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OS X El Capitan review: Mac upgrade that's as solid as a rock

OS X El Capitan review: Mac upgrade that's as solid as a rock

Lots of new features in Apple latest version of OS X. Upgrade and get an improved Mac. It’s really that simple.

El Capitan, OS X 10.11, arrives for everyone September 30, but I’ve been using it all summer. In these days of free operating-system updates, major OS X updates feel a whole lot more routine than they used to be. Apple has chosen not to roll out major OS X features piecemeal throughout the year, though, which still makes this the biggest change your Mac will experience this year.

El Capitan, named after the large granite rock formation inside Yosemite National Park, is very much a refined version of OS X Yosemite, a recognizable progression from its predecessor. (In iPhone terms, it would be Yosemite S.) Apple says this update is all about a refined experience and improved performance. But it’s traditional for Apple to take its no-big-deal updates and pour in a bunch of new features anyway, and El Capitan is no exception. This is a packed release, but one that makes sense as a follow-up to Yosemite.

Just the basics

osx elcap icon

Before we get started, it’s worth recapping what this El Capitan business is all about. El Capitan is Apple’s marketing name for OS X version 10.11, the latest update to your Mac’s system software. If your Mac is running Yosemite (10.10), Mavericks (10.9), or Mountain Lion (10.8), it can run El Capitan. And with the previous two updates, it’s absolutely free for you to update to El Capitan. If you’ve got OS X’s software update system set to automatically download updates, your computer may begin downloading the El Capitan update as soon as Wednesday, September 30. And if you’re running an older version of OS X, you don’t need to do interim upgrades - you can go straight to El Capitan from Snow Leopard or later.

If the update will be free and readily available, what’s the big deal? Often people are trepidatious about upgrading their computers. If an app you rely on is incompatible with the new version, your entire workflow can be broken. It’s worth being careful and checking with the makers of any apps you rely on before upgrading—most will post compatibility information on their websites.

In the case of El Capitan, a few of the apps and utilities I rely on weren’t initially compatible, but most have already been updated as a result of Apple’s summer-long testing period. Most major OS X upgrades feature a lot of under-the-hood security improvements, which is a good reason to stay up to date, but some of those changes can also break software. Several of the apps I use, including SuperDuper and Default Folder X didn’t work properly with El Capitan, but SuperDuper has already been updated to regain compatibility and Default Folder X has a new version on the way (and a workaround in the meantime).

One of the security improvements in El Capitan is a feature called System Integrity Protection, which clamps down on the ability of malware to hijack your Mac by masquerading as a user with system-administration privileges. This is a good thing—but a few apps, including Default Folder X and SuperDuper relied on that same vector to do their jobs. You can turn off System Integrity Protection if you absolutely need to, but it seems like most apps will be able to function just fine with it turned on. (It’s just that some of them may need an update first.)

Bottom line: I’ve found El Capitan to be a stable update, but you should always back up your system and check with the makers of your most important apps about compatibility before installing it.

A saner Mission Control

We all use our Macs in different ways - and even the same person can use a giant 5K iMac in a different way than they use an 11-inch MacBook Air. (I am one of those people.) My gut feeling is that there’s a devoted (but small) subset of Mac users who love using Mission Control (formerly Exposé) to arrange their windows and workspaces, or frequently use Full Screen mode for apps. If you’re one of those people—or if you’ve always been tempted to improve how you organize your workspace, I’ve got good news for you: El Capitan offers quite a few boosts to Mission Control and Full Screen Mode.

The most notable addition is the new Split View feature, which appears to be designed to be reminiscent of the Split View feature that appears on some iPads in iOS 9. Unlike the iPad, though, Mac users have always been able to run two windows next to each other. Still, what Split View is really doing is adding an extra dimension of utility to full-screen view. Now full-screen view doesn’t just have to feature one app stretched out to take over your entire screen—you can split the space between two apps, one on the left side and one on the right.

side by side

Split View allows the user to display two apps side by side.

