Apple’s operating system updates fascinate me.

Just like their hardware, they come with a huge amount of furore, super-smart marketing and promises of significant leaps forward.

Only, strip back all of that surface layer stuff, and the updates are rarely anything more than gentle-yet-important steps forward.

macOS Big Sur is no different.

You can watch my macOS Big Sur first impressions video, here:

Here are my initial thoughts.

The upgrade

Like seemingly millions of others, I chose launch day (or night, my time) to upgrade to Big Sur.

That was a mistake. Two things happened:

  • my 16” MacBook Pro failed to download the update and proceeded to act rather unusually for a good hour afterwards, right when I needed to edit and publish my latest video; and
  • my iMac flat out refused to even start the download.

The good news is that these were definitely first day jitters and, unusually, Apple’s update servers clearly struggling under the pressure.

This in itself was interesting. Was Big Sur one of the most anticipated macOS releases on a much wider scale? Were normal people joining the first day upgrade geeks in jumping onboard? Possibly. And, I guess, that’s what a visual redesign tends to encourage.

Having given it 12 hours to settle, both my MacBook and iMac updated without any trouble whatsoever. As with most recent macOS upgrades, it was painless.

The chime returns (and it means so much more than you think)

If you want to see how excited I was by the return of the macOS chime, you can watch my reaction. Suffice to say, it’s a welcome return.

Like many, I’ve been concerned about Apple’s approach to the Mac of late. It undoubtedly plays second fiddle to its world dominating little sibling, the iPhone, but it still has a massive army of users – most of whom reach near religious devotion to the product.

Dreadful hardware design decisions, lacklustre OS updates and a confusing, ageing product line only served to fuel fears that Apple had in some way given up on the Mac. But I don’t think they have.

I think the return of the startup chime is far more than a “oh go on, then, we’ll put it back in” reaction from Apple. It’s confirmation that they do still love the Mac, as is the launch of the M1 chip.

I’ll never forget when I first noticed MacBooks making the same “I’m connected” noise when you plugged them into power as the iPad and iPhone. Oh no, I thought, it’s the beginning of the end.

Not so. I think that chime signals both the boot up process of your beloved Mac and a bright new future for the platform.

The design – subtle, but telling (and touching)

macOS Big Sur looks pretty different to Catalina. And I’m not going to flood this page with screenshots, because there’s plenty of those around for you to gorge your eyes on.

All I’m going to say is that the design is definitely welcome, pleasing and fresh enough to make your Mac feel a little bit newer than it is.

But there’s something far more interesting at play here, about which I know I’m not the first to note.

I’ve found myself on several occasions reaching out to touch the screen of my MacBook Pro. This used to happen a fair bit after using my iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard combo, but I’ve not used that setup much at all recently (more on that in a future blog). No, the reason I have to keep stopping myself from greasing up my MacBook screen is because it isn’t a touchscreen.

But macOS Big Sur really makes it feel like it should be.

The touch targets for a mouse pointer don’t need to be large at all, but in Big Sur, they’re huge. In fact, one would say that they’re perfectly finger-sized.

The most striking example of this can be found within the new Control Centre (which I very much like, incidentally). The controls for Do Not Disturb and screen mirroring are suitably chunky, while the sliders for volume and display brightness are rounded and about as iOS-like as they come.

Apple has said nothing about touchscreen Macs. In fact, they’ve long suggested that macOS and iOS will continue along their own unique – albeit connected – paths.

I believe that. But I don’t believe that a touchscreen Mac will never hit the shelves. I think it’s actually pretty imminent; perhaps within the next couple of years.

There’s no greater evidence of this than the new macOS Big Sur design and affordance touches. It wants to be touched. In fact, I can’t understand why they’ve made certain design decisions if a touchscreen isn’t planned for the Mac.

That really excites me.

Beyond this, the design, like so many great design refreshes, becomes normal very quickly. But there is some incredibly odd design direction for certain app icons. For instance, while Safari, Finder and Music have all received pleasing, modern updates to their icons, some apps look downright horrendous.

The Messages icon is a classic example, as many have pointed out. But for me, the absolute worst is the bell icon for Notifications in System Preferences. It genuinely looks like a departing employee left it there in an attempt to have one last laugh following unfair dismissal.

What’s going on, Apple?

Should you upgrade?

I upgraded both of my production Macs to Big Sur on the day of release (or, at least tried to because, a) I feel a duty to do so for my audience, and, b) I’m a geek and like new stuff.

If you’re in a similar camp – go for it.

But if you rely on your Mac for work of any kind, I’d wait. That’s always my advice; it’s simply too big a risk to go ‘all-in’ on a new Mac operating system if you need that machine to make money and put food on the table.

I’ve tested it with pro apps such as Logic Pro and Final Cut Pro X, and it works perfectly, so far. The same goes for third-party stuff like Ulysses, Omnifocus, Microsoft Office and Toggl, but I’m under no illusion – that can change pretty quickly with a new operating system.

My advice? Unless you have a backup when things go wrong, hold out a month or two for the most important first aid patches to arrive.

I’ll be covering lots more Big Sur and Apple related stuff in the coming weeks, so make sure you subscribe to my YouTube channel to avoid missing out!