Well, it does the same thing with the Mac’s operating system. In 2014, Apple released a major redesign called OS X Yosemite. In 2015, it’s a slightly tweaked version called El Capitan. Maybe a better name would have been “Yosemite S.”
Why is it called El Capitan? Because El Capitan is a rock formation within Yosemite National Park. That naming scheme matches up with past annual successions of OS X versions: “Lion” and then “Mountain Lion,” “Leopard” and then “Snow Leopard,” and so on.
El Capitan doesn’t look any different from Yosemite; instead, it’s a representation of all the little nips and tucks that Apple engineers wished they’d had time to put into the last version.
The big-ticket item, Apple says, is speed. Programs open up to 1.4 times as fast, which is especially noticeable in Photos, Apple’s recently introduced iPhoto replacement. Switching programs is twice as fast. Opening a PDF document is four times as fast. Animations—for example, when you switch between virtual monitors in Full Screen mode—feel smoother and faster. Thanks to huge improvements in Metal, Apple’s developer toolkit for 3D graphics, games and graphics apps can enjoy great acceleration (if updated accordingly).
There is no circumstance, Apple says, when your Mac will feel slower after installing El Capitan. (That’s a happy bit of news for people who remember iOS 8 slowing down their iPhones, for example.)
As a handy bonus, you won’t need to upgrade your Mac to run El Capitan. It runs on almost any Mac that could run Yosemite, or Mavericks before it, or Mountain Lion before that. A system-software version that still runs on 8-year-old machines? Nicely done, Apple.
This time around, Apple isn’t boasting “over 200 new features”; “over 20 new features” would be more like it. They’re subtle. They’re grace notes. They’re motley. They’ll be welcomed by people already using Macs but won’t do anything to sway someone who already loves Windows:
Notes. After years of boringness, Apple’s Notes program has suddenly sprouted an array of formatting features that practically turn it into OneNote or Evernote. Now there’s full type formatting; bulleted lists; checklists; web links; and pasted graphics, videos, or maps. All of this gets synced automatically to your iPhone or iPad, too, if it has iOS 9 on it. A new New Note option appears in the Share menu of Safari and other apps, too.
Maps. Apple’s Maps takes a timid step toward Google Maps’ overwhelming competence by adding public-transportation directions—for a handful U.S. and international cities, with more to come.
Split screen in Full Screen mode. In Full Screen mode, your document window fills the entire monitor, and the menu bar and window edges are hidden. In El Capitan, you can now split the screen between two full-screen apps, displaying them side by side, or move the dividing line between them.
Redesigned Mission Control. Mission Control view helps you find one lost window among your ocean of them. It shrinks all your open windows to miniatures, all simultaneously visible. In El Capitan, they’re no longer clumped by program; you can see them all spread out. (Mac veterans will recognize this effect as the old Exposé.)
Redesigned Spaces. Spaces is a somewhat confusing power-user feature that lets you create several side-by-side “virtual monitors,” each with its own programs and windows. In El Capitan, the Spaces bar is more compact and easier to operate; you don’t have to open System Preferences to make changes. You can just drag a window’s title bar to the top of your screen to add it to an existing Space or put it into a new one.
Apple has put quite a bit of work into Spotlight, the Mac’s built-in search feature:
More kinds of web info. Into the Spotlight search bar, you can now type search terms for weather, sports, stocks, athletes, public transportation, and online videos. You can type, for example, “yankees schedule,” “lebron james,” “weather Tuesday London,” or “goog” (to find out Google’s stock price). You can type “jimmy fallon” to see the latest YouTube, Vimeo, or Vevo clips from that show. Or type “GrandCentral” or “7th ave subway” to see the current schedules for those trains. In each case, the search-results panel offers a tidy display of information on your query.
Resize or move the Spotlight window. You can now make the Spotlight window taller (but not, weirdly, wider). You can also drag it around your screen. For example, if you like to use Spotlight as a calculator (you can type, for example, “37*12” into it to get the result), you can now park the window at the edge of your screen so you can keep working in your main program.
Prose (“natural language”) searches. You can now type out queries that describe what you’re looking for, like “files I worked on in January,” or “slides from 2014 containing WidgeTech,” or “images from last year.”
Chapter 3 has details on all this stuff.
Mail, the built-in email program, received just a touch of love from Apple this year:
Speed boost. Apple reworked the way Mail checks IMAP email accounts to make it feel faster, especially over slow connections.
Gestures. You can now swipe to the right (two fingers on your trackpad) to mark a message as read or unread, and swipe to the left to delete it. This trick works even on messages in a background list, while a different message’s window is open in front.
More natural-language searching. As with Spotlight, prose queries have come to Mail. You can search for, for example, “mail from Chris I haven’t read,” or “messages with attachments from last week.”
Calendar suggestions. If Mail detects that a message contains the details for an appointment or a flight, it offers to add it to your calendar, saving you a bunch of copying and typing (just as iOS 9 does now).
