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The Best New features in OS X 10.11 El Capitan Explored
Iain Anderson on Sat, July 18th 0 comments
With the latest version of OS X 10.11 El Capitan close(ish) to being released, Iain Anderson gets hands-on and explores both the big and small new features that'll affect us the most.
El Capitan


Earlier this year, I had the privilege to attend the Yosemite conference (organized by CocoaConf) which was indeed held in Yosemite National Park. It’s a beautiful part of the world, and Apple has decided to stay a little longer by naming OS X 10.11 “El Capitan” after a very large rock on the edge of Yosemite Valley. While it’s still in beta, I’m not (as a registered developer) allowed to write any reviews of the new OS or show any real screenshots, but I can certainly talk about the new features that Apple have shown off in public. For official information and prettier screenshots, just head to Apple’s official El Capitan preview page.

So This Is Snow Yosemite?

If you’ve been around the Mac for a little while, you may remember that Mac OS X 10.5 “Leopard” was followed up with 10.6 “Snow Leopard”. The focus of that release was on performance, on speeding up and streamlining the OS rather than introducing many new features.

So this is Snow in Yosemite—close enough?

So this is snow in Yosemite—close enough?

By staying so close to the previous name this time around, Apple seem to be hinting that this is a similar kind of release. There are indeed new features, but mostly they’re on the smaller side, and as usual, it’s going to be free. Let’s go through some specifics.

Split Screen

As an enhancement to the full screen functionality, you’ll be able to fill the screen entirely with not just one app, but two. By clicking and holding on the green “full screen” button, you can drag the window to one of the two sides of the screen, then use an Exposé view of your other windows to pop on the other side. The two side-by-side windows can be resized by dragging the separator lines between them too, and you can also drag windows above the menu bar to move them to their own desktops, even directly to full screen or a split screen.

With one app full screen on the left, and picking its partner for the right.

With one app full screen on the left, and picking its partner for the right.

While I’m a big fan of having several windows open at once, I can certainly appreciate how those who prefer a less cluttered workspace will find this useful. Taking notes next to a Safari window is going to be pretty useful, as will simply placing two web pages side by side. (A quick tip in passing, though: if there’s ever a window in your way, don’t close it—ignore it! Just click on the window you want to pop to the front, or you’ll end up spending way too much time putting windows back in the right place.)


Entirely behind the scenes, Metal is a graphics framework that can take the place of OpenGL. It’s optimized for speed, and will help developers to get much better performance out of their games, as Metal promises up to 50% faster rendering, and up to 40% greater efficiency while doing so. With any luck, we’ll see improvements in the frame rates of future Mac games, especially as it’s being built into engines like Unreal and Unity.

These developers will be including Metal support.

These developers will be including Metal support.

It’s also potentially a big help to pro software developers like Adobe. They showed off massive speed improvements in Illustrator and After Effects using Metal, though it’s worth noting that Illustrator CC 2015 already shows off a huge speed boost when using its new GPU rendering. Presumably it’s going to get faster again when Metal support is added, but you can get a big chunk of at least the Illustrator speed boost today.

With regard to FCP X and Motion? We’ll have to wait and see. Not every effect benefits from GPU-based processing today, but the potential on offer is a fine incentive for developers to take a look at what Metal acceleration could bring. Also, because Metal is cross-platform with iOS, there’s a good chance to re-use code they’ve already written.


I’m still a relatively heavy Notes user, but that’s largely due to the same reason you’d climb a mountain: because it’s there. The old Notes works, syncs between all your devices, and that’s more or less enough to get simple jobs done. However, the new Notes adds lots more: support for PDFs, audio and video files, graphical links to web pages, checklists you can tick off, even maps.

While I don’t have a screenshot handy, I could keep this picture of El Capitan itself in the new Notes.

While I don’t have a screenshot handy, I could keep this picture of El Capitan itself in the new Notes.

While current users of Evernote or OneNote might not be convinced, anyone not already using a more powerful solution will almost certainly find something here to enjoy. And it’s sure to be popular, because it’s there.

The Little Things (and the Font)

Even though the font changed just last release (to Helvetica Neue) it seems that the change wasn’t terribly popular. Apple’s developed a new variation on the San Francisco font they made for the Apple Watch, and it’s going to be used all over the place. While some people won’t even notice the change, it’s a nice, modern choice, and sits somewhere between the old Helvetica Neue and the watchOS font, which has now been renamed San Francisco Compact. They really do care about the small details of this—watch this video for proof.

Some new font families to enjoy here.

Some new font families to enjoy here.

In a nice touch, you can shake the mouse or scribble around on your trackpad, and the pointer will temporarily grow larger so you can see it more clearly. Great for large screens seen by tired eyes.

In Safari, pinned sites are essentially a new kind of bookmark that you make by dragging tabs to the left, where they collapse into icons. These look to be perfect for sites you visit every day. It’s also possible to mute other tabs, so that auto-playing video ads won’t bug you.

Spotlight has gotten smarter, and you can now search with natural language for more specific items: “photos I took last April”, for example. More information (like sports scores) will also be integrated directly into Spotlight’s search results. Also new in El Capitan: the search window is finally resizable and you can move it anywhere you want on your screen.

Contextual information will always be welcome, so long as your team is winning.

Contextual information will always be welcome, so long as your team is winning.

The new Photos gains some improvements, most notably the ability to add location data to photos (or groups of photos) that didn’t include it already, and support for third-party photo editing extensions. (Can you shout out “CURVES!” with me?)

Mail sees a few improvements too. If you’re using a swipeable input device, you can now swipe left to delete messages or swipe right to mark them as read/unread as if you’re on an iPad, and you can work on multiple drafts even in full screen mode.

On the keyboard front, Japanese users gain a new input method, and Chinese users see several enhancements and new fonts to boot. Notably, Chinese users will be able to use the trackpad to write multiple characters at once with their finger.

Finally, performance is said to be improved by up to* 2x faster app switching, 4x faster PDF viewing in Preview, and so on. (*Don’t you love asterisks?)


El Capitan looks like it’s going to bring some solid improvements to day-to-day workflows, but it’s not out yet. As with any new release, there are likely to be some initial bugs, but the public beta will allow early access if you want to help to squash them early. I’d always advise against installing beta software on production machines, but if you have a spare Mac (or a spare boot drive) kicking about, you might want to give it a shot. Look out for the final release around mid-September, wait a few days for any serious bugs to be reported, then jump in if the water’s fine.

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