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OS X El Capitan review: Everyone's an expert

Back to the Mac, again

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Starting on September 30th, everybody will be able to install Apple's latest OS X update, El Capitan, on their Macs. It'll be free, and given that Apple claims its predecessor had "the fastest adoption ever" of any PC OS, it'll be popular too. El Capitan is the small one in Apple's big-then-small OS update cadence, which means that we have just a few core changes, a bunch of app updates, and a healthy pile of bug fixes.

Virtually everybody with Yosemite will (and should) update. Virtually nobody will feel that their Mac experience has fundamentally changed, instead we'll just see it get slightly nicer. Given all that, it's easy to just shrug at this OS update. So easy that I've found myself doing exactly that over the past few weeks.

This is usually the part where I tell you that shrugging would be a mistake, that there's a revolution hidden inside these iterative updates. Except it's just not true. El Capitan is a good update, but the most interesting thing about it isn't the features — it's the philosophy behind them.


El Capitan takes the sorts of things that experts have been doing with third-party apps and utilities for years on the Mac and builds them right into the OS. Spotlight is becoming more than just a simple file search box. Window management is becoming easier. Notes is more than just a raw text box. Most of it left me nonplussed because all of these things didn't feel new and different to me — I've been finding ways to fix all of those problems for years with third-party apps and add-ons. But with El Capitan, Apple's made the learning curve you usually have to climb to become a "power user" (whatever that is) much more gradual.

Take Split View, which extends the existing full-screen feature and lets you have two apps side by side. It's hard not to see it as the analogue to Split View on the iPad — but luckily Apple isn't slavishly copying its other platform. Instead, it utilizes the little stoplight buttons with a long press, then gives you an Exposé view so you can pick your second app. It works great (although a few of my older apps don't support it), and you can adjust the width of each app to set up your perfect workspaces.

I'm not a full-screen app kind of guy (until somebody pries Moom from my cold, dead hands), but I can see how somebody could work this into their regular workflow. The best part about Split View is that it’s discoverable. It doesn’t take much to find it if you've stumbled across Mission Control or Desktop Spaces. It democratizes methods of getting more out of computers that many of us have already been using.

As long as I'm talking about window management, I should note that Apple stopped stacking app windows on top of each other in Mission Control — and windows do a better job of staying near where their original position in this view. Our long nightmare of hunting down the right checkbox in settings to turn off this horrendous decision is over.

You can also drag any window up to the title bar to drag into a different desktop space or on top of a full-screen app to initiate a Split View. (And yes, I'm aware that Windows has been doing this sort of thing for awhile now.)


Spotlight search is another great example of how stuff that used to only be in the domain of nerds is becoming accessible to everybody. Spotlight's beginning to recognize that (surprise!) the web exists and is super important to how people use computers now. You can get info on the weather, stocks, sports scores, and cat videos directly in the Spotlight window (which, by the way, can also be resized and moved now).

I've been getting these little snippets of information and searching websites directly within an app called Alfred for a long time now. Spotlight won't replace Alfred for me, but it will probably mean that somebody new to the Mac won't feel the need to go download it in the first place. It's a big step in the right direction, but it doesn't quite go far enough.

Siri on iOS seems much more capable than Spotlight on the desktop. You can tell Siri to remind you to buy milk, and that reminder will appear in your apps on all of your devices, like magic. Type "Remind me to buy milk" into Spotlight, and it will give you the email you sent yourself in 2011, like an animal.

We just watched Microsoft put a full version of its personal assistant, Cortana, into Windows 10. Why Apple hasn't deigned to do the same in OS X baffles me. Most people think of Siri as "that thing you talk to on your phone," but there's no good reason the intelligence behind it couldn't be just as easily applied to text.

The decision to keep Spotlight and Siri separate becomes even more mystifying when you consider that Spotlight is getting some basic abilities to understand natural language. I can type in searches like "emails from Joe from 2013 that mention baseball" and POW, the relevant email appears almost instantly. It's really that powerful. But the delta between what Siri can do and what Spotlight can do feels like it ought to go away.


Apple has changed a bunch of other system-level stuff. There's a new font, Apple's own San Francisco. I'll leave it to others to argue the fine details of whether or not it's better than Yosemite's Helvetica Neue, but to my eyes it's nice and readable.

Apple also changed some of the technical underpinnings of the OS. Graphics and animations now get run through a thing called "Metal," which is a bunch of code that makes it easier for developers to take advantage of the graphics processor (they get to "code close to the metal" as the saying goes, without actually having to literally do that). In addition to Apple's own systems, professional apps from third parties can also take advantage of Metal in their apps.

