It’s been two full work weeks since Apple released the first betas of iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan, and I’ve been using the software since day one. With a ton of new features from a revamped Notes app to a completely new Search system and new multitasking tools, both operating systems promise to make your life much, much easier.
But how much of an impact on your daily life can these new features have? I’ve compiled some thoughts after using them to help you get an idea.
Before we jump into anything, I want to point out that the purpose of this article isn’t to focus on the bugs or problems that (obviously) plague beta software, but rather to examine the usefulness of the features added in the most recent updates. For that reason, there won’t be much discussion of stability or other potential issues unless they directly relate to how the features work, and the impact they’ve had on my day-to-day usage.
OS X El Capitan
The latest version of OS X includes new features like a more powerful Spotlight search, a new split view for fullscreen apps, and tweaks to Mail and Safari, among other things.
Apple’s updated web browser finally introduces a way to track down and eliminate ads that have started playing audio without your permission, and the implementation of this feature works really well. Tabs with audio playing get a speaker icon next to the title, and a similar icon in the location bar allows you to quick pull up a list of offending tabs and mute them.
When that feature was announced, I was excited that there would finally be a way to eliminate those obnoxious video ads that sometimes start playing audio unexpectedly, or embedded music players that are set to start automatically. Interestingly, it’s a not a feature I’ve had to use too often. It’s certainly a great addition, and it works as advertised, but I can’t help but feel it’s something most people may not need as badly as they thought.
Pinned sites are an interesting addition that allow users to keep their favorite websites open and updating in the background constantly. While that’s likely useful for sites like Facebook that don’t have a native Mac client, it’s not a great choice for sites like Twitter, which you can access from several native Mac apps with a much better experience than the web. I personally haven’t used pinned tabs, since it takes just a second to load up my Facebook feed when opened from my bookmark bar, and I use Tweetbot for browsing Twitter.
Finally, Apple has added a feature I’ve been wanting for quite some time. On compatible web video players, you’ll now find an AirPlay button that lets you send the video directly to your Apple TV. This is a big improvement over the old method, which required you to share your entire display and often resulted in choppy video. The only issue I’ve run into with this feature is that setting a video to AirPlay then sets every video you watch to AirPlay automatically, even if your Apple TV is sleeping and your television is turned off and in a completely different room. It’s a simple fix, just click the AirPlay button and turn off the setting, but I’d prefer if videos defaulted to the built-in display unless I chose to AirPlay them.
The other issue that exists with AirPlay is compatibility. There aren’t a lot of websites that work with the feature just yet. You’ll be able to use it on YouTube and a handful of others, but video players on most sites, like those of TV networks, still aren’t able to take advantage of this update.
The Mail app hasn’t gained a whole lot of new features in El Cap. You can now swipe messages to quickly trash them or mark them as read, but there’s currently no option for swiping to archive Gmail messages (something you’ve been able to do on iOS since iOS 7). I’m hopeful that capability will be added in a future version, but for now I’ve had to stick to using the toolbar buttons and keyboard shortcuts.
Unless you’ve been using a third-party mail app that supports gestures, however, you may find it hard to get used to the using them in the new Mail app. I’ve been using Mail for so long that I instinctively reach for the archive toolbar button rather than swiping away a message. When iOS 7 launched, the habit was easy to pick up because I had been swiping emails to show the delete or archive button since the days of the original iPod touch. With the Mac, it’s a gesture I’m used to using, and as a result I’ve barely taken advantage of it at all, and doubt I ever really will. For those using apps like the beta version of Mailbox, however, this feature could help pull them back to the default application.
The Mac’s new split view for fullscreen apps was hailed as a big boon for multitaskers, and while it may be just that on the iPad (I don’t have one, so I can’t try it, but 9to5’s Chance Miller went hands-on last week), the view doesn’t particularly translate well to the desktop. There has never been anything holding users back from putting two, three, or any other number of windows next to each other on the screen in any configuration they want. Confining users to one of three or four different window setups (with each different one changing only how large each window is, not their locations on the screen) doesn’t really do much to help.
