It's much better to think of El Capitan as an OS X update that adds some spit and polish to its predecessor, OS X 10.10 Yosemite, while also providing some convenient tweaks and features. And despite some minor pain points, Apple has succeeded in that respect.
If you're wondering whether you should make the leap from Yosemite to OS X 10.11 El Capitan, the answer is ostensibly yes. That being said, let's take a deeper look at Apple's latest, including its highs and lows, to see why you should consider the upgrade.
With OS X 10.11.6 purportedly the last update for El Capitan, you may have expected macOS Sierra to have left it in the dust when it arrived on September 20, and you'd be right if Apple has anything to say about it.
In early October, the company started seeding macOS Sierra as an automatic download, though you can go into your settings and hang onto OS X El Capitan – if you so prefer. Among the benefits of upgrading is the Photos app, overhauled to keep your memories better organized, while Siri has been added to challenge Microsoft's own virtual assistant.
Unfortunately, Mac sales are down along with the overwhelming majority of the PC market. This is due in part to a lack of refreshed hardware including the MacBook Air 2016 and MacBook Pro 2016 models expected to be announced later this month in line with macOS Sierra’s 10.12.1 update.
Upon first booting your Mac back up after installing OS X El Capitan, you're not going to notice many visually apparent changes. El Capitan largely carries over the same flat, iOS 7-inspired design cues that arrived with Yosemite, and, frankly, that's a good thing.
You are likely to see to changes if you're astute and do a little poking around. The first, and most aesthetically pleasing change is the adoption of a new system font. Yes, after initially switching to Helvetica Neue in Yosemite, Apple has once again switched things up with its own, specially designed font called San Francisco that also appears in iOS 9 and on the Apple Watch. Overall, this is a welcome change that only further unifies the Apple ecosystem.
The second main interface element change you're likely to notice also happens to be one of convenience. Now, if you're struggling to find your mouse cursor, simply wiggling the mouse back and forth will cause the cursor to temporarily inflate in size. It's an extremely minor detail, but it's a nice change that keeps with Apple's focus on the little things in El Capitan.
Split View and Mission Control
General interface sameness notwithstanding, Apple has managed to bring some pretty major changes to multitasking in El Capitan. On the minor side of things, the new Mission Control features few tweaks that clean things up a bit.
Now, when you swipe up with three fingers on your trackpad, you'll notice that Mission Control's overall view of your open windows is more spread out. The multitasking feature no longer overlaps windows, which could make it a bit easier to spot the window you want at a glance.
Meanwhile, the Space Bar at the top of Mission Control now features labels, rather than thumbnails by default. Thumbnails aren't totally gone, however, as hovering over the labels will give you a peek at the thumbnails. And as an added bonus, you can now drag windows up to the Space Bar to create new desktops.
None of the Mission Control changes are what I'd consider essential, but they aren't off-putting either. Where multitasking has really taken off, however, is with the new Split View.
Anyone who has used a Windows PC in the last half-decade will be familiar with Split View. The feature essentially lets you more easily manage side-by-side windows on your desktop with a couple of clicks, rather than going through the cumbersome process of manually resizing each window.
There are a couple of different methods for accessing Split View. The first involves clicking and holding on the green full-screen icon in the upper-left corner of a window. One side of your screen will then turn blue and you can then drop the windows on that side. After that's done, OS X will show you other open Split View-compatible apps that you can then drop on the other half of the screen.
The second method involves the Space Bar in Mission Control. If you have an app already expanded to full screen, you can swipe with three fingers to open Mission Control. From there, you can drag a compatible app up to that desktop in Space Bar to add it in Split View.
Overall, Split View is a fantastic step forward for multitasking on OS X. However, already being familiar with Microsoft's implementation of Snap in Windows, I do have one misgiving about Apple's methods. Just getting apps into Split View feels like it takes too many clicks, and I would have liked to see Apple move more towards a "drag-and-snap" method. That being said, it's still a great feeling to know I don't have to manually fiddle with a window's size and position to work on two things at once.
Another area receiving some big love in El Capitan is the improved Spotlight Search. We saw Spotlight get a touch-up in Yosemite, but El Capitan works to bring it in-line with its counterpart on iOS.
Spotlight in El Capitan can now pull from more sources for data, bringing you weather, stock, and sports information directly to the Spotlight Search box with a click on the menu bar.
Perhaps the largest change to Spotlight, however, is the addition of natural language recognition. Essentially, this means you can ping Spotlight with complex queries like "emails from Bill in June" or "documents I edited last week." This also extends to Spotlight's new web sources, allowing you to enter phrases like "what's the weather in Cupertino."
There's no doubt that the Spotlight Search's new smarts are a vast improvement over its previous iterations, but I found the natural language input to be a bit finicky with how I worded things at times. Additionally, while Apple has brought Spotlight a little bit closer to its iOS counterpart in El Capitan, I can't help but feel it's high time to go all-in and bring Siri to the desktop. After all, what's more natural than simply asking a question with your voice?
The diminutive Notes app has perhaps seen some of the biggest changes of any stock app in El Capitan. Whereas Notes was previously a pretty barebones affair, it is now expanded with the ability to add new types of content, more ways to format your notes, and more.
Users now have the option to add videos, PDFs, and Maps locations to notes, making it that much easier to flesh out your ideas. In tandem, Apple has expanded Notes to be an option in the Share Sheet across many of its own apps – something developers also have access to – so pulling that content in is a smooth as a couple of clicks.
To keep track of these elements, the Notes app now includes an attachments browser, which provides a running list of media elements you've attached over time. Combine that with the ability to finally add proper checklists (as in, you can actually check items off), as well as the addition of a third "categories" pane, and it's hard to complain about this update. Some users will still flock to third-party solutions like Evernote and Wunderlist for their needs, but the stock Notes app is now much more viable.
First reviewed: September 2015
Gabe Carey has also contributed to this review