OS X El Capitan review: bringing even older Macs up to speed
The latest version of Apple’s laptop and desktop operating system OS X 10.11 El Capitan will genuinely speed up your computer, particularly if you’ve got an older Mac.
As with Apple’s other recent Apple software updates, El Capitan is very much a blink-and-you-miss-it update. Visually it’s almost identical to the current OS X Yosemite and you will be hard-pressed to see what’s changed other than the new San Francisco typeface from iOS 9.
That’s because El Capitan is the “tock” in Apple’s “tick, tock” two-year update cycle. Big changes happen on the surface every two years with the tick updates with the following year consolidating and refining.
El Capitan’s brief was pure speed and it is really noticeable, particularly on one-or-two year-old Macs. It’s difficult to actually pinpoint where the speed comes from, it’s just generally a lot more snappy.
Apps load and respond visibly faster, as do documents and emails. Switching between apps is also faster, as is browsing large PDFs, documents and images.
Apple claims that speed has improved between 1.4 and four times the performance of OS X Yosemite, depending on the task, and in my testing I would say that the figure is about right. Part of that performance boost is the introduction of Apple’s Metal graphics system, which was first introduced with iOS 8.
Metal replaces OpenGL and speeds things up. Apps that use Apple’s core graphics system will benefit without having to do anything. Those that can and will interact with Metal directly – programs such as Adobe Photoshop or Premier, or games – will see an even greater boost.
It’s the first version of Apple’s software I have installed that has actually sped up the machine.
OS X 10.11 El Capitan is a free update from the Mac App Store released on 30 September.
It supports machines with at least 2GB of RAM and 8GB of free storage space and in the following models:
Beyond speed, a few small elements have been improved. Shake the cursor and it enlarges so you can see it more easily if it’s lost on screen. Spotlight search can now be moved and enlarged and responds to natural language searches such as “files I worked on in March” or “email I sent to Alex about adblocking” – which sounds great, but in practice just skips out a bit of syntax such as “subject: adblocking”.
El Capitan improves full-screen window management with Split View, taken straight from iOS, allowing two apps to fill one screen with a resizing line down the middle just like Windows 8. Drag a window to the top of the screen or hold down the green “maximise” button to organise the windows and drag them on to a new space or on top of a pre-existing one to get going.
It’s nothing you can’t already do manually or with third-party programs such as Moom, but it hides menus and other unnecessary program features to fill the screen with more of the text or work you’re trying to get done.
It’s still easy to lose things in multiple spaces, and users with desktops or more than one screen are likely to ignore Split View. Laptop users might find a use for it if they’re already using full screen apps.
Most of Apple’s built-in apps for OS X have also been tweaked here and there. Full-screen Mac Mail is now easier to use with compose windows that minimise to the bottom of the screen and stack in tabbed windows. The same swiping gestures to archive or mark email as read from iOS also work on a touchpad too, although I found moving through mail with keyboard shortcuts easier.
Safari’s now got pinned tabs, which shrink into the left-hand side and persist, which makes web apps such as Twitter a bit more permanent. A new mute button also exists in the address bar to kill annoying background audio from videos or ads.
Apple Maps now shows public transport directions. Photos supports extensions as it does on iOS, allowing such apps as Pixelmator to put part of their toolset right in the image-editing window of Apple Photos. Notes now supports everything that iOS 9 Notes can do, but only allows you to view sketches, not make them.
The visual and feature changes I found were all improvements, but really the update is all about speed.
El Capitan is a free upgrade and available on Wednesday. It made older machines feel like new again and didn’t break anything in my testing. I can’t see why you wouldn’t upgrade, although maybe wait and see whether any bugs pop up before updating your main machine.