OS X El Capitan first look: A smarter, more polished experience for your Mac

As Snow Leopard refined and advanced Leopard, as Mountain Lion refined and advanced Lion, so too is OS X El Capitan intended to refine and advance last year's OS X Yosemite. That means the focus isn't on major redesigns or profound system-level changes, though there is a little of both to be found. Instead, Apple is making OS X smarter, and giving it considerably more polish.

For El Cap, that means new window management options, including an improved Mission Control and new Split View. The company has made Spotlight smarter and improved stock OS X apps like Notes, Safari, Mail, Maps, and Photos. They've enhanced performance, stability, and security—including bringing iOS graphics framework Metal to the Mac. They've even added new system fonts: San Francisco for alphabetic languages; Ping Fang for Chinese; tweaks to the Japanese system font, Hiragino Sans; and improved input methods for both Chinese and Japanese.

I've spent the last week taking a first look at OS X El Capitan on a 2015 MacBook Pro, playing with all the new features coming to a Mac near you this Fall. So, understanding that El Cap is still a few months away from release, how does it all look?

Video first look

Rather watch than read? Hit play and get everything you need to know about OS X El Capitan in 5 minutes!

Split View

OS X Lion brought full screen apps to the Mac; OS X El Capitan will bring a split screen mode for viewing multiple apps at once. Called Split View, you enter the new mode by clicking and holding down on the green full screen button in the app's toolbar. That lets you take whatever app you're working on and dock it to the left or right side of the display.

By default, Split View takes half the width of the screen, but you can drag the border to make it wider or narrower. (Different apps currently allow for different minimum width.) You can also easily switch sides just by dragging the toolbar from one to the other.

I wasn't sure I was going to like Split View, since I usually have a dozen or so apps open at any one time and I enjoy jumping and dragging between them. I've been using Split View almost exclusively to write this first look, however, and it's been working exceptionally well. Text editor on one side, reference material on the other, productivity across both.

Mission Control

In OS X Lion, Mission Control subsumed Exposé on the Mac, bringing multiple desktop spaces and an easier way to manage your windows. Mission Control in OS X El Capitan expands upon these improvements, making it even simpler and easier to both see and understand.

Floating windows are all well and good, but El Cap is furthering Yosemite's design principles with a more-flattened Mission Control view. As such, all your windows appear in a single, quickly scannable layer.

It respects the position of your windows as well, so if an app was on the left side of the desktop, it'll be on the left side of Mission Control. Same for the right side. That helps keep everything oriented as well as accessible.

Calling Mission Control

A three finger swipe upwards on your trackpad, a tap of the Mission Control key (F3) from your keyboard, or a click of the Mission Control icon with your mouse will still take you right to the main view, just as before. But once you're in Mission Control, you have a new way of interacting with your windows.

The new Spaces Bar replaces the window management bar of yore, listing (in label form) your current desktops alongside all currently open full screen and split screen apps. Mouse over the bar, and it expands to thumbnails so you can immediately, visually identify all your workspaces and switch to whichever one you need. From here, you can also rearrange screens and remove desktop spaces.

Instant Desktop

There's also a new draggable Mission Control shortcut coming to El Cap: Just pull any window to the top of the screen, then drag a little more to reveal the Spaces Bar. From there, you can drop the window where you want it, either full screen, onto an existing full screen app to create a Split View, or onto a new or existing desktop Space.

It's an incredibly fluid experience and makes the sometimes mixed workspace metaphors—which were already improved in Yosemite—into an even more usable, coherent system.

Find my Cursor

There also a bonus here: Find my Cursor.

We've all stared at our screens at one time or another and rapidly shaken our mouse pointer in hopes the movement would help our eyes lock onto it. El Cap makes sure you'll spot your cursor by rapidly enlarging it until it's impossible to miss. It sounds and looks ridiculous, but it's a natural extension of instinctive behavior and it works wonderfully.


OS X Yosemite saw an all new Spotlight design that put Apple's search and action bar front-and-center on our Macs. Now, El Cap strives to put it front-and-center in our workflows as well.

The suggested results engine, which debuted last year, has been enhanced with several new data sources, including weather, stocks, web video, and sports across MLB, NHL, NFL, NBA, WNBA, college football, college basketball, and many European soccer leagues.

