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OS X El Capitan review: A swifter, more streamlined take on OS X

The latest update to Apple's operating system isn't as dramatic a change as its predecessor, but the new updates streamline the OS X experience.

Nate Ralph Associate Editor
Associate Editor Nate Ralph is an aspiring wordsmith, covering mobile software and hardware for CNET Reviews. His hobbies include dismantling gadgets, waxing poetic about obscure ASCII games, and wandering through airports.
Nate Ralph
14 min read

Late 2016 update

Since releasing Mac OS X El Capitan in September 2015, Apple has delivered a newer version of its desktop operating system and changed the way it refers to its software. Now known as MacOS, the newest Sierra variant comes equipped with features inspired by iOS or designed to help Macs work better with iOS products, adding further incentive to keep your hardware inside Apple's walled garden, which includes the iPhone, Apple Watch and Mac computers. (Read the full MacOS Sierra review here.)


OS X El Capitan

The Good

Apple's El Capitan is a free update that streamlines the Mac experience and spruces up existing tools without changing the fundamental OS X experience.

The Bad

The updates to some of Apple's native apps -- Safari, Mail and Maps -- still don't improve them beyond the level of third-party alternatives.

The Bottom Line

If you own a Mac, you'll want El Capitan. This update simplifies the Mac experience, improving the tools you already use while promising improved performance to come.

In November 2016, the company refreshed its lineup of 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros. Considerably slimmer, faster, and pricier than their predecessors, the new models feature some innovative flourishes -- most notably, Apple's dynamic Touch Bar. There's also a less expensive 13-inch model without the Touch Bar.

The common theme among the MacOS Sierra release and the new MacBook models is a greater emphasis on usability and productivity, rather than performance per se. Exhibit A: the Touch Bar, a mini display that runs along the top of the keyboard that provides different icons and options for different apps. Sliders, hot keys and function buttons emerge on the fly as needed.

In addition to leveraging the TouchBar, the newest version of Sierra (release 12.10.1), for the first time integrates Apple's voice-enabled assistant, Siri, with the Mac operating system. It provides new ways to share across and synchronize Apple devices, and brings Apple Pay to the desktop. Bottom line: if your hardware can support the new version of MacOS -- here's a list of supported systems -- it's totally worth the free upgrade.

Editors' note, November 22, 2016: The original Apple Mac OS X El Capitan review, first published in September 2015, follows.

Apple's El Capitan refines workflow on your Mac (pictures)

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El Capitan, the latest update to Apple's OS X operating system, is named after a massive rock formation in Yosemite National Park in California -- keep that in mind. It's a free update, and you can download it starting on Wednesday, September 30.

The previous version of OS X, called Yosemite, represented a sea change for OS X, sporting all new aesthetics, features such as Continuity and Handoff that bridge the gap between iOS devices like your iPhone, and Spotlight's newfound ability to search pockets of the Web. El Capitan is, by contrast, restrained. Where Yosemite was concerned with introducing new features to modernize the OS, El Capitan, like its namesake pillar, sits upon that foundation.

There are of course refinements to discover, including improved takes on multitasking and more efficient ways to search. Performance has been improved -- and will tick up further as more developers begin to use Apple's Metal programming interface -- and tiny quality-of-life improvements have wormed their way into most every native app on the platform. If you're wedded to the Apple ecosystem, your entire universe will become just a little more cohesive.

El Capitan is more evolution than revolution, but it's the next step in Apple's relentless march towards efficiency, chock full of improvements along the way. And it'll run on just about every Mac purchased in the last few years: if your Mac can run Mavericks, you're all set. Let's take a look at what's new.

El Capitan streamlines the Apple experience. Nate Ralph/CNET

With El Capitan, the native OS X apps you're already familiar with have learned a new tricks -- some borrowed from iOS. The end result is an operating system that accomplishes more while retaining its simplicity, all the while subtly bridging the gap between PC and mobile without ever explicitly crossing over.

Get a bird's eye view with Mission Control

Apple's Mission Control has been around in some capacity since Mac OS X Lion, and works a little like multitasking on your iOS device. Swipe up on your trackpad with three fingers, press the Mission Control button on your keyboard, or set up a keyboard shortcut, and you'll get a glance at all of the apps and virtual desktops -- Apple calls them "Spaces" -- that are running on your Mac. You can rearrange them at will or let them shuffle around automatically, based on use. And any apps you run in fullscreen mode will get stored up there too.

