At its World Wide Developers Conference last week, Apple gave the assembled crowd of software coders some welcome news: The next annual release of OS X, called El Capitan, would be available to the public for free this fall—but an early version was available for developers to download immediately.
There was good news for reviewers, too; Apple gave those of us in the Tech Writers’ Guild the same early access to the software. I’ve been scaling El Capitan for a few days, and I’m pleased to report that even this early version is slick and fast. But there’s a good deal of fine-tuning left to do, and some smaller-name programs have yet to be updated for compatibility (here’s a pretty good running list of which apps don’t work). None of the big-name programs (Microsoft, Adobe, etc.) have any problems that I could find.
If you’re a Mac fan, here’s what you have to look forward to in the next version of your operating system. The top line: This is a no-brainer upgrade. Once it’s finished, you’ll want it.
The world’s smallest upgrade?
Once Apple ran out of jungle-cat names for its OS X releases (Panther, Lion, Leopard, etc), it started adopting the names of scenic California sites. Last year’s release, for example, was called Yosemite, after the national park.
So what’s with El Capitan? Isn’t that the name of a mountain within Yosemite?
Yes—and that should give you some hint as to the nature of this upgrade. It’s not a new operating system; it’s a refinement of the last one. Remember how Apple followed OS X Leopard with OS X Snow Leopard? Well, you can think of El Capitan as Snow Yosemite.
It doesn’t look any different than Yosemite; instead, this year’s annual OS X upgrade is a compilation of all the little nips and tucks that Apple engineers wished they’d had time to put into the last version.
The big-ticket items, Apple says, are all under the hood: speed and stability. Programs open up to 1.4 times as fast, which is especially noticeable in Photos, Apple’s recently introduced iPhoto replacement. Switching programs is twice as fast. Opening a PDF document, four times as fast.
Animations—for example, when you switch between virtual monitors in full-screen mode—feel smoother and faster, too.
You’ll feel the difference in speed, and speed is good.
As a handy bonus, you won’t need to upgrade your Mac to run El Capitan. It runs on almost any Mac that can now run Yosemite, or Mavericks before it, or Mountain Lion before that:
• iMacs made since mid-2007
• MacBook since 2008
• 13-inch MacBook Pro since mid-2009
• 15-inch or 17-inch MacBook Pro since late 2007
• MacBook Air since late 2008
• Mac Mini since 2009
• Mac Pro since 2008
A system-software version that still runs on 8-year-old machines? Nicely done, Apple.
New features: A motley assortment
This time around, Apple isn’t boasting, “over 200 new features” as it usually does; “over 20 new features” would be more like it. They’re subtle. They’re motley. They’ll be welcomed by people already using Macs, but won’t do anything to sway someone who already loves Windows.
Here are a few of the biggies. (There’s also a basketful of 18 more, subtler improvements that Apple didn’t mention onstage and isn’t getting much press; click here to read about those.)
Notes. After years of boringness, Apple’s Notes program has suddenly sprouted an array of formatting features that practically turn it into OneNote or EverNote. Now there’s full type formatting, bulleted lists, checklists, Web links, and pasted graphics, videos, or maps. (All of this will get synced automatically to your iPhone or iPad, too, once iOS 9 comes out this fall.) The new Attachments Browser lets you view a palette of all the photos, videos, maps, and Web links you’ve added in all your notes, which is surprisingly handy. A new New Note option appears in the Share menu of Safari and other apps.
Wiggle the cursor to magnify it. When you wake your Mac, you might be in the habit of rapidly scrubbing your trackpad (or wiggling your mouse), just so you can spot the cursor on screen. In El Capitan, whenever you rapidly wiggle the cursor, it momentarily becomes gigantic to draw your eye.
Maps. Apple’s Maps takes a timid step toward overcoming Google Maps’ overwhelming superiority by adding public-transportation directions—for four U.S. cities (San Francisco, New York, Baltimore, and Washington DC). Google Maps, by contrast, has transit schedules and directions for every major city around the world—and offers walking directions, too.
Split screen in full-screen mode. In full-screen mode, your document window fills the entire monitor, and the menu bar and window edges are hidden. In El Capitan, you can now split the screen between two full-screen apps, displaying them side-by-side, or move the dividing line between them. (Where have we seen this sort of thing before? Oh yeah—Windows 8.)
Redesigned Mission Control. Misson Control is a special view that helps you find one lost window among your ocean of them. It shrinks all of your open windows to miniatures, all simultaneously visible. In El Capitan, they’re no longer clumped by program; you can see them all spread out. (Mac veterans will recognize this effect as the old Exposé.)
Redesigned Spaces. Spaces is a somewhat confusing power-user feature that lets you create several side-by-side “virtual monitors,” each with its own programs and windows. In El Capitan, the Spaces bar is more compact and easier to operate (you can see it above)—you don’t have to open System Preferences to make changes. You can just drag a window’s title bar to the top of your screen to add it to an existing Space or put it into a new one.
