How do I upgrade my Mac to Mac OS X El Capitan?

Mac OS X El Capitan, Apple's next update to its OS X desktop operating system software, is now available - having launched to the public on Wednsday 30 September 2015. In this article we explain how to download and install Mac OS X El Capitan on your Mac. We'll walk you through the install and update process, and guide you past the potential headaches and problems you may encounter. We also offer tips on the actions you should take to prepare your Mac for the OS X update, so you can spend some time making sure your Mac is ready for the new operating system.

Read next: Top 10 secret features in Mac OS X El Capitan and 21 brilliant tips for Mac OS X El Capitan

What are the new features in El Capitan?

Apple has already unveiled many of the new features you can expect to see in the next version of OS X - called OS X El Capitan. You can read all about them here: Mac OS X 10.11 El Capitan: the new features. Plus here are our top ten features coming in OS X El Capitan.

When can I download OS X El Capitan?

El Capitan launched on Wednesday 30 September, it became available to download that evening in the UK. On 21 October a OS X El Capitan update shipped so now we are on version OS X 10.11.1 which is available from the Mac App Store.

How much will OS X El Capitan cost?

Just as with Mavericks (OS X 10.9) and Yosemite (OS X 10.01) El Capitan is free

How to install OS X El Capitan

When you decide to install El Capitan you will be able to access it via a few different locations on your Mac. You could click on the Apple icon at the top left of the screen and choose App Store, which will then open the Mac App Store, or you can click on the Mac App Store icon (shown below) in your Dock.

Once you have opened the Mac App Store, click on Updates in the bar along the top of the window. You will see that El Capitan is available for download it will appear here. Apple is also publicising El Capitan on the front of the Mac App Store, so really there is no missing it.

However, before you download El Capitan we suggest that you prepare your Mac for the update by following the steps listed below.

Also, it's worth noting that it could take several hours to download and install Yosemite, we expect it to be a similar situation with OS X 10.11.

Will my Mac be able to run El Capitan?

If your Mac wasn't able to run OS X 10.10 Yosemite or Mavericks then I'm afraid if also won't be able to run El Capitan. Don't panic, though, the Macs that won't run El Cap are pretty long in the tooth now, so it is pretty likely your Mac will be compatible.

El Capitan can run on the following Macs:

  • iMac (Mid-2007 or later)
  • MacBook (13-inch Aluminum, Late 2008), (13-inch, Early 2009 or later)
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, Mid-2009 or later), (15-inch, Mid/Late 2007 or later), (17-inch, Late 2007 or later)
  • MacBook Air (Late 2008 or later)
  • Mac Mini (Early 2009 or later)
  • Mac Pro (Early 2008 or later)
  • Xserve (Early 2009)

You’ll also need about 8GB of space to be available for the install (so make sure you have more than that).

You'll find a full list of the supported Macs in our Will your Mac run OS X article.

Check the specs of your system by clicking on the Apple logo on the top left of your screen and selecting About This Mac.

How to prepare your Mac for El Capitan

The El Capitan should be pretty easy to install. However, before you perform any big update to OS X, you should complete a few tasks to ensure that your Mac is ready to go.

Before installing a new operating system it's worth doing a bit of housework. Here are ten things you really ought to do before OS X El Capitan launches.

Here's an overview of some of the new features in El Capitan.

1. Back up your Mac before installing

Backup your Mac before installing OS X

No matter what, we recommend a full back up before you install OS X El Capitan (especially if you are installing the beta, but even if you are installing the final version). Apple makes it easy to back up your Mac using Time Machine, so there is no excuse not to create a Time Machine backup before installing OS X El Capitan.

Follow these steps to back up your Mac using Time Machine.

  1. Connect an external hard drive to your Mac. Choose a new hard drive, or one that you don't mind erasing.
  2. An alert may appear asking if you want to use the drive to backup your Mac. If so,  Use as Backup Disk.
  3. If not open System Preferences > Tim Machine and click Select Backup Disk. Choose the external drive.
  4. Switch Time Machine to On.
  5. A progress bar will appear in the Time Machine system preference pane. Wait for the Time Machine backp to complete before continuing with the OS X El Capitan installation.

We recommend backing up first because when El Capitan launches on 30 September it will no longer be a beta product, but it is still possible that some of your apps and programs may not work. Furthermore, you might find it crashes and is unstable despite being so thoroughly tested during the beta process.

