Mac OS X El Capitan preview

Step into the garden

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At WWDC 2015 last week, Apple unveiled the next version of Mac OS X, El Capitan. It’s coming this fall, and there will be a public beta beginning sometime in July. It will be free for all users.

In the yearly cadence of OS releases, roughly every other one ends up being smaller — and El Capitan is the “small” one. But inside those releases are signposts that point to the future direction of the OS. With El Capitan, we have the usual performance improvements and bug fixes, but there are also a lot of app updates. And when you look at how Apple is updating them, you can detect a theme: they're getting way better at talking to each other.

There's a growing set of things that a modern user expects to be able to do on any platform — be it phone or tablet or laptop. Once you get beyond the basics of email and calendar, you run into gaps. Most power users find a suite of third-party apps to fill them in: maybe you use Evernote for enhanced notes, Dropbox for cloud storage, Google Maps for transit, and some kind of enhanced email app. With El Capitan, Apple is beginning to make a case that you don't need to resort to those third-party options.

Why would you choose Apple's solutions in El Capitan? Because they're all so tightly integrated. Maps talks to Notes, Calendar talks to Mail, and all of them talk to Spotlight. All of those interconnections and digital conversations could subtly drive you to opt for Apple apps instead of whatever you might have been using before. Think of it like Continuity, but inside the computer instead of between devices. And all of it works incredibly well.

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Apple splits out El Capitan's updates into two broad categories: "Experience" and "Performance." Let's just get performance out of the way first: it seems great. I don't mean to minimize the changes Apple has made here, but the truth is that they're actually difficult to quantify without digging deeply into all sorts of granular and nerdy benchmarks. Since this is a beta preview, those things would be subject to change anyway. (I did experience a few places where my laptop wasn't waking properly from sleep, too. Again: it's a beta, so I'm not concerned about it.)

But more to the point, it's not as though Yosemite was slow to begin with. Safari is still blink-of-an-eye quick, and app launches have fewer loading bounces than ever. A lot of the performance improvements come courtesy of Metal, which is the technology that lets software talk to the graphics processor with fewer layers of abstraction. That will make power apps like Adobe's suite much faster, but it's also being applied across the entire Mac OS.

Read next: The OS X El Capitan review.

I tested El Capitan on a very fast 2.2GHz MacBook Pro, so of course it felt snappy. The real test will be whether or not it significantly alters the experience on a lower-end machine like the new MacBook. Depending on how big those differences really are, it could change my calculus on buying that laptop.

In terms of overall look and feel, El Capitan is very close to Yosemite. There's a new system font, San Francisco, that looks better on displays than Helvetica. You can wiggle the mouse pointer quickly, and it will get huge so you can actually find the darned thing, which is neat. Apple hasn't backed off of all the translucent elements it introduced in Yosemite, and Mission Control has a lighter theme now. It also no longer stacks app windows by default, instead just showing all windows — which is how God intended Mission Control to work.

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Window management is actually the place where Apple has made the most obvious changes in terms of how you use the OS. Apple has added a new "Split View" that makes it easier to place two windows side by side. It’s similar to how Windows 8 handles split-screen apps. The feature assumes that you want to use your apps in full-screen mode, and it works pretty intuitively. When you have a full-screen app, you can swipe up into Mission Control and then drag another window into that full screen, and El Capitan will automatically split the pane in two. You can also press and hold on the green stoplight button to put an app directly into half a split screen, then select another window for the other half.

In my testing, I found that some apps aren't quite ready for Split View. I think that some of those apps are assuming that they have the full screen to work with, and so when they only get half (or less), there are problems. If you adjust the width of a split-screen app to something very narrow, some elements of the UI simply get cut off. Presumably, Apple and third-party developers will use the time between now and El Capitan’s official release to clean some of that up.

Power users have been taking advantage third-party apps like Divvy and Moom to automatically place their windows into convenient split-screen layouts for some time now. Way back in the misty mists of the history of the Mac, the term "Sherlocking" came to represent the idea of Apple rendering a third-party app useless by building the same functionality into OS X. I don't think that applies here: Split View doesn't obviate those apps, if only because Split View is limited to full-screen mode. Call me old, but I'm still not sold on the utility of most full-screen app layouts.

The other system-level changes you'll find in El Capitan are some improvements to Spotlight and search. Spotlight can pull in more structured data now, like weather in a certain location or sports scores for your favorite team. It also, wonder of wonders, can be moved and resized — but it's still a "modal" window that doesn't persist when you click away from it.

