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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: A Tour of System Preferences in Big Sur

Any time there is a big set of UI changes in macOS, I like to see what Apple has done to the System Preferences app. As you can see, Catalina and Big Sur’s versions of the app are pretty different:

Big Sur is still pretty early in its beta lifecycle, so some of these decisions could change over time (and I’m sure the Notifications icon will be swapped for a high-resolution one) but I think we can get a good feel for where Apple is going here.

First, the application still has the sam structure that Apple introduced lat year, with the Apple ID and Family Sharing preference panes taking up the top of the window,1 with the other panes filing in below in sections that were stripped of their names after Mountain Lion. System Preferences even retains the Spotlight-style search UI:

This year, many the icons have been revisited to better match Big Sur’s more colorful and lifelike palette of application icons. General is more colorful and includes the stoplight buttons, Network is a lot more vibrant and even Displays got a slight update, with thinner bezels on its on-icon display. Others, like Sound and Screen Time go a little far for my tastes, but like everything in Big Sur, I’m sure I’ll get used to it with time.

The changes are more than skin deep, though. Many of the preference panes themselves have been updated or reworked, and I want to point out a few of the changes.

General

The first pane has undergone relatively few changes, but I think they are all notable. The option for Font Smoothing is gone, at least on my 16-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. The checkbox for hiding the Menu Bar has moved to a pane we will visit shortly, but the most interesting change is the addition of a new accent and highlight color option: “Accent Color.”

In Big Sur, developers can set a key color for their application. Think blue for Mail, yellow for Notes, purple for Podcasts, etc. Here is how it is explained in the updated HIG:

If people set the Accent color preferences to a value other than multicolor, the system applies their chosen color to the relevant items throughout your app, replacing your accent color. The exception is a sidebar glyph that uses a fixed color you specify. Because a fixed-color sidebar glyph uses a specific color to provide meaning, the system doesn’t override its color when people change the value of Accent color preferences.

So, if you set this to orange, all the new fancy sidebars and other controls in Big Sur will be orange, but I for one like the multi-colored approach, and am glad it’s the default. My days of running macOS in the Graphite theme are long behind me.

Dock & Menu Bar

With the introduction of Control Center this year, the ages-old Dock preference pane has been given a lot more to manage. Not only is it now home to the setting for hiding the Menu Bar automatically, but Apple crammed in a whole bunch of fiddly options for Control Center:

That left-hand pane is scrollable, which is super weird, but it allows users to tell the system what controls should be in the Menu Bar and/or the Control Center, or hidden completely.

One disappointment here is that currently, there does not seem to be a way to re-arrange what Control Center tiles go where. I’d like to see that show up in a future beta.

Battery

Don’t look at this icon directly or you will be very, very sorry.

Seriously, Apple. Someone has to change this.

Preparing the way

Are the little details in System Preferences important to the majority of Mac users? Of course not, but for those of us who truly love macOS, tracking these changes over time can be a lot of fun.

It can also help see where Apple is going with macOS. A lot of these changes are around the new UI elements in Big Sur, which themselves are present to ready the Mac for the pending onslaught of iPad and iPhone apps that are coming with the first Apple silicon Macs ship later this year.

And that’s pretty exciting stuff to this Mac nerd.


  1. This year, it even shows my Apple ID photo correctly! 

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