There are also some other interesting limitations on the split view. Not every app can take advantage of it, for example. I got Tweetbot 2 for Mac to sit next to my work HipChat room at one point, but I’ve since been unable to get Tweetbot to use the split view again. If I needed to put Safari next to Tweetbot, it would be far easier for me to just open a new Safari window on my main desktop and shrink it down to whatever size I wanted next to Tweetbot.
To put apps in split view mode, you just drag any supported app on top of a fullscreen app in the Mission Control interface. It would stand to reason that you could also drag a window away from a split view in this interface, but as it turns out, you can’t. The only way to get an app out of split view is to switch over to it and use the green fullscreen button.
There are other Mission Control quirks that I’ve noticed, and I’m not sure if they’re bugs or by design. One such case is putting apps in fullscreen mode. You can grab any fullscreen-capable app from the desktop and place it in the row of desktops above the Mission Control screen to create a new fullscreen window. However, you can’t actually drag that fullscreen window back into the desktop area to take it back out of fullscreen mode. Hopefully this is simply a glitch and not actually the intended implementation, because it seems very inconsistent.
The new Notes app in OS X 10.11 is absolutely fantastic. The app is now more of an “Evernote killer” than ever, with the ability to embed web links, checklists, images, and more. The only real issue I’ve faced with it so far is finding a reason to use checklists. Anytime I’ve previously needed to create a checklist, I turned to the reminders app. Having nearly identical checklist functionality (without the ability to set useful alerts) seems a bit odd to me, and I haven’t been able to find a reason to stop using Reminders.
The app also gained support for rich text, which has made it a much more useful tool. Overall it’s probably one of the best new additions in El Cap.
Apple added some new features to the Spotlight search function, including sports and weather data. The addition of sports data will be a big deal for fans tracking their favorite teams and players, but the weather function seems a bit pointless. Users who need quick access to weather information can just pull up Notification Center with a swipe and have weather info for all of their added cities available at a glance. It’s a lot easier than pulling up Spotlight and typing in “weather” followed by a city name, and takes much less time.
Natural language support seems to be a much bigger deal, allowing you to search for whatever you need with plain English rather than trying to make your query try to fit the proper syntax to track down that elusive file. You can also move and resize the Spotlight window, allowing you to see what’s under it for reference while you search.
iOS 9 gains a lot of the same features found in OS X 10.11, such as a revamped Search function and vastly improved Notes app. iPad users will also benefit from new multitasking features, with the iPad Air 2 gaining the ability to run two apps simultaneously just like in El Cap’s split screen view.
I’ll skip the Notes app here since my response to it is basically the same (great app, but can’t find a use for checklists when Reminders still exists), and jump straight to the other new features.
A headline feature in iOS 9 is the new Search screen. It combines the old Spotlight system with a new “proactive assistant” screen that recommends contacts, apps, news, and other information relevant to your current activity. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to do.
Unfortunately my time with Search has been a bit disappointing. Rather than learn my daily routines and most frequently used contacts (or even just the ones I had marked as favorites in the phone app), Search has consistently presented me with a list of people only a few of which I regularly talk to, map suggestions that are completely irrelevant (no, I still don’t need quick directions to a hospital, but thank you anyway), and news articles that are from sources I don’t read on topics I don’t care about, or which I’ve already seen through Twitter and breaking news notifications from third-party apps.
I’m sure the issues with the News section’s content will be worked out a bit more when a version of iOS 9 with the announced News application launches. Hopefully this app will also allow me to set my preferred content sources and topics for the Search screen rather than trying to learn what I like based on what I read in the app.
As for the mapping suggestions, I’m not sure the feature could be more useless. As it stands, this section doesn’t actually show you any nearby locations. Instead, it provides you with a list of preset categories (food, entertainment, gas stations, coffee, parks, etc.). Picking one of these opens the Maps app and searches for nearby establishments that fall into that category. It would be far more useful if this page could actually show me the names of nearby restaurants or other locations, since I’m more likely to respond to the name of a restaurant I want to try than I am the very vague category of “food.” Based on promotional screenshots released by Apple, it doesn’t seem that’s the plan.
After a few days of eagerly swiping over to this screen to see what was new, I eventually forgot about it, and now only switch to it every couple of days to see whether it’s actually started learning which apps and contacts I use the most. It hasn’t.