The cooler thing in Spotlight is natural language search. You can type something like "emails from Nilay in 2013" or "spreadsheets I worked on last week," and Spotlight will parse it out and give you the relevant results. Apps that utilize Spotlight's search engine like Mail or Notes also get those same benefits. It works fairly well — but only if you use Apple's apps. My own stuff is spread across Gmail and Evernote and ToDoist, so I'm not really getting the full benefits of Spotlight. It's not quite enough to get me to switch (yet), but it is enough to make me wonder if I might not be better off in Apple's world.

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Safari has been updated with a couple of features that Chrome users will be familiar with. Apple has finally (yes, finally) admitted that people like the idea of pinned tabs and implemented them in Safari. They show up with little favicons on the left-hand side of the tab bar, and they persist even if you quit Safari. They also stay loaded in the background, and if you click a link that leads off site, it spawns a new tab. In other words, they work like pinned tabs should work. Finally. Another neat trick in Safari: if a tab has audio playing on it, you can mute it by clicking a button in the address bar. Hold the mouse down, and it will show you a list of all tabs that are playing audio.

The Notes app has gotten a huge upgrade in El Capitan. Instead of being a bare-bones text repository, it now can store lots of different multimedia elements and supports different fonts. Among the things that you can add to a note now: map locations, links, photos, checklists, PDFs, documents, and videos. When you add a link or a map location, Notes creates a little "card" right inside your memo. There's an "attachment browser" that lets you scan through all the different stuff you've added to all your notes, and El Capitan's share menu lets you toss all manner of content into a note. There are folders, and, of course, everything syncs with the Notes app on your iPhone or iPad over iCloud.

Basically, you can think of it as a stripped-down version of Evernote, one designed for Apple's ecosystem. As with Spotlight, it's another sign of Apple's increased focus on interoperability: more integration, more communication, more reasons to use Apple’s apps.

Mail has some improvements, too, including a faster engine for downloading emails over IMAP, the ability to swipe on messages to delete them, and better full-screen functionality. In full screen, you can have multiple compose windows in tabs and they minimize to the bottom if you need to reference another email.

Apple is also trying to parse out your emails by adding links for suggested contacts and calendar events. In keeping with Apple's philosophy, this all happens locally instead of on Apple's servers. That means that Apple doesn't know anything about the contents of your emails, but it also means that this parsing feature is limited compared to what Google can do. Mail didn't always recognize that there was a chance to add something to a calendar, and it can't add cards for stuff like flight information and tracking packages the way Google's Inbox app can.

Apple has added mass transit information to Maps, but it's only for a limited set of cities in the beta: London, New York, San Francisco, and Toronto (six more are coming at release). Actually, the set isn't limited at all if you count China, where Maps supports transit directions in "over 300 cities." Score one for standardized data in China.

You can click on the "Transit" button to see an overlay of all the transit lines on a map and even zoom into a particular station to see a map of its layout. Apple makes a big deal of this second part because, especially in New York, some subway stations are huge, sprawling installations, and knowing how to get around inside them can be a pain. Each station has an info card that can display information on the next train time or any delays. You can also click the share button to send a location to your iPhone.

The Photos app is adding back in some of the features that we lost with iPhoto: extensions, album sorting, and better tools for face recognition and location editing. It's also faster for large libraries.

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Looking across the updates in El Capitan, the story is clear: Apple is making life way better for people who live in its ecosystem. But if you don't live in Apple's garden, the benefits are less clear. Yes, it's faster and there are bugfixes all around, but to take advantage of Apple's updates you really need to use Apple's apps.

Which is why even though I've been testing out El Capitan for a little less than a week, I don't know if I've really experienced its full potential yet. Too many of my core apps aren't part of this growing iCloud-based world. I learned to depend on a lot of services back when the apps that Apple made weren’t good enough for me. But now, they might be — and I think for many users they will be. Add in the fact that they're tightly integrated with each other, and the idea of switching over starts to get interesting. When I look at my dock and see Evernote, ToDoist, Google Maps, Chrome, and all the rest, I know that each is individually better than whatever Apple offers in El Capitan. But I also know that they're not very good at talking to each other.

Apple is obviously more invested in making native Mac apps than anybody else

It's tempting to say that Apple is trying to pull us into its walled garden of apps instead of just doing everything in Chrome. It's also tempting to say Apple is giving itself advantages for its own apps that aren't available to third parties. But that's not really true: any app can put itself in El Capitan's share menu or make itself searchable by Spotlight. What's different isn't access, it's intent: Apple is just obviously more invested in making native Mac apps than anybody else, and it cares more about helping them work together.

I haven't decided whether I'm willing to jump in and move all my stuff into Apple's world. But with El Capitan, it's starting to feel like a viable option.

Lead photo by Chris Welch

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