James Cridland

Big Sur review: rebuilding my MacBook with new software

After checking whether the two daily-drivers that I use were fully compatible with the new MacOS release of Big Sur, I followed some rather arcane instructions to produce a USB install key for Big Sur, wiped my hard drive, and started afresh. This machine dates from 2016, and I suspected that after four different versions of OSX it was time to have a clearout.

I’m keen to run the latest builds of things, since I suspect that the security is better. From a very basic point of view, I will replace hardware if it can’t run a supported version of the OS any more; and will update as soon as it sounds safe to do so.

Before the install: what I backed up

I use both Dropbox and Google Drive. Because of that, virtually everything I do on this machine is already backed-up. I discovered the Hugo files for my new personal website were languishing in my home folder, and also found one mysterious keypair: but those were the only things I needed to actually back up.

Running everything from a cloud drive is really the only way to go these days, and I don’t quite understand why some people are keen to retain all their work/memories on a piece of silicon that can easily break, go wrong, or be stolen. Yes, Dropbox was hacked once (in 2012, but discovered in 2016); Google Drive has never been hacked, yet, and with both you can encrypt further if you want.

Dropbox — here’s 500GB of extra space if you don’t yet use it — is much more polished than Google Drive’s consumer version, though read on about that.

The installation process

The installation took about an hour, all told. Installing from a slow USB key probably didn’t help it much. But it was relatively smooth.

Things that don’t work

I’ve not seen very much that doesn’t work. Google’s “Backup and Sync” appears to have some display issues. I’ve heard reports that Descript, a podcast editing tool, doesn’t work. But everything I’ve tried appears to work without any issue.

The only one odd incompatibility I’ve discovered is with encrypted DNS. I installed a NextDNS profile for native DNS encryption and protection, but Google Chrome appears to not use this profile. You can configure Chrome separately, which is fine, but unexpected.

Things I have installed so far and how

We ought to start with Homebrew. It’s a simple and easy way to install a bunch of other things and keep them updated: and as of mid-December it is fully supported on Big Sur.

I was drawn into the world of Homebrew properly when I needed to find a decent text expander program, and happened upon Espanso. That essentially requires Homebrew for installation, and I quickly realised how useful it could be. After installing Homebrew, you install Espanso by typing, in a terminal window…

brew install espanso

Espanso allows me to do quite decent text-expansion across the entire OS, so I can just type :pn and it’ll expand into a few paragraphs about my newsletter, including a web call to grab the latest number of subscribers. It’s very excellent.

Every so often, if you run brew update and brew upgrade it’ll make sure that all the apps you have like this are up to date.

Brew also deals with installations of MacOS apps, which they call “casks”. No dragging files into Applications, no running weird installation programs.

brew cask install bitwarden gets you Bitwarden, the password manager I’ve been using for the last six months or so, after a brief dalliance with 1Password. Bitwarden is open source and works with all the devices I use; handles 2FA for me as well, and is a basically good thing. I needed to install this pretty well first, because otherwise I’d not be able to get at anything else. It’s free for most things; but for $10/year it’s not going to break the bank even if you pay for it, as I do.

brew cask install cyberduck gets you a free and good file transfer program, which works with almost everything (SFTP, Dropbox, S3, Google Drive, etc). I’ve used it for many years (and donated a while back to it).

From the same author, the paid-for mountain-duck attaches the above as drives to your OS. Last time around, I used the official Dropbox app, but this time I’m going to see whether Mountain Duck will serve as my Dropbox client. It appears to, so far. My theory is to try and avoid lots of apps, and to see what happens there.

Other apps I’ve installed (through brew, mostly) are:

  • calibre which manages my ebook reader, my trusty Kobo Aura One. My library is stored on Google Drive.
  • spotify because everyone needs some music now and again
  • signal — a desktop companion to my mobile phone messaging app
  • visual-studio-code, which I use as my IDE to edit the code that runs the websites I work on. I’m confessing here to being a little apprehensive about setting it up with all the keys and Githubs that I need to do my job properly. (Later me writes: it was simple.)
  • atom is a text editor that I’d like to try. I’ve been using SublimeText up until this point, but the reviews of Atom seem good.
  • slack is good for alerts and chat
  • rectangle is something I’ve never tried before, but am going to give a go: it’s a window management app. I’ve never used these but suspect that it might be helpful, if I can train myself to use it.
  • zoom for the inevitable chats and conference speaking, though I much prefer Google Meet for chats.
  • obs for management of my camera during these conferences.

And my three daily drivers:

  • iaWriter, a Markdown writer that I use every day. It’s in the App Store, so won’t install using brew.
  • Hindenburg Journalist Pro, the audio editor I use every day. (That link gets you a 90 day trial and a “special discount”, whatever that is). Its download link is protected, so it won’t install using brew.
  • Keynote, which I use both for conference speaking, but also for quick and decent art production for Podnews and other things. Again, it’s in the App Store.

Things I’ve spotted from the user interface

It’s very, very, obviously a touch user interface: with everything separated and bigger buttons for fat fingers to hit. It’s strange that Tim Apple didn’t launch a touch device with his new Apple silicon Macs. Perhaps that’s for another marketing hit next year.

The entire display algorithm has had some work done to it, too: everything looks slightly different, with slightly thicker text and some subtle changes. Everything feels right, and the childish app logos don’t actually look childish in context within the OS.

Randomly, the change I like most is that the menu bar now tells me the day and date, as well as the time. I actually installed a separate program for this in Catalina, using itsycal, but I now don’t need to do so. Clicking this gives you Mac OS widgets, which seem relatively pointless so far, but I guess they might turn out to be quite nice.

Is it faster? Probably, but only because of the four years of crap I’ve deleted from it.

Safari turns out to be a quite decent browser. I’ve stopped using Google Chrome.

Is it worth upgrading? I don’t see any reason why you would want to upgrade right now — but also, don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t.