Remember Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard? For many people, Snow Leopard was a high point for OS X, focusing on performance and stability. The time has come again: while Apple made much of the fact that 55 percent of active Mac users are now running 10.10 Yosemite, there has been a strong undercurrent of discontent with Apple’s prioritization of design and features over polish and stability. Apple would never say this out loud, but mix snow with Yosemite, and you get OS X 10.11 El Capitan, available for developers today, slated for a public beta in July 2015, and due “this fall.”
What Apple will say is that “OS X El Capitan builds on the groundbreaking features and beautiful design introduced in OS X Yosemite, refining the experience and improving performance in lots of little ways that make a big difference.” Changes will focus on two areas: user experience and performance.
Performance -- There’s not much to say here, because from the user perspective, more performance is both always appreciated and, once appreciated, largely ignored. Performance gains simply become the new normal, and you forget that something that was once painfully slow no longer is.
Apple is claiming that El Capitan will launch apps up to 1.4 times faster, switch apps up to 2 times faster, open PDFs in Preview up to 4 times faster, and display the first messages in Mail up to 2 times faster. In short, Apple is streamlining code for common activities, rather than relying entirely on faster hardware.
Arriving in El Capitan is Metal, a high-performance graphics API that first appeared in iOS 8 last year. With Metal, developers can give games and other graphically intensive apps more direct access to the graphics processor, enhancing system-level graphics rendering by up to 50 percent. Metal could be a boon for game publishers in particular, giving the Mac a leg up in a world where it has traditionally had a hard time competing.
User Experience -- The changes you’ll see — and perhaps appreciate more — fall into this category. But even still, they’re relatively small, and are focused on making it faster and easier to use OS X and Apple’s apps.
Split View: The new Split View takes a page from Microsoft’s playbook (the Snap feature of Windows 7 in particular), fitting windows from two apps on the screen precisely. Utilities like Mercury Mover (see “,” 19 May 2008) and the free  have long provided similar capabilities, but having it built into OS X will make it more accessible to a wide audience.
Mission Control: Apple’s window management feature Mission Control has been a part of Mac OS X since 10.3 Panther, and has seen numerous enhancements over the years. With El Capitan, Apple continues to tweak Mission Control, theoretically simplifying how you can put windows into new desktop spaces, and even put them in Split View directly. I personally don’t use Mission Control, since I find maximum productivity with multiple monitors, but if you do, the refinements may be welcome.
Find Your Cursor: Now this one I’ll love! With today’s huge monitors, it’s all too easy to lose your cursor, and while there have long been utilities that would locate it with the press of a key (try or ), El Capitan expands the cursor briefly when you shake your mouse or shake your finger back and forth quickly on the trackpad. Simple, but effective.
Spotlight: In Yosemite, Apple significantly extended Spotlight’s reach, enabling it to display formatted search results from data on your Mac and from the outside world. In El Capitan, Apple has given Spotlight a wider lens, enabling it to deliver answers for searches surrounding the weather, sports, stocks, Web videos, and more.
More interesting is that Spotlight gains a natural language parser, so you can ask for “documents I created in June 2014” or “email from Tonya last week.” These natural language searches also work in the Finder and in Apple Mail.
Apple Mail: -- Speaking of which, Mail picks up a few features from its iOS sibling. Swipe right on a message to mark it as read or unread, or swipe left to delete. When you’re in full-screen mode, you can now dock a message you’re composing at the bottom of the screen. If you’re juggling multiple email threads, you can switch between them using tabs.
Mail also tries to identify events and contacts in email messages; offering to add them to your calendar or contacts list with a single click. This is probably just an enhanced interface for Apple’s long-standing Data Detectors technology, but if exposing it differently is what’s necessary for people to make use of it, great.
Notes: -- The Notes app may be the most changed of any in El Capitan, gaining the capability to use styles, create and manage checklists, save content from other apps, and insert and view attachments (photos, videos, map locations, and Web links). Content syncs via iCloud, so you’ll have access to your Notes from any of your iCloud-connected devices.
Photos: Apple didn’t feature Photos during the WWDC keynote, but the company is now promising a few heavily requested features for its replacement for iPhoto and Aperture. Most notable among these is support for third-party editing extensions that will be available from the Mac App Store and accessible within Photos itself. It doesn’t sound as though that will enable external editing in Adobe Photoshop, say, but it will go a long way toward enhancing the editing capabilities of Photos.
Apple also says that it will be possible to add a location to a single photo or to an entire Moment, and you’ll be able to sort photos within albums by date, title, and other metadata. Finally, a streamlined workflow is aimed at making it faster and easier to identify faces.
Safari: -- Apple’s Web browser gains three useful features. First, you can “pin” sites to the left side of the tab bar to keep them handy and away from the rest of your tabs. They’ll stay active and easily accessible, and links you click from within a pinned site will open in new tabs. Google Chrome and Firefox have had a similar feature for years; they’re great for Web apps and other sites you keep open all day long.
Second, a new mute button appears in Safari’s Smart Search field if any open tab is playing audio; a single click silences the sound without forcing you to go hunting for the offending tab. Clicking and holding the mute button pops up a menu showing tabs that are playing audio so you can deal with them more easily.
Third and finally, AirPlay can now play video from a Web page to your Apple TV without showing everything else on the desktop.
Maps: -- Apple has finally added transit directions to Maps, and while the feature has been a long time coming, it looks like the company has done a nice job. When you ask for transit directions, the display focuses on public transit lines instead of roads, and in places like New York City, where a subway station might lie under several city blocks, Apple has put a lot of effort into identifying exits in order to provide useful walking directions once you emerge, blinking, into the sunlight. Transit directions will be available in 12 cities around the United States and Europe to start, plus another 12 cities in China, and Apple said over 300 more were in the works.
Maps on the Mac is mostly for route planning, of course, but you can send a route to your iPhone with a few clicks.
International Features: It’s clear that Apple is putting ever more emphasis on the Chinese market, such as with the transit support in Maps. El Capitan will also feature a new Chinese system font, enhanced keyboard input, and improved trackpad handwriting. Japanese gets similar attention, with four new Japanese fonts and improved text input that can transform Hiragana into written Japanese as you type.
Details -- At the moment, all we know about El Capitan’s availability is that it will arrive “this fall” and will be free. Give Apple’s past performance, that points toward a mid-to-late October release. Nothing was said about hardware compatibility at the keynote, but it turns out that El Capitan will run on all Macs that run Yosemite, Mavericks, and Mountain Lion. That’s an impressive record of backward compatibility.
We’re happy that Apple has seen fit to pull back from the features in OS X in order to focus on refining and polishing what’s already there. Here’s hoping that El Capitan also squashes some of the bugs that have persisted through the intermediate versions of Yosemite.