I was hoping that this new Metal framework would lead to really big speed increases and noticeably improved battery life — but neither is really the case in my testing. Apple says that PDFs should render faster, but also said that my hope for battery life was kind of naive, that Metal is more about efficiency than power-saving. I'm not sure what that distinction is supposed to mean, exactly, but I do know that El Capitan isn't going to give you an extra hour of battery life.

My favorite update in El Capitan is almost literally the smallest one: pinned tabs in Safari. When you pin a tab, it minimizes to just the favicon and then refreshes itself periodically in the background. They get harder to close, which means you won't accidentally lose an important website.

It fits the theme, too: power users of the web depend on being able to pin tabs. I would say I have an average of 6-10 tabs pinned at any one time, a mix of regular sites I need and stuff I need to look at later. A lot of people use pinned tabs in Chrome and Firefox, so it’s way past time for them to come to Safari. If I had one complaint, it's that when you open a second Safari window, the pinned tabs sort of make their way over to that other window after a while. It's weird, and it makes it harder for me to distinguish windows, but it's worth the trade-off. With El Capitan, I've made Safari my default browser, and I'm experiencing the web without Flash. The web without flash is better.

Safari has a few other odds-and-ends to note: you can mute tabs from the address bar, send videos to AirPlay without having to broadcast your entire screen, and tweak the appearance of the Reader view. Basically, Safari is good enough to be my default browser now, and I only open Chrome when I need to use flash. So I'm only opening Chrome to look at websites using busted old technology — that should scare Google.


Other apps have gotten some tweaks. Maps has transit directions, which includes maps of some subway stations, just like iOS. I especially like that there's a new Find My Friends widget for the Notification Center. Photos can now work with third-party extensions to give you more options for editing photos (and it also supports Live Photos from the latest iPhones).

Mail gets a few new features too: you can swipe to archive messages from the list, but I found the gesture hard to get right. Full screen in Mail lets you compose emails in tabs, which is useful, and it also fully supports all the intelligence that's built into Spotlight. Apple also says that it's faster with IMAP, but the only massive improvement I'm seeing is a Mail app made by Apple that actually functions.

Mail can't decide if it wants to be Gmail or Exchange

Mail also gets one more addition: suggestions. If you get an email with a calendar entry or contact, it will show a little bar which you can click to shoot that information over to the relevant app. It can also recognize flight numbers and package tracking IDs. Actually, the Notes app can recognize those things too, giving you a little triangle you can click to preview more information. Clever!

The Notes apps gets what's probably the biggest single update in El Capitan. Instead of being a simple repository of text, now a note can encompass a whole bunch of other things. You can format text, add links, photos, maps, and even checklists. It basically turns notes into a lightweight and fast competitor to Evernote. That app has been providing those features to people in-the-know for a long time, but it is neither fast nor lightweight anymore (to say nothing of its constant attempts to up sell you). And the ability to shoot information into Notes from other apps is really convenient.

Our El Capitan preview from June, 2015:

Notes seems pretty great and still pretty fast. But to get the most out of Notes, you really do need to own an iPhone. In fact, to get the most out of El Capitan in general, you'll be much happier as an iPhone user. It's not that you have to use an iPhone, it's that Apple has created a bunch of apps that do a really good job of communicating between your computer and your phone. You'll get to take full advantage of stuff like note syncing, Continuity, iMessage, Safari bookmarks, iCloud, Photos, and, well, the list goes on and on.

Back in 2010, Apple announced OS X Lion, with an event entitled "Back to the Mac." The idea was to bring some of the core features that Apple had developed for iOS and deploy them on the Mac. But a funny thing happened on the way to the desktop: those features still felt Mac-like, not just clones of what Apple had done on the iPhone.

Now, everybody with an iPhone and a Mac has access to expert features

The same thing is happening again in 2015 with El Capitan, but there's a twist. Some of these features are designed to be familiar to iPhone and iPad users — but nearly all of them are designed to empower those people. Apple's apps used to just do the basics and you had to be an expert who knew how to do more. Now, everybody with an iPhone and a Mac has access to expert features.

I said in my preview last June that El Capitan is Apple's strongest argument yet that you should live inside Apple's ecosystem of apps and services. After using El Capitan for a few weeks, I still think that's true. But I'm also not willing to give my whole digital life over. There are still plenty of things that I can do with other services, add-ons, and third party apps that El Capitan can't. But the gap is shrinking.

There was a time when the only part of your Mac that knew anything about your iPhone was the worst part of your Mac: iTunes. Now, the whole damn thing is infused with software that dynamically and intelligently talks to it, and vice versa. And if the software isn't talking directly to the iPhone, it's taking interaction cues from it that you already learned and can use again.

That's powerful. And it’s going to help a lot of people do a lot more with their computers.