which is now available for anyone to install as a public beta, I’ve experienced a new phenomenon: I now find myself trying to swipe on my MacBook screen as if it will respond to my touch. That’s because everything about Big Sur is designed to mimic iOS, from the redesign of app icons and Control Center to Safari privacy tools to new features in Maps and Messages. It’s iOS with a physical keyboard—and an unresponsive screen. I’m not sure if Apple will ever make a touchscreen Mac, but with macOS Big Sur, I feel like we’re almost there.
Here’s a preview of what you can expect if you decide to install the Big Sur public beta. All the usual warnings apply: This is beta software, so it might include some bugs that could make your life difficult. It’s probably best to install the beta on a Mac that you don’t need to function reliably. (I personally have experienced no issues with Big Sur whatsoever, but our editor-in-chief John Biggs had major trouble with an earlier developer beta version, so your mileage may vary.)
This is also not a review of Big Sur; just my early impressions of how using a Mac will change when the software upgrade becomes officially available this fall.
If you’ve ever used an iPhone or iPad, macOS Big Sur’s makeover will feel comforting. Apple has completely refreshed the look of macOS, making everything lighter and brighter. Elements that were once grey are now white. Edges are rounded; the translucent dock now floats. App icons have been redesigned to reflect how they look in iOS, which makes sense—most of us use the same apps across Apple’s various platforms, and it’s useful if they look similar if not identical. There are some changes I’d like to see, though: The video camera and message bubble for FaceTime and Messages are shadowed on a backdrop of green, unlike their iOS counterparts, which have flat icons, and I hate it.
The new Notification and Control Centers are perhaps the most perfect example of the iOS-ification of macOS. Now you can control everything you fine tune most simply by clicking the Control Center icon in the top menu bar. From there, you can see your wifi networks, Bluetooth settings, display brightness—basically everything that used to suck up space on your menu bar has been moved to Control Center. If you hate it, you can pin settings back to the menu as before, but I really, really like this streamlined design and use it for most everything but display brightness, which I control from my MacBook’s Touch Bar.
In Notification Center, which appears to the right of your desktop home screen, notifications are now stacked, just like in iOS, with most recent alerts surfaced at the top of each stack. Those stacks are combined with redesigned widgets, so you can see alerts and important information grouped together in a singular view. It’s just like using my iPhone.
Apple also redesigned its own apps to be cleaner and more focused, with new toolbar buttons that make it easier to quickly perform tasks like reply to an email in Mail, if you use Mail—I do not use Mail.
If these changes sound small, they are, but the overall effect makes my mind forget that the Mac isn’t a touchscreen. It just now looks like every other touchscreen device I own.
I hate using Google Chrome. The web browser is a resource hog that consumes an extraordinary amount of battery life, even with few tabs open. Trying to do research with multiple windows? Forget it. But finally making the switch to Safari has been last on my list of tasks, mainly because I have so many bookmarks and passwords saved in Chrome. Now it’s a high priority because new privacy-focused macOS Safari features have reminded me that Safari is a Good Web Browser that doesn’t destroy my battery life. These new features are a bonus. (Apple itself claims that Safari now lasts an hour longer than Chrome when it comes to web-browsing, but I haven’t yet put that to the test.)
Safari is now totally customizable from the jump: You can curate what appears on the start page by adding links to your Favorites and Reading List, and even choose a background image, which is a nice touch. Even if you don’t do anything at all to personalize the start page, Safari will choose recent links for you and Siri Suggestions for pages you regularly visit.
Then there’s a new Privacy Report, which details the trackers Safari has blocked from following you around the web. (If you don’t use any ad-blocking tools, prepare to be shocked.) And tabs have also been refreshed: You can see little favicons to distinguish which tab is Twitter, for instance, or Google. And hovering the cursor over a tab shows you a preview of what the page looks like. For those of us who have many, many tabs open simultaneously and no good way to corral them, this is useful.
One feature I’m excited to test out when Big Sur is available this fall is third-party Safari extensions. Developers are currently working on those tools, which have long been available in other web browsers, and I’m curious to see how extensions streamline Safari.
Apple introduced a slew of new features in iOS 14, which is also available to try as a public beta, and many of those changes are also coming to macOS, so your experiences using both platforms will be extremely similar this fall.
For instance, in Messages, you’ll be able to pin conversations to the top of the app, label group convos with photos or emojis, and search messages, just like you can on iOS. As someone who uses Messages across every platform, having them look the same is a godsend.
Maps also has a new look with new features in macOS, including Guides and cycling directions. Maps is more useful on the iPhone, in my experience, but again, giving apps the same features and same design across all of Apple’s platforms makes the entire experience more consistent.
And, yes, it will absolutely make you want to touch your Mac screen.
Apple has maintained that touchscreens don’t make sense for the Mac. If you want a device with a large touchscreen, there’s the iPad—and it’s very good, especially if you splurge on a Pro with Magic Keyboard. But now that macOS and iOS look so much alike, and now that Apple is making it easier for developers to make iOS and macOS versions of their apps, and now that Apple is in the process of making Macs with in-house ARM-based processors, it seems like a touchscreen Mac is the logical conclusion. Or maybe all this build-up is leading absolutely nowhere and I’m just gonna keep swiping this MacBook screen like a dum-dum. Could go either way.