The section for suggested apps doesn’t have any clue what I do with my phone. Since upgrading to iOS 9, the suggestions have changed a few times, but they only recommend apps I don’t use (things I keep installed solely for extensions or occasional usage), while ignoring some of my most used apps, like Messages and Tweetbot.
The actual “search” part of the Search screen also leaves much to be desired, though this is likely more due to a bug or incomplete implementation than design. Currently it’s not possible to do basic calculations, find weather or sports information, or even look up music stored on your phone. All of those features are promised for the Search screen, so they should be working soon.
However, as noted with Spotlight on the Mac, it’s a lot easier to just tap the Weather app icon than to swipe over to Search, tap the text input bar, and type in “weather.” You’ll also get a lot more information in the Weather app, and quickly have access to more cities. In fact, based on Apple’s demo and public images of the weather search (as an example), you’ll get more complete information just by asking Siri for the weather instead of the Search screen.
The Search screen is a big new feature for iOS, and I’m not expecting perfection overnight. It’s a starting point to add new features to over time. I’m just concerned that in adding new features, Apple won’t stop to think if there’s a better way to go about getting certain information, and we’ll end up with a big, bloated, mostly useless extra screen that no one really uses. Apple’s got a lot of work to do in this area.
The new iOS 9 keyboard introduces several changes in design and function, most of which weren’t announced at WWDC. One example is the new effect when you tap a key. Since the very first iPhone launched, the keyboard has shown a popover when you tapped a key so that you knew what you were hitting even though your finger was covering it. With iOS 9, that popover has been removed completely. It can be turned back on in the keyboard settings, thankfully, since the change has made it a bit harder to use the keyboard. Before discovering the new toggle in Settings, I was double- and triple-tapping keys because I wasn’t sure I’d hit them the first time.
A new shift key design has also been added (which can also be turned off in the accessibility settings). The key itself isn’t actually redesigned, but how it affects the keyboard is. Now by default, the keys will show a lowercase letter when shift is disabled, and an uppercase letter when it’s enabled. Some users have decried this new design, but I find it immensely useful in determining what I’m about to type, since my left thumb often hovers right above the shift key and makes it hard to tell what state it’s in.
Text selection features have also been added to the keyboard. You can now drag two fingers around the keyboard to move the cursor, or tap with two fingers to select the closest word. A quick double-tap (with two fingers, of course) will highlight an entire block of text. You can then move one of the highlight handles by dragging two fingers around the keys.
This is a great feature, though it hasn’t been explained very well by Apple thus far, meaning users often have to play around with it to figure out how to use it. The only downside is that it’s nearly impossible to use with one hand. Even using both thumbs to drag around the screen doesn’t seem to work as well as a two fingers on the same hand, meaning you’ll have to reposition your phone just to move the cursor. Apart from that one downside, however, this is a fantastic, sorely needed addition to the keyboard.
Siri has gained the ability to create new types of reminders based on the content of your current application. The feature works great for compatible apps (it won’t work in third-party apps until they’re updated with support), allowing you to be reminded about webpages, new emails, unfinished drafts, and more. You can also use Siri to search for photos taken at a specific date or time.
Other than that, Siri (the voice control part, not the Siri-branded Search screen) hasn’t gained many new features, which is a shame since competing voice assistants like Google Now seem to be gaining new functionality all the time.
Just kidding. We don’t need to talk about how bad the battery life is on beta 1. It’s pretty bad. Low power mode doesn’t seem to help much at the moment, either.
There’s a lot of cool new stuff in both iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan (including Notes, AirPlay for web video, and new types of Reminders), along with some stuff that’s decidedly less useful (such as Search suggestions).
Some features will require third-party app updates before they become as useful as Apple is saying they’ll be (like searching inside apps and quick-reply notifications for third-party social clients), but many others (such as the Search screen and swiping gestures in Mail) don’t necessarily do much to improve the way we acquire or interact with our data, with full apps providing a much more complete and often more convenient experience.
Still, there are a lot of great new features to look forward to in the latest Apple software offerings.
While the past two weeks haven’t totally changed how I do much of anything on my Mac or iPhone, the additions Apple has made in these updates have laid the groundwork for a more impressive update down the road.
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