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).

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).

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):

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.

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.

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