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Every year Apple updates OS X, but this year’s update won’t be quite as dramatic as the last.
While there are a few nice new features and refinements coming to OS X 11.10, you can get most of the upcoming features by installing third-party software today.
Adding features is easy, but the hundreds of other refinements Apple is implementing (like speeding up system-level graphical performance by 40%) make up the real reason you’re going to want to update to El Capitan come October.
But for now, here’s how to El Capitan your Yosemite.
Better Window Management
Anyone who has used a particular operating system for a long time gets a little set in their ways, and that’s probably why it’s taken OS X to adopt a Windows 7-style “Split View” mode in the upcoming OS X upgrade. As many Windows refugees who simply couldn’t live without the feature know, it’s easy to get better window management on your Mac.
Spectacle is a completely free app that lets you control your Mac desktop window placement with a selection of handy keyboard shortcuts. The project is open source and last saw an update in May, so it should tide you over till the functionality is added to 11.10.
Similarly, free productivity app BetterTouchTool also includes its own “window snap” implementation, which works intuitively by dragging windows to certain positions on your screen. That’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the app can do though.
Lastly there’s a feature in the upcoming release that makes it easy to locate your mouse cursor by shaking it. It’s not surprising to learn that a lot of users have trouble locating the pointer from time to time, particularly on large 27″ iMac monitors. Solve this by making the pointer permanently bigger under System Preferences > Accessibility > Display > Cursor Size.
Apple will add two new features to Safari in El Capitan: the ability to mute tabs, and the ability to pin tabs. There’s a noticeable lack of extensions for Safari, particularly compared with Chrome and Firefox, and so an extension that can mute individual tabs doesn’t exist.
However, I find that the lead cause of noisy background tabs is Flash and other plugins auto-starting — like when opening tabs in the background or when an intrusive advert reloads. ClickToFlash and ClickToPlugin are two Safari extensions that stop these plugins initiating until you click on them, effectively muting all tabs.
Unfortunately there’s no extension that will allow you to pin tabs, you’ll either have to make do with some bookmarks (and leaving your tabs open), or switch to a browser like Chrome for the time-being.
A Richer Notes App
Along with iOS 9, OS X El Capitan overhauls Apple’s Notes app, transforming it from a simple text storage medium to a point of storage for attachments like websites, photos, videos and map locations. The improved app will sync over iCloud with your devices, and it’s hardly the most feature-packed note-taking solution.
It’s also not the only free note-taking solution out there. Both Evernote and OneNote (read our review) provide compelling free options for syncing notes between devices, can each handle attachments of various file types (according to Evernote: “Just about anything can be attached to a note”) and even come with sharing and collaborative features* that Apple’s upcoming revision omits.
It’s probable that Apple will integrate some form of sharing with other iCloud users in the future, but you can have all those features (plus a lot more) right now by opting for a third party provider. If you’re using an Android phone like the new LG G4 or tablet in your setup, Apple’s Notes app is useless to you because the company has no plans to make it cross-platform anyway.
* Evernote doesn’t allow free users to collaborate on individual notes, Google Docs-style, but it does allow for shared notebooks. OneNote has no paid option and also allows you to collaborate on notebooks.
An Improved Spotlight
Apple is also improving its already-excellent search tool Spotlight, accessible by hitting Command + Spacebar or clicking the magnifying glass in the upper-right corner of your screen. El Capitan will add support for weather, stocks and web video results; and also make it possible to use natural language like you would with Alfred.
Flashlight is an unofficial plugin system that gives Spotlight super powers. It’s essentially a collection of plugins that allow you to access more information and control more of your Mac’s settings and programs than Apple does out of the box. It’s also described as “a horrendous hack, but a fun proof of concept” by developer Nate Parrot.
Installing Flashlight introduces a whole range of commands out of the box, with the option of adding even more. Yes, you can add weather, stocks and YouTube (not quite web video but close enough), and use natural language for searches, text translation, reminders and Wolfram Alpha queries among others.
You’ve Got Mail Improvements
It might seem like Apple Mail just refuses to evolve, but Apple is making it easier to reach “inbox zero” in the updated version with the introduction of multi-touch gestures. These allow you to swipe left and right to archive (or trash) and mark messages as unread. Similarly, the app will now offer to save contacts and events to your calendar — not exactly the most exciting features.
Mailbox is a free email client that can replace Apple Mail entirely — it even plays nicely with Gmail and its labels. The Mac version is currently in beta but makes heavy use of the same gestures Apple is implementing, along with a reminders-like functionality to help you do more with your mail.
But this functionality isn’t just limited to Mailbox, as AirMail ($9.99) also strives for speed and implements gestures and other time-saving features too. Apple’s Mail app will also bring with it improvements to full-screen mode, but I’m not sure the composing or reading email in full screen mode is such a good idea in the first place.
Photos for OS X Gets Better
OS X El Capitan will further refine Apple’s iPhoto replacement with the addition of third-party editing tools. It’s all about making your photos easier to edit with one-click filters and texture effects, along with a few additional tools for sorting your photos and adding names to faces.
The closest third-party tool to come close to Apple’s offering is Fotor, a dedicated editing tool which focuses entirely on making changes rather than managing your photo collection. That’s probably ok though, as you’ll likely be converting from iPhoto to Photos in preparation for 11.10.
Fotor is free and provides a bevy of editing tools that go above and beyond Apple’s stock offering. Features include batch processing, preset edits, the ability to crop and add borders, create collages and of course all the filters and tilt-shift effects you’d expect from an image editing application in 2015.
Coming Fall 2015
OS X El Capitan will be (another) free upgrade for all users who own compatible hardware, and though the features on the surface aren’t that exciting, Apple has made some pretty bold claims when it comes to under the hood improvements.
I’m personally most excited by a more efficient OS that uses less power with more graphical oomph thanks to the implementation of Metal. How about you?