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Preview: Apple's OS X El Capitan for Macs

Call it a maintenance year for Mac OS X.


Every so often your car might need a major overhaul — new tires, brakes, steering and suspension, or maybe even a new engine. The years in between, you might just get a tune-up.

This is one of those years.

In this case, the car is your Mac, and the maintenance we’re talking about is OS X El Capitan, Apple’s newest operating system for Macs.

Apple gave a demo of the new operating system last week at its annual developers conference, and it was welcomed with the usual whoops and cheers from the many developers in attendance. A beta version of the OS will be available in July, with an official release planned for the fall.

But let’s take a moment to reset expectations: Last year’s new OS X Yosemite was a big overhaul, this is not. I’ve been using a very early version of the OS X El Capitan for the past week, on a new 15-inch MacBook Pro, and it adds some cool new stuff, but it’s not hugely different from Yosemite.

There are new conveniences, small things that maybe existed before but now appear in new form, like data detectors in Mail; there’s even a way to fatten your cursor when you’ve lost it somewhere on the screen.

However, some of the features introduced with OS X El Capitan are ones that already exist within competing operating systems, so it would not be inaccurate to call this a catch-up play. Other, more noteworthy inclusions — like a new graphics API and dramatically improved language support for Chinese and Japanese — are things I couldn’t really test.

In some ways, OS X El Capitan is comparable to the 2009 introduction of OS X Snow Leopard. Snow Leopard looked largely the same as Leopard, just as El Capitan doesn’t deviate from the design of OS X Yosemite. With Snow Leopard, small visual changes were made to Expose and Dock; El Capitan brings tiny tweaks to Mission Control (no more overlapping apps!). But 64-bit Snow Leopard also set the stage for ultra-powerful processing, while El Capitan brings Apple’s Metal graphics technology to Macs, which will make animation and graphics-processing for games and multimedia applications more efficient.

The most notable I’ve-seen-this-before feature in OS X El Capitan is Split View: Now, two apps can run in split view on a full screen. Finally! Mail and TweetDeck side by side throughout the day, on a full screen, without having to manually drag windows into place. Of course, Microsoft Windows has had this “snap” feature for years.

Spotlight search in OS X El Capitan brings up live updates for weather, sports and more.
Spotlight search in OS X El Capitan brings up live updates for weather, sports and more.

Spotlight search is definitely smarter. It’s not grade-skipping smarter; it’s a little older, a little wiser. You can, for example, just type “weather” into Spotlight and it will bring up results for the local weather. You can also type in a sports team — in this case, “Warriors” — and Spotlight will show you live game scores or the most recent game score, and the time of the next game. And Spotlight is supposed to now show results from video websites like YouTube and Vevo, but searches for “Jimmy Fallon,” “Taylor Swift” and “cat videos” didn’t bring me any video results.

There’s also a small update to the Safari browser: OS X Yosemite brought in the ability to slide through multiple browser tabs if you have so many open that they’re not all highly visible in the same window. With OS X El Capitan, you can “pin” tabs, creating a clickable, square icon in the browser rather than a tab. It’s pretty convenient, but unless you’re looking at a cluster of recognizable icons, it could get confusing; the pin icon for The Verge, for example, is displayed as the plaine letter T.

OS X El Capital also brings some improvements to native apps like Notes and Mail. These changes are useful, but so incremental that no one would judge if you asked, “Wait, they didn’t do that before?”

You can now make checklists in Apple’s Notes app, or drag and drop stuff from Safari, Maps and Photos directly into a Note. And the new Notes has what I’ll call a “multimedia” view now rather than just a list view. This gives you easy access to photos and videos, map locations, PDFs and more that you might have saved in Notes, rather than having to scroll through an entire list of old Notes to find things.

Apple Maps now show public transit info.
Apple Maps now show public transit info.

Mail has been a troublesome app for some Mac users in recent years (particularly for Gmail users during the launch of OS X Mavericks) so maybe it’s a relief that this new OS only brings about minor changes. I’ve added two different Gmail accounts to the Mail app and so far have had no problems receiving and sending mail, although on a couple occasions there has been a lag between getting a new email via webmail and seeing it in the Mail app.

The two most useful “new” features in Mail? You can now swipe left on the trackpad to archive — just as you would on iPhone. And Mail containing information for flights, meetings and other events will offer you the option to save this to Calendar from just under the subject line.

But there are still so many TBDs around this OS that this should hardly be considered a full review. First, I haven’t gone through the upgrade process with an older laptop yet. Usually, any limitations or bugs become apparent when you try to upgrade old machines to the latest and greatest software. Apple hasn’t released a full list of compatible machines, except to say no system requirements have changed since Mavericks, and that any laptop that runs OS X Yosemite can run OS X El Capitan.

Data detectors in Mail aren’t new, but now event information appears just below the subject line.
Data detectors in Mail aren’t new, but now event information appears just below the subject line.

We also don’t know yet how much — or if at all — El Capitan will improve battery life. On the one hand, the new Metal API allows game and app developers to write code directly to the Mac’s graphics processor, removing a layer in between, which could make a laptop more efficient. But the flip side of that is, if you’re playing more 3-D games or running heavy apps, any claims around extended battery life could be moot.

And finally, there are features of OS X El Capitan that either haven’t been optimized yet or will require iOS 9 to fully work (iOS 9 is also going to be available as a public beta in July, with a final version planned for the fall).

For example: Third-party app developers haven’t yet been able to take advantage of the Metal graphics API, so while Apple’s native apps may launch and run more speedily right now on OS X El Capitan, we can’t yet judge the performance of other apps. Apple’s Photos app now lets you sort albums by date or title, but developers have yet to create extensions for stuff like photo filters. The new Transit feature in Apple Maps now pulls up public transit info, which can be sent directly to the iPhone when you’re on the go — but only if you’re running iOS 9 on iPhone. And so on.

In other words, there are still many things to be tried and tested with OS X El Capitan.

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