The waiting is the hardest part, and Apple knows it. Which may be why the company is making available a public beta of its next major update to OS X, named El Capitan, in anticipation of its final release this fall.

Apple first gave us a glimpse of El Capitan in June at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference and this month offered a prerelease version to the public, allowing users to check out the progress of the upcoming OS. According to Apple, El Capitan is very much about refining the look and feel of OS X, from how you work with apps and search to how quickly apps open and display information.

Split View

For example, Split View is new in El Capitan and lets you fill your screen with two side-by-side app windows. That's a nice addition for when you are working on two documents, and it means you don't have to resize windows to fit next each other or click back and forth between app windows. To use Split View, click, hold, and then release the green full-screen button in a window's title bar to select your first window. Then in Mission Control, select your second window.

OS X El Capitan Split View
Pick the second window to run beside the first in Mission Control.

Mission Control

Mission Control gives you a quick way to see, arrange, and navigate between your open windows. In El Capitan, Mission Control gathers related windows together, so you can easily find a window associated with an app.


With El Capitan's Spotlight, you can get search results for sports, stocks, transit, and weather, as well as Web videos. And you can type your queries using natural language, so you shouldn't have to think too hard about how to phrase your questions to get the results you want.

OS X El Capitan Spotlight
El Capitan's Spotlight lets you search for local weather.


Apple continues to polish its Mail app. In the update, swipe to mark an email as read or unread or to delete it. Mail also includes Smart Suggestions, a feature that looks for names and events in messages and prompts you to add them to your contacts or calendar.


The Notes apps gets a big boost in El Capitan. You can now drag photos, PDFs, videos, and other files into a note and save content -- such as a website or a map -- from other apps through the Share menu. It's also easy to create checklists. And the app does a nice job of working with iCloud, so your notes are synced across your Apple devices.

OS X El Capitan Notes
A map in Notes, shared from the Maps app.


Photos, which formally replaced iPhoto earlier this spring, becomes more useful in El Capitan. You can add third-party editing extensions to the app, you can add location information to an image or an entire Moment, and you can sort albums by title and name as well as by date.


El Capitan's Safari lets you pin your your favorite websites on the browser's tab bar. Mute audio from a noisy tab with a mute button in the search field. To pin a tab, go up to Safari's Window menu and select Pin Tab.

OS X El Capitan tabs
Pin favorite sites over on the left in the tab bar.


Maps in El Capitan now has a Transit view that provides guidance for using a city's public transportation system. However, the public beta has transit info for a just a handful of cities. So I can get around the Bay Area, but if I search for a city without transit info, I get a message telling me information is not available.

OS X El Capitan Maps
Maps tells me I can take BART to the Oakland Coliseum.

Under the hood

Apple says it's working behind the scenes to make El Capitan feel snappier and more fluid. From faster app launching to quicker display of your first messages in Mail, Apple's focus is on making El Capitan more responsive. While it's tough to judge performance improvements in betas, with so many moving parts, the public beta feels solid and responsive.

A note of caution

Beta software can be finicky, with unexpected behavior and app incompatibilities. If you decide to install the public beta of El Capitan, take care: make you sure you have a current backup of everything and consider running the beta on a secondary machine or external hard drive, definitely not on your primary one.

Clifford Colby follows the Mac and Android markets for He's been an editor at Peachpit Press and a handful of now-dead computer magazines, including MacWeek, MacUser, and Corporate Computing.