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by Clifford Colby / September 29, 2015
We've lived 14 years with OS X. Since the release of Mac OS X 10.0 in 2001, we've seen lickable interfaces, witnessed a high-stakes heart transplant from PowerPC to Intel chips, and received an informal education in big-cat species.
The steady, not revolutionary, progression of OS X over the past few years reflects a maturing OS. And the latest edition of Apple's desktop operating system -- OS X El Capitan version 10.11 -- while not as alluring as candy-coated buttons or as dramatic as major surgery -- continues to push the OS forward with a collection of helpful improvements, including better windows management, much improved apps, and broader search capabilities. (Along with our review, check out our visual tour of OS X El Capitan.)
Split View and full screen: Much of what's new in El Capitan focuses on how you work with apps and files. In Yosemite, you can make an app window fill the screen by clicking the green full-screen button in the top-left corner of its window. In El Capitan's full-screen mode, you can display two apps side by side. Click and hold the green full-screen button, and drag and drop the window on one side of your screen. A collection of open windows gathers on the other side of your screen. Click one, and it fills the other side of your screen.
Mission Control: Spaces are now better organized in Mission Control, which helps you manage and locate apps and open windows. In El Capitan, when you bring up Mission Control, your windows spread out across the screen with no overlap, making it quicker to find what you are looking for.
Discovery: Spotlight -- OS X's search tool -- can find files, apps, and images on your Mac and can show results from Wikipedia, iTunes, iBooks, the Mac App Store, and more. In El Capitan, Spotlight casts its net much further, pulling in weather forecasts, stock news, sport scores, public transit information, and more from across the Web.
Mail: In El Capitan, you can make better use of gestures to manage mail, borrowing moves used with Mail on iOS. For example, you can swipe to mark an email as read or unread or to delete it. Mail now watches for names and events in messages and prompts you to add them to your contacts or calendar.
Notes: You don't have to look far to find an excellent notes app for OS X. Evernote for Mac is a world-class note-taking service, for example, and OneNote from Microsoft does a solid job of helping you take, organize, and access your notes across multiple platforms. The revamped Notes app in El Capitan makes a compelling case to join that short list. You can now drag files such as PDFs and videos into a note and save content -- such as a website or a map -- from other apps through the Share menu. And the Notes app works with iCloud, so your notes are automatically synced across your Apple devices.
Photos: A year or so ago, Apple's digital-image software for OS X was not in a good place. Aperture was locked in a struggle with Adobe's Lightroom in the professional photography space, and iPhoto had been neglected for years. And then Apple said it was retiring both and introducing a new image-management app named Photos. The new Photos app for iOS appeared in iOS 8 last fall, and the OS X version shipped as part of an update to OS X Yosemite this spring. While Photos so far is not a replacement for Aperture, it is a step up from iPhoto. And Photos is solidly part Apple's holistic vision of having access to your content from anywhere, via iCloud's Photo Library. The Photos app groups your images by time and location and allows you to use albums to organize photos in your own way. Photos also comes with a useful collection of editing tools, including the ability to apply filters and retouch blemishes in an image. In the El Capitan edition of Photos, you gain the ability to add third-party extensions, through the Mac App Store. You can also sort albums by date and title. And Photos in El Capitan supports Live Photos captured with iPhone 6S.
Safari: With the update to Apple's Web browser, you can now pin websites to Safari's tab bar -- just select Pin Tab from Safari's Window menu. Safari monitors pinned sites, so when you open one from the tab bar, Safari displays its current state. You can also mute audio from a noisy tab with a mute button in the search field. Click the icon to silence the tab.
Maps: Apple's continued work on Maps makes it more and more an essential application. In El Capitan, Maps can give you detailed public transit info (including bus, subway, light rail, commuter rail, and ferry) for a handful of North American cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, the San Francisco Bay Area, Toronto, and Washington, D.C. To use the Transit view, click the Transit button, set your starting and ending locations and your route. Besides entering an address, you can enter a business or location name, as for a local park. You can also set when you want to head out. Click a public transit station to see a place card displaying information about the hub. You can send directions to your iPhone and see directions on your Apple Watch if it's paired with your iPhone.
Easier account security: This fall, Apple will bring out revamped two-factor authentication for your Apple ID and devices running El Capitan, iOS 9, and WatchOS 2. Apple says it intends to gradually roll out the authentication service to eligible users, so you may not be able to participate right away. Users found the former two-step verification service confusing, and Apple hopes to simplify its security services with the update.
Broad upgrade path: You can upgrade to El Capitan from the last version of OS X Snow Leopard (10.6.8) through Yosemite, and from many machines released in the last seven or eight years. For a complete list, see our story on getting ready for El Capitan. El Capitan is available September 30 as a free update from the Mac App Store.
iCloud: iCloud is a blessing for those who want access to their content from a connected Apple device. But Apple has a solitary view of the cloud, with sharing largely centered on photos and videos for family and friends. If you want to share files and collaborate with others, Google, Microsoft, and even Dropbox offer more useful ways of working in real time with others.
Public transit: The mass transit information in Maps is great if you live in one of the covered areas. But until Maps extends its range of regions, it's of limited use.
OS X El Capitan is a good example of the steady work Apple is putting into improving its desktop. Incorporating iOS features (such as improved gesture support in Mail), a reworked Notes app, better window management, a wide-ranging search tool, much improved Photos app, and other refinements, El Capitan is a solid OS update that is well worth moving to.