Apple has officially released OS X El Capitan for the Mac, adding some new improvements as well as bringing parity with changes in iOS 9, released two weeks ago. OS X El Capitan (version 10.11), can be installed on any Mac that runs OS X Yosemite: simply download the free update from the Mac App Store. The release does not feature anything radically new — like the major visual overhaul that came last year — but there are new features as well as a strong focus on overall performance and stability improvements.
Here’s what’s new in Apple’s latest version of the Mac operating system …
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Apple has made some significant to changes to Spotlight, the system search function that pops up in the center of the display when you hit Command+Space. First off, in El Capitan, it doesn’t have to be in the center. As silly as it sounds, you can now freely resize and position the Spotlight box to match your own preferences for the first time. Apple has also bolstered the library of possible search terms to include more transient and informational data, like weather, sports scores or even YouTube and Vimeo video results. You can also make your search queries a lot more casual and Spotlight will understand what you mean. Rather than typing with obtuse filter syntax, you can use natural language queries like ‘email from Joshua last year’ or ‘presentations from last week’. These queries work great, are easy to remember and formulate, and work in apps like Finder and Mail as well as the Spotlight search bar.
Notes will also take advantage of these natural language queries, but the big changes to look forward to here is the significant upgrade in what content can be used to compose notes. Just like iOS 9, you can add maps, embedded web link previews, and checklists to your notes. OS X had some rich text formatting features before, but it’s now fully developed in El Capitan with a variety of text styles and font choices. It’s mostly a port of the iPad Notes app in iOS 9. A neat OS X feature is the attachments browser, which offers an overview of your data by showing only the embedded content rather than the raw text; photos, sketches, maps, web URLs and linked files. Selecting an item takes you to the corresponding note.
Crucially, once you upgrade Notes to use iCloud Drive, El Capitan is required to sync with iOS 9. Yosemite users have no choice but to upgrade their Macs if they want to retain cross-platform harmony. Also keep in mind that sketches can only be created and edited on iOS 9 devices — they are only viewable on OS X.
OS X El Capitan includes the latest version of Safari, version 9. While Safari 9 will be released for Yosemite, there are also some features of the web browser only available on the latest OS. My favorite feature of the new Safari is its tab-based sound muting option. Safari will show a speaker indicator on any tab that is currently outputting audio. You can click this icon to instantly mute the tab. There is a similar control in the URL bar — click it once to Mute All Other Tabs or long-press to see a list of audible tabs and switch straight to them.
Matching Chrome from three years ago, Safari 9 adds Pinned Tabs. Essentially, you can put your favorite websites permanently in your URL bar as ‘small buttons’ on the left side of the tab bar. The websites stay loaded, so you can quickly switch to them at any time. Another appreciated addition in Safari 9 is revamped AirPlay support: rather than streaming your entire Mac desktop to the Apple TV, you can stream just specific videos embedded in pages. This doesn’t work on all websites, unfortunately, but popular websites like YouTube are supported.
Full-Screen Split View
A common workflow in El Capitan will be to use the new windowing features to put Safari at about 2/3rds width, with a smaller utility or social networking app filing the rest of the space. This is thanks to the addition of Split View for full-screen apps.
Hold down on the green zoom button on any window to activate Split View. Drag the window to either the left or right side of the screen to snap it as a ‘full screen’ app, even though that name is a bit of a misnomer because it isn’t actually filling the whole width of the screen. You can then choose another full-screen app for the other side of the screen. This now mirrors Split View multitasking on iPad, although you can drag the divider to any arbitrary ratio of content and drag files between windows. It adds a lot more flexibility to workflows and is especially useful on larger-screen iMacs … where having just one app dominate the display was comical. The combined Split View appears as its own space in Mission Control and can be dragged around like a normal full-screen app. Most apps adapt beautifully to the split-screen layout but there are some exceptions; Notes refuses to lose its left-hand column so isn’t really suitable as a skinny-width app unless you’re using a single note window.
It’s also worth noting that the new Mission Control drops window labels and hides desktop previews until you slide your mouse towards the top of the screen, which I personally think is a regression. Text labels show temporarily on hover but you lose the glanceable nature of the old behavior.
Updates to Mail in OS X El Capitan heavily respect the adoption of full screen. In earlier versions of OS X, Mail was not a good Full Screen citizen. Composing a new mail message would open a window outside of the Full Screen space. Yosemite added an integrated compose window and El Capitan builds on this further by adding a tab bar, so you can compose multiple messages at once. Similar to iOS, you can also slide the compose window down to refer to other messages before you finish sending your message.
Mail also has some ‘proactive’ data detection for events, contacts and flights. Relevant data appears in skinny bars at the top of the email so, in one click, you can perform a relevant action. Also like iOS, Mail for Mac now has the same action shortcuts for messages in list view. Swipe table cells to instantly delete or archive messages. It’s less obvious than doing the same gesture on a touch screen, but it works and is a nice time saver.
For graphics, Apple has implemented Metal, its high-performance drawing framework, at the core of El Capitan so that it powers all system-level graphics operations. This should provide better frame rates and snappier transitions across the OS — it’s particularly noticeable for the full-screen sliding animation when switching between maximized windows and desktop spaces. Metal is also available to third-party developers, so game creators will be able to use it to push more performance out of the hardware. Apple also claims it has improved the foundations of OS X in other ways to make everything feel faster. The company claims speed improvements from 4x faster PDF rendering to 1.4x faster app launching. Naturally, real-word gains will vary based on a multitude of factors.
Like any operating system update, there’s a bunch of minor improvements and refinements across the system. Following iOS 9 and watchOS, OS X gets the San Fransisco font makeover. There are also minor redesigns to many of the stock interface elements, including some moderate shadowing. It’s personal preference of course, but I think it looks way better than the buttons and controls used in Yosemite. Maps gets Transit directions, Photos finally lets you geotag pictures and supports third-party editing extensions, and there’s even a Find My Friends widget in Notification Center. You can even shake the mouse cursor to enlarge it in case you lose track of what you are doing. There also some welcomed additions for Chinese and Japanese users, including a special system font for Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters (which is apparently better for readability), improved trackpad OCR and as-you-type translation of Hiragana into Japanese.
In summary, El Capitan is not the biggest update in Mac history, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a variety of changes and improvements to enjoy. It’s expected for a maturing platform to have less major additions and it doesn’t really matter when the updates are free.
Make sure you backup first in the (frankly unlikely) case something goes wrong, but otherwise you can update any Yosemite Mac right now from the Mac App Store with effectively zero downside. It’s practically a requirement if you use iOS 9 Notes, anyway, to keep syncing working. Let us know what you think of El Capitan in the comments below!