Entering Split View is actually fun, and quite clever on Apple’s part. If you click and hold on the green plus/maximize button in a window’s title bar, you’ll be prompted to choose which side of the screen you’d like that window to be placed on. Then Mission Control will activate on the other side of the screen, letting you choose any of your currently open windows to use as the first window’s split-screen buddy. It’s fast, cool looking, and efficient.

Converting full-screen mode to split-screen mode isn’t without its interface quirks. I noticed that, depending on how an app presents itself in full-screen mode, sometimes it could be very hard to tell which app was active/frontmost. That sometimes led to unexpected behavior—for example, I tried to zoom in on a PDF in Preview by spreading my thumb and index finger on the trackpad, but it didn’t work because I hadn’t clicked on the window to activate Preview yet.

Since it seems that Split View is just a modified version of the old full-screen view, there are probably going to be some quirks like this—with apps assuming they’re the only app you can see because you’re in full-screen mode, even though they’re not—until they’re modified to adapt to the El Capitan world.

Like full-screen view, I’m not sure Split View is going to appeal to anyone but users of laptops, and even then, it’s more likely to be appealing to smaller laptops. If you’ve got a large monitor, full-screen view is often overkill, because few apps are designed to take up all that space. (There are, of course, exceptions—when I’m editing audio in Logic Pro X, it’s using every pixel of my 5K iMac screen.) But at least with El Capitan, you’ve got the option of having two different apps share full-screen view. On a smaller display, such as my trusty 11-inch MacBook Air, it’s a nicer experience.

elcap mission control

When you engage Mission Control, app windows as placed relative to their actual placement on your desktop.

Perhaps my favorite addition, though, is to Mission Control itself. The entire feature feels friendlier and makes more sense than it ever has before. Mission Control now does a much better job of organizing and presenting your open windows. Every window gets its own thumbnail, rather than piling all of an app’s windows in a big stack. And when you engage Mission Control, your windows don’t fly all over the place like a giant game of 52 Pickup—they slide around in order to bring every window into view, sure, but the feature keeps geography in mind. This means that a window that’s in the top-right corner of the screen will generally stay near the top-right corner when Mission Control is activated.

The Spaces Bar—that strip at the top of the screen that appears when you activate Mission Control—has also gotten a major upgrade. First, it’s collapsed by default, giving more space to your windows when you activate Mission Control. When you move your cursor over the Spaces Bar, it expands. You can also drag a window to the top of your screen, and Mission Control will automatically activate with the Spaces Bar expanded, so you can quickly toss a window into a new or existing workspace.

Finally, in a boost to the new Split View feature, if you move your cursor over a space that contains two apps in Split View, you’ll see a small icon that allows you to blow the Split View apart—bringing both windows back to your existing workspace. When you click it, you see the two windows slide back into their place in the Mission Control landscape.

Search (in Spotlight and elsewhere)

Between Siri and Spotlight, Apple continues to build up its collection of searchable data sources. On iOS, Siri and Spotlight seem to be merging and mingling in a bunch of interesting ways. On OS X, those data sources crop up in a bunch of different places: They’re in Spotlight, yes, but you’ll also find them in Safari. With El Capitan, Spotlight and Safari both have access to weather, stocks, sports, transit, and web video, as well as support for natural-language queries.

spotlight pdfs

Spotlight's natural lanaguage support means you can type queries like, “pdfs from october 2014” and Spotlight will show the proper results.

Yes, this means you should be able to type “san diego chargers standings” into Spotlight and immediately be given the bad news from the AFC West, or “phoenix az weather” and get the bad news from the desert west. It also means you can type queries like “pdfs from june 2013” or “presentations from august 2012” into Spotlight or Finder and actually get the result you’re expecting.

I like this approach, because the fact is that many people search using natural language queries regardless of whether their search engine of choice supports it. A lot of us want to type, “how do I delete my Facebook account” into Google, rather than carefully crafting a string of search terms. So Spotlight gets smarter, we get to be lazier, and it should all work out.