Natural language for everyone

Critically, you can now access all of it using natural language. That means you simply type the way you would talk—"Documents I worked on this week containing El Cap" tells Spotlight I'm only looking for documents, so don't show me mail or web hits or anything else. "This week" constrains the time period, so I don't see anything older than the last few days, and "El Cap" means I want something with those words in it.

It's the way Siri has always worked for voice input and I've wanted it in text for years. I'd still love Apple's personal assistant on the Mac—as would accessibility advocates everywhere—but this is a tremendous start.

You can even move and resize the Spotlight window now, so if you want to keep using it while you work, you don't have to worry about it overlaying what you're working on. It's always exactly where you want it.

Search within apps

Thanks to a new CoreSpotlight API, developers can now make the content in their apps, including documents, messages, and more, available to Spotlight as well. That means it'll be even easier to find what we're looking for, no matter where it's contained.

I've tried LaunchBar, Alfred, and Quicksilver, but none of them ever stuck: Spotlight has always been my go-to. Yosemite made it significantly more functional, but natural language and the new results engine promises to make it integral to the Mac experience. I'm really looking forward to using it full-time come the fall.


Both of Apple's up-and-coming operating systems — iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan—include a new and improved Notes app. Since Notes's original launch on the Mac as part of OS X Mountain Lion, the app has gone from a simple, plain Marker Felt text app to what's now a far more robust note-taking system.

Now, as you start typing, your first line will automatically be formatted as a title—if appropriate—and the rest, as the body. (You can also tweak this behavior in the settings pane.) There are other formatting options as well: heading, checklist, bulleted list, dashed list, and numbered list.

Choose a checklist, and you can make and track to-dos right from Notes. It's different than Reminders, which are meant to alert you about activities at specific times or places: These are meant for shopping, packing, or other lists that don't need alerts, but do benefit from being in the context of a note.

You can also quickly collect important bits of information in Notes, including photos, videos, PDF documents, web sites, audio clips, map locations, Pages documents, Numbers spreadsheets, and Keynote presentations, and perhaps more.

Sharing is caring

Notes lets you drag any clippings in, or you can share them from Safari, Maps, Photos, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, and other apps using the standard Share Sheet. That makes it far more powerful—you never have to stop what you're doing, find Notes, and add something, you can just send it from where you already are. And it works for both new and existing notes. Seriously.

If you add sketches from your iPhone or iPad using iOS 9, they'll show up as well. You can't yet add sketches from the Mac, though hopefully that'll be added at some point as well. (And yes, the potential for Force Touch drawings makes this feature even more desirable.)

To keep track of all the clips, Notes includes an attachment browser. So, if you remember adding something, but not where you added it, you still have a good shot at finding it easily and visually.

A new way to note-take

El Cap's new Notes isn't Evernote or OneNote, nor is it meant to be. It's not Vesper either, though it has some of its same charm. It's just what the name implies—a simple and efficient way to collect and find the information that matters to you.

I typically use Notes as a live, iCloud-synced clipboard to move text-based content between my Mac, iPhone, and iPad; I use BBEdit on my Mac for writing and longer work. I don't see myself switching to Notes for my BBEdit work, even with its improvements, but I do see that exact quick-syncing functionality between devices greatly enhanced by the El Cap update.


Pinned sites: Anyone who has to open the same handful of websites day in, day out, relishes the idea of keeping those sites easily and always available. And that's just what Safari in El Cap does. Pin a website and it gets its own, small, icon-identifiable, re-arrangeable tab on the left. Then it stays there, launch after launch, restart after restart, until you need it or decide to remove it. The pinned site will also always display the exact page you pinned. If you click on a link, that link will open in a new, regular tab.

I have iMore open all the time, obviously, but I also have several other sites I go to near-constantly. Not having to open new tabs and open those bookmarks every time I re-open Safari might sound like a small thing, but it's a huge time and effort saver.

Quiet time, extensions, and AirPlay

Mute tabs, on the other hand, is a huge annoyance saver: If you've ever been blasted by audio coming out of one of a dozen or more tabs you have open, with no indication which tab it is, you'll love this. Simply click the audio icon in the Smart Search field and it's muted. Blessedly. You can even click and hold to get a list of tabs playing audio and mute an offender without affecting something you do want to listen to. So great.

