If You Haven't Updated Your Mac Yet, You Really Should

Photo: Courtesy Apple.
You may have noticed your Mac alerting you that a new download is available. Maybe, instead of downloading it straightaway, you just keep putting it off for later. This is a bad idea for two reasons. First, you’re leaving your computer more vulnerable to getting hacked. Second, you’re missing out on some awesome new features in Apple’s latest desktop version, OS X El Capitan.

El Capitan, named for an iconic rock formation in Yosemite National Park, isn’t a huge update to the Mac. If you like your computer just the way it is, rest assured that El Capitan brings nothing jarring that will unnecessarily shake up your well-honed workflow. However, what it does do is refine and streamline the updates Apple made in last year’s OS X update, Yosemite — and add some nifty tools, too.

For example, while it’s always been easy to store information on your computer, finding it again can be a pain, so El Capitan has several features that make that process less of a headache. And if you ever lose track of your mouse pointer’s position on-screen (especially problematic on a big new Retina-display 27-inch iMac or a Cinema Display), shaking the mouse momentarily enlarges the on-screen pointer so you can find it in a snap. It's dorky, but useful.

A lot of the updates will feel familiar if you’ve already updated your phone to iOS 9. So if you haven’t yet gone the distance to OS X 10.11 (or even if you have), here’s what you need to know about what’s new and different.
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Photo: Courtesy Apple.
Mission Control
One thing I’ve neglected to take full advantage of in previous versions of OS X is Mission Control. You reveal Mission Control with a three-finger-swipe upwards on your trackpad. Mission Control shows all of your open windows, and in El Capitan, they’re laid out nicely on a single screen. If you’re always multitasking with multiple windows, it can be a lot faster to swipe up and tap to swap which window you’re working in than it is to hunt and find that Excel spreadsheet hiding among Safari windows.

In Mission Control, you can also manage full-screen apps, as shown at the top of this interface. You can make a window full-screen by tapping the green button in the upper left of a window or dragging that window to the top of your screen. Then, with a three-finger swipe right or left, you can toggle between all of your currently-open full-screen apps. At the top of Mission Control, you can swap the order of these apps or add new ones.

The functionality of Mission Control is unchanged from previous versions of OS X — it’s just gotten a face-lift in terms of looks, and it’s incredibly fast.
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Photo: Courtesy Apple.
Split-Screen View
Building on Mission Control is Split-Screen view, which lets you choose two apps to take up your Mac’s entire screen. To do this, open Mission Control or drag an app window up to the top of the screen. There, you can drag one window on top of another one, and the resulting window will automatically go split-screen. The proportions of the two apps’ on-screen space adjusts automatically, but you can also adjust the screen space each app takes using a slider between the two apps. (So, in the example screenshot here, I could drag that middle bar so that Calendar only takes up a quarter of the screen instead of half the screen, if I wanted.)

Split-screen view is a great alternative to toggling between two tabs in Chrome or Safari, between your email and your calendar, or between a website and a Word document (especially on a large-screened iMac or Cinema Display).
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Photo: Courtesy Apple.
Spotlight lets you search your computer, emails, and the web for whatever you’re looking for, whether it’s the day’s weather or a Keynote presentation from April that needs updating. You can search by keyword (like a filename), or using natural language (a phrase such as “PDFs from July”). In El Capitan, Spotlight has new sources of information, including videos from YouTube, Vevo, and Vimeo, and particularly it beefs up its sports standings querying. You can also use it to help you plan a trip on public transit, as it can surface information from the web and from Maps.

While it’s way easier to tap Command and spacebar — or tap the magnifying-glass icon in the upper right of your desktop — to open Spotlight to find files than it is to sift through your emails or Documents folder, it’s not perfect. Since it pulls data from so many sources, what you’re actually looking for may not be the top result. For example, if you search for something short, like “PDFs,” you may end up with that stock ticker as the primary result. And if you’ve got a more complicated web search query, you’re probably better off heading to Google to browse top hits than rely on what Spotlight serves up.

And here’s one more silly (but useful) Spotlight improvement: Now you can resize and move the Spotlight window around your screen. Before, it was anchored smack-dab in the center of your screen.
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Photo: Courtesy Apple.
Mail Shortcuts
No OS X update would be complete without some tweaks to the bane of our existence: email. The changes Apple made are small, but useful. For example, now you can use a two-finger swipe to either mark an email as unread or send it to the trash. Email triage just got a lot faster.

