If you’re not paying close attention, you may miss some big changes coming to your Mac this week.
On Wednesday, Apple will release El Capitan, the latest version of OS X, the operating system for Macs, as a free upgrade.
But don’t expect a wildly new experience when you get it. El Capitan is all about refining and improving Yosemite, the current version of OS X that came out about a year ago. It looks and feels the same as before. You might notice some performance improvements, but most of the significant changes are updates to the Apple apps like Mail, Notes, and Safari that come preinstalled on your Mac.
Those changes make your Mac better, but they’re also designed to keep you locked into Apple’s ecosystem of apps and services, which have historically lagged behind what its competitors offer. But with El Capitan, Apple’s apps have caught up to many of the best features its competitors have, and a lot of them are worth revisiting if you’ve been using alternatives.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the most important changes.
At the risk of sounding boring, I think the Notes app got the biggest upgrade in El Capitan. I’m a diehard Evernote user, and I even spend $US50 each year to get the app’s premium features. But Notes is almost on par with Evernote now, and it’s totally free.
Now you can use Notes to save images, web links, and to-do lists. You can also make sketches and drawings. It’s not the most robust note-taking app I’ve ever used, but it’s finally caught up enough that I find myself using it more on both my Mac and iPhone.
If you’ve been using other browsers like Chrome or Firefox, the new features in Safari won’t really surprise you. The browser now lets you know which open tab is playing sound, and you can mute it by clicking the speaker icon.
Safari also lets you “pin” tabs to the browser’s taskbar so they stay live and updated throughout the day. It’s best for sites like Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter that you check frequently.
Mail is my second favourite update. You can now search through older messages using natural language instead of precise search terms. For example, you can look up “messages sent from Henry Blodget yesterday” and get exactly that. It also recognises content within messages like dates so you can them to you calendar.
These features won’t sound new to you if you use the web version of Gmail, but Apple says its advantage is that all of your information stays private in the Mail app. The app analyses your message locally on your machine, not online like Google does so it can figure out which ads to show you.
Apple Maps has had a rough time since launching over three years ago. But it’s finally catching up to Google Maps now that it has public transit directions built into the El Capitan version. Unfortunately, it only works in a handful of US cities like New York and San Francisco at the moment. Apple says support for other cities will roll out in the future.
The changes in Apple Maps are great, but the app still isn’t the best option for many until more cities get all the latest features.
Spotlight, the tool that searches files on your computer, has some new tricks too. Think of Spotlight as a cross between Google search and Siri. It can bring you specific information like sports scores and weather without having to launch your browser.
And like Mail, it lets you use natural language search, so you can look up something like “spreadsheets I worked on this week” and get exactly what you want.
Beyond the updated apps, there are a few new controls to learn in El Capitan.
The best one may seem simple and silly, but it’s incredibly useful. If you jiggle your mouse around, the cursor blows up so you can find it easily on your screen.
You can also run two apps in a new split-screen mode, which is really handy if you’re working on a Mac with a smaller screen. I tested El Capitan on the new 12-inch MacBook, and found this feature made managing windows a lot easier than cycling through them from the dock.
Finally, El Capitan makes it easier to manage all your windows into what Apple calls Spaces. If you have a MacBook or a trackpad mouse for desktop, a three-finger swipe up gives you a full view of all your open windows. You can then drag them around into separate Spaces, which keeps your desktop clean and clutter free.
Should you upgrade?
I’ve been using early versions of El Capitan since the summer and a final version of the software since last week. It’s totally stable, and I didn’t run into any major bugs. You’ll get a notification Wednesday if your computer is eligible for the upgrade. (Many, if not most, Macs in use today will be able to get it.)
However, don’t expect anything revolutionary with El Capitan. If you’ve been using Yosemite, everything will look and feel exactly the same, especially if you already use alternatives to Apple’s apps like Gmail, Outlook, Sunrise calendar, Evernote, etc. But if you want to give Apple’s suite of software a try, you’re going to like the improvements in El Capitan.
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