OS X El Capitan review: Mac upgrade that's as solid as a rock

Lots of new features in Apple's latest version of OS X. Upgrade and get an improved Mac. It’s really that simple.

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Nobody likes blaring audio from pages that automatically play videos when the page loads, and if you’re someone who likes to open articles in multiple tabs, you can very quickly have several different videos playing in different tabs. In Safari 9, you have much more control over where audio plays in your browser. With one click on the speaker icon in Safari’s Smart Search bar, you can mute the audio in the current tab. Or click and hold on that icon, and you’ll see a list of all tabs that are playing audio—with the option to mute the sound from the currently open tab or from all the non-visible tabs. You’ll also see a list of all tabs that are playing audio in that list. Tabs playing audio are also indicated by a speaker icon in the tab itself. This is a really great feature that I look forward to using when I’m browsing ESPN, Macworld, and many other of my favorite sites, which I generally visit only to read the articles.

safari muting

Safari 9 uses a speaker icon to tell the user that audio is coming from a webpage.

Safari Reader, which gives you a simplified view of a complicated page layout, has added more display preferences. In the Yosemite version of Safari, you can make the text larger or smaller, but that’s about it. In Safari 9, you can not only adjust text size, but also choose from four color themes and eight typefaces. It’s a good look, especially when I’m reading at night and prefer a light-on-dark theme.

Finally, anyone who has been frustrated that they can’t easily send a video they’re watching in Safari and play it on their TV—something that’s easily done on an iOS device—will be happy to know that Safari now supports AirPlay video. If you’re playing a video that’s compatible with AirPlay, you’ll be able to see an AirPlay icon right on the video within Safari, and can select it in order to send that video to an AppleTV via AirPlay. Whew!

safari airplay

Safari 9 now supports AirPlay video.

Admit you use Notes

To paraphrase the late, great Yogi Berra, nobody likes the Notes app–it’s too popular. The App Store is full of apps—iOS and Mac alike—that outdo Notes at the job of taking notes, creating shopping lists, you name it. But Notes has one major thing going for it, namely that it’s on every Mac and iOS device in existence. I admit it: I use Notes for all sorts of things.

Like taking selfies (or using the iPad as a camera), Notes is something people use, so Apple might as well put some effort into making the experience better! And so with iOS 9 and El Capitan, Notes has received a major upgrade. Now you can stick a whole bunch of different files–PDFs, images, even videos–into a note. You can sketch notes on iOS and view them on the Mac—but not create them yourself. Notes is also now an option in the Share button, so you can send data to Notes from any app that displays a share sheet.

To create a checklist in Notes, you just select some text and click the Checklist button in the toolbar. That’s it–every line gets a little check box in front of it, and you can check them on and off at will. The checkboxes aren’t connected to anything, and clicking them doesn’t do anything except check and uncheck them. But if you’re making a quick to-do list, maybe that’s all they need to do.

Up to now, Notes was one of the rare Apple cloud-connected apps on OS X that didn’t actually use the iCloud infrastructure. Instead, it connected to a special IMAP mailbox in one of your connected email accounts. (If you’ve ever searched your Gmail and seen a dozen different notes files in your results, this is why.) But starting with El Capitan, Notes can also use iCloud proper. In fact, for most of the more advanced features–including checklists, fancy links, and access to the type style menu–you’ll need to use iCloud. Fortunately, you can easily drag all your old notes from your email account right into iCloud, and they’ll transfer over.

Photos gets extended

The first version of Photos for Mac was not without its power features, but while I was working on my book about Photos, I heard from a whole lot of people who had opinions about the most important features it omitted. Fortunately, some of the most common complaints I heard have been addressed with the new version of Photos that ships with El Capitan.

The biggest addition is editing of image data, individually and in batches. In Photos version 1.1, you can add location information to either a single photo or an entire batch, and batch-change titles and other information.

To do this, you open the Inspector window. A not-yet-geotagged image will offer a section of the window labeled Assign a Location. Clicking in this area will let you enter a street address or a name of a point of interest, and Photos will search Apple’s Maps database. You can also just click on the pin and drag it around the map, placing it wherever you like. To batch-change titles, descriptions, or keywords, just select a bunch of images and input the new information into the Inspector window.

photos geotag batch

Photos 1.1 now has batch support for changing titles and adding location information,

Another huge user complaint was about a lack of flexibility in sorting albums. (The first version of Photos let you sort them any way you want, as long as it was by date.) The new version of Photos will let you sort them by date and title, as well as keep them in a custom order that you determine by dragging images around.

Photos on El Capitan also supports image-editing extensions written by third-party developers. If there’s a particular editing effect or tool that isn’t available in Photos, a developer can write an extension that provides that feature, and it can be accessed from within Photos. A bunch of different Extensions are on the way—I tested a couple of them, and many will be released alongside El Capitan.

While you can edit photos using Extensions right within Photos, they aren’t quite as integrated into the app as the built-in tools. Basically, the edits that you make in an Extension are done on top of a version of your photo. If you’ve applied other effects, those effects are “burned in”—you can’t apply a black-and-white effect, then add some distortion effects with an extension, and then remove the black-and-white effect. Fortunately, Photos always lets you revert to the original version of the photo if you need to start again.