Like Gmail, Mail can also detect when a message contains details for an upcoming event (such as a flight or a meeting) and makes it so you can add it to your calendar with a tap. This didn’t work quite as smoothly as it does in Gmail, for me — it didn’t seem to register a lot of events, or even a recent flight. Perhaps the language needs to be specific (“Want to grab dinner on Thursday at 8 p.m.?”) for this feature to work best? Mail does a much better job of identifying new contacts in emails, which makes it easy to add someone or update a contact whose information has changed.

Mail also (finally) lets you work on multiple emails at the same time. When you’re in full-screen mode, if you tap outside a message’s "compose" window, it automatically gets minimized to a tab at the bottom of your screen. And if you’re writing multiple emails, they appear as tabs in the same window, so it’s easy to toggle between them — just make sure you don’t actually type the text meant for your boyfriend to your boss if they're in neighboring tabs.

You’ll also notice that search and overall speed are improved. If you’ve used Mail in the past, it’s now up to twice as fast at loading new messages. And, as with searching in Spotlight, you can search for fairly specific phrases, like “emails from Kelly with attachments,” which is great when you’re trying to dig up an old email but can’t quite remember the subject line.
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Photo: Courtesy Apple.
Like Mail, Safari didn’t change all that much in El Capitan, but it does boast a couple updates that make it competitive with other browsers, such as Chrome.

First, now you can pin tabs. If you always have Gmail (or, ahem, your media company’s stellar website) open in a tab, now you can drag it to the far left and the site will get a smaller “pinned” tab icon that keeps it there, no matter what other tabs you close or open. These pinned tabs also appear whenever you open a new window or more than one website. You can also pin a tab by right-clicking (Control and tap) and selecting “Pin tab.” Pinned tabs are incredibly convenient; for sites you check out multiple times per day, this is much better than a traditional bookmark.

Safari also mimicked (and improved upon) Chrome’s ability to let you know which tab is playing audio. If a tab starts playing music or noise, an icon appears in the URL field. You can tap that icon to identify the offending tab and mute it without actually having to visit that tab. Auto-playing ads, you are done for!
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Photo: Courtesy Apple.
Like the Notes app in iOS 9, the Mac counterpart can do a whole lot more in OS X El Capitan. It’s not just a cloud-synced text editor anymore: Now, you can add images, embed maps, add checklists, and even embed PDFs, Numbers spreadsheets, and other files. Instead of a digital version of a notepad, it’s a full-featured idea-gathering space, like Evernote.

Dragging and dropping images, videos, and other files from your computer is dead easy. It makes a convenient hub for gathering a bunch of ideas and information around a topic (such as vacation planning). To embed a map or directions (from the Maps app), you can’t just drag and drop, though: You’ll have to tap the share icon in the menu bar, select Notes, and then choose which note you want to add it to. I found that, in some cases, it was just easier to take a screenshot of the map and embed the image — instead of, or in addition to, the link that sends you to the maps app.

And if you uploaded a photo, sketch, or document, and later on, you just can’t remember which note it was in, you can tap the icon to the left of the trash can in the menu bar to pull up the Attachments Browser. Here, every attachment you’ve added to a note is organized by type. (Right-click and you can jump to the note that houses that attachment.)
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Photo: Courtesy Apple.
Other Tips & Updates
There are a ton of subtle changes throughout the operating system that you might not know about.

If you do a lot of photo editing, you can now set up photo extensions. With this enabled, you can open an image in the Photos app, but get access to third-party app-editing features without opening the photo in a separate app. (When you download a photo editor, head to System Preferences to enable it in Extensions. Then, you can access its editing tools in Photos by going to Edit, Extensions.)

If you’ve got files you want to trash permanently (i.e., you don’t want them sitting in the trash bin forever), you can now press Command, Option, and Delete at the same time after selecting the file(s) you want to delete, and they will be gone for good. You can also hold down Option after selecting the files, and then tap Delete Immediately from the pop-up menu.

Some people who have updated to El Capitan on older Macs are experiencing bugs (such as USB drives not working properly) or problems restarting their machine. If you have qualms about this, you can hold off on upgrading your system for another few weeks until OS X 10.11.1 comes out.