September ends with a brand new version of OS X, a little earlier than originally expected. Seeded to developers in June, OS X El Capitan is the supposed bug fix update that cleans up the glitches and performance issues of Yosemite. But that’s a superficial view that is not entirely true. Although the number of new features and enhancements are fewer than its predecessor, there’s enough going on to make this an extremely useful upgrade, particularly under the hood.
Supposedly this release is in keeping with the usual approach taken since OS 10.5 Leopard and OS 10.6 Snow Leopard, which is to offer a major release, and follow it up with an upgrade to clean up the glitches and do some internal plumbing improvements.
For El Capitan, Apple has followed in the spirit of iOS 9 by switching the system font from Helvetica Neue to San Francisco. For the iPhone and iPad, it makes sense, since it provides much cleaner text in smaller sizes. That’s true with El Capitan as well, but the level of improvement is not quite as noticeable.
The actual feature improvements are decent enough. Spotlight gets plenty of attention, by making the search respond to plain language requests, same as Proactive Siri for iOS 9. The search window is also movable, and you wonder why it took so long for Apple to do something so practical.
Notes matches up its iOS counterpart by giving you more formatting options. It brings it closer in concept to Microsoft OneNote. You can also add a photo, video, URL or a location from Maps to coordinate your note taking. If I actually used Notes, I’d care. I’m not at all that interested in the Split View feature, the side-by-side window management scheme “borrowed” from Windows 7, although it appears to have a lot more value on the latest iPads running iOS 9.
There are also enhancements to Mail, Photos and Safari among Apple’s apps. Maps gets the same enhancements as its iOS counterpart, with transit information from 10 cities and more to come.
While some might fret over the iOSification of OS X, the similarities make sense. Apple wants you to be able to share your Notes and Photos, and start the trip that you planned on your Mac on your iPhone or iPad. This is the sort of system integration that is uniquely Apple’s.
While an operating system refresh has usually resulted in slower performance on older hardware, Apple appears to be making an effort to make it more responsive in many ways. They boast of app launches that are up to 1.4 times faster, app switching and the display of the first messages in Mail are up to twice as fast, and opening PDF files is up to four times faster. Graphics performance is also said to be much snappier because Apple has added support for Metal, an enhancement that previously debuted in iOS 8. But it’s not available to everyone. It appears that only Macs built in the last two or three years have the graphics hardware to support Metal. Otherwise, El Capitan runs on the same Macs as Yosemite, which include Macs up to eight years old.
Indeed, the extensive range of hardware support means that, if El Capitan delivers credible performance on older hardware; essentially those with 64-bit Intel chips. You aren’t forced to go out and buy a new Mac, although it’s not just Metal that requires recent hardware. The Handoff feature, part of Continuity, needs a Mac with Bluetooth LE hardware, essentially models no more than three years old.
But the requirement for recent hardware isn’t some dirty trick from Apple. It’s a matter of making Metal and Handoff work properly, and Apple isn’t going to omit new features because of the limitations of older Macs.
Overall, El Capitan is a creditable update. I’ve lived through the beta process and the usual glitches appear to have been resolved. Mail works well enough even with thickly packed folders, although I’ve heard of some who have encountered slowdowns. But there’s nothing wrong with just keeping the size of your Inbox as small as possible on IMAP accounts. Large Inboxes can cause a heap of grief.
The only real problem I’ve encountered involves an important audio editing tool known as The Levelator. It uses a sophisticated algorithm to adjust volume levels on your files, and it can save you hours of work, particularly when you are managing several participants on Skype. They all come through on a single channel, which calls for lots of manual labor if you have to set different volume levels for different people. Levelator figures it all out, but it is not compatible with El Capitan, and I had been forced to use the Windows version via a Parallels Desktop virtual machine.
So the developers stopped maintaining The Levelator in 2012. Fortunately, Adam Engst at TidBITS discovered a solution that he posted for your edification. It involves copying a file from Levelator’s Package Contents to another folder, usually hidden, on your Mac. Just follow the steps carefully. It takes at most a couple of minutes. Restart your Mac and Levelator will be restored to all its glory. The main limitation is that it will have to be duplicated on every Mac with OS 10.11 on which you intend to run the app. It’s possible a new system installation might wipe it clean. But I’m not assuming any such thing. I’m just happy that one of my most essential tools works again for me without hoop jumping.
As for El Capitan: It’ll make your Mac faster, and more stable. Although some apps may need upgrades — and you should check first — it gets my wholehearted recommendation. Of course, if you want to avoid the usual point-zero glitches, wait for OS 10.11.1. It’s reportedly already under development.