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macOS Big Sur: A cheat sheet

Hello World, from Apple’s macOS 11! This Big Sur guide covers everything you need to know, including features, requirements, and where to get the newest release in the macOS line.

Apple announced the long-rumored successor to its popular and stable OS X (see macOS 10.x) line of operating systems at this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). The annual, week-long event aimed at developers around the world is usually held in California, but WWDC 2020 was the first time it was held exclusively online and also made available to the public.

The biggest announcement at WWDC 2020 for desktop users at least is macOS 11, with Apple finally making the leap from the venerable OS X/macOS 10.x code to the new 11.0 base. Bringing with it much more than a numerical change, the new version of macOS unveiled on June 22, 2020 brings many redesigns of iconic Apple features, a whole host of usability updates to existing applications, and a few surprises.

This guide for macOS Big Sur will be updated as new features and updates are released over the lifespan of the operating system to always bring you the latest information and keep you up-to-date on all things macOS 11.

SEE: Apple iOS 14: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

What is macOS Big Sur?

macOS Big Sur is a continuation of Apple’s operating system that powers its lineup of desktop and mobile computers. While it carries the macOS name, it is the first major version change in more than 15 years–officially dropping the 10.x and going by 11.x.

Sharing its namesake with the natural wonder in the Central Coast of California, macOS Big Sur brings with it many firsts for Apple’s newest operating system. While continuing to expand further upon some of the changes made in previous versions to unify the desktop experience with the best of its mobile OS–iOS/iPadOS–to create a user computing environment that is both powerful and unparalleled in its simplicity.

Technical requirements of macOS Big Sur

Unlike previous versions of macOS, Big Sur will not have any minimum set of requirements based on hardware components. Instead, Apple has released a minimum type of hardware based on its lineup of mobile and desktop computers and its release year(s) to serve as a guide.

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macOS 11 Big Sur

Image: Apple Inc.

What are the main features of macOS Big Sur?

Control Center for Mac

Identical to its iOS/iPadOS counterpart, the Control Center has made the move with macOS Big Sur, providing one-click access to a series of functions to easily control many common connections and features, like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, playing music, or adjusting screen settings to better suit your work environment. Additional controls can be added to customize the experience based on your favorites.

Notification Center

Though notifications were introduced in a prior version, macOS Big Sur’s redesigned take on notifications allows them to be grouped by app for easier management. Furthermore, widgets and notifications are now displayed together within the same window for a unified look at pertinent data at a glance. Additionally, widgets have been redesigned and may be resized to further customize information displayed in ways that work the way you do.

Safari 14

Safari has been given major aesthetic, efficiency, and privacy overhauls to increase usability with intuitive customizations for each user, battery life adjustments to help users be their most productive (or binge their streaming content a little bit longer), and keep tabs of sites and web apps that are trying to keep tabs on you and your personal data by alerting you if passwords used for sites have been compromised. Safari now provides a weekly Privacy Report based on Intelligent Tracking Prevention to show you how your privacy is being protected based on which sites have been visited and providing a snapshot of how users are being profiled by trackers across the web.


Messages has gained the ability to pin important conversations to the top of your chat list for easier access and response times. Pinned conversations sync across the Apple ecosystem with iOS/iPadOS 14-enabled devices and macOS Big Sur-supported devices. Another usability feature is Inline replies, which allows users to reply to specific messages directly, causing the messages to thread, making keeping track of replies so much easier.

Maps and Guides

Maps have been redesigned, allowing the navigation app to take advantage of larger screen real estate afforded by the higher resolutions found on newer Macs and 4K/5K monitors. A new routing for electric vehicles has been added allowing users to plan the perfect route to include charging stops along the way. Speaking of stops, Guides offers curated destinations of the best places to visit or your favorites spots. Guides may be made for you or by you and shared for easy access. Indoor maps are also available now, with detailed interior maps of popular areas, such as major airports.

App Store privacy

A major win for privacy advocates and a big step towards more transparency is the privacy information summary included for each app in the Mac App Store. Similar to labels found on other products consumers purchase, the privacy summary will include information on what types of data developers collect, how they collect it, and what they do with that data, including if it is used to track your movements across the web.

New language features

Several new bilingual dictionaries have been added to macOS Big Sur for easier translation between several languages, such as French to German, Polish to English, and Japanese to Chinese. Additionally, enhanced predictive input for Chinese and Japanese has been included for more accurate and contextual predictions. Rounding out these features, new fonts have been added, alongside upgrades to existing fonts for India, including localized message effects.

