The differences between Apple OS X Yosemite and EI Capitan are so subtle that it often feels like one of those puzzles where you have to spot 11 differences between two photos. Considering Yosemite was a lauded OS overhaul, this isn’t a bad thing, but the best way to sum up Apple’s OS update is this: If you like Yosemite, you’ll like El Capitan, too.
Yes, there are differences. The mountain in Yosemite’s background is on the right, and in El Capitan the peak is on the left. That may be the most visual difference. Beyond that are a collection of useful feature and system updates, most of which I found to be smart and useful additions to an already excellent OS.
I spent about a week with the OS X 10.11 El Capitan beta running on a powerful 15-inch MacBook Pro, walking through updates like Windows Management and the much more powerful Notes App. Some features, like improved graphics performance through Apple's Metal technology, were impossible to try out since there aren’t any Mac OS apps that have been written to take advantage of it yet.
The Big Staff
Without a doubt, El Capitan’s biggest change is better windows management. For someone like me, who traverses the Microsoft Windows and Mac OS worlds, some of Apple’s work was vaguely reminiscent of what first appeared in Windows 7 and some is similar to what Microsoft’s bringing to desktops with Windows 10.
Both have the concept of side-by-side windows in full-screen mode. Both have multiple desktops.
I do like what Apple has done with windows management, especially how it all plays off the three-finger swipe-up gesture on the touchpad. Doing so gives you quick access to all the windows opened in your current desktop (Mission Control) and the thinner Spaces Bar above. As soon as you mouse over the Spaces Bar, it expands and looks like the original Spaces Bar. While you’re in it, though, you can use the three-fingered swipe (left or right) to page through all your desktops. You can also drag and drop any open window/app into one of the desktops or create a new one. All of this worked as promised in the beta and made managin workspaces easier than ever in OS X.
In Yosemite, Apple made full-screen the default action for clicking on a window's green button. In El Captian, clicking and holding the green button activates the new Split View mode: Your main, original window is on the left, and the remaining windows in the desktop space float on the right. From there, you just have to select which one you want to share the screen with the original window.
Once you have Split View set up, you can drag the divider left or right to give one app or the other more space. You can also, for instance, drag files from one pane to the other. I did this with Finder and OneDrive in Safari, Safari and Notes, a game and Maps. It all worked well enough, though I noticed that some apps didn’t want to be in Split View. Even when I selected them to share space with another app, they didn’t expand. There’s also a limit to how far you can drag the splitter.
These new management tools may lead to you opening more and more windows. I know I had a ton open. More than once I couldn’t find my cursor, it was lost in the weeds... er, windows. But with El Capitan, placing one finger on the trackpad and moving it back and forth rapidly will make the cursor comically large and easy to find. As soon as I stopped the movement, the cursor shrunk back down.
With Yosemite, Apple’s global search tool Spotlight got a brain transplant. In El Capitan, it’s eaten a bit more brain food and is a little bit easier to use. Now, for instance, I can move the Spotlight search window around on the desktop. It’s easier and more satisfying to use natural language queries, though not all of the results were better or more useful.
I like the addition of weather, stock and sports score results, but noticed that, at least in this beta, they didn’t work consistently. So while I could instantly get the Giants baseball team score by typing in “Giants,” searching for “Mets’” didn’t work at all.
While OS X El Capitan is full of small changes, one area — or should I say app — got a lot of attention: Notes. Actually, Apple was so fixated on this app, it added major new features to the upcoming iOS version as well.
First of all, you can put almost anything inside Notes and from almost any app (through the share menu). I added photos, spreadsheets and presentations to individual notes. Photos are added through the Photo Browser — you still have to drag and drop them from the browser window to Notes.
The new notes also has folders, more text formatting, and even checklists that you can check-off after creating.
The fact that Notes works so well is encouraging, but a better question to ask is why does Notes need all this versatility? Personally, I use Notes on my iPhone every day and have always appreciated how, thanks to iCloud, my notes are accessibility across all my iOS and OS X devices. A richer tool with more formatting options and the ability to keep key documents close at hand wherever I am does appeal to me — as I’m sure it does to all those Evernote users out there who must be wondering if Apple’s intention is to kill that popular app.
Like most other parts of OS X, Safari gets a minor update in El Capitan. There are few notable enhancements.
You can now pin web sites in Safari. Once you do, a little icon appears right below the task bar next to your open tabs. You add new pins by selecting the tab label for any open tab with two fingers. You unpin by selecting any pin with two fingers.
To access any pinned site, you select its icon. The only issue I saw is that some site icons look alike. A Metsblog.com pin looks almost exactly the same on Mashable’s pin.
In this OS X release, Apple seems to have decided to tackle some relatively minor issues, like that annoying browser tab that’s playing sound. You know, the one you can’t find so you can stop it. Similar to what Chrome has offered for a while, El Capitan’s Safari has a nifty Audio icon that will appear right in the address bar whenever audio is playing in any tab. I used it to quickly mute all playing tabs, even when I couldn’t see them.
While OS X and iOS show no imminent signs of collapsing into one platform, Apple is happy to borrow some of the best mobile platform features for its desktop and laptop OS. You can now, for example, use a two-fingered left swipe to delete emails in Mail. In iOS, you use in one finger. This works well and, as is the case in iOS, it quickly becomes addictive.
Managing mail creation has also gotten a bit easier. Multiple newly composed messages now appear in a tabbed interface and if you select the main mail screen while working on a draft email, the draft slides down to the bottom of the screen. You just have to click on the visible subject line at the top of the message window to bring it back into view.
Mail is also supposed to detect new contacts, contact changes and event invitations. In this beta, this all works somewhat inconsistently. Mail didn’t always notice the new contacts, though it did impressively alert me to a change in an existing contact information. Also, no matter how many emails I opened with event invites, El Capitan’s mail never picked up on the content to help me create calendar events. I suspect this part is a work in progress, but there may also be special conditions for what mail will and won’t pick up.
One of the biggest and most welcome changes in OS X El Capitan is transit in Maps. And it works like a charm. To Apple’s credit, the directions are almost indistinguishable from what you can get from Google Maps. For the beta, Transit coverage is limited to New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, London and Toronto (more cities will be added in the fall when El Capitan ships). Interestingly, the beta already has support for transit in 300 Chinese cities.
Apple tweaked system performance to improve mail load times and application launches, but it was hard for me to tell the difference. Did it seem fast? Yes. Does Yosemite also seem fast? Yes. I did notice one very beta glitch when I unexpected ran out of system memory in El Capitan.
There were other features which I couldn’t really test, including extensions in Photos, which will allow developers to add features to the included OSX Photo app and for users to blend filters and image enhancements from different third-party developers.
Likewise, El Capitan promises improved high-end app and gaming performance thanks to Metal, but without apps written to access Metal, I can’t see and test the differences.
As I said at the start, El Capitan is not a remarkably different version of OS X, but it is shaping up to be an incrementally better one. My bet is that upgrading will be a no-brainer, and it’ll be up to you to tell the difference.
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