Click an app on the desktop in El Capitan and drag it up to the top of your screen, and you'll automatically enter Mission Control, where you can drop the app onto another desktop. That's a simple tweak, but one that saves you precious seconds, and then gets back out of your way. Mission Control has itself been streamlined: When you're just trying to get a bird's eye view of your desktop, the other spaces you're running in the background will be condensed to their titles. You won't get the full thumbnail until you actually mouse up to the bar -- the space you're saving won't mean much on an iMac or 15-inch MacBook Pro, but the change is well in line with El Capitan's focus on keeping things simple.

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Mission Control gives you a glance at all of your open apps and windows. Nate Ralph/CNET

I see echoes of Mission Control in Microsoft's efforts with Task View in Windows 10 , the first official implementation of virtual desktops in Windows. The functionality of Task View and Mission Control is similar, but Apple's implementation has spent more time in that proverbial oven. There's currently no way to rearrange existing desktops in Windows 10, for example, and the feature there is reliant on buttons, keyboard shortcuts or touch gestures. Of course Windows 10 has been iterating rather quickly, so it stands to reason that we could see these sorts of quality-of-life improvements work their way into Microsoft's OS before long.

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Split View lets you arrange two apps side by side, in fullscreen mode. Nate Ralph/CNET

Multitasking with Split View

Multitasking is at the heart of Apple's changes with Mission Control and Split View -- a feature borrowed from iOS 9. The principle is that same as its iOS counterpart: Drag an app onto another fullscreen app, in Mission Control mode, and you can join the two onto a single space. Each will naturally take up half the screen with a vertical black bar dividing them -- drag that bar left or right to give one app more room. Alternatively, you could press and hold the green fullscreen mode button in the top left corner of your app. A blue sheen will cover half of either side of the screen; drag the app to the left or right, and the rest of the apps on the desktop will be shrunk down into thumbnails, a la Snap in Windows 10. Click one, and it'll take up the opposite half of the display.

For the right person, Split View will be a great focus aid: I do most of my writing in Microsoft's OneNote, but can keep a browser on the opposite end of the screen in case I need to look something up, or track down a source. I also keep Wunderlist and the Calendar app side by side on another desktop, so I can keep tabs on my schedule as well as my to-dos. You can also flip an app over from the left or right by grabbing the title bar and dragging it over its neighbor -- they'll swap places. Some apps (like Calendar or Pages) have a minimum amount of screen real estate and will shrink no further, while apps such as Wunderlist will transform, hiding menus and changing their layouts to squeeze into tighter spaces.

None of this is likely to matter if you avoid fullscreen apps, or are using a larger display, where you'll have a desktop with plenty of room to roam. But it can work wonders on smaller devices such as the 12-inch MacBook, where too many windows would feel cluttered, but a single one would see you jumping between desktops.

Split View is of course reminiscent of Windows 7's Snap -- one of my favorite Windows features. Snap has been much improved in Windows 10, and is a bit more versatile than Apple's efforts. You can snap up to four apps onto your display -- one in each corner -- or sit one on the right half of your screen, and stack two on the left. You'll run into the opposite problem from Split View here, as stacking four apps in a single space only really makes sense on larger displays.

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See how well (or badly) your team is doing with Spotlight. Nate Ralph/CNET

Seeking with Spotlight

Spotlight has been a mainstay of OS X since 10.4 Tiger, and has served the same purpose: helping you find stuff. That "stuff" category has grown substantially since its inception. In Yosemite, Spotlight gained the ability to look beyond the dictionary or files on your Mac and onto the Web, to find information from Wikipedia, or location-based results. El Capitan takes things further still. Type "weather in Tokyo" and Spotlight will offer up weather results and the forecast for the upcoming week. Spotlight can also tackle natural language searches. Typing "photos I took in Oakland last fall," for example, will trawl through your images for shots that meet those criteria.

You can search for more general information, too. Type in the name of a sports team, and Spotlight will show you the results from the last game, and a peek at their upcoming schedule. Type in an athlete's name, and Spotlight serves up an info card with their stats. You'll also find links to their Twitter profile, related websites, blurbs from recent news articles, and even videos they may have been featured in.

