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Thoughts About macOS Big Sur

macOS Big Sur I work hard seven days a week. I switched from PC/Win to Mac around 10 years ago because it promised a better user experience. I want consistency more than I want new features. Consistency means greater productivity. I measure the success of each new macOS update based on how much time I have to spend dealing with the changes. Some updates, the changes are minimal and I can keep working without much fuss. Other updates are more extreme, with changes that interrupt and impede my workflow. Big Sur is one of those updates.

Things I like about Big Sur

The upgrade itself went smoothly. Took a loooong time, but no hiccups. Once installed, I jumped through the hoops, flipped through the new features, and was back up and running. Now that I’ve spent a month or so working on Big Sur, here are some of the things I like:

  • Smooth install on my 2019 iMac and 2015 MacBook Pro
  • Everything (for the most part) still works flawlessly
  • Some nice updates for Safari

Those are the biggies. For my workflow, from a practical standpoint, Big Sur is not much different than Catalina. There are some cosmetic and organizational changes. Like rounded corners are back (lol), and the widgets are now located under a menu bar icon. But overall, Big Sur works and runs great on my Mac machines.

Not so great things about Big Sur

This is why I wrote this post. To share some things that could be improved. And note that as a 10-year Mac user, I’ve learned how to check the docs and research when troubleshooting is necessary to fix issues and restore missing or broken functionality. When problems arise, I prefer to just fix them myself rather than relying on any tech support. This is true for all of the following items, if there is a (sane) way of making it better, I will try it. So far, there are no (sane) solutions for any of the following.

Apps open slowly

I am running Big Sur on an 2019 iMac and a 2015 MacBook Pro. On both machines, certain apps open very, very slowly. A few examples include Apple Mail, BBEdit, Affinity Photo (and Publisher, Designer), Final Cut Pro, and numerous others. Before Big Sur these apps opened quickly every time. But now, even on a shiny new iMac, many apps are soooo slow to open.

TextEdit broken

TextEdit is broken. I had to switch to BBEdit (which is amazing). I make heavy use of plain text notes in my workflow, for all projects, etc. And the Big Sur TextEdit is borked beyond belief. For example, try deleting any chunk of text from a scrolled text file. The entire document suddenly jumps up to the top. Uugghh.

Apple Mail sucking

Apple Mail is getting worse. It once was great, flexible and reliable. But for the past several macOS updates, Mail has been going downhill rapidly.

My workflow revolves around email. In fact, after the browser, Mail is the app that I use the most. And sadly with Big Sur, even more basic features have been removed. Now users have even less control over how the app behaves. Less control over how they view and respond to messages. It’s like using a potato to handle your email workload.

For example, the Trash folder doesn’t work correctly. Deleting an email results in permanent deletion, it is not sent to Trash. In the sidebar, the Trash folder does not appear along with the other primary folders like Inbox, Drafts, and Sent. Instead Trash appears beneath with the other account folders, even though it is supposed to be global. Now to get a global Trash folder, you have to add it as a “favorite”. So then you have the “favorite” shortcut icon and the actual Trash folder still displayed with your other accounts. So you’ve got to have two Trash folders showing at all times in the sidebar. Even worse, the Trash folders display different deleted files, they are not synchronized at all. It’s really a mess that needs to be fixed.

Another suck point is that the new “Big Sur” design/UI makes inefficient use of screen space. Everything is much bulkier, larger margins, lots of wasted empty space. So you’ve got to spend more time scrolling and fiddling, especially on small screens. And column widths? Yeah they can no longer be customized. Just like with Finder.

One more weird bug is that sending email takes much, much longer than it did before Big Sur. Previously, clicking “Send” woooshed your email off immediately without delay. Now with Big Sur, click send and it can take up to several seconds before the mail actually gets sent. Really makes you wonder what is happening to that email before it sends. Almost feels like it’s getting filtered by something. Or something. Either way, super slow email sending is another Big Downside to Big Sur.

Basically in Big Sur, Apple Mail is super dumbed-down and clunky, with lots of weird bugs and crashes. That is why I continue my search for a better email app.

Lock Screen prison

With Big Sur, the macOS Lock Screen cannot be changed. Perhaps the MOST frustrating and disappointing thing about Big Sur is the horribly invasive Lock Screen background image. It’s just way, way too much. I’m sure lots of people love it. But for me, it’s just ugly and is a huge downer every time I have to log in.

So there is no sane way to change the lock-screen image. I say “sane” because technically it is reported that is possible to change the Lock Screen wallpaper, but seriously. The steps to do it literally are insane. It’s like 20+ steps of involved, complicated command-line surgery, safe-mode reboots, and general hackery just to change a simple background image.

Whatever happened to “Think Different”?

Never mind that Macs are some of the most expensive computers in the world. But users aren’t allowed the luxury of customizing the Lock Screen? Like that’s too much to ask for a $2,500 purchase? Like if you want to brand for business? Or just want to replace the nutty default “Big Sur” branded image with something a little less barf-inducing? Yeah, mmmkay.