Speaking of the Smart Search Bar, it gets all the aforementioned enhancements to Spotlight, including weather, stocks, and sports. Developers also build Shared Links Extensions so that they can add their own link suggestions.

Content blocking extensions, by contrast, will let developers make plug-ins that prevent a myriad of different types of code from loading—the most obvious types being ads and Javascript-heavy social network features.

There's also AirPlay to just send the video you want to watch, rather than the entire screen—finally!—and a new Picture-in-Picture (PiP) control.

Read and inspect

Safari Reader gets a selection of fonts, including Athelas, Charter, Georgia, Iowan, Palatino, San Francisco (more on that later), Seravek, and Times New Roman, and themes in white, sepia, gray, or black.

Web Inspector has also been given a responsive redesign, with a tab-based interface, type profiler, code coverage mode, paint indicator, and frame rendering track.

A new and better Safari

I vastly prefer Safari to Chrome. The interface is lighter and cleaner, the battery impact is far lower, and the experience in general is simply better for me. I keep Chrome around as a jail for Flash and Google Docs—so if they start to choke the rest of my browsing doesn't choke with them—so I'm especially excited about these updates.


Mail gets the same gestures on the Mac that the app has enjoyed on the iPhone and iPad for a while now: swipe right to mark as read, swipe left to delete. (That same delete behavior is also now available in Messages, Notes, Reading List, and Reminders.)

Full screen Mail also draws inspiration from iOS with a multitasking drafts mode that lets you start composing—go check, reference, or copy something from another email—and then not only keep composing, but drag photos, documents, and other content in before you do. And yeah, OS X adds tabs, so you can work on multiple drafts at once without having to Command-~ Rolodex through them.

Data detectors, which have always been powerful, are now even more discoverable. Instead of hiding inline, waiting for you to mouse over them, they suggest themselves right below the address field—like iOS—and are immediately recognizable and actionable. It's really useful for contacts and events. (Flight information has also been added to data detectors, but I haven't personally seen it populate.)

Search has also been improved, adding the natural language engine from Spotlight, as has the IMAP engine which now intelligently downloads the most important messages first. Apple claims the engine is up to 2x faster on account setup, allowing you to start reading before the entire message stack gets pulled down.

I've always been a Mail.app user; having all my mail, all in one place, with a unified inbox is just too compelling to move away from. I have to use Gmail for work, however, and Google has always had an… eccentric IMAP implementation. Mavericks was rough at times; Yosemite pretty good. El Cap is shaping up very, very well.


Apple started doing its own maps in iOS 6 and brought them to the Mac in OS X Mavericks. The company has built on them steadily ever since, and in OS X El Capitan they're adding Transit directions. That means, in addition to walking and driving, you can get step-by-step navigation for buses, trains, and subways/metros.

Transit gets its own, optimized Maps view, which shows the stations and routes you'll need to get where you're going. The app also mixes in walking directions so that you can seamlessly get from one station or stop to another.

Schedules are also fully supported, so you can plan activities not only at both ends but along the way. There are even place cards for stations that show not only schedules, but any known issues with the routes.

Of course, since it's not practical to do step-by-step navigation with a Mac, once you plan your route you can easily send the directions to your iPhone, which also makes them available on your Apple Watch, if you have one.

Because transit is a nightmare of petty municipal fiefdoms that are sometimes reluctant to share what they believe is their proprietary data, coverage right now is limited to a handful of cities. The El Cap beta includes London, New York, Toronto, and the greater San Francisco Bay Area, with Baltimore, Berlin, Chicago, Mexico City, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC expected to launch with the El Cap release this fall.

China, which benefits from standardized and centralized transit data, has 300 cities available in Transit view, including Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenzhen.

Since Montreal isn't on the short list, I made sure to try out the transit directions in San Francisco while attending Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). I don't know the city well enough, unfortunately, to offer an informed opinion on how well-optimized the directions were, but they seemed to work fine and were easily understandable and navigable.

Here's hoping more cities get added—and soon.


Photos for OS X was quickly previewed during WWDC 2014, shown off again alongside the iMac with Retina 5K display last October, and launched back in March of this year. That should give a good indication of just how big an undertaking it was. Tied into iCloud Photo Library, it offers ubiquitous access to all your pictures and videos, on all your Apple devices, and through iCloud.com.

