Brian Hough
Big fan of all that tech nonsense, avid walker. 'Do what you like, like what you do.'

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OS X 10.11 "El Cap” Notes & Impressions

Given how much time I spend in front of a Mac for both work and play, it’s nice to see the Mac getting sort of attention it deserves with OS X 10.11 El Capitan (which I will forever henceforth lovingly abbreviate to “El Cap”).

After the radical change that came alongside OS X 10.10 Yosemite, things were certainly feeling like time for another refinement release, and that’s exactly what Apple is promising. Light on the new features, El Cap sits somewhere in between the mostly maintenance centric OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and a more substantial one.

Sure, there are a few new goodies - Mission Control was given a few tweaks (one MacRumors member likened it to OS X 10.6’s Expose), and you can dock two full screen applications next to each other in two configurations - a 70/30 split, or a 50/50 split. There’s also a radically redesigned Disk Utility (I already pang for the old one), a new security feature called Rootless Security that secures the “integrity” of important system files and operations (no more mucking about with hacks for you, sorry), a new system font (a slightly modified version of the Apple Watch’s typeface, San Francisco). There are even some minor improvements to OS X Yosemite’s new user interface, including a new iTunes icon, some minor updates to window chrome, and - get this - a new beachball spinner cursor.

Nothing here is groundbreaking, and some of the changes might be, at first glance, strange. Much virtual ink has been spilt about the merits of Apple’s decision to switch out Helvetica Neue as the system font after just a single year at the helm, but to me the decision seems right in Apple’s wheelhouse. Helvetica - and, by extension, Helvetica Neue - is a fantastic font, but there’s a reason most software developers don’t base their entire user interface around it. Something about Helvetica Neue always seemed just a bit off in Yosemite, especially on my 2011 MacBook Pro’s sadly non-Retina display. When Apple released the original San Francisco font alongside WatchKit late last year, some enterprising hackers figured out a way to utilize it as the system font on Yosemite. I rushed to make the change at the time, and I never regretted the change - El Cap’s updated San Francisco makes it even more palpable. Plus, San Francisco has always been a friendly enough san-serif font close enough to the likes of Helvetica Neue, so I doubt most users will notice or care about the change one way or the other.

There is one very interesting addition to El Cap, and that’s the improvements to Spotlight. For years now I’ve kept the dream of Siri on the Mac alive, and for years now I’ve been disappointed. El Cap continues to not have Siri (for some reason I’ll continue to not comprehend), however Apple has gone a long, long way towards infusing OS X with some smart assistant functionality through Spotlight. Just like you can ask Siri what the weather is like outside on iOS, you can now type “weather Boston” into Spotlight and get the same result.

Don’t get me wrong - this is not Siri, and this is not a Siri replacement. Not even close. Spotlight just isn’t smart enough, unable to replicate even some of the most basic Siri functionality just yet. For example, I frequently ask Siri, “Where can I get some dinner around here?” and get a valuable list of options. I’m typing that same query into Spotlight on El Cap, and I’m coming up blank. Likewise, I can’t use Spotlight to create reminders, set alarms, or anything of the sort just yet.

But this is a start, a glimpse at a new, exciting, smarter OS X. One that works for me in a way that iOS has for some time. For the first time, a desktop operating system is starting to adapt to the way I work rather than the other way around. And at this point, I’m more than happy to take what little table scraps I can collect.

Since I’m a mad man with no care in the world, I’ve been running the first Developer Preview of OS X 10.11 El Cap since Monday night, and this is one of the best experiences I’ve had with a beta operating system in some time. It’s totally unfair to say much of anything about a beta release, so I’ll leave further real world impressions for another time. That said, this first release is fast, stable, and drama free, even at this early stage. Oh, Windows 10, how I wish I could say the same.

Next up, iOS 9 Notes & Impressions. Coming later this week.