Read next: How to back up your Mac | What to do if your Mac doesn't finish installing an update

2. Make sure you have sufficient RAM to run OS X 10.11 El Capitan

If your Mac is on the list of supported machines, it's likely you won't run into any problems, but it's worth checking that you also have enough RAM to run OS X El Capitan or Yosemite. Apple says you'll need at least 2GB RAM, although 4GB is advisable. All the supported Macs have at least 4GB RAM, and these days most Macs have 8GB as standard, some even have 16GB. If you have less than 4GB RAM it is definately time to consider upgrading to a new Mac, or installing more RAM – if you decide to do that, make sure that the RAM you choose is compatible.

Read about how to update the RAM in your Mac here.

3. Make sure you have enough space for the new version of OS X

Apple suggests that you should have 8GB of free space on your Mac's drive before you install a major OS X update, but we recommend aiming for 15GB to 20GB. The Yosemite installer was 5.16GB, so expect similar from El Capitain, and you'll need to allow some room for temporary files. Expect the installer for OS X 10.11 to be similar.

Here's an article about freeing up space on your Mac.

4. Get access to the Mac App Store

If you are still running Leopard and don't have access to the Mac App Store you really really really need to upgrade! The next version of OS X will be available only via the Mac App Store and the Mac App Store arrived in Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. Luckily you can still get hold of a copy of Snow Leopard from Apple. It costs £14.

Read our article that explains how to get a copy of Snow Leopard.

5. Update your software for OS X 10.11 El Capitan

Before you upgrade to the new version of OS X, make sure you install the latest updates to the version of OS X that you're currently running. There was a recent Yosemite software update for example that improves stability - there is always a chance that you may have a problem updating to El Capitan if you hadn't pre installed this essential update to Yosemite, so do your home work first.

To make sure you are up to date, click on the App Store icon in the Dock and select Updates. You can also click on the Apple logo at the top left of your screen and select Software Update from there.

Read: OS X El Capitan vs Yosemite

6. Update your third party apps

Make sure you have updated any third party apps too. Those updates may include changes that are required for upgrading to El Capitan and if you don't run the updates they may not work properly once you have updated.

To update apps you've bought from the Mac App Store, launch the App Store app and click the Updates button in the toolbar. Then click Update All, simply providing your Apple ID and password when prompted.

For apps that you purchased elsewhere you'll need to manually install updates. You can check if there are updates available from the application's menu, in Microsoft Word, for example, it's a case of clicking on Help > Check for Updates.

Check compatibility with your third party apps before installing OS X 10.11. That way you will be up and running immediately, rather than being frustrated by your favorite apps and add-ons not working.

We will feature a list of apps that don't work with El Capitan as soon as we know of any issues.

7. Ditch really old software

If you're still running Snow Leopard (OS X 10.6), you may still be using a few PowerPC programs - software that was never updated to run natively on Macs with Intel processors. Apple used to provided software called Rosetta that translated PowerPC code so it could run on Intel Macs. When Snow Leopard (OS X 10.6) launched Rosetta was no longer installed by default, but it was possible to download and install Rosetta if you wanted to run a PowerPC program. However, Apple killed Rosetta completely when Lion (10.7) was released, and it remains unavailable to this day.

Any PowerPC apps you have won't work when you update your system, so you'll either need to ditch them and find alternatives, or stay in the dark ages and run very old software.

To find out if any of your applications are PowerPC programs, launch Snow Leopard's System Profiler utility (in /Applications/Utilities), select Applications (under Software in the sidebar), and then click the Kind column header, which sorts the list of applications by processor type. Any programs listed as PowerPC will not work with the new operating system, they won't even work in Yosemite, Mavericks, Mountain Lion, or Lion.

8. Make sure your Mac is healthy

You should make sure that your Mac is completely healthy before installing a big update to the system.

Open Disk Utility (in /Applications/Utilities), select your startup drive from the list on the left, click the First Aid tab to the right, and then click Verify. If Disk Utility finds problems, you'll need to boot from a different volume to perform the actual repairs using the Repair Disk button.

Boot into recovery mode (by holding down Command+R at startup) and use Disk Utility from there to perform the recommended repairs.

You can also run the Apple Hardware Test (for Macs older than June 2013) or Apple Diagnostics (for Macs from June 2013 or later). Both tests check your Mac for other hardware issues, such as bad RAM.

Read more about using Disk Repair to fix a Mac here.

