Big Sur Is Here, but We Suggest You Say “No Sir” for Now

As Apple promised, macOS 11 Big Sur launched on 12 November 2020. The actual release was version 11.0.1, skipping 11.0 entirely. We’re curious to see if Apple’s new M1-equipped Macs ship with 11.0 or 11.0.1.

The download weighs in at an eye-watering 12.18 GB. You can update directly from macOS 10.14 Mojave or macOS 10.15 Catalina from System Preferences > Software Update. You can also install Big Sur from the Mac App Store, which is the route you need to take if you want to put the installer on a USB thumb drive for a clean install or installation on multiple Macs without additional downloads.

Big Sur update

Delay Upgrades to Production Macs

We advise everyone to delay upgrading production Macs for now. We always recommend delaying major macOS upgrades until Apple has had a chance to address early problems, and Big Sur has several big behind-the-scenes changes that are causing more headaches than usual.

Plus, there were numerous first-day reports of problems installing Big Sur, including failed installations and extremely slow downloads. Such issues aren’t unusual with a new version of macOS, when Apple’s servers are being hammered. With luck, Apple has already resolved the network problems that were likely at the heart of many of these issues.

The most concerning issue reported so far is that the Big Sur update is bricking many late-2013 and mid-2014 13-inch MacBook Pro models. Users are reporting black screens after the update, and none of the typical remedies—resetting SMC and NVRAM or booting in Safe mode or Recovery mode—are helping. Apple has escalated the issue to its engineering team, and the company is currently telling users to bring their MacBook Pros in for repair.

Also concerning, though not something that most people need to worry about, is a warning from Native Instruments, a manufacturer of professional audio devices, has warned that Big Sur could damage hardware.

Big Sur, Big Backup Problems

With 10.15 Catalina, Apple split the macOS boot drive into separate System and Data volumes, the former of which holds the operating system files and is typically read-only. Big Sur further secures the System volume by applying a cryptographic hash to every file on it, as Howard Oakley explains. That makes it incredibly difficult for an attacker to hijack your Big Sur install, but it has caused headaches for many apps, especially those that make (and restore) bootable backups.

The good news is that Mike Bombich, developer of Carbon Copy Cloner, has worked with Apple to resolve the issues. Carbon Copy Cloner 5.1.23-b1 includes full support for making bootable backups in Big Sur. However, we can’t recommend upgrading to an operating system that requires a beta release to make bootable duplicates.

Similarly, Dave Nanian, the developer of the SuperDuper cloning utility, has said, “it’s going to be a while” before SuperDuper works with Big Sur. He recommends waiting to upgrade or using Time Machine, although Time Machine backups serve a different purpose than a bootable backup.

Econ Technologies has developed a technique for creating bootable backups with ChronoSync, but it’s complicated. In short, you install Big Sur on the backup drive and then copy over the contents of the Data volume (see “ChronoSync 4.9.12,” 13 November 2020).

What’s New in Big Sur

We don’t want to be all doom and gloom. Big Sur is the most significant change to macOS in years, most notably because it runs natively on (and is required for) Apple’s new M1 chips. More obviously, Apple overhauled the entire user interface to more closely resemble the iPhone and iPad.

Here are some of the features that are new to Big Sur:

  • Control Center: Big Sur features an iOS-style Control Center that lets you quickly control things like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and AirDrop.Control Center in Big Sur
  • Notification Center: No longer split into separate columns for notifications and widgets, Notification Center now puts everything into a single column, with notifications at the top and widgets at the bottom. Widgets also now resemble those in iOS 14 and iPadOS 14.Notification Center in Big Sur
  • Messages and Maps overhaul: Apple rewrote the Messages app in Mac Catalyst, which gives it feature parity with the iOS and iPadOS versions. Messages now supports thread pinning, Memojis, animated GIF inserts, and message effects. Apple similarly re-implemented the Maps app in Mac Catalyst.
  • Automatic AirPods switching: As with iOS 14 and iPadOS 14, your AirPods should connect to your Mac automatically when Big Sur detects that you’ve moved to your Mac from another device.

There are many more small features, and Apple provides a full list of what’s new in Big Sur. As you prepare for an eventual upgrade, we recommend that you read Joe Kissell’s Take Control of Big Sur.