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Very much an incremental update rather than a major step forward, El Capitan's new features should be welcomed by most Mac users, while the Metal graphics technology holds great promise for creative users in the future.
• Free upgrade
• Smoother performance on existing hardware
• Improved Spotlight search tool
• New Split View mode
• Major update to Notes app
• Siri is still not available on Macs
• Metal API requires third-party app updates
Adopting the latest update to Apple's OS X operating system for the Mac is generally a fairly straightforward matter for business users. Unlike Microsoft's 'big bang' approach, which sees the company launching an entirely new version of Windows every three years or so, Apple's annual updates tend to take a more incremental approach. The operating system may gain new features and refinements, but there are rarely any drastic changes to the Mac's slick graphical interface or to the Unix-based architecture that underpins OS X. The fact that Apple now gives the operating system away for free doesn't hurt the rate of adoption either.
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However, last year's Yosemite release was a rare exception. Some initial problems with Microsoft's Exchange Server were ironed out relatively quickly, but reports of reliability issues with both wired and wireless network connections persisted for several months, and only seemed to have been settled with a patch that was released as recently as July 2015. That raises the question of whether OS X 10.11 — a.k.a. El Capitan — will present business users with similar issues.
Perhaps wary of repeating Yosemite's mistakes, Apple released a beta preview version of El Capitan at its Worldwide Developer Conference in June in order to encourage feedback from both developers and users. There have been few reports of major bugs in the preview, so hopefully El Capitan will get off to a smoother start than its predecessor. Even so, IT managers will probably want to watch the initial reaction from early adopters before downloading the free upgrade.
There are few entirely new features in this version of OS X. In fact, much of Apple's focus for this release has been on fine-tuning performance in order to provide a smoother, more responsive user experience. The basic system requirements for El Capitan are the same as those for Yosemite, but Apple claims that applications will now launch up to 40 percent faster, while switching between apps is almost twice as fast, and opening large PDF files in the Preview app is almost four times faster. It's hard to put a precise figure on these improvements, but El Capitan did feel quite snappy and responsive on our three-year-old office iMac, and business users will be happy to know that they can upgrade the operating system without incurring additional costs to upgrade their hardware as well.
More significant in the long term is the introduction of Metal, the graphics API that made its debut with iOS 8 last year. Metal promises to make better use of both the CPU and GPU in Mac systems, which should result in significant performance improvements for professional apps such as Photoshop, as well as the many animations and graphical effects that are used within the Mac's graphical interface. However, developers will need to update their apps in order to use Metal, so it may take some time before its benefits are fully appreciated.
In the Spotlight
There has been some disappointment that El Capitan didn't manage to bring the voice-activated Siri assistant across from the iPhone to the Mac for the first time — especially following the recent debut of Microsoft's rival Cortana in Windows 10. However, there are indications that Apple is laying the groundwork for Siri on the Mac in the near future. Spotlight, the Mac's built-in search tool, now allows you to use what Apple refers to as 'natural language' to search for files and information. You can type commands such as 'find the budget presentation from yesterday' to locate files, for example; Spotlight can also perform limited web searches, looking up weather forecasts, stock prices and searching video sites such as YouTube and Vimeo.
Apple also corrects one misstep from Yosemite, which placed the Spotlight window right in the centre of the screen, often causing it to obscure documents you were working on. Thankfully, you can now move the Spotlight window anywhere on the Mac desktop — including its original position in the top-right corner of the screen.
Window-management turns out to be another area of improvement in El Capitan. Windows users will scoff at the Split View, which allows you to place two apps running side-by-side on each half of the screen, as Windows has had a similar Snap option for years. Even so, it's a useful addition, and we like the ability to change the size of each app's window so that you can devote more space to whichever one needs it most.
Apple has also updated its Mission Control system, which allows you to create dedicated workspaces on the desktop that display specific apps. You can now create a new 'space' simply by dragging an app's window up to the top of the screen. This activates the Spaces Bar that displays all running apps and their respective desktop workspaces so that you can quickly switch from one workspace to another. However, Mission Control has never really been all that popular, so it remains to be seen whether this update will win many new fans. The same applies to the new 'shakey cursor' feature, which increases the size of the cursor to make it more visible whenever you shake your mouse, or shake your finger on a trackpad.
Those are the main changes in El Capitan, but this OS upgrade also brings several new features to Apple's Mail program, Safari browser and other bundled apps.
One of the main beneficiaries here is Notes. This simple app for writing text notes has been completely overhauled, and now allows you to drag and drop a variety of media and content into your notes, including audio and video files, web URLs and PDF documents. There's also an attachments browser that allows you to quickly view and locate any files that you have added to your notes. When combined with the ability to sync notes across both Macs and iOS devices, this update could lead to Notes becoming a genuinely useful tool for gathering and organizing random bits of information — rather like Microsoft's OneNote or the popular EverNote.
The Safari browser now allows you to 'pin' favourite websites to the tab bar running across the top of the browser. Unlike conventional tabs, pinned sites remain open in the background so that you can view the site immediately without having to navigate back to it and wait for it to load. And one new feature that drew immediate applause when it was first unveiled was the ability to mute audio on web pages, eliminating distractions from adverts and video clips that play automatically.
Apple's Mail app gains new 'swipe' gestures that allow you to quickly delete or mark emails, although you'll need a trackpad to use these gestures. The oft-criticised Maps app now displays information and schedules for public transport systems — although it's interesting to note that this information covers 300 Chinese cities, but currently only a handful of cities in the US and UK. Along with the improved Chinese language support in El Capitan, this suggests a potential marketing blitz for the Mac in China to capitalize on the popularity of the iPhone in that region.
Mac OS X 10.11 (El Capitan) is very much an incremental update, rather than a major step forward. However, its new features should be welcomed by most Mac users, while the Metal graphics technology holds great promise for creative users in the future. It won't have Microsoft — or Cortana — quaking in its boots, but as long as no major bugs appear in the first few weeks, El Capitan should prove a popular update for consumers and business users alike.