9. Back up your Mac

Before updating to OS X 10.11 or 10.10 we recommend that you back up your Mac, and test that the back up worked before you do anything else. You can use Apple's Time Machine as we mention above to create a back up that will recover your Mac exactly the way you left it prior to the install, but alternatives include SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner both of which will create a bootable clone backup of your Mac.

Read more about backing up your Mac using Time Machine here.

10. Set up iCloud

When you install OS X 10.11 or 10.10 you are likely to be pestered for your iCloud details because these days iCloud is heavily integrated into many apps and system services. Make sure you are logged into iCloud and enable syncing before you start updating and things should go smoothly.

We also have a comparison preview of El Capitan and Windows 10 here

Read: How to use Spotlight in Mac OS X El Capitan

Can't wait for the final release of El Capitan? You can get your hands on the beta! Here's how.

There's also some advice here about dual booting your Mac so that you can run El Capitan and Yosemite side by side, whcih may appeal to you as an option for the new version of OS X once it lauches.

How to get the El Capitan beta

If you want to install the beta of Mac OS X 10.11 El Capitan on your Mac, you could dual-boot the beta alongside your current edition of Mac OS X Yosemite. With a dual-boot installation, you are able to choose between using Mac OS X 10.11 El Capitan and 10.10 Yosemite. However, to do so you will have to wipe your whole system. More on that below.

Apple Beta Software Program

Apple has repeated the successful public beta programme that it ran last year, so consumers are able to get their hands on the beta versions of the software.

Initially it will only be developers who are members of Apple's developer community that will be able to download the software. But The OS X El Capitan beta has been available to developers since 8 June, if you are signed up to the Apple Developer Program you will be able it download it now. You can now join the OS X and iOS developer programs for a single fee of $99 (£64) a year, rather than joining the two programs for $99 each per year. Developing for the WatchOS is also included in that fee. To join the Apple Developer Program enrol at

You don't have to be a developer to get your hands on the OS X El Capitan beta, though. The Apple Public Beta is available for consumers. You can sign up for the Apple Beta Software Program here. To join the program just sign in with your Apple ID and accept the Apple Beta Software Program Agreement. Once you have signed up for the public beta you will get a verification code and a link to download the beta:

  1. Visit Apple’s Beta Software Program page.
  2. Click Sign Up and enter your Apple ID and Password. Click Sign In.
  3. Log on using your Apple ID
  4. Click on Enrol your Mac.
  5. Click Download the OS X El Capitan Public Beta.
  6. The App Store app should open. Enter yourApple ID and Password and click Sign In.
  7. The Redeem Code window should appear with the code already entered. Click Redeem.
  8. OS X El Capitan GM Candidate will beging downloading.
  9. Click on Purchased to see the download (the file is 6.06GB so it could take a long time to download, depending on the speed of your internet connection).

By registering for the OS X Beta Seed Program you are able to download test versions of the software, and give feedback to Apple to help the company perfect the update before it's released to the public in the autumn. The Beta version of OS X also includes an app called Feedback Assistant that enables you to send feedback to Apple.

In 2014 Apple limited the beta program to the first million registered users; this year it appears that there is no cutoff.

You can read more about registering for Apple's Beta Seed programme here: How to join Apple's OS X Beta Seed Program: Get OS X El Capitan on your Mac before public release.

How to download and install the Gold Master (GM) version of Mac OS X El Capitan

Update, 14 Sept: Eager early adopters have been able to install early beta versions of OS 10.11, but Apple has now made the Gold Master (GM) available on its Apple Beta Software Program. This is better yet. The Gold Master is the final pre-release version of OS X El Capitan that Apple intends to make available to the public. By installing the GM edition of El Capitan you can get the new operating system today.

So what's the difference between the El Capitan GM and the one Apple is set to release on 30 September? Hopefully nothing. The short delay enables Apple to test the final operating system in the wild and ensure nothing goes wrong. If a serious problem arises Apple can issue a second Gold Master, but that rarely happens. (They are called "Gold Masters", incidentally, because the master CDs that used to be delivered to reproduction houses were gold.)

Beta versions of software have, in the the past, been made available to developers so they can get a headstart on improving apps for upcoming operating systems. But anybody can join the Apple Beta Software Program, and by installing the El Capitan Gold Master you are, effectively installing the final version of El Capitan early.