New icons are a step backward

The new macOS Big Sur icons are kinda worse than before. After installing Big Sur, I noticed that there are some new app icons. If you notice the new icons for bundled macOS apps like Find My, Home, iMovie, News, Fontbook, Calculator, and others. The icons are no longer simple, bold representations of their corresponding apps. Instead they look like “icons within icons”. Each icon image has been reduced in size and stuck inside of an opaque rounded-corner square. To give you a visual idea:

macOS ugly iconsThe empty opaque white space adds needless visual complexity

Notice the unused opaque space in the above icons? It’s like welcome back to 2011. Now compare to these bold, beautiful non-macOS icons done right:

Some proper icons on macOSExamples of simple, bold, clean icons

Fortunately, most Apple apps/icons I never use or look at, so it’s not a big deal. Just mentioning here in case anyone is listening.

Privacy issues

Last but not least. I won’t get into the privacy issues with Big Sur. Other than to say it is very alarming and bad. I just hope that Apple follows through with their promise to delete IP logs, encrypt communication between macOS and Apple to prevent privacy leaks, and give users the option of disabling the online checks that leak which apps you’re opening and when. Here it is for the record, Apple’s promise as declared in the section called “Privacy protections” on this page:

In addition, over the the next year we will introduce several changes to our security checks:

  • A new encrypted protocol for Developer ID certificate revocation checks
  • Strong protections against server failure
  • A new preference for users to opt out of these security protections

Let’s hope that Apple follows through with these promises.

Note: screenshot taken 2021/01/22

Dear Apple

Apple/macOS devs if you are reading this, PLEASE fix (or at least work on) the issues outlined in this post. Think of your users. Read their many unresolved cries for help on your own support forums. Fix TextEdit. Fix Mail. Fix the privacy issues. And yes, please make the Lock Screen customizable. Such improvements truly would help to make Big Sur the best macOS ever.

Jeff Starr
About the Author
Jeff Starr = Fullstack Developer. Book Author. Teacher. Human Being.
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10 responses to “Thoughts About macOS Big Sur”

  1. The same as with me. The Apple Mail problems were solved for me after I was able to show the recycle bin for all mailboxes again. I still like Apple Mail.

    I see the same thing with the icons. Especially since they were not implemented consistently. Even Apple’s icons are not consistently in line.

    But what bothers me the most is that if you deactivate the transparency (I don’t like it and don’t need it), the dock has an unsightly black border.

    • Jeff Starr

      Thanks for the feedback, David.

      I like Apple Mail as well, but another step down and I’ll have to move on to something with more flexibility and fewer bugs.

      Also interesting, how do you deactivate the icon transparency?

      • Sorry didn’t mean the icon transparency… the transparency of macOS itself. Via Accessibility Option Panel. Without transparency, macOS runs more smoothly i think.

        But even more important, directly after the reinstallation, is the deactivation of the Dock animation via Terminal. I hate the delay and hide the Dock by default to have more space. With Animation is take too much time to show the dock.

        Reducing graphic effects and animations was always the most important for me. I don’t like the idea that power is wasted on something like that, which I then miss elsewhere.

      • Jeff Starr

        Ah okay that makes more sense then, thanks for explaining.

        I agree about stuff like fancy corners and flashy graphics should be kept to a minimum. Instead of wasting time on special effects, the developers should fix the many outstanding functional issues.

      • By the way, you can change the login (lock screen) wallpaper with Onyx. Only because I just saw it and it seems to bother you a lot. (https://titanium-software.fr/en/onyx.html)

      • Jeff Starr

        Thanks David, will check it out.

  2. I mostly like the direction Apple has taken with MacOS and prior to that with OSX. But Big Sur is a complete fail for me. I can see why Apple did what they did with Big Sur. Especially given that Apple is moving Mac’s to their own silicon.

    In the end all their devices will function similarly and most likely will see a move to force apps to be installed on a Mac through the store. I already feel my Intel Mac’s are a legacy device. they don’t even run as well on Big Sur as they did on Catalina and prior. No doubt Apple emphasized an optimization in Big Sur for their own chips. I won’t ever own an Apple silicon Mac.

  3. Hello Jeff:
    I have two older Mac laptops happily running Catalina.

    I don’t expect them to be able to run a 2021 OS – designed for a new machine.

    But MacOs is awesome – especially if you have an iPhone.

    Biggest MacOS problem: you can’t downgrade.

    Best wishes, Mitchell

  4. Good article, although I think you may have missed two rather large problems, IMHO.

    First, older macOS drivers, known as System Extensions or Kernel Extensions (KEXTs), were officially deprecated and are no longer functional in BigSur. See a good overview in regards to ASIX Ethernet Adapters (https://plugable.com/blogs/news/asix-ethernet-adapters-unsupported-on-macos-big-sur). Honestly, its outrageous that Apple wouldn’t have some sort of longer-term plan for this. It’s not like you can look up USB hardware, and see if they are KEXT based or not. Once my USB Ethernet Adapter stopped working, it was almost impossible to figure out a good alternative working solution until other users started slowly talking about what devices do work under BigSur.

    Second, and perhaps more importantly, the search functionality is worthless in BigSur. HUGE difference from the prior version of Mac OS X. Interestingly, Finder, Mail, Outlook, Spotlight, and other apps use the Mac OS X search and indexing functionality to provide search results. Under BigSur, search results are spotty at best. It may find some files, and not others in the same directory. It may not find some directories, although it might find some files located within the directories it cannot find. It may find documents containing words, but not documents named with the same words. It’s so bad, I’m seriously considering going back to Windows. I know, it hurts to even type those words.

    Larry.

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