But while Spotlight does have a rather expansive knowledge base and will do a good job of trawling the Web for the information you're seeking, it still doesn't do general Web searches. I often find myself looking for info on obscure topics, like this "screaming chicken dog toy" that I bought off of Amazon, or the "yawning Totoro toy" I received as a gift once upon a time. On Windows 10, Cortana fires up a browser window with Bing search results. On a Mac, Spotlight turns up a simple "No results."

Actually, that's not true: I'm writing this in Pages as part of my full-immersion OS X experience, and those search results are now turning up as part of this document. Spotlight is nothing if not thorough.

New and improved Notes

El Capitan brings new features to core elements of the operating system, but it also spruces up some of Apple's native apps. Of particular note is, well, Notes. There are plenty of competitors in this space, including OneNote and Evernote. Notes doesn't hold a candle to those: You won't find a place to store your files or take voice notes. But if you just want a quiet place to drop some text, maybe that's a good thing.

The new Notes is leagues ahead of its predecessor, bolstering those basic text-wrangling abilities. You can quickly create checklists to roll your own to-do lists, as well as format text to add a bit of style to your notes. You can use the Share function built into apps like Safari to add links, photos and videos to your notes -- third-party apps can get in on the action, too. And syncing over iCloud means that the doodles you create in Notes on iOS 9 will show up here too. This isn't going to replace any of the tools I'm already using, but if you aren't tied to a particular app and have a number of Apple devices, this simple tool might just be robust enough for your needs.

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It won't replace Adobe Lightroom, but Photos can help spruce up your pictures. Nate Ralph/CNET

Photo wrangling with Photos

I'm a dedicated Lightroom user, so I'll admit I'm not exactly an authority on Apple's Photos app. But I've ducked my head in every now and then since the demise of iPhoto, and with El Capitan, this app is slowly blossoming into a lightweight photo organizing tool of merit.

If you're shooting with an iPhone and have enabled the iCloud Photo library, or sync your photos to your Mac, you've likely got a sizeable library on your hands. With El Capitan, you'll get new tools that will let you sort your albums, or select groups of images and add where they were taken with a click. Well, new to Photos at least -- iPhoto fans will remember such basic functionality being available back before the switch to Photos, but a return to form is much appreciated. If you're shooting with an iPhone 6S or an iPhone 6S Plus , the Live Photos you take will also show up in Photos -- hover over the "Live" badge on the images as you're previewing them, and they'll spring to life.

Here's something that's actually new: extensions, to enhance the editing process. Extensions work as a sort of downloadable add-on for the Photos app. An app's developer can offer specific tools and features from their app, for use directly in Photos. That means getting the features you want from an external app, without ever having to leave Photos.

I use Pixelmator on my MacBook Air, as Photoshop and Lightroom CC tend to slow to a crawl there. With El Capitan, while I make cursory edits in the Photos app I'll eventually be able to load up extensions from apps like Pixelmator, using select effects to spruce up or alter my shots -- we'll have to wait for app updates to roll out before extensions will be available.

App developers can also offer individual extensions if they'd rather not bundle an entire app. This could be a neat avenue for developers to get their wares noticed (and purchased), and will prove useful when it comes time to make really quick edits without firing up a whole bunch of apps. I haven't had a chance to test this directly, but I did see it in action, and it feels like a really simple, effective solution.

Other odds and ends

There's plenty more besides. These rest of these updates aren't quite as notable, but they're worth a mention.

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Pinned tabs stick around, even when you close your browser window. Nate Ralph/CNET

Safari gets refreshed

Apple's Safari browser hasn't gotten much in the way of a makeover, but it has been updated to keep it in line with modern browsers. Grab a tab and drag it to the left, or right click it and select the menu option, and the tab will be pinned into the corner. Pinned tabs behave as expected, and they'll persist across windows.

If you've got an Apple TV, you can play videos from a Web page on your TV -- much like Google's Chromecast. And, most importantly, if audio is playing in a tab, you'll see a small icon right in Safari's smart search field, up at the top of the browser. Click that icon to find the culprit, or mute the audio from wherever you are -- that feature alone could be worth switching browsers. If you're more of a social butterfly, you'll appreciate the deep Twitter integration in Safari: start typing a celebrity's Twitter handle, for example, and you'll get a brief info snippet, and a little icon to let you know they're verified.

