Review: Apple’s El Capitan released — worth the update?

1 Oct 2015

Last night, Apple’s latest iteration of OS X, El Capitan, launched globally as a free download. But is it worth the update? We think so.

El Capitan (OS X Version 10.11) downloaded in four hours, though that was immediately after it became available. I imagine the time would be significantly less when some of the hype has passed.

The update itself took a relatively brisk 30 minutes, and completed without hitches or issues of any kind. So far, it seems to be free of many of the glitchy effects that came in the aftermath of the original Yosemite update in 2014.

I hope I didn’t just jinx it.

El Capitan looks and feels more or less the same as Yosemite. The only immediately apparent cosmetic changes are a slightly flatter Mission Control and one that brings it in line with iOS 9 – the use of Apple’s own San Francisco font.

El Capitan Mission Control

El Capitan’s newer, flatter Mission Control

Apple’s preview material talked about the transition to the Metal graphics API, which is intended to improve “graphical experience”. I was testing El Capitan on a 15-inch Macbook Pro Retina and, so far, the difference has been negligible. Perhaps on a gaming platform, however, it would shine.

Subtle changes to performance in other areas are an improvement, with my Mac feeling a little more fluid and zippy this morning, though you really have to want it to notice the difference.

Other changes are far more noticeable

The big addition to Apple’s desktop software is the newly available split screen, already trotted out on iPad with the 16 September launch of iOS 9.

It’s a beautiful feature on the larger screen and one a lot of Apple devotees, including myself, have been desiring for years.

El Capitan Split Screen

El Capitan’s Split Screen feature, showing new Notes app and Safari, side by side

It wasn’t clear in the lead up to yesterday’s release whether non-native apps would be eligible for the split-screen treatment, but I tried it with a host of apps, from Apple’s own apps to third-party ones like Slack and Google Chrome, and it worked seamlessly.

The feature, unfortunately, does not extend to Microsoft’s Office suite – or not Office 2011, at least – which is a bit of a disappointment. That’s the program with which I would have most call to use the feature.

Updates to Maps were also rolled out, introducing transit routes and – more importantly – transit directions.

As with much of Apple’s software, however, this isn’t a full rollout across the board. Like the early days on Google Maps, transit is not available for all cities or countries and, of course, isn’t available in Ireland just yet.

It’s also not a flawless system. A quick test to see how well it would do getting me from Edinburgh to London seems to only include buses, despite the fact that there’s a (much quicker) train route between the two cities.

El Capitan transit in Maps

El Capitan’s transit feature in Maps – for buses only?

No doubt Apple is still tinkering with this, though, and I’m inclined to be patient – but perhaps that’s just because I don’t see myself switching from Google Maps anytime soon.

Safari has two notable new features, both of which I’m sure will prove useful.

The more welcome of these allows users to silence those annoying autoplays on web pages without having to find the tab the sound is coming from.

The new feature gives you the option of muting all tabs or just specific ones, meaning you can keep listening to what’s playing on YouTube or Facebook without having to listen to an ad for something you don’t care about that’s playing somewhere else.

The other Safari update allows users to pin frequently-used tabs to the left of the tab bar. This is a great way to free up space and remove some of the clutter.

I, for instance, always have Gmail, Facebook and TweetDeck open at any given time. Now, I can pin them to the tab bar, making them far more compact and making the rest of my (far too many) tabs look much less cluttered.

El Capitan pinned tabs

Pinned tabs in the Safari update (circled) somewhat lessen clutter

The Photos app has received an update that should please photography enthusiasts, allowing the addition of extensions and making it possible to use other photo-editing software within the app.

Other changes to OS X echo updates in iOS

Spotlight – desktop’s voiceless Siri – is now more detailed than ever, with weather, stock info and transit routes accessible with a simple ‘Cmd-space’.

Spotlight in El Capitan

Spotlight in El Capitan now shows weather updates

Apple has been promoting the hell out of a new feature that supposedly allows Spotlight users to find what they’re looking for using natural language. Unfortunately, it’s not a perfect service.

‘Documents from last week’ works, but ‘photos from Kerry’ yields nothing, despite this reviewer having taken several (dozen) in the county just last month. With geolocation on.

The Notes app has an updated interface, similar to iOS 9’s. Users can now add links, photos and documents directly to notes, as well as creating checklists that can sync across all devices logged into your iCloud account.

Notes on El Capitan

An updated Notes app allows users to insert links, documents and photos

Mail and Messages also mimic iOS, with a new feature allowing the user to swipe right to mark a message as unread (Mail only) and swipe left to delete.

Has Apple done enough?

So, has Apple done enough to make El Capitan worth the download time?

I think so. The increased performance would, by itself, have been enough to sway me, but the small additions that make it easier to streamline your life – Notes updates, pinned tabs, etc – as well as the split-screen pushed it over the edge for me.

Not quite 10/10, given some of the US-centric issues, but pretty darn close.

And it should be said, aside from all of these shiny new features, it’s always worth downloading OS updates.

The security updates and patches that combat vulnerabilities – like a recent backdoor in Apple’s vaunted Gatekeeper system that allowed hackers to swap out trusted apps with malware – tend to be delivered in updates to the operating system.

So for all those reasons, downloading El Capitan is basically a no-brainer.

Main image via Shutterstock

Kirsty Tobin was careers editor at Silicon Republic