That said, the quality of the results from these data sources needs to be tightened up. When I search for “arsenal standings,” I get an English Premier League table, but without point totals. A search for “cal football schedule” shows me a weird amalgamation of dates, many of them listed as Dec. 31, and “pac-12 standings” displays an unsorted list of conference records. Likewise, if I type “memphis weather,” I don’t get the weather near Graceland, but the weather in Memphis, Texas, population 2290. Not smart enough, Spotlight.

spotlight weathertexas

Think “Memphis,” and most people think Tennessee, except for Spotlight (and the citizens of Memphis, Texas).

There’s one improvement to Spotlight that I applaud wholeheartedly, and it has to do with the Spotlight window itself. Last year, Yosemite cut the cord between the Spotlight window and the Spotlight icon in the top-right corner of the Menu Bar. It floated in the middle of the screen, disconnected from the icon it was supposedly attached to. Now with El Capitan, you can move the Spotlight box anywhere you want, and resize the results window, with the menu bar icon serving as nothing more than a shortcut.

Safari pins its favorite sites

With El Capitan comes a new version of Safari, version 9, and it’s got some clever new features. I have to admit that I still use bookmarks (and don’t use RSS), and I really enjoy the new Pinned Sites feature in Safari 9. Pinned Sites are like mega-bookmarks—or if you prefer, they’re a simpler, more visual version of the Favorites Bar. Drag a tab into the left corner of Safari’s title bar and it will stay there permanently, with a little icon (or letter if the site in question hasn’t built a special custom icon for use with Pinned Sites) to distinguish it.

Pinned Sites are kept refreshed, so with one click you can see what’s new on your favorite site. Clicks that lead to other pages on the site are loaded in the pinned site’s tab, but external links all open in separate tabs, keeping your pinned site right where it is. As someone who likes to bookmark a few very-favorite sites and visit them regularly, this has the makings of a cool feature.

safari pinned

Pinned Sites are represented by icons on the left side of the Tab bar.

This feature does change Safari’s keyboard shortcuts and tab behavior, however. Since Pinned Sites are always open, if you try to close a Safari window when viewing a Pinned Site, it will switch you to a new tab instead. If you have a single tab open that’s not a Pinned Site, it will close the entire window. But if you open a new window and navigate back to the Pinned Site, you’ll find that it’s still on the page of the Pinned Site that you last visited.

If you’re used to navigating the first item in the Bookmarks Bar by typing Command-1, you’ll also have to get used to a change. Command-number shortcuts are now reserved for navigating Pinned Sites and browser tabs, moving from left to right. I used to have my personal weather station page as my first Bookmarks Bar item; now I’ve made it my first Pinned Site, so I can keep the same shortcut. You can also access all the Bookmarks Bar items by adding in the Option key, in the format Command-Option-[number].

Nobody likes blaring audio from pages that automatically play videos when the page loads, and if you’re someone who likes to open articles in multiple tabs, you can very quickly have several different videos playing in different tabs. In Safari 9, you have much more control over where audio plays in your browser. With one click on the speaker icon in Safari’s Smart Search bar, you can mute the audio in the current tab. Or click and hold on that icon, and you’ll see a list of all tabs that are playing audio—with the option to mute the sound from the currently open tab or from all the non-visible tabs. You’ll also see a list of all tabs that are playing audio in that list. Tabs playing audio are also indicated by a speaker icon in the tab itself. This is a really great feature that I look forward to using when I’m browsing ESPN, Macworld, and many other of my favorite sites, which I generally visit only to read the articles.

safari muting

Sfari 9 uses a speaker icon to tell the user that audio is coming from a webpage.

Safari Reader, which gives you a simplified view of a complicated page layout, has added more display preferences. In the Yosemite version of Safari, you can make the text larger or smaller, but that’s about it. In Safari 9, you can not only adjust text size, but also choose from four color themes and eight typefaces. It’s a good look, especially when I’m reading at night and prefer a light-on-dark theme.

Finally, anyone who has been frustrated that they can’t easily send a video they’re watching in Safari and play it on their TV—something that’s easily done on an iOS device—will be happy to know that Safari now supports AirPlay video. If you’re playing a video that’s compatible with AirPlay, you’ll be able to see an AirPlay icon right on the video within Safari, and can select it in order to send that video to an AppleTV via AirPlay. Whew!

safari airplay

Safari 9 now supports AirPlay video.

