As somebody whose responsibilities including looking after the work laptop fleet, I must occasionally risk boldly going forward to find out how well a brand new operating system fares within our ecosystem. In this case, I’m using my own MacBook Pro 16″ which shipped with macOS Catalina.
Catalina was a buggy mess, but it was well supported. It was the last of the macOS X line of operating systems. We’re now on macOS 11, and Big Sur is the first of its kind to support both Intel and Apple Silicon M1 processors. Which is just as well as I expect to use this Intel MacBook Pro for another three to four years at least. But with a major new operating system release comes a tonne of problems, and macOS Big Sur is no exception.
I had to fire my firewall, Little Snitch. It’s a very useful application for determining what network traffic is coming in and out of my Mac, as well as being able to block any suspicious traffic from potentially rogue applications. I had been using version 4, but because of architectural changes within Big Sur, it wouldn’t work. So it’s a paid upgrade to version 5. But there is no trial. I’d have liked to have had a trial to be able to get used to Big Sur and ensure the effectiveness of Little Snitch, but it’s an all or nothing approach. So I kicked Little Snitch to the curb, for now, and rely on Big Sur’s own internal firewall.
Then there was anti-virus software. As this is my own machine, I’ve been using Sophos Home Premium for a while. It’s very effective, doesn’t use up many system resources – though I thoroughly dislike the need for a web UI – makes it difficult to keep multiple users separate/private and a pain in the arse if you’ve offline. At work, we use the commercial Sophos Intercept-X product. In both cases, at the launch of Big Sur, they were not compatible. But at the time of installing Big Sur (a few weeks after the launch), Home Premium had announced a compatible, but feature-reduced version. Alas, I found problems with it and had to uninstall. Intercept-X has only just opened an Early Access Program, but I’m going to wait until they release a supported build which should be sometime early 2021.
I tried Norton 360 Premium, which seems good value for £50 to support 10 devices and has very good anti-virus test scores. It is Big Sur compatible, but (a) there is no Mac support for the 75Gb cloud storage that comes with the package (that I could see) and (b) the scanning component uses significant resources – it completely froze my machine several times and took up 90% of overall system resources, causing the fans on the MacBook Pro to spin up to full power. It also wanted to install 20 billion Chrome extensions which caused quite a few problems. So that had to go.
I have an active BitDefender Total Security subscription for Mac and PC, but my problem with BitDefender has been that the UI hasn’t been updated in years and still requires Chrome and Safari extensions to be effective when browsing the web – with the changes to Chrome, everything looks horrible when searching with Google. BitDefender is much better under Windows, and I often feel the Mac version is a bit of an afterthought.
I finally settled on a temporary solution until Sophos Home Premium is fully supported – Malwarebytes Premium for the Mac. It provides realtime malware and ransomware protection and doesn’t use any significant resources at all. It’s Big Sur compliant too. There’s a decent Chrome extension which helps stop trackers and adverts along with any other malicious web malarky. It’s definitely a step up from BitDefender’s extension, I must say. Best of all it cost me just £12.49 for a year of protection thanks to a Black Friday promotion.
Then we have VMWare Fusion Pro 12. I use this to run both Windows and Linux. Linux especially because we have a number of scripts which FreeBSD’s built-in shell commands decide to interpret a little differently. Things were running initially fine until I installed VMWare Fusion Pro 12.1, then I suffered a number of network-related issues with the NAT configuration. I could use the Linux VM just fine if I didn’t connect to the company VPN, but if I was connected, I was unable to do several things which are vital for my role. I had to switch to Parallels Desktop 16 which works flawlessly with or without the company VPN being connected. Networking architecture has changed with Big Sur, and it looks like Parallels managed to figure it out before VMware.
In more general areas, I’ve found macOS Big Sur to have problems with image thumbnails. Thumbnails from other images cropped up from time to time, confusing the heck out of me. It’s as if Big Sur is being too aggressive caching system files. I thought that one possible solution to this is would be to delete the .DS_Store file in the directory and let the OS regenerate the thumbnails again. But this doesn’t seem to last long before the problem comes back. This tends to occur when using encrypted APFS-formatted DMG files.
Bluetooth seems to be another problem. I tend to leave my Mac running throughout the day, and on the occasion when I leave it to nap, returning to the machine is fine – but randomly the £150 Apple wireless “Magic” keyboard will stop responding (and occasionally the Logitech MX Master 3 mouse too). The mouse tends to recover fairly quickly, but the keyboard doesn’t. It means that I have to restart the Mac to get the keyboard working again – turning the keyboard on and off doesn’t work, neither does the Bluetooth Control Centre controls.
I’ve also experienced major internet connectivity slowdowns. My MacBook Pro is wired up to the router directly and yesterday I found I was getting only 150Mbs max via the Mac, and 500Mbs with the iPhone 12 Pro Max. I restarted the Mac and everything was fine again.
I’m also not keen on the new menu bar fonts – and spacing between the menu bar icons either. It feels too much like a Linux distribution (I’ve always disliked Linux on the desktop, and fonts have always been a problem for me as part of that) rather than a high-scale Mac desktop.
Do I recommend people start using macOS Big Sur now? Absolutely not. Hold off for a month or two, because this is a very unpolished OS and is absolutely not ready for the prime time if you’re a sysadmin or developer.