Fresh Mail

The Mail app isn't usually my first pick when it comes to managing my inbox, as so much of my digital life is wrapped up in Google's digital embrace. But Apple's built-in Mail client has nevertheless received a facelift.

It's decidedly easier to multitask now. When you start a message, you can simply minimize it, or work on multiple emails in separate tabs. You'll also find notifications sitting above your messages, prompting you to turn suggestions in emails -- "Let's meet at 5 p.m." -- into events on your calendar, as well as adding new contacts into your address book. An Apple representative was careful to confirm me that this sort of intelligent language parsing is happening entirely in the Mail client, on your PC. Nothing gets sent to Apple's servers.

There's support for gestures too: swipe right to mark and email as read or unread, and swipe left on a message to delete it. If you're a Gmail user you can set that delete function to archive, but it'll still read "Trash" on the mail client, which nevertheless remains disconcerting to me.

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Maps won't replace Google's wares, but you can punt your plans to your iPhone. Nate Ralph/CNET

Get where you're going with Maps

Apple's Maps app has come a long way since its inception, but I still find myself turning to Google Maps when I need to go places. But maybe you won't have to: Maps now offers support for public transit, getting you where you need to go with beautiful, well labeled guides. If you own an iPhone, you can also easily send directions to it, allowing you to plan a trip on your Mac, and then have all of that info ready for you when you're on the road. That sort of interplay is a really compelling argument for wrapping yourself up entirely in Apple's ecosystem.

Getting down to the Metal

The final piece of the El Capitan puzzle is the hardest to quantify: performance. Apple cites under the hood improvements that makes everything feel a bit zippier. And if you can get two identical machines side by side, one running Yosemite, the other El Capitan, you'll see it. Switching between one app or another feels a smidgen smoother. Messages in the Mail client load up a tad faster. Things that already felt fast and fluid feel ever so smoother -- it's no sea change, but the slivers of time saved by these little improvements will add up eventually.

Like iOS 9, the latest version of OS X is pushing Apple's Metal application programming interface (API), which offers developers "free" improvements to speed and performance, provided they've developed their apps with the Metal API's key frameworks in mind. Apps will feel smoother, games will be faster: Apple has proclaimed lofty numbers, like 50 percent faster graphics rendering and 40 percent efficiency improvements.

For many developers, that's going to mean leaving OpenGL, the industry-standard, multi-platform graphics API, behind. An API is a software tool that essentially allows different programs to talk to and work with one another. I'm no developer, but in layman's terms, that means many of the apps we use everyday -- in my case, that specifically means Adobe's Lightroom -- will need to be updated to support Apple's Metal before we'll actually see significant performance gains.

As someone who likes to remain platform agnostic and does most of my photo-editing on a Windows PC, this gives me pause: What does optimizing for Apple's own API mean for compatibility across ecosystems? Will the Windows versions of my favorite apps lag behind their Apple incarnations? We'll just need to wait and see.

Life with Apple

El Capitan is a faster, tidier version of OS X, taking the lessons Apple has learned from mobile devices and baking them into traditional PC form factors. The end result is a new OS X that doesn't stray too far from its predecessor Yosemite, but instead builds upon that foundation to serve as a pillar in its own right. And then there's the matter of the OS X and iOS divide, which El Capitan comes closer still to bridging.

Microsoft dragged us kicking and screaming into a vision of a modern, unified OS with Windows 8, and then steered us onto a decidedly more sensible path with Windows 10. But the general premise remains the same: one operating system in charge of all our devices, offering a singular experience no matter which one we're using.

Apple is on the same track. But the "one size fits all" approach that Microsoft champions has been eschewed in favor of letting you choose the right tool for the job. iOS and OS X are distinct platforms, and never the twain shall meet -- but that doesn't mean your tools should be completely distinct.

OS X El Capitan, like its predecessor, is a free upgrade. If your Mac can run Yosemite, or Mavericks, you'll be ready for El Capitan. And you'll be glad you made the jump: the tools you know, and perhaps even love, remain intact, but the bevy of improvements you'll find here will make work and play better still.

Ready to get started? If you have more questions, head over to our guides on everything you need to know about OS X El Capitan.