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OS X El Capitan review: An unspectacular but worthwhile upgrade

OS X El Capitan review: An uns...
El Capitan is out and available to all: but is it worth the upgrade?
El Capitan is out and available to all: but is it worth the upgrade?
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El Capitan is out and available to all: but is it worth the upgrade?
1/7
El Capitan is out and available to all: but is it worth the upgrade?
Mission Control gets a cleaner, more intuitive layout
2/7
Mission Control gets a cleaner, more intuitive layout
Notes gets support for checklists, maps and pictures, as in iOS 9
3/7
Notes gets support for checklists, maps and pictures, as in iOS 9
Tabs can be pinned and muted in Safari for the first time
4/7
Tabs can be pinned and muted in Safari for the first time
Public transit directions are supported in Maps, though the coverage is disappointing
5/7
Public transit directions are supported in Maps, though the coverage is disappointing
Split View lets you arrange windows more easily, copying both Microsoft's OS and iOS 9
6/7
Split View lets you arrange windows more easily, copying both Microsoft's OS and iOS 9
Spotlight has more sources to work with and now accepts natural language searches
7/7
Spotlight has more sources to work with and now accepts natural language searches

Announced in June, Mac OS X 10.11 El Capitan is now available to download for free for OS X users. After spending several months with the early betas and now the final version of Apple's latest and greatest operating system, here are our thoughts on the new release.

As you'll know if you were paying attention during Apple's WWDC event, this is far from a seismic shift for Apple's desktop software. The changes are mostly subtle and low-level: while there's a lack of grand new features, your laptop or desktop should run smoother for longer. Granular improvements like these don't really get the pulses racing but you come to appreciate them for your day-to-day computing (not that Yosemite was much of a bug-fest).

Split View lets you arrange windows more easily, copying both Microsoft's OS and iOS 9
Split View lets you arrange windows more easily, copying both Microsoft's OS and iOS 9

One new feature apes the window-snapping feature found in recent versions of Windows: you can now snap open apps to one side of the display or the other. It's going to please users who want as much precision as possible in their screen layouts, and it's reminiscent of iOS 9's Split View capabilities (and indeed Apple is calling it Split View in El Capitan too).

Improvements to the built-in apps are mostly minimal – a gesture here, a customization option there – and we're betting that most users won't notice a whole lot of difference after the upgrade has finished. One very welcome improvement in Safari is the ability to pin open tabs and to mute them with a click to silence content that starts playing automatically in the background (in our experience, it saves a lot of hunting through tabs).

Tabs can be pinned and muted in Safari for the first time
Tabs can be pinned and muted in Safari for the first time

Spotlight now accepts more natural language for its searches (e.g. "documents I worked on last June") which adds to the friendliness of OS X, and the Spotlight window can now be moved around (epitomizing the small-but-useful changes that make up most of the El Capitan upgrade). We do like the new option for locating your cursor on screen: wiggle the mouse or quickly doodle on the trackpad to make it grow in size

Notes gets a revamp to bring it in line with iOS 9, but that's not an app we often touch, and as you might have heard Maps now supports public transit directions (in a handful of cities at least). Mission Control gets a cleaner, neater look, which we like – it's also a useful way of launching the Split View mode for supported apps.

OS X users that use multiple desktops, though, will now need to move the cursor to the top of the screen in the Mission Control view before previewing a different space or desktop (the default view is now focused on open windows in the current desktop):

Mission Control gets a cleaner, more intuitive layout
Mission Control gets a cleaner, more intuitive layout

No great innovations then, but at this stage in the desktop OS game it's debatable whether OS X really needs them. Surely Siri must make the leap at some stage – remember Cortana is now part of Windows 10 – but overall El Capitan another solid release from Apple and you'd be hard-pressed to find a reason not to upgrade from Yosemite at the earliest opportunity.

Apple says apps launch up to 1.4x times faster in El Capitan, while graphics get a boost with the introduction of the same low-level Metal rendering engine that's in iOS. We can only speak for our test systems, but it may be that the speed benefits are tied to having a Mac that's already fast to begin with.

On a 2013 MacBook Pro with Retina Display, we haven't seen a noticeable improvement in speed or stability – though performance hasn't gotten any worse either. But on a 2015 model of the same machine, we noticed more zip right out of the gate. Multitasking is quicker and apps seem to launch quicker too.

Even from the earliest betas the software never had any problems working with installed apps, peripherals or websites. Software compatibility shouldn't be a reason to hold back.

Spotlight has more sources to work with and now accepts natural language searches
Spotlight has more sources to work with and now accepts natural language searches

El Capitan takes what was already an excellent operating system in Yosemite and builds upon it, adding a few welcome tweaks (Split View, pinned tabs in Safari) without touching what made its predecessor so appealing. It gets out of the way and lets you get on with whatever you use your Mac for, and that's always been the central tenet underpinning Apple's operating system – it might be time to bring back the "it just works" phrase.

Aside from the new font (San Francisco, to match the Apple Watch and iOS 9) you're not likely to notice much of a change once you take the plunge with El Capitan. But what improvements it does offer are genuinely useful and progressive ones, and with the security and stability upgrades going on behind-the-scenes, it sets the stage nicely for a more substantial OS X update next year.

4 comments
DennisGelinas
I am still having very annoying issues with my 5th Mac, a Mcbook Pro. As time goes on they have become less reliable. Nice enough product, but newer units are all defect-prone. I would gladly pay more for an American manufactured unit, keep the jobs at home and the quality there. After 10 years of glitches and OSX updates that cause more problems than they solve I never, ever update. Mac is perpetuating tech dinosaurs with this faulty business plan.
featherstone
Couldn't agree more. Apple as the lessor evil. How could it come to this? : (
RogerHawcroft
I've been using Apple products since the Apple II+ and never ever had a problem with software or hardware. I've used DOS & Windows machines,too during that time and been constantly plagued with a whole variety of issues. My current regular machine is a Macbook Pro 17" Early 2011 model that I've had for around 2 years. Apart from a need to contact Apple to transfer warranty and app ownership when first I bought it, this machine has been great. Yosemite has been all it promised and is much more intuitve and aesthetically pleasing than anything else on the domestic computer market. If the new upgrade operates as well and doesn't require lots of application upgrades, then I have every confidence that it will be a good one. I'm not for a moment suggesting it isn't true but I honestly can't understand how anyone could have "10 years of glitches with OSX updates that cause more problems than they solve." I do, also, wonder how one would know that if one never updates? I disagree completely that Apple is "perpetuating tech dinosaurs with this faulty business plan" - What faulty business plan is this? Which models or software is considered to be "tech dinosaurs"? After having worked with all mainstream OS versions from Microsoft, Amstrad, Apple and Linux, since taking up computing back in 1977, I can honestly say that I have never found a domestic system OS or hardware that has come close to anything produced by Apple. The only poor period, in my view, was when Apple licensed the OS to clone manufacturers - a terrible move that, gladly, they rescinded relatively quickly. I still have a Mac SE and various iMac models in running order and well capable of productive work. I also have several laptops from an early iBook to my current Macbook Pro. None of them have ever given any trouble whatsoever, even when running Windows on them, with 3rd party software. I can only assume that DennisGelinas has suffered ownership of a proverbial "lemon", which no manufacturer can ever fully protect against.
Camerdep
All Apple product's are manufactured in China. That's a lot jobs not staying in America Dennis. You can bet everything that get's manufactured from an American company will be manufactured in another country. Do your research.