Full-screen improvements. In Yosemite Mail’s Full Screen mode, if you were reading a message, it commandeered your screen; you couldn’t click another message in the list, or refer to another message, without closing the first one. But in El Capitan, if you click outside an open message, its window shrinks down into a tab at the bottom of the screen. You can accumulate a bunch of these tabs, just as you can in a web browser: remove them, rearrange them, or drag attachments onto them. Obscure, but welcome to full-screen aficionados.
Instant reminders. If you select some text in a message that should be a reminder (“Caulk the living room tomorrow”), you can right-click it, choose Share→Reminders from the shortcut menu, and presto: A new to-do item appears in your Reminders app. (You can click the Mail icon in that to-do item later to open the original Mail message.)
Apple has brought a couple of new features to its Safari browser, too. For example:
Pinned tabs. If you drag an open tab all the way to the left, it becomes a compact, square pinned tab, one that will always be there, in every window (like the similar feature in Google Chrome). Since these tabs remain continuously updated even when they’re not open, they’re great for social-media sites or web-based email or chat services.
Mute audio. Don’t you hate it when some Safari window or tab is playing sound but you can’t figure out which one? Now, whenever audio is playing, a Mute button appears at the top of the Safari window. Click it to shut up all browser windows (while preserving sound from the rest of your Mac, like alert tones and your music player). Or hold your cursor down on it to see a list of browser windows, so that you can mute just the one you don’t want.
Show the toolbar in Full Screen mode. From the View menu, choose Always Show Toolbar in Full Screen.
Keyboard shortcuts for tabs. In Yosemite, the keystrokes ⌘-1 through ⌘-9 opened the first nine Favorites (bookmarks). In El Capitan, those keystrokes open your various open tabs instead.
iCloud Drive transfer progress indicator. In a Finder window’s Sidebar, you now see a progress wheel, so you’ll know when your local copies of what’s on your iCloud Drive have been backed up to the web.
Wiggle the cursor to magnify it. Whenever you can’t find your cursor, you probably rapidly scrub the trackpad (or wiggle the mouse), just to find it on the screen (especially if it’s a big screen). In El Capitan, whenever you wiggle the cursor that way, the cursor momentarily becomes gigantic to draw your eye.
Silent clicking option. If your MacBook has one of the new “force touch” trackpads, a new option in System Preferences lets you click completely silently. (On these trackpads, the actual click you “feel” is an audio fakeout anyway.)
Auto-hide menu bar. If you like, you can make the Mac’s menu bar disappear until you move your mouse to the top of the screen. It’s the way the menu bar works in Full Screen mode now—but in El Capitan, you can have it work that way even when you’re not in Full Screen mode, for a little extra screen space.
Disk Utility. Apple gave its 800-year-old disk-maintenance program, Disk Utility, its first overhaul in ages. Not only does it now show what’s eating up your disk space, but it no longer has a Fix Permissions button (a time-honored troubleshooting button in times of glitchiness). Apple says OS X now fixes permissions automatically every night, and every time you install a program.
New Color Picker. The Color Picker dialog box, a long-standing element of many visually oriented programs, has had a makeover, too. The Crayon picker, for example, is now the Colored Pencils picker. And the most often-used colors get their own swatches right at the top, so you don’t have to keep remembering “the blue I’ve been using is three down and four across in the color grid.”
Light sensor. In Displays preferences, a new “Ambient light compensation” checkbox controls whether or not your laptop’s screen brightness adjusts with the room brightness.
“Rename” in the shortcut menu. When you right-click a file or folder icon, the Rename command is now one of the choices.
Choice of font in Reader. In Safari’s Reader mode (no ads or blinking—just pure type on a clean background), you now have a choice of typefaces and background colors.
San Francisco font. Apple has designed a single typeface family for all of its products: Mac, iOS, Apple Watch. It looks a lot like the Lucida Grande the Mac’s been using for years, but Apple says it’s even more readable.
Photo-editing extensions. Photos, the photo-management app, can now accept plug-ins from other companies.
New “Recently Deleted” folder in Notes. You’ve got a safety net now.
Three-finger drag moved. The option to drag an icon by swiping your trackpad with three fingers is now in System Preferences→General→Accessibility→Mouse & Trackpad→Trackpad Options.
Find my Friends widget. You can now install a widget (panel) into the Notification Center that lets you find your friends (if they’ve permitted you to track them).
File copy resume. If you were copying some files, but had to shut down your Mac or put it to sleep, OS X is now smart enough to resume the copying next chance it gets.
A redesigned “Spinning Beachball of Death” cursor. Insert your own joke here.
So the changes in El Capitan are, as you’re figuring out, very subtle. This new OS X won’t throw anyone for a loop. But it’s a big speedup with a lot of touch-ups—for free. That’s a very good deal.