OS X El Capitan Review 

OS X El Capitan is here, and to be honest, even as a hardcore Mac user, it’s kind of a sleepy release. That’s not to say there isn’t good stuff in the new version of OS X; there are a lot of nice features here, but its a quiet year.

Between you and me, I’m a little glad about that.

A year ago, OS X Yosemite brought a wide-reaching redesign to the operating system, building on top of the foundations laid by OS X Mavericks just 12 months before that. This year, El Capitan brings a new level of polish to the OS, tweaking some things here and there that needed attention.

Since it was announced, I’ve been unhappy with OS X’s annual release cycle, but Apple’s sticking with it.

This puts extra work on developers to ensure their apps are up to date. As OS X follows major iOS release versions by sometimes just a couple of weeks, this means many Mac apps lag behind while developers who work on both platforms struggle to catch up. A slower release cycle — and one not based in the fall, even — would help ease this uneven workload.

Even though the Mac App Store makes downloading and installing new versions of OS X easier than the old days,[1] it is more complicated and more time-consuming than tapping “Update” on an iPad or iPhone for average users.

This release cycle is also aggressive for education and enterprise customers. I have a lot of friends in those worlds and they often just skip a release or two at a time. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

As such, new versions of OS X don’t enjoy the same widespread early adoption that iOS does, meaning developers and users alike may not see the benefits of Apple’s work for months or even years.

Of course, the simple truth is that OS X is on an annual release cycle so Apple can share and blend features and technology with iOS in an easier way. As the two systems share more and more with each other, a hand-in-hand release is increasingly important.

However, very little in El Capitan truly needs to be in a “.0” release. The updates to apps like Notes and Mail could have been included in an update to 10.10 and it would have been fine. (Just look at Photos, which didn’t come to the Mac until 10.10.3 as a good example of this sort of update.)

All that aside, the new version of Mac OS X here, and it’s time to take a look at it.

System Requirements

One upside of the annual release cycle is that Apple can offer OS updates to more customers. As such, El Capitan will run on any Mac that can run OS Mountain Lion or higher.[2]

  • iMac (Mid 2007 or newer)
  • MacBook Air (Late 2008 or newer)
  • MacBook (Late 2008 Aluminum, or Early 2009 or newer)
  • Mac mini (Early 2009 or newer)
  • MacBook Pro (Mid/Late 2007 or newer)
  • Mac Pro (Early 2008 or newer)
  • Xserve (Early 2009)

I’ve run El Capitan on two systems: the 12-inch MacBook with Retina display and a Mid–2015 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. As far as modern Apple notebooks, you can’t pick two machines that are more different from a power perspective, and both ran the OS just fine.

An Aside on the Name

“Mac OS X El Capitan v10.11” is the full name of this release, but as has been the case for many years, in public, Apple refers to this as “OS X El Capitan.”

El Capitan, of course, is a mountain within Yosemite. Apple’s playing a “Leopard/Snow Leopard” or “Lion/Mountain Lion” trick here. El Capitan is the exhale to Yosemite’s inhale. The ying to its yang; the peanut butter to its jelly.

There is, however, a problem.

There’s no doubt that “10.11” is weirder than “10.10,” and — simply put — names are easier to remember than numbers. What happens next year when iOS 9 is replaced with something new? Looking across Apple’s growing ecosystem, OS X’s naming scheme looks even weirder and more problematic:

  • iOS
  • watchOS
  • tvOS

I think it’s time for a change to macOS, as Jason Snell suggested back in May:

Mac OS is a name with a proud history that bridged the gap from the latter days of the original Mac operating system through the first decade of OS X. It does what it says on the tin–it’s an operating system that runs the Mac. The phrase “Macs run Mac OS” makes sense. OS X is never going to run anything that’s not a Mac. Let’s embrace it. It’s the Mac OS.

And by jettisoning the X, Apple can finally increment the digits that have been slowly increasing since the start of the century, and call Mac OS Kings Canyon or Mac OS Shasta version 11.0.

I have a feeling El Capitan will be the last version of “OS X” we see, but time will tell.

Public Beta & Install

Like Yosemite, El Capitan was offered as a Public Beta. Anyone with an AppleID could sign up to run the OS over the summer. Like last year, these releases were slightly slower than the developer releases.

Installing is all done via the Mac App Store. Click Install, enter your password and — after a 6-ish GB download — El Capitan is off to the races.

The install process is the same as it has been for years. There’s very little setup and the system takes over, rebooting after the first part of the install is complete. On the new Retina MacBook, install took just shy of 30 minutes, but on my MacBook Pro, it was much faster. Your mileage will vary.

After installation is complete, the setup process begins.[3]

Meet El Capitan

While the new version of OS X does bring many API changes, I’m going to focus on the major features found in this year’s release. It’s a shorter list than in years past as El Capitan is more about refinement than anything else.

A good example of this is the cursor. In El Capitan, if you rapidly move the cursor in an attempt to locate it on the screen, it grows in size temporarily to help you find it.

