Review: Apple shines up OS X with 'El Capitan'

In Mac OS X 10.11, most of the improvements are under the hood

There is one minor caveat: When you type a Spotlight search query, you can't press Enter; you have to wait for the results to display after you finish typing them in, even if that takes a while. While this is taking place, there's no obvious indicator that a search is in progress. It's a little annoying, because many users will be inclined to press the Enter key to make sure a search is in progress. That effectively selects the first result and closes the Spotlight search window. That could result in, say, an app launch you didn't intend. Big deal? No. Annoying? Usually.

For developers, Apple has designed a new API that can display search results of in-app content, which means better search results when developers incorporate this feature in their apps.

Apple app changes

Safari gets a number of useful additions this year, but they're mostly tweaks, such as pinned sites, audio muting and -- Apple TV users will welcome this -- built-in AirPlay support for videos.

About that last feature: Videos will now get an additional control icon; tapping the AirPlay icon lets you choose any Apple TV in range so that the video plays through it instead of in the browser window. Previously, this was only possible via third-party plugins, such as ClickToFlash.

While the built-in functionality lacks advanced features found in third-party plugins (ClickToFlash lets you download content instead of simply playing it, for instance), Apple's addition to Safari is stable and works well enough for most people who just want a no-fuss way to stream content to Apple TV. Safari also supports HTML 5 picture-in-picture to enable custom controls for HTML 5 videos and streaming of FairPlay content.

Pinned sites close up Michael deAgonia

Safari now allows you to pin frequently accessed sites to the menubar (left).

Other Safari changes include:

  • Pinned Sites, which keeps a small, active tab of any website you wish to keep in the Tab section of the app, just to the left; these tabs stay open, yet out of the way, for quick access to frequently visited sites.
  • A load-blocking API for extensions, which lets Web developers block content from loading from a large collection of sources, using minimal resources without hindering Safari performance -- and perhaps actually improving it.
  • Force Touch mouse events support, which will enable developers to add interactivity based on the amount of pressure exerted in a tap on supported laptops, as well as haptic feedback.
  • And better audio/video content control: You can now easily silence sudden audio/video from a background or foreground tab, such as when a video or ad loads that you didn't really want to play/hear. From within the Web address bar, clicking on the speaker icon will instantly mute all Safari content. Then Safari will show you which tab has the offending content when you click and hold on that speaker icon. Super simple and super useful.
Mute feature in safari close up Michael deAgonia

One of the best new Safari features allows you to quickly locate (and mute) unwanted audio or video autoplays.

Mail

Mail snags a feature from iOS by gaining more gesture support in the Mail list; the gestures perform different behaviors, depending on whether you swipe left or right with two fingers. These gestures can trigger events like deleting, flagging or marking mail as read (without actually opening the message).

Mail also fixes a problem inherent to full-screen apps that require multiple windows. In Yosemite, when a new message was created while Mail was running in full-screen mode, it wasn't possible to view other messages; they resided in the main window behind the message being composed. In El Capitan, it's now possible to minimize the message window and access other emails and mailboxes; and if you're writing more than one email, they show up in tabs, similar to tabs in the Safari browser.

swipe support in Mail Michael deAgonia

Mail picks up an iOS feature that makes it easier to go through emails with a swipe.

While iOS 9 offers improvements aimed at predicting what a user will do or what information will be needed, there are now aspects of Mail in El Capitan that offer this, too. For instance, data detectors have been improved, offering suggestions at the top of an email body when they detect phrases in a message that could yield calendar entries, like "Let's go out for dinner at five." This is called suggested events; the same proactive behavior also accounts for potential contacts.

Notes

Notes has been updated to bring feature parity with its iOS 9 counterpart, including instant checklist creation, support for inline video and images, and URL snippets with preview. There's a new button that triggers an Attachments view, which organizes attachments from across all of your notes into one area, split into categories like Photos & Video, Sketches, Map Locations, Websites, Audio and Documents.

All of the new Notes features are accessible via the app's toolbar. And beyond the Notes app itself, there is now an extension in the Share button of supported apps that lets you add content from within that app to a new or existing note. Of course, any addition, subtraction or modification to your notes is synced across every device signed in with that Apple ID.

Maps

Like Notes, Maps has been improved in El Capitan to create functional parity with iOS 9. Specifically, you can plan routes using public transportation with Transit view, which supports walking directions as well as subway, train, ferry and bus information. Like iOS 9's Maps, Transit data has been surveyed so that Maps shows you the most efficient routes, exits and drop off stops to get to where you're going. As before, you can send those directions to the iPhone from your Mac.

Security

Behind the scenes improvements include security additions, with the most important one in El Capitan called System Integrity Protection (SIP). At its core, System Integrity Protection is a security policy that is applied to every running process. This process protects system files and only allows modifications from the system's installer app and software updates. Code injection and runtime attachments to system binaries are no longer permitted.

What this basically means is that SIP does not allow unauthorized manipulation of important system files, which should help prevent security breaches.

Bottom line

There's a wealth of new features in El Capitan that seem minor -- until you need them. (You can, for instance, find a lost cursor on the screen by shaking your mouse back and forth rapidly, and you'll be able to eventually download extensions to the Photos app for manipulating your images.)

These may not be ground-breaking changes to apps and the operating system, but this collection of small additions makes using El Capitan a little faster, smoother, easier and better. And the under-the-hood technologies lay the groundwork for richer apps down the road. It's these usability iterations found throughout El Capitan that make the biggest difference.

As with any major software upgrade, make sure your apps are supported before moving to El Capitan. If you're hesitant about upgrading, it isn't a bad idea to hold off a while and see if any major bugs are discovered. But because this version was vetted throughout the summer with a public beta program, I'm not expecting any showstoppers now that the final version has arrived.

In a nutshell: El Capitan does what it is designed to -- streamline OS X across the board, making it more efficient to run and flat-out easier to use. It's free, it runs well and I recommend it.

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