Spotlight: More flexible searches
Apple has put quite a bit of work into Spotlight, the Mac’s built-in search feature, adding the ability to find more kinds of information using natural language queries:
More kinds of Web info. Into the Spotlight search bar, you can now type search terms for weather, sports, stocks, athletes, public transportation, and online videos. You can type, for example, “yankees schedule,” “lebron james,” “weather Tuesday London,” or “goog” (to find out Google’s stock price). You can type “jimmy fallon” to see the latest YouTube, Vimeo, or Vevo clips from that show. Or type “GrandCentral” or “7th ave subway” to see the current schedules for those trains. In each case, the search-results panel offers a tidy display of information on your query.
Resize or move the Spotlight window. You can now make the Spotlight window taller, as shown above—but not, weirdly, wider. You can also drag it around your screen. For example, if you like to use Spotlight as a calculator (yes, you can type, for example, “37*12” into it to get the result), you can now park the window at the edge of your screen so you can keep working in your main program. (Undocumented tip: To restore the Spotlight window to its original size and position, hold the cursor down on the Spotlight icon—the magnifying-glass—at the top right of your screen.)
Prose (“natural language”) searches. One more Spotlight upgrade: You can now type out queries that describe what you’re looking for – like “files I worked on in January,” or “slides from 2013 containing WidgeTech,” or “images from last year.” In general, the kinds of information Spotlight understands here are file types (“documents,” “movies,” “images,” “presentations,” “email” and so on), the words and phrases inside each file, dates and times, and the names of email senders or recipients.
Mail: Speed, search, and auto-appointments
Mail, the built-in email program, received just a touch of love from Apple this year, with support for gestures, natural language searches, and instant reminders:
Speed boost. Apple reworked the way Mail checks IMAP email accounts to make it feel faster, especially over slow connections.
Gestures. You can now swipe to the right (two fingers on your trackpad) to mark a message as read or unread, and swipe to the left to delete it. This trick works even on messages in a background list, while a different message’s window is open in front.
More natural-language searching. As with Spotlight, prose queries have now come to Mail. You can search for, for example, “mail from Chris I haven’t read,” or “messages with attachments from last week.”
Calendar suggestions. If Mail detects that a message contains the details for an appointment or a flight, it offers to add it to your calendar, saving you a bunch of copying and typing (just as iOS 8 does now).
Full-screen improvements. In Yosemite Mail’s Full-screen mode, if you were reading a message, it commandeered your screen; you couldn’t click another message in the list, or refer to another message, without closing the first one. But in El Capitan, if you click outside an open message, its window shrinks down into a tab at the bottom of the screen. You can accumulate a bunch of these tabs, just as you can in a Web browser: remove them, rearrange them, or drag attachments onto them. Obscure, but welcome to full-screen aficionados.
Instant reminders. If you select some text in a message that should be a reminder (“Caulk the living room tomorrow”), you can right-click it, choose Share->Reminders from the shortcut menu, and presto: a new to-do item in your Reminders app. (You can click the Mail icon in that to-do item later to open the original Mail message.)
Safari: Some Chrome catch-ups
Apple has brought a couple of new features to its Safari browser, too. For example:
Pinned tabs. If you drag an open tab all the way to the left, it becomes a compact square pinned tab, one that will always be there, in every window (like the similar feature in Google Chrome). Handy for social-media sites or Web-based email or chat services. But also confusing; good luck trying to explain to a beginner the difference between a tab, a pinned tab, a Favorite, and a bookmark.
Mute audio. Don’t you hate it when some Safari window or tab is playing sound, but you can’t figure out which one? Now, whenever audio is playing, a Mute button appears at the top of the Safari window. Click it to shut up all browser windows (while preserving sound from the rest of your Mac, like alert tones and your music player). Or hold your cursor down on it to see a list of browser windows, so that you can mute just the one you don’t want.
Assessing El Capitan
The changes in El Capitan are, as you’re figuring out, very subtle. This new OS X won’t throw anyone for a loop. And there are two ways you might react.
“You’ve had a whole year, Apple! What’re you doing—spending all your time on phones and watches?”
Yeah, that’s one way. The other:
“Technology moves too fast already. Why must there be a whole new operating system every single year? Give me some time to learn what I’ve already got! But if you want to make things faster and smoother, great—that doesn’t make me have to learn new stuff.”
In any case, you won’t have to pay for El Capitan when it comes out this fall (or when it’s available in a public beta-testing version in July); it’s free for all. A big speedup and a small list of touch-ups, no charge?
That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech, and—full disclosure!—author of the upcoming “OS X El Capitan: The Missing Manual.” On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s firstname.lastname@example.org. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.