SEE: All of TechRepublic’s cheat sheets and smart person’s guides

Apple Silicon support

Apple announced its initial plans to switch from Intel CPUs to processors of its own design based on ARM architecture at WWDC 20. Apple developed its own series of processing chips, or silicon-on-chip (SoC), for the iPhone/iPad line when the devices were initially launched and has been using them ever since for those devices. Apple is now poised to replace the existing Intel-based components with its own SoC. The transition is projected to last two years, eventually resulting in all of Apple’s devices running its proprietary SoC, with the first product from the new lineup due out before year’s end.

Similar to the transition from Apple’s previous PowerPC-based operating system, System OS 9 to OS X over 15 years ago, applications will require developers to rewrite their code in order for apps to work with the new SoC architecture. Apple will offer Rosetta 2, an emulation app, that will emulate the environment as needed to allow apps that have not yet updated to run natively.

System security

In an effort to continue to harden macOS and protect user data, Big Sur expands on the system volume enhancements made prior by cryptographically signing the volume, which ensures that once macOS 11.0 is installed, the system volume creates a key that certifies the integrity of the volume. Any malicious attempts to tamper with it will likely fail to break the key; but should it fail, this would be easy to identify and recover from immediately. 

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Which devices support macOS Big Sur?

Apple rigorously tests all new releases of its operating systems for compatibility among existing devices. In recent years, Apple has denoted which devices and its release years are capable–at a minimum–to support the majority of the newest features included in each release of macOS. This method of testing and verification continues with macOS Big Sur, with the official list generated by Apple included below.

  • MacBook (2015 and newer)
  • MacBook Air (2013 and newer)
  • MacBook Pro (Late-2013 and newer)
  • iMac (2014 and newer)
  • iMac Pro (2017 and newer)
  • Mac Pro (2013 and newer)
  • Mac mini (2014 and newer)

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When can I get macOS Big Sur?

While no release date has been provided by Apple for macOS Big Sur, it is not uncommon for new releases to be made sometime in the Fall. However, bear in mind that this release must pass through a series of tests to determine compatibility, as well as address any issues that may be found during the beta testing phases before the code is certified gold, or final release.

With that said, expect Apple to make macOS Big Sur available via the Mac App Store for direct download on supported devices to perform the upgrade to macOS 11.0.

Check back here when macOS Big Sur is released for a link to download it from the Mac App Store.

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How can I test macOS Big Sur?

MacOS Big Sur is currently pre-release in beta form for testing by developers and IT professionals worldwide. In the past, Apple has provided consumers the ability to participate in a limited capacity testing as part of the Apple Beta Software Program, and the company is accepting applications online from anyone who would like the opportunity to beta test macOS Big Sur on their supported Apple computer when the program goes live in July.

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What are alternatives to macOS Big Sur?

While Apple tailors its operating system to the underlying hardware it runs on to provide a seamless, integrated experience that does not exist anywhere else, understandably, users sometimes purchase Apple hardware for the superior craftsmanship of its computers, while opting to use an alternate OS that meets their needs.

Due to Apple’s migration to Intel-based processors many years ago, this opened the gateway to allowing other operating systems to be installed and used on Apple hardware natively. While the use of Apple macOS is licensed for use exclusively with Apple hardware legally, the OSes listed below may be installed and used on Apple hardware without a similar caveat.

Microsoft Windows: Users frequently move to install Windows client or server OSes on their shiny new Apple computers. For years, Apple has offered the ability to run Windows 10 as a dual-boot system on supported Macs, allowing users to switch between the two operating systems on-the-fly. Apple even provides the necessary software drivers to allow Windows to take full advantage of the Apple hardware foundation for the best computing experience possible.

This applies to Windows Server as well, with some choosing to pair Apple’s beefier systems with Microsoft’s flagship server operating system to provide networking, file sharing, and dozens of other enterprise-class services to their organizations.

Linux Mint: This is a version of Linux based on Debian, sharing similarities with the widely popular Ubuntu distribution. The primary focus of Linux Mint is to provide a secure and stable computing environment, while offering a complete, polished experience for users out-of-the-box. Linux Mint also includes full support from a vibrant community of enthusiasts and a “best of” assortment of open-source applications, with additional support extended through package management and the all-powerful Terminal. Linux Mint offers something for users new to Linux and experienced admins looking for a sleek, powerful open-source operating system to boost productivity.

VMware ESXi: VMware is a leader in the enterprise-class virtualization space. ESXi is compatible with bare-metal hardware developed by a growing number of manufacturers on its frequently updated Hardware Compatibility List (HCL). The Type-1 Hypervisor consists of a proprietary Linux kernel that runs the underlying host system for managing the resources used by its guests (virtual machines). While the core hypervisor is free to use based on the GPL license, enhanced management capability, High Availability (HA), and live migration of VMs are available through commercially licensed offerings.

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macOS 11 Big Sur

Image: Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET