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A year ago Yosemite introduced all sorts of new features, all visible to the user. El Capitan is a subtle release: its biggest changes aren’t visible — but you’ll probably notice them anyway.
That’s because the main thing El Capitan offers Mac users is better performance. El Capitan will be publicly released on October 1 – I’ve been using the Gold Master release for a few weeks now on a 2011 13″ Macbook Pro, and it’s a lot snappier than Yosemite or any recent version of OS X for that matter.
OSX El Capitan is the best thing that happened to the Mac in terms of performance.
— Hannes Egler (@eglerhs) September 19, 2015
It seems like I’m not alone: users on Reddit and Twitter have been raving about the performance enhancements, and various tech reviewers have been backing it up. If you’ve been noticing all sorts of slowdowns after recent OS X upgrades, this is the one you’ve been waiting for.
Beyond performance, some of the nicest things about El Capitan are relatively minor tweaks that nevertheless show the designers are thinking about users. For example: you know that thing where you sit down at your computer and can’t figure out where you mouse is? Apple offers a fix for that:
It’s a small tweak that solves a small problem. That’s the sort of changes you’ll see here, along with backend tweaks that add up to noticeable performance improvements.
Looking for reasons to download El Capitan? Here’s a quick rundown of the noticeable new features, to help you decide.
Two Full-Screen Apps, At Once
Even the new features in El Capitan are more like refinements, and split screen is a great example of this. Basically, it’s now possible to run two apps side-by-side in full-screen mode:
On one hand, this isn’t that much more useful than simply running two windows beside each other on the desktop. On the other hand, if you like the distraction-free part of running apps in full screen – but wish you could, for example, take notes while reading a document – this could be perfect for you. It kind of reminds me of the modern multitasking in Windows 8, to be honest.
To run an app in split screen, simply enter Mission Control and drag an open window to any currently full-screened app – the same way you moved windows to another desktop previously.
A Slightly Tweaked Mission Control
Speaking of Mission Control: there’s been a few tweaks. The thumbnails of your spaces are hidden by default, leaving more room to see your open windows.
Ever since Mission Control replaced several Mac features, including Expose, users have complained that it’s difficult to see every window in one gesture – this seems to help. The downside: the desktop previews are missing, which some users are already complaining about. I guess there’s no pleasing everyone.
Hide The Mac Menubar
If you love vertical space, I’ve got some good news for you: for the first time, it’s possible to autohide the Mac menubar. You’ll find the option in System Preferences, under General.
We’ve shown you many ways to reduce menubar clutter, but to me this is the ultimate solution: simply hiding it altogether.
I’m not going to lie: I’ve wanted this one for a long time. It’s nice to see.
New Spotlight Features
Apple, inexplicably, hasn’t brought Siri to OS X – but they’re getting just a bit closer by improving Spotlight. The search tool, can now quickly show you the weather from anywhere, for example.
It can also give you live sports updates:
Another potentially useful feature is natural language processing. You can type things like “PDFs I opened in March” and get accurate results, which is kind of mind bending the first few times you try it.
If you’ve been using Spotlight alternatives like Quicksilver or Alfred, think about giving Spotlight a chance after upgrading. It’s doing some interesting things.
One thing it doesn’t support, however, is a plugin system. And new security features mean that unofficial Spotlight plugin Flashlight no longer works. Which is a bummer, but the security reasons for this aren’t bad.
Upgrades to Mail, Safari, Notes and More
Many of the apps that come with OS X get updates in El Capitan. We’ll go over these in the months to come, but here’s a quick rundown:
- Mail gets new gesture support, and support for floating compose windows in fullscreen mode.
- Notes gets a whole new look reminiscent of Evernote, and a whole bunch of new features.
- Safari finally has pinned tabs, among many other tweaks.
- Maps now offers public transit info (but not everywhere – my new home, Portland, is not supported.)
- Dashboard is now disabled by default, making it seem more likely that Apple is hoping to replace Dashboard with the Notification Center’s widgets.
- There’s a new Find My Friends widget for the notification center, bringing the iOS feature for tracking your friends.
- Disk Utility has a new streamlined look.
There’s more, but think of this list as an overview more than anything.
Metal Comes to The Mac
If you own a recent iPhone or iPad, you might be wondering how such relatively underpowered devices can have such smooth animations and transitions – especially when compared to significantly more powerful desktop computers. Part of the secret is Metal, a low-level graphics API that gives apps near-direct access to the graphics processor.
El Capitan brings Metal to the Mac, meaning your more powerful computer can take advantage of it. Apple is using this to power the system’s animations, and anyone with a lower-end Mac should be able to tell.
But Metal’s biggest promise should come with upcoming software and game releases: games that take advantage of it should be able to offer better performance. Sharing the platform between OS X and iOS also makes it easier for developers to port titles between the two platforms.
It may seem a little abstract for the everyday user to think about but it means a performance boost on the desktop and potentially better video and gaming experiences later on.
A Worthwhile Upgrade
El Capitan has been stable for me, which is more than I can say for recent versions of OS X. There aren’t many groundbreaking changes, but it’s worth the upgrade for the performance improvements alone.
On October 1, upgrade to El Capitan by launching the Mac App Store and heading to the Updates tab where you’ll be invited to download the update. Make sure you create a backup with Time Machine while the update downloads, then run the downloaded installer (you’ll find it in your Applications folder) when you’re ready.
It’s possible the download could take some time to appear or complete — particularly on launch day — so our advice is to keep trying if you’re not successful straight away.
Note: If you have multiple Mac computers you’d like to upgrade, copy the installer file to a USB drive or transfer using AirDrop and use it to update your other Mac computers without enduring the 6GB download on each.
Did you upgrade? Have you been enjoying El Capitan? Let’s chat about it in the comments.