In this feature we look at how to download, and install the OS X El Capitan Gold Master operating system on a Mac. The process is similar to installing the final version, but still requires you to go via the Apple Beta Software Program first.

How to install the OS X El Capitan beta on your Mac

Installing OS X El Capitan GM

The public beta program will let you download and run beta versions of OS X 10.11. Be aware that you will be testing an early version of OS X El Capitan. Even though the Gold Master edition of OS X is likely to be the same as the final official version that's released to the public, it is still a beta, albeit a very late one, and problems could arise.

Follow these instructions to install the beta when the installation file has finished downloading from the App Store.

  1. The Install OS X window should open automatically when it has finished downloading from the App Store. If the install program does not appear automatically, then open the Applications Folder (chose Go > Applications from the Finder menu) and double-click the Install OS X El Capitan GM Candidate file.
  2. Click Continue.
  3. Click Agree and Agree.
  4. Click Install.
  5. Enter your Admin password.

If you have concerns about running beta software, you should install OS X on a secondary partition of the Mac or on an external hard drive (more on that below).

Read next: How to maximise, minimise, open, close and zoom windows in Mac OS X

How to install the OS X El Capitan beta on an external hard drive

Luckily you don't have to install the El Capitan beta on your Mac at all - you can install it on an external hard drive. 

You'll want to use a fast drive if you can - Thunderbolt drives are comparable to the internal drives on a Mac, but if you do not have a Mac with Thunderbolt then consider using a USB 3.0 drive.

Adding a second hard drive, formatting it and installing Mac OS X 10.11 El Capitan on it is the safest way to get a good look at the new operating system. It'll leave your current configuration intact and allow you to play around with Mac OS X El Capitan.

To install El Capitan on a external hard drive follow the following guide:

  1. Connect the external hard drive.
  2. Launch Disk Utility (choose Go > Utilities to find it).
  3. Select the drive in the sidebar (the root drive, not the volume it contains).
  4. Click Partition.
  5. Ensure that Partition Layout says 1 Partition.
  6. Give it a name like "Mac OS X El Capitan".
  7. Click Options and ensure that Guide Partition Table is selected. Click OK.
  8. Click Apply and Partition.

Now download the Mac OS X 10.11 installation from the Mac App Store and follow these instructions to install the beta on the hard drive: 

  1. Open the Install OS X 10.11 Preview file in the Applications folder.
  2. Click Continue.
  3. Click Agree and Agree.
  4. Click Show All Disks.
  5. Highlight the external hard drive.
  6. Click Install.
  7. Enter your Admin password

To run El Capitan, open System Preferences > Startup Disk. Select the drive you wish to start up the Mac and click Restart. You can also hold down Option during startup to pick the drive you wish to use to start up the Mac.

How to dual boot the OS X El Capitan beta on a Mac

If you don't have a spare external hard drive (or the one you have is slower than you would like) you can partition the main hard drive into two separate drives and then install OS X 10.11 El Capitan on one and Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite on the other.

The only issue with partitioning your drive is that you will have to wipe your internal hard drive and reinstall Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite along with the new beta version.

If you want to keep any of your current work, you need to create a backup of Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite and ensure that it will fit on your smaller partitioned drive.

To create your partition follow these instructions:

  1. Boot Mac OS X into recovery mode (Hold down Option during startup)
  2. Use Disk Utility in recovery mode to wipe the main hard drive and split it into two partitions.
  3. Use the Install option in Recovery to install Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite onto the main partition.
  4. Next restore the data to Yosemite from your Time Machine (or other backup)
  5. Follow the steps above to install the OS X 10.11 Preview onto the second partition.

Read: How to partiton your Mac

How to dual-boot the OS X El Capitan beta using Virtualisation software

You can also install Mac OS X 10.11 El Capitan inside Mac OS X Yosemite using virtualisation software such as Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion, or Apple's own Boot Camp. The virtual route enables you to test out Mac OS X in a safe environment without affecting the Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite installation.

We think virtualisation is the best option if you already have this software and just want to take a quick peek at the new features.

It is possible to install El Capitan within a virtual machine, but currently the developers of the virtualisation tools are scrambling to include El Capitan support, so don't expect a simple install until they do, and you may find it runs slowly (or not at all).

There's this Reddit post which details how to install the El Capitan beta in Parallels.

Read next: Features in OS X 10.12, successor to El Capitan: Wishlist

Plus: How to free up hard drive space on a Mac