Admit you use Notes

To paraphrase the late, great Yogi Berra, nobody likes the Notes app–it’s too popular. The App Store is full of apps—iOS and Mac alike—that outdo Notes at the job of taking notes, creating shopping lists, you name it. But Notes has one major thing going for it, namely that it’s on every Mac and iOS device in existence. I admit it: I use Notes for all sorts of things.

Like taking selfies (or using the iPad as a camera), Notes is something people use, so Apple might as well put some effort into making the experience better! And so with iOS 9 and El Capitan, Notes has received a major upgrade. Now you can stick a whole bunch of different files–PDFs, images, even videos–into a note. You can sketch notes on iOS and view them on the Mac—but not create them yourself. Notes is also now an option in the Share button, so you can send data to Notes from any app that displays a share sheet.

To create a checklist in Notes, you just select some text and click the Checklist button in the toolbar. That’s it–every line gets a little check box in front of it, and you can check them on and off at will. The checkboxes aren’t connected to anything, and clicking them doesn’t do anything except check and uncheck them. But if you’re making a quick to-do list, maybe that’s all they need to do.

Up to now, Notes was one of the rare Apple cloud-connected apps on OS X that didn’t actually use the iCloud infrastructure. Instead, it connected to a special IMAP mailbox in one of your connected email accounts. (If you’ve ever searched your Gmail and seen a dozen different notes files in your results, this is why.) But starting with El Capitan, Notes can also use iCloud proper. In fact, for most of the more advanced features–including checklists, fancy links, and access to the type style menu–you’ll need to use iCloud. Fortunately, you can easily drag all your old notes from your email account right into iCloud, and they’ll transfer over.

Photos gets extended

The first version of Photos for Mac was not without its power features, but while I was working on my book about Photos, I heard from a whole lot of people who had opinions about the most important features it omitted. Fortunately, some of the most common complaints I heard have been addressed with the new version of Photos that ships with El Capitan.

The biggest addition is editing of image data, individually and in batches. In Photos version 1.1, you can add location information to either a single photo or an entire batch, and batch-change titles and other information.

To do this, you open the Inspector window. A not-yet-geotagged image will offer a section of the window labeled Assign a Location. Clicking in this area will let you enter a street address or a name of a point of interest, and Photos will search Apple’s Maps database. You can also just click on the pin and drag it around the map, placing it wherever you like. To batch-change titles, descriptions, or keywords, just select a bunch of images and input the new information into the Inspector window.

photos geotag batch

Photos 1.1 now has batch support for changing titles and adding location information,

Another huge user complaint was about a lack of flexibility in sorting albums. (The first version of Photos let you sort them any way you want, as long as it was by date.) The new version of Photos will let you sort them by date and title, as well as keep them in a custom order that you determine by dragging images around.

Photos on El Capitan also supports image-editing extensions written by third-party developers. If there’s a particular editing effect or tool that isn’t available in Photos, a developer can write an extension that provides that feature, and it can be accessed from within Photos. A bunch of different Extensions are on the way—I tested a couple of them, and many will be released alongside El Capitan.

While you can edit photos using Extensions right within Photos, they aren’t quite as integrated into the app as the built-in tools. Basically, the edits that you make in an Extension are done on top of a version of your photo. If you’ve applied other effects, those effects are “burned in”—you can’t apply a black-and-white effect, then add some distortion effects with an extension, and then remove the black-and-white effect. Fortunately, Photos always lets you revert to the original version of the photo if you need to start again.

Adding Extension support to Photos opens up a whole new set of capabilities, from the serious to the silly, all without ever needing to leave Apple’s next-generation photo editor. It’s a good thing.

Other bundled apps

Of course, every OS X update brings upgrades to many other Apple-built apps. Mail and Maps both received nice updates this time around.

Taking a cue from iOS and from some third-party competitors, Mail now allows you to use the trackpad to swipe messages into the trash or to mark them as unread. Trackpad-oriented users will appreciate the shortcut, and there’s a preference to let you choose whether a swipe deletes a message or archives it.