Adding Extension support to Photos opens up a whole new set of capabilities, from the serious to the silly, all without ever needing to leave Apple’s next-generation photo editor. It’s a good thing.

Other bundled apps

Of course, every OS X update brings upgrades to many other Apple-built apps. Mail and Maps both received nice updates this time around.

Taking a cue from iOS and from some third-party competitors, Mail now allows you to use the trackpad to swipe messages into the trash or to mark them as unread. Trackpad-oriented users will appreciate the shortcut, and there’s a preference to let you choose whether a swipe deletes a message or archives it.

For quite some time now, OS X has had the ability to detect certain kinds of content in your email messages–names of contacts, events, dates and times. In El Capitan, Mail does a much better job of putting that information in context. If a potential event is mentioned in the text of an email message–“let’s have lunch on Thursday”–Mail will add a banner above the top of the message body that displays the event and provides an “add event” link to quickly add it to your calendar. Likewise, if the person mailing you doesn’t appear in your Contacts list, Mail will display a banner indicating that it’s detected a possible new contact with a quick “add contact” link.

But perhaps the best feature in Mail is one that lives under the hood and addresses a longstanding problem with the app. Perhaps because it was developed at Apple’s campus, replete with high-speed Internet connections, Mail has had a major blind spot: poor performance on slow connections. Have you tried using Mail on a slow, high-latency Internet connection on, say, an airplane? All you want to do is check your Inbox, and Mail’s trying to sync all your IMAP mailboxes rather than getting to the good stuff.

In El Capitan, Mail prioritizes showing you new mail in your Inbox and prioritizes the downloading of the messages or mailboxes that you’re currently viewing. It’s an improvement that’s been a long time coming—thanks, slow Virgin America in-flight Wi-Fi!—but it’s finally here.

maps transit

Maps in El Capitan now offers transit maps in a few select regions, with more to come.

The banner feature in Maps is transit maps, which are available in eight North American cities, two European cities, and over 300 cities in China. I was able to try this using Bay Area data, which is a bit of a mess because we’ve got a whole bunch of different, unaffiliated transit agencies. I was able to plot a trip from my local bus stop to downtown Berkeley, complete with a transfer from the bus to BART in San Francisco, and know exactly when I’d need to leave my house in order to arrive at the proper time. It’s pretty cool. Now Apple needs to get to work on bringing it to many more regions!

maps send to phone

Routes you create in El Capitan Maps can be sent to Maps on your iOS device.

When I’m plotting a journey, I usually first explore the trip on my Mac, but of course when I’m making the actual journey I’m using my iPhone. In El Capitan, I can directly share my route with any other iOS device connected to my Apple ID, so I can send my trip directly to my iPhone (and Apple Watch) with a couple of clicks.

Improving performance

Under the hood in El Capitan, Apple’s made a bunch of changes that you might not notice—but that might bring you a big benefit. Apple’s brought Metal, its graphics technology, over from iOS, and has dropped it in as a replacement for the old OpenGL technology. Many of OS X’s key graphics frameworks, including Core Animation and Core Graphics, now use Metal rather than OpenGL. The end result should be that all sorts of parts of the Mac interface should feel snappier.

Apple says that apps launch faster in El Capitan, that switching between apps is faster, and that opening and moving around in PDFs in Preview is faster. I booted back and forth between Yosemite and El Capitan partitions on my 5K iMac and couldn’t really notice the difference, but perhaps it’s more noticeable on slower systems.

Games, in particular, should benefit from the switch to Metal—assuming games are built to take advantage of it. Sharing a graphics technology with iOS should help a whole lot, since once developers do the work to use Metal on iOS, they can apply that work to the Mac as well. Adobe, too, has committed to using Metal in a future update to its Creative Suite, which should likewise improve performance on existing Mac hardware.

Bottom line

It’s not the most exciting word, but I keep coming back to routine as a way of describing the upgrade to El Capitan. These days, OS X updates are free, are compatible with pretty much every Mac that could run the previous version, bring with them all the most important security and stability fixes, and on top of all that, there are a bunch of new features and updates to apps that you use every day.

There was a time, only a few years ago, when OS X updates were fraught with should-I-or-shouldn’t-I peril, along with a real price tag. Those days are long gone. Should you update to El Capitan? Unreservedly yes—I’ve found it to be stable, it’s free, it’ll download and install itself on your Mac with nearly no intervention, and it’ll bring with it improved security, speed, and functionality.

The days of dramatic operating-system updates are over. El Capitan is as solid as the giant granite monolith that towers over Yosemite Valley. Upgrade, and get an improved Mac. It’s really that simple.

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At a Glance
  • El Capitan is as solid as the giant granite monolith that towers over Yosemite Valley. Upgrade, and get an improved Mac. It’s really that simple.


    • Enhancements make Mission Control more useful
    • Split View cleverly implemented
    • Expanded Spotlight functionality
    • Safari 9 pinned sites and tab muting
    • Mail opitmizations


    • Maps transit information limited to a few regions
    • Waiting for apps enhanced for Metal
    • Spotlight data sources need to be tightened up
    • Quirks when using Split View
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