It’s time to care about the Mac again

For the past few years, Apple has done next to nothing exciting when it comes to the Mac. Sure, we got the new 16-inch MacBook Pro and ultra-powerful/ultra-expensive Mac Pro last year, but that’s just the hardware. The software has been relatively stagnant if you pardon the ambitious yet seemingly dead-in-the-water Catalyst project to port iOS apps to macOS. Sidecar, which lets you connect an iPad to a Mac to use it as a monitor, is one of the only widely-used advancements on the Mac that I’ve seen, and it doesn’t necessarily change the experience of using an Apple-branded laptop.

Naturally, Apple realized that people were losing interest in the Mac with almost every recent iteration of macOS. It almost seemed like the company didn’t care about the OS anymore. But as it turns out, all of those smaller and less exciting releases were leading up to something big. Something called macOS Big Sur.

That’s not all. The fundamental hardware of the Mac (a.k.a. its processor) is also changing, with Apple confirming it’s ditching Intel for its own silicon.

With these two important announcements from WWDC 2020, I think it’s safe to say that people should start caring about the Mac again. Here’s why.

macOS Big Sur

macOS Big Sur (yes, it’s a really dumb name) is a major new upgrade for Mac users. In fact, it’s so big that Apple ditched its macOS 10.x moniker for macOS 11.0. This is the first time a Mac operating system has received a new lead version number since OS X in 2001. It’s an important update, one that Apple hopes will propel the Mac into the future.

Big Sur ships with a new user interface which, to some, is quite polarizing. The new iconography adds gradient and depth effects with shadows and layering all in play. Plus, each icon is now the same size for uniformity. I’m not sure if this is actually an improvement since I don’t think anyone minded having differently-sized icons in past versions of macOS, but I guess Apple knows best.

What I know a lot of people don’t like is the overall aesthetic. It feels really dated and certainly not as clean as the rest of Big Sur. Icons play a huge role in how software looks (obviously), but to me, this ain’t it chief.

Like I said, the rest of Big Sur is really nice. Control Center looks a lot like it does on the iPad, the notification center is extremely reminiscent of the iPhone, the dock is a bit cleaner, and transparency is absolutely everywhere. The color palette around the OS has also been updated, and so have fonts and their sizes. It’s an overall nice upgrade, but certainly nothing ground-breaking. In other words, it doesn’t change the fundamental way you use macOS. Which is good.

The other big new feature Apple is highlighting is a new version of Safari. According to the company, it’s the biggest upgrade to the browser since it launched in 2003. Safari is now 50 percent faster than Google Chrome in terms of loading requests visited sites. Apple doesn’t detail the upgrade very far beyond the fact it uses a “fast JavaScript engine.” Still, they say Safari now leads the industry in terms of the speed and battery life you can expect when using the software.

When you open Safari in Big Sur, you’ll be greeted by a redesigned home page which you can customize with shortcuts, your own wallpaper, and more. Tabs in Safari have also gotten an upgrade, allowing you to hover over them and get a preview of the page behind them. When you have a ton of tabs open, Apple says it’s now easier to find the one you’re looking for. Meanwhile, language translations, password monitoring, extensions in the App Store, and a weekly privacy report are also packed in. Overall, Apple knows it’s losing the browser war with Google and Microsoft and these upgrades seem to pivot Safari in the right direction if it wants to compete.

As per usual, a suite of Apple’s other built-in apps are also getting upgraded. Messages now comes with pinned conversations, inline replies for easier group conversation tracking, group conversation photos, @ mentions for contacts, and upgraded Memojis. Maps gets a full redesign with Guides, cycling routes in select cities, electric vehicle routing, indoor maps, and Look Around. Photos has more editing tools, the Home app receives a handful of improvements, Apple Music gets a new layout, and Siri has “deeper web knowledge.” Weaving in and out of macOS Big Sur are updates like these, so you’ll likely spot plenty of user-facing changes from the moment you install it.

Rounding things off, Apple has also improved the privacy of Big Sur in the App Store. You can now see what data app developers collect and whether it’s shared with any third-parties before you install an app. It’s the app version of a nutrition label, according to the company, and it’s certainly a welcome change.

When you combine all of these features, it’s easy to tell Apple went full-on blockbuster mode with Big Sur. As it says in its name, it’s a “Big” update, and it’s one that wants to convince you the Mac is still cool.

Apple ARM chips for Macs

Then there’s the whole departure from Intel on Apple’s behalf. As previously reported, Apple has confirmed it plans to move away from Intel’s processors and focus on creating its own chips for Mac computers. Not only would this mean the company could further optimize its software for the hardware under the hood, but it also likely means much better performance and battery life are destined for future MacBooks.

I’m writing this article on a 2018 iPad Pro connected to a 32-inch 4K monitor. The iPad is powered by Apple’s ARM-based A12X processor and it’s lightning fast. A reason why I like using it over my laptop is because of just how fast and fluid it is. If this chipset were given proper ventilation from a laptop, more than 6GB of RAM, and better graphics, the entire machine would absolutely scream. Plus, it would be incredibly efficient since Apple could control power draw with much more granularity.

Here’s a quote from Apple’s press release that details the advantages of custom silicon beautifully.

For over a decade, Apple’s world-class silicon design team has been building and refining Apple SoCs. The result is a scalable architecture custom designed for iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch that leads the industry in unique features and performance per watt, and makes each of them best in class. Building upon this architecture, Apple is designing a family of SoCs for the Mac. This will give the Mac industry-leading performance per watt and higher performance GPUs — enabling app developers to write even more powerful pro apps and high-end games. And access to technologies such as the Neural Engine will make the Mac an amazing platform for developers to use machine learning. This will also create a common architecture across all Apple products, making it far easier for developers to write and optimize software for the entire Apple ecosystem.

That sounds like an incredible future, one that the company says will come in about two years.

Yep, Apple says in two years time it will complete the transition away from Intel processors to its own. That’s a really short amount of time. To get things moving, the company says it’ll ship the first Mac with an ARM-based Apple-branded processor later this year. It isn’t clear what that Mac will be (whether it’s a laptop or desktop computer) but we don’t have long to wait before we find out.

Oh, and then there’s the app thing. As it turns out, having a Mac powered by an ARM processor means macOS Big Sur will natively support all current iOS and iPadOS apps. Developers will be able to now build a single application that can run across iOS, iPadOS, and macOS with no tweaks to make for compatibility. That’s great news. The Mac is seriously struggling in the app department, and it’s an issue Catalyst tried to fix. Maybe changing the entire architecture of a Mac’s brain will smooth things over.

These tow upgrades to Apple’s Mac line mean exciting new developments are in the pipeline. macOS big Sur won’t ship until later this fall and buying a *good* ARM-based Mac might mean waiting two to three years. But! To know that Apple wants to push the Mac further than it ever has means it’s time to actually start caring about the Mac again.

No more broken keyboards. No more lack of apps. No more incremental performance upgrades year over year. Apple has had it. This next decade is going to be incredibly interesting for the Mac.