The Photos for Mac app itself, while closer to being feature-complete than most of Apple's previous reboots, was still missing a few key features. The OS X El Capitan version aims to fix that.

There will be editing extensions now—akin to the photo extensions that launched with iOS 8 last year—that let developers add their own filters and editing tools right into Apple's app. (They'll be available via the Mac App Store when El Cap launches later this fall.)

Like on the iPhone and iPad, Apple's PhotoKit frameworks allow the editing extensions to be non-destructive. That means you can use as many as you want, and go back and tweak or remove them at any time.

Because the Mac is the Mac, extensions can be bundled into existing apps or shipped on their own, and Apple says they'll be easy to enable and customize in System Preferences.

There's still no "Open in external editor…" for quickly round-tripping to Photoshop or other pixel polishers, at least not that I could find, but there will be the ability to add and edit location information. You'll be able to do it for a single photo, a selection of photos, or an entire Moment. Just open the info panel and "Add a Location". Bliss.

It's not just location data that you'll be able to batch change either. It'll be titles, dates, times, and Faces as well. For the latter, just select the photos and drag them into a name in your library. (Photos and albums can now be sorted by date and title as well.)

While I moved my main iPhoto library over to Photos for OS X back when it went into beta, I'll admit to still using Aperture on occasion as well. Though there are still features I'd like to see come to Photos, these updates go a long way to relieving my lingering Aperture needs.


Metal refers to "writing to the metal", a programming term for accessing hardware in as direct and performance-based a way as possible. Apple debuted it with iOS 8 last year as a way to circumvent some of the more cumbersome aspects of OpenGL—the standardized graphics language framework for games, design, and science applications—used to communicate with the GPU (graphics processing unit).

With OS X El Capitan, Apple has brought Metal to OS X, but they've also made Metal much more powerful. Now it provides a single, unified API (application programming interface) and runtime for both OpenGL and OpenCL—the standard computing language that both leverages the GPU and lets it be used for more general tasks.

Apple has also moved two of the company's essential rendering systems, Core Graphics and Core Animation, to Metal; any developer already using one or both gets all the new performance benefits essentially "for free".

Because Metal optimizes both the CPU and the GPU (both integrated and discreet), it reduces overhead and, according to Apple, delivers more than 10x the draw calls per frame, and up to 40 percent higher efficiency.

That translates into more detailed games with better effects; more powerful pro apps for everything from illustration to post-production; and full-on multithreading and multi-core performance for everyone and every thing.

Speaking of gaming, while OS X does't seem to be getting ReplayKit to record and share games, it is getting GameplayKit and Model I/O to make building games for the Mac easier than ever.

Metal for OS X was one of the announcements developers seemed most excited about for El Cap, alongside other improvements like bringing TextKit and NSStackView to the Mac, and UICollectionView—a way of laying out apps—to OS X as NSCollectionView. It's not hard to see why.


Beyond Metal, Apple has worked to make OS X El Capitan even faster and better-performing. The company claims it launches apps up to 40 percent faster, switches between apps up to 2x as fast, and does things like opening PDF files up to 4x as fast.

For times when things still aren't fast enough, there's also an all new, all flatter and more modern spinning beach ball to help you pass the time.

It's tough to verify those claims with a beta build running on a freshly installed test machine, so I'll wait until the full El Cap review before putting it through its production paces. That said, everything does feel tight and snappy, so here's hoping Apple delivers.


The Mac doesn't enjoy the same market share as Windows, but for years now it's been growing while PC sales have been shrinking. Apple has also become the biggest and best-known tech company in the world. All of that combines to put a bigger target on OS X than ever before.

That's probably why we're seeing more attempts to exploit Apple's computer operating system, and why the company has spent a tremendous amount of time and effort on security enhancements.

With OS X El Capitan, those enhancements take the form of System Integrity Protection. In essence, it provides a type of root-level protection to the Mac similar to what the iPhone and iPad have benefited from for years.

Code injection and runtime attachments are no longer permitted, though expert users who really want to will still be able to access the system as deeply as ever. Those who simply buy a new Mac and run as administrator without even thinking about it, however, will be better protected. And that's terrific.

Apple has also added Application Transport Security, which enforces best practices when our data is sent from our Macs to web services. Currently that's TLS 1.2, but as stronger transports become available, ATS will push everyone towards them as well. It's another terrific security improvement from the folks in Cupertino.