El Capitan brings the second new system font to macOS OS X in as many years: gone is Helvetica; hello San Francisco.

I’m not going into the typographical details of the new system font, but if that’s your jam, be sure to watch this video from WWDC or check out this Medium post by Akinori Machino.

All in all, I think San Francisco is a nice improvement to OS X. While it isn’t as big of a jump from Lucida Grande to Helvetica, it is noticeable. It’s crisp and clean, and doesn’t break down at smaller sizes like Helvetica can. Designed for the modern age, it’s especially nice on Retina displays. It gets a thumbs-up from this Mac user.

In addition to a new font, our old friend the “Spinning Beachball of Death” has been redesigned as well. The new version is slightly more muted, and much more flat.

The last under-the-covers change I want to mention is extended Force Touch Trackpad support. Applications running on El Capitan can provide haptic feedback to the user like Apple’s own QuickTime and iMovie do today.

System Integrity Protection

System Integrity Protection (or SIP; also dubbed rootless) is new in El Capitan, and is designed to keep OS X and processes running on top of it more secure. Here’s how Apple describes it:

A new security policy that applies to every running process, including privileged code and code that runs out of the sandbox. The policy extends additional protections to components on disk and at run-time, only allowing system binaries to be modified by the system installer and software updates. Code injection and runtime attachments to system binaries are no longer permitted.

In short, SIP prevents parts of OS X itself (namely /System, /bin, /usr — not /usr/local — and /sbin). from being tampered with outside of official Apple software updates. Not even Administrator users on the system can edit these directories. This will harden OS X from malicious code injection and other ickiness.

I’m all for that, but this does mean some of the weirder apps that power users use may break, and maybe for good. (If you do want to disable SIP, it can be done from the recovery partition, but I’m leaving it on on my machines.)

Metal

First brought to iOS with iOS 8, Metal is Apple’s low-level framework for “GPU-accelerated advanced 3D graphics rendering and data-parallel computation workloads.”

In English, that means Metal makes things like games or graphic editors faster by harnessing the power of the Mac’s graphics hardware in a way that doesn’t tax the CPU.

Of course, the gaming scene on the Mac has always been anemic compared to other platforms. I don’t know if Metal is enough to change that, but it should open the door to more developers.

Metal isn’t just about games, though. Since Metal basically harnesses the GPU, it can be used with applications that require large amounts of computational power to perform their tasks. Apple showed Adobe using it in apps like Photoshop and Illustrator to drastically increase the speed of intense tasks. If developers adopt this, lots of different types of apps could see big gains, all without hitting the CPU any harder.

Metal isn’t present on all Macs that will run El Capitan; the machine must be from 2012 or newer.

Window Management

Every few years, Apple screws with the window management in OS X. This year, those changes come in two forms: a revised Mission Control and a new feature named Split View.

Mission Control

In 10.3 Panther, Apple added Exposé, a quick way to see all open windows at once. In 10.5 Leopard, we got virtual desktops called Spaces.

In 10.7 Lion, Exposé and Spaces were smashed together to create Mission Control. Virtual desktops (and full-screen) apps could be seen at the top, with all open windows sat below:

With El Capitan, Apple has revised Mission Control once again to make better use of smaller notebook screens. The basic layout is the same, but gone are the tall previews of the various spaces and full-screen apps that may be open:

To see a preview of other Desktops, or to add a new one, hovering over the top bar will expand it to match the functionality previously in place. While I appreciate this on a MacBook, even on my 15-inch MacBook Pro it feels like a silly change, not to mention on my 27-inch external display. I’d like to see this become a setting in System Preferences, as it requires a hover to see the complete picture.

Split View

Split View is a huge deal on iOS. It marks the first time two apps can be running in the foreground on an iPad.

Of course, that’s nothing to break a sweat about on the Mac, which has been multi-windowed and capable of multitasking for years and years and years.

However, window management has always been a bit messy on the Mac. OS X has never had a Windows Areo-like snapping feature before. Apps like Moom added some of these features to OS X, but only as a third-party option.

El Capitan brings Split View to the Mac to make it easy to run two apps side by side, taking up the entire screen.

The problem is that Split View isn’t immediately obvious. There are two ways to enable it:

The first method requires the user to click and hold on the green fullscreen “stoplight” window control on any window. If the app is Split View-compatible, you can drag it to the left or right side of the display and an overlay will appear showing that the app can be pinned to either side. Release the mouse or trackpad, and any other Split View-compatible windows will appear on the other side. Select the one you want, and the two will become their own Split View virtual desktop. That’s a bit complicated to explain, so I’ve included a short video:

The second method can be done entirely within Mission Control, and I think is far less fiddly. Simply drag an application into a new Desktop, then drag a second one:

As you can see from that video, you can resize apps in Split View. Like iOS, OS X will blur an app’s window if it can’t resize on the fly.