For quite some time now, OS X has had the ability to detect certain kinds of content in your email messages–names of contacts, events, dates and times. In El Capitan, Mail does a much better job of putting that information in context. If a potential event is mentioned in the text of an email message–“let’s have lunch on Thursday”–Mail will add a banner above the top of the message body that displays the event and provides an “add event” link to quickly add it to your calendar. Likewise, if the person mailing you doesn’t appear in your Contacts list, Mail will display a banner indicating that it’s detected a possible new contact with a quick “add contact” link.

But perhaps the best feature in Mail is one that lives under the hood and addresses a longstanding problem with the app. Perhaps because it was developed at Apple’s campus, replete with high-speed Internet connections, Mail has had a major blind spot: poor performance on slow connections. Have you tried using Mail on a slow, high-latency Internet connection on, say, an airplane? All you want to do is check your Inbox, and Mail’s trying to sync all your IMAP mailboxes rather than getting to the good stuff.

In El Capitan, Mail prioritizes showing you new mail in your Inbox and prioritizes the downloading of the messages or mailboxes that you’re currently viewing. It’s an improvement that’s been a long time coming—thanks, slow Virgin America in-flight Wi-Fi!—but it’s finally here.

maps transit

Maps in El Capitan now offers transit maps in a few select regions, with more to come.

The banner feature in Maps is transit maps, which are available in eight U.S. cities, two European cities, and over 300 cities in China. I was able to try this using Bay Area data, which is a bit of a mess because we’ve got a whole bunch of different, unaffiliated transit agencies. I was able to plot a trip from my local bus stop to downtown Berkeley, complete with a transfer from the bus to BART in San Francisco, and know exactly when I’d need to leave my house in order to arrive at the proper time. It’s pretty cool. Now Apple needs to get to work on bringing it to many more regions!

maps send to phone

Routes you create in El Capitan Maps can be sent to Maps on your iOS device.

When I’m plotting a journey, I usually first explore the trip on my Mac, but of course when I’m making the actual journey I’m using my iPhone. In El Capitan, I can directly share my route with any other iOS device connected to my Apple ID, so I can send my trip directly to my iPhone (and Apple Watch) with a couple of clicks.

Improving performance

Under the hood in El Capitan, Apple’s made a bunch of changes that you might not notice—but that might bring you a big benefit. Apple’s brought Metal, its graphics technology, over from iOS, and has dropped it in as a replacement for the old OpenGL technology. Many of OS X’s key graphics frameworks, including Core Animation and Core Graphics, now use Metal rather than OpenGL. The end result should be that all sorts of parts of the Mac interface should feel snappier.

Apple says that apps launch faster in El Capitan, that switching between apps is faster, and that opening and moving around in PDFs in Preview is faster. I booted back and forth between Yosemite and El Capitan partitions on my 5K iMac and couldn’t really notice the difference, but perhaps it’s more noticeable on slower systems.

Games, in particular, should benefit from the switch to Metal—assuming games are built to take advantage of it. Sharing a graphics technology with iOS should help a whole lot, since once developers do the work to use Metal on iOS, they can apply that work to the Mac as well. Adobe, too, has committed to using Metal in a future update to its Creative Suite, which should likewise improve performance on existing Mac hardware.

Bottom line

It’s not the most exciting word, but I keep coming back to routine as a way of describing the upgrade to El Capitan. These days, OS X updates are free, are compatible with pretty much every Mac that could run the previous version, bring with them all the most important security and stability fixes, and on top of all that, there are a bunch of new features and updates to apps that you use every day.

There was a time, only a few years ago, when OS X updates were fraught with should-I-or-shouldn’t-I peril, along with a real price tag. Those days are long gone. Should you update to El Capitan? Unreservedly yes—I’ve found it to be stable, it’s free, it’ll download and install itself on your Mac with nearly no intervention, and it’ll bring with it improved security, speed, and functionality.

The days of dramatic operating-system updates are over. El Capitan is as solid as the giant granite monolith that towers over Yosemite Valley. Upgrade, and get an improved Mac. It’s really that simple.

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