Along with security, Apple has made privacy a top-level feature. In OS X El Capitan, that manifests in the way in which your user data is handled. Since Apple isn't a cloud company, they don't default to saving your information in server space: That means they don't bring our data up to their network; they bring their network down to our data.

Certain things like movies, sports, and internet search results have to be accessed online because they don't exist on our devices. Other information, like our contacts, calendars, web history, and more, does live on our devices—and never has to leave them.

Likewise, Apple claims that if you opt-in to one of its online services, that data isn't even shared with the company's companion online services.

It remains to be seen whether or not this privacy-first model ultimately affects the features Apple can deliver, but for most, the lower risk of data misuse and abuse—even accidental—will make it worthwhile.

And for those who don't mind having their data stored on the cloud and used to feed web services, OS X El Cap works great with Google as well.

Choice is good.


Lucida Grande had been the OS X system font since 1999, but Yosemite shook that up in 2014 by bringing iOS 7-style Helvetica Neue to the Mac. Now, just a year later, Apple is replacing it with an in-house designed font of the company's own making: San Francisco.

San Francisco, a sans-serif font, was first seen in its SF Compact form during the Apple Watch introduction in September of 2014. SF, the non-compact version, debuted just last week on iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan.

Apple has done a ton of work to make SF fit iOS and OS X, including separate text and display versions depending on point size, along with an incredible amount of tweaks to all the glyphs to maximize legibility, and it really pays off.

SF ends up being fresher than Lucida Grande and more distinctive than Helvetica Neue, and it gives something that the Mac should have had for a long while—a look all the company's own.

Chinese and Japanese language support

In addition to San Francisco, OS X El Capitan also has a new Chinese system font named Ping Fang. (I think that means "Apple Square," but my two years of college Mandarin might be failing me.)

Ping Fang is available for both traditional and simplified Chinese characters, and carries over Apple's same focus on legibility. It brings a modern look to roughly 50,000 characters—a huge amount—and comes in six weights from ultralight to semibold. There are also matching roman letters and numerals to ensure easy mixed-language use.

Keyboard input for Chinese has also been improved with the addition of an advanced prediction engine, more frequently updated dictionaries, and an expandable candidate window. El Cap also learns the words and phrases—and emoji!—you use most often and stacks them front and center on the candidate window for faster selection.

Even better, writing Chinese characters on the Mac Trackpad has significantly improved. The software window is now proportional to the hardware size, and you can even write multiple characters in a row.

As someone who found Twin Bridge near-magical a decade ago, I can't wait to work more with all of this.

The Japanese system font, originally designed by JIYUKOBO and formerly called Hiragino Kaku Gothic, is now Hiragino Sans. For El Cap, it goes from three to ten weights. There are also four new Japanese fonts included, both classic and modern, and in two weights each.

Japanese input gets an enhanced vocabulary and improved engine, but it also gets live conversion, which replaces text strings automagically with Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana, and even Roman words—all in real time. If you've ever seen Siri refine speech-to-text as you continue talking, then imagine that for text conversion. It reduces what used to be a cumbersome, multi-step process into something fast and streamlined.

Force Touch Trackpad

If you have one of Apple's new Force Touch Trackpads—currently available on the new MacBook and 2015 versions of the MacBook Pro—then you're in for a treat with OS X El Capitan.

Both AppKit—the framework developers use to build Mac apps—and WebKit—the engine underlying Safari—get new APIs for interacting with Force Touch. That means both apps and web pages will be able to provide precise pressure sensitivity for input as well as haptic feedback from the Taptic Engine.

We'll have to wait and see how it all gets implemented, but the potential is beyond exciting.

Coming this fall

El Capitan translates to "The Captain" or "The Chief" and represents the heights of Yosemite. OS X El Capitan aspires to the same. It takes everything that was great about 10.10 and tries to make it better for 10.11.

While only now in its first beta, and not set to ship until this fall—which, if Apple holds to the same pattern as the last two years, means October—El Cap's inspiration and ideas are solid.

Based on both popular sentiment and the narrative from the last year, it's clear that following a series of redesigns and re-architectures, everyone needed a moment to settle and breathe again.

El Cap provides that, but in a way that still moves the Mac significantly forward. I can't wait to use it in its final form come the fall.

Editing by Serenity Caldwell.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.