To remove apps from a Split View, simply click the green window control again, or pull the Desktop down from the top of Mission Control back to the main section of the view and the Split Screen will break up, putting both apps back into their regular windows.

While the implementation is a bit weird, I like Split View a lot. It’s a great way to settle down into a specific type of work easily. It feels so much more tidy than just spawning additional Desktops when I need to concentrate and leave things like Tweetbot and Slack open, but not easily visible.

Spotlight

When introduced with OS X 10.4 Tiger, Spotlight was pitched as the best way to search the documents on your local Mac.

In today’s world, that’s not enough. Spotlight has been getting better over the years at searching not only your local disk, but the Internet as well, through sources like Wikipeida and Bing.

El Capitan adds several new data types:

  • Weather
  • Sports
  • Stocks
  • Web video
  • Transit

Spotlight also supports natural language searching. Here’s how Apple describes it:

Searching for files has never been easier now that Spotlight understands natural language. For example, type “email from Harrison in April” and Spotlight shows you email messages that match. You can also use more complex searches, like “presentation I worked on yesterday that contains budget,” and you’ll get just what you’re looking for. You can search with your own words in Mail and Finder, too.

Spotlight is getting better, but I still prefer Alfred. However, for most users, the built-in tool just keeps getting better.

Updated Apps

A new version of OS X not only means a new operating system, but updates to the various bundled applications. This year, four apps got some attention.

Safari

The Mac’s built-in browser isn’t the most popular on the planet, but it’s still used by lots and lots of people, so Apple usually adds features each year. 2015 is no different, with the addition of Content Blockers, a Responsive Design Mode that makes debugging responsive websites easier than before, a redesigned Web Inspector that doesn’t suck anymore and a bunch of additional CSS support.

Two of the best new features revolve around tabs.[4] Both are cribbed from other places, but are welcome additions nonetheless.

First, tabs can be pinned. Pinned tabs can display a custom icon, or the first letter from the site name. Pinned tabs persist after Safari is relaunched, and only appear on the first Safari window opened.

Creating a custom pin image involves pointing to an .svg with a touch of code:

link rel="mask-icon" mask href="coolfilehere.svg" color="black"

The color will be used to tint the SVG, but I think they look best in black. You can see my site’s pinned tab image on the left here:

The other callout in that screenshot is the other new tab-related feature in Safari: tabs making sound will pick up a little sound badge on the tab itself. Additionally, the current tab will show a hollow version of the same icon, indicating it’s not home to the audio.

Notes

Notes on El Capitan is a real contender to things like Simplenote or Evernote.

Notes.app notes[5] can take all sorts of content. Text can now be styled as a Title, Header or Body text. All sorts of things can be added as attachments:

  • Photos
  • Videos
  • Audio
  • Sketches
  • Maps
  • Websites
  • Audio
  • Documents

At this point, Sketches can only be created on an iOS device, which is a bummer.

Notes is backed by CloudKit, so it just works. Sync between the Mac and iOS 9 devices is fast and — in my testing — flawless. I like that the app supports folders, but I really hate that the only way to sort notes is by modification date. I’d hug anyone at Apple I needed to have an alphabetical sorting option.

Mail

OS X’s email client has picked up Spotlight’s new natural language search, in addition to a much-improved fullscreen mode. And, users can now swipe on a message in the Inbox to mark it as read or delete it.

The biggest change I’ve noticed in Mail.app is improved Data Detectors. Now, Mail can add Suggested Events to my calendar, allowing me to confirm them with just a click. Likewise, creating a new contact — or updating an existing one — can be done with a single click.

Photos

Upgrading to OS X El Capitan’s version of Photos.app is a one-way trip; you can’t go back to the previous version later. That’s not a big problem, but something to be aware of.

The new Photos app can now be used to add location data to images, something missing from the OS X Yosemite version. Additionally, developers can now write plug-ins for Photos, so hopefully we’ll see more powerful editing controls in the near future.

As for me, I’m still keeping all my photos in Dropbox, but Photos is more tempting now than ever.

Maps

I’ve been told by people who live in real cities that Maps now has Transit directions, but Memphis is all like ¯_(ツ)_/¯ when it comes to this sort of stuff, so I don’t get to test it.

Conclusion

All in all, El Capitan is a nice update to OS X, but not a big or even particularly noteworthy one. That’s not a bad thing; OS X is a mature platform, and the time for wild changes has passed. The Mac platform is stable, vibrant and powerful. El Capitan only helps push those ideas further.

Make a backup of your Mac, and go get it.


  1. I don’t miss installing OS X from a series of CDs.  ↩

  2. One of these days, I won’t be able to copy this list from old reviews, but today is not that day.  ↩

  3. Fun fact: the application that runs the setup process is called MacBuddy. I’ve always liked that.  ↩

  4. Don’t worry, this isn’t coming back.  ↩

  5. I appreciate Apple naming apps for exactly what they do, but it makes it confusing when reading and writing about things. RIP, “iCal.”  ↩