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MacOS Big Sur is one of the biggest Mac updates ever — here are the key features

Apple macOS Big Sur
(Image credit: Apple)

Today at WWDC, Appl announced MacOS Big Sur. Apple's macOS  is the software heart of all MacBook laptops and Mac desktops, and Apple has updated the operating system every year to keep it fresh and up to date. Today, we got the new name: Big Sur, formerly referred to by its version number, 10.16.

MacOS Big Sur isn't just an incremental improvement over the previous version, Catalina. It's also a major shift, adding support for Apple Silicon – Apple's name for ARM processors in Mac laptops and desktops.

We've seen early leaks about ARM-based MacBooks for weeks, but the release of Big Sur will push this transition forward with apps and features designed to make the most of the upcoming Mac systems.

Here's everything we know so far about macOS Big Sur.

MacOS Big Sur release date

While Apple didn't specify when the new version of macOS will reach the public, the general rule is that it arrives as a free update for users 3-4 months after the announcement. We anticipate a release in late September or early October.

Apple macOS Big Sur

(Image credit: Apple)

MacOS Big Sur beta

Between now and the public release in early fall, Apple will offer a chance to test-drive the new operating system through the Apple Beta Software Program. This beta period gives Apple a chance to catch unexpected bugs and refine the features of the new OS, and trying out the beta lets you take part in that process. The public beta will begin in the next month.

Apple is also launching a new quickstart program for developers to jumpstart the transition to Apple Silicon. This includes a developer transition kit - a Mac mini with the new A12Z processor. Developer units will start shipping out this week.

Because this involves using pre-release software, we don't recommend it for all users. But if you can't wait for Big Sur to arrive, you can try it out in advance. We just suggest backing up all of your files first, and be ready for glitches and system crashes while you play guinea pig for Apple's new software. 

MacOS Big Sur supported devices

Apple has famously kept it's proprietary operating system exclusive to Apple's MacBook laptops and Mac desktops, and that will continue for the release of Big Sur.

Apple macOS Big Sur

(Image credit: Apple)

The current version of macOS Catalina (10.15) is supported across every model line of Mac laptop and desktop, but only going back as far as 2012.

With the release of Big Sur, Mac users will still see plenty of Intel-based Macs supported, but not as many as Catalina. In fact, it appears that most Macs from 2013 or prior will not be supported, as the support cutoff ends with most 2013 and 2014 models.

Apple macOS Big Sur support

(Image credit: Apple)

Newer devices, like the iMac Pro and the MacBook will see all models supported, but products with longer legacies, like the Mac mini and the MacBook Air will see a lot of products missing out on support for Big Sur.

Here's the full list:

  • MacBook - 2015 and later
  • MacBook Air - 2013 and later
  • MacBook Pro - 2013 and later
  • Mac mini - 2014 and later
  • iMac - 2014 and later
  • iMac Pro - 2017 and later
  • Mac Pro - 2013 and later

MacOS Big Sur features

The entire macOS user interface is getting an upgrade, from the icon designs – adding shading and translucency, as well as palette options for light and dark modes. Apps have been streamlined with full-height sidebars and a new design focus that puts important and frequently accessed information right up front, with visually appealing new menus.

The desktop is gaining a handful of widget-based functions that make it easier to stay up-to-date without having to open an app or browser, and the Finder is getting several refinements, like a new toolbar design and easier access for settings and notifications.

Apple MacOS Big Sur notifications

(Image credit: Apple)

Messages has gotten a major update, adding to the cross-platform experience. The new version of Messages adds powerful search capabilities, and a photo picker tool that makes it easy to share images and videos. Memoji is now available on Mac, with editing and sharing tools, along with message effects and pinned conversations, which will sync across your other Apple products.

Apple Maps on Mac is getting several improvements, including a new design that makes it easier to find your way around the app, and thus make it easier to … find your way around. The new app lets you save favorite locations in the sidebar, create guides for trip planning, and save wishlists for future trips. Indoor maps let you scope out tourist hotspots and airports, and Look Around (the Apple version of StreetView) gets smoother functioning on the desktop.

Apple macOS Big Sur

(Image credit: Apple)

Mac Catalyst makes it easier to bring iPad apps to the Mac, while creating full-fledged Mac apps. That means providing full resolution support, complete with resizable windows and providing menu and keyboard APIS for developers to provide a fuller Mac experience with the interaction offered by non-touch laptops and desktops.

Apple macOS Big Sur Safari

(Image credit: Apple)

Safari is also getting a slew of new features, with everything from broader extension support – including tools for devs who want to bring their Chrome and Firefox extensions to Safari – and deep privacy controls applied to every extension, letting you control what information is accessible to individual extensions on a site by site basis.

MacOS Big Sur evolving for Apple Silicon

As Apple introduces its own processors, they're also updating the operating system to run on the new hardware.

New apps use X-Code, which is currently ready to recompile apps for the new processors. Universal 2 is a new type of binary that works with both Intel and Mac chips.

Third-party apps are already on the way. Microsoft has been quietly working on a new version of Office, while Adobe is prepping a version of the Creative Suite that works on the new non-Intel Macs.

Apple's own Final Cut Pro is also ready to go, with all of the features and capabilities – like editing live video and multi-stream playback – all running on Apple Silicon.

Apple even demonstrated Maya on Apple Silicon, showing off how well the new hardware supports complex rendering. Games are supported, too, with a demo of a recent Tomb Raider game.

MacOS Big Sur name

The new macOS is named "Big Sur" after the Central California coastal mountain range. Known for it's ocean views and stunning scenery, Big Sur is just as iconic as past macOS codenames - Catalina, Mojave, High Sierra and more.