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

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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.

Visit for details.

Review Sections

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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