OS X El Capitan vs Yosemite full review

Welcome to our El Capitan vs Yosemite comparison article, last updated on 15 July 2015. Apple has since announced its next desktop OS, macOS Sierra. For more on that, read our macOS Sierra review and macOS Sierra vs Mac OS X El Capitan comparison article.

The updates in El Capitan compared to last year’s Yosemite release must count amongst the most minor of any update of OS X, stretching right back to when OS X was introduced in 2000. In fact, you’ll often have to look closely to see much difference. However, the new features are there and some of them are extremely welcome, as we discover in this comparison of the beta of El Capitan and Yosemite.

READ: How to get on the OS X 10.11 El Capitan public beta | Mac OS X 10.11 El Capitan launch date | Mac OS X El Capitan preview | Mac OS X Yosemite review | Read our comparison of Windows 10 and Yosemite here

Performance in El Capitan vs Yosemite

Spotting performance improvements between versions of OS X is increasingly difficult now that Apple almost universally utilises solid state storage across its Mac range. Tasks like launching apps occur near-instantly.

Despite this Apple says that apps in El Capitan will load apps up to 1.4 times faster and switching between apps will be twice as fast. Our tests were inconclusive – BlackMagic’s Disk Test and GeekBench produced identical results on both operating systems – but we strongly suspect Apple’s achieving the claimed speed-ups by disk cache optimisation, and benchmarking apps are specifically designed to avoid taking this into account. We’re also aware that El Capitan a beta, so our results are unscientific at best, and the benchmarking apps haven’t yet been optimised for El Capitan either.  

Our brief and very unscientific benchmark tests showed absolutely no performance difference between Yosemite and El Capitan, which is of course only a beta right now.

On a subjective level it felt like El Capitan ran like greased lightning on our 2015 MacBook Pro. Compare that to Yosemite: Since its introduction many Mac users have been painfully aware of lags and slowdowns, such as stuttering animations and network connectivity issues. We experienced nothing like this in El Capitan.

Read next: How to install Yosemite and older version of Mac OS X

Look and feel in El Capitan vs Yosemite

OS X El Captain’s user interface uses a variation of the San Francisco font (and there are indeed several variations — see this fascinating video) that was introduced with the Apple Watch and also features in iOS 9. San Francisco is much more Retina-friendly compared to both Yosemite’s use of Helvetica Neue, or the use of Lucida Grande in earlier releases of OS X.

The new San Francisco system font look terrific, especially on Retina screens where Helvetica Neue/Lucida Grande always looked a bit ropey

Incidentally, San Francisco is not available to use as a font in your documents – you won’t find it via the Font Book app or even in the system Fonts folder. Apple’s hidden access to it (and will continue to hide it) because San Francisco simply wasn’t designed for print/DTP use. It exists solely to define the look and feel of Apple products.

The colour pinwheel cursor that occasionally (cough, cough) appears to indicate OS X is too busy to interact with the user has been overhauled and given the same flatter yet colourful appearance as the new OS X look introduced with Yosemite. It’s a small but welcome tweak and – combined with the new system font – underscores the fresher, contemporary feel introduced with Yosemite. The new cursor is also a lot easier to spot on a busy desktop.

Force Touch trackpad support was introduced with Yosemite and in El Capitan there’s an additional setting within the Trackpad pane of System Preferences to deactivate the click noise. Referred to as Silent Clicking, this somehow doesn’t compromise the degree of feedback, which is still handled via the Click slider.


Silent Clicking is a new feature on El Capitan when it’s used on a MacBook with Force Touch, and magically makes clicking virtually silent – but without compromising feedback

The El Capitan menu bar can now autohide via a setting in the General pane of System Preferences, in the same way that that the Dock can dive out of the bottom of the screen in Yosemite and earlier releases of OS X. If you’ve used Full Screen mode in Yosemite then you’ll already have experienced this feature but now it can be used all the time to gain a precious few centimetres of desktop space.

Mission Control and full screen tweaks in El Capitan

Mission Control is very much Apple’s pet project for the desktop and every recent release of OS X has seen some degree of improvement. In El Capitan, Mission Control features a bar at the top of the screen that shows the names of the existing desktops/full-screen apps. This replaces the thumbnail view in Yosemite although placing the mouse cursor in this area will still reveal the thumbnails.

Mission Control is vastly improved in El Capitan and apps can be switched to fullscreen by dragging them to a bar at the top of the screen

Any window shown in Mission Control can be dragged up to this new menu bar to instantly turn it into a full-screen app. The same action in Yosemite merely creates an additional desktop space.
In fact, you can perform this trick in El Capitan even if Mission Control isn’t active - just grab a window and bump it into the menu bar at the top of the screen to instantly activate Mission Control and switch an app to fullscreen. It’s pretty intuitive.

Fullscreen mode can now feature two apps side-by-side, in a feature Apple calls Split View. Split View is activated by dropping a second app onto an existing fullscreen app’s thumbnail within Mission Control.

Yosemite’s fullscreen mode is enhanced in El Capitan by the ability to run two apps side-by-side

This lets you run the likes of Safari and Calendar side-by-side in full-screen mode, for example, and each app is separated by a black bar that you can drag to adjust which app gets more screen space. If you’ve embraced fullscreen working in Yosemite then this is clearly a useful addition but we doubt it’s going to tempt most people away from the traditional way of working with regular program windows.

In both Yosemite and El Capitan some windows can’t be set to fullscreen, such as System Preferences. Nevertheless banging the System Preferences window into the top of the screen will activate Mission Control in El Capitan, and this provides a neat little power user shortcut. Interestingly, some apps that aren’t compatible with fullscreen mode, such as Calculator, can be split-screened in El Capitan. Curious!

Core tools in OS X El Capitan vs OS X Yosemite

You’ll need to look hard to see changes in Safari although this is perhaps no bad thing considering Safari has nowadays matured into a solid browser. Safari in El Cap borrows the pinned tab feature introduced by Google Chrome but, typically for Apple, implements it more sensibly by opening links you click in fresh tabs and thereby locking pinned tabs to the URL you choose. You can also mute tabs that are producing noise, such as playing a video.

The Develop menu of Safari, accessible via the Advanced pane within Safari’s Preferences, now features a cool Responsive Design mode that lets you switch the web page to dimensions used on various Apple devices.

Amongst other new features in El Capitan’s Safari, web developers can test websites against a variety of screen sizes

As with Safari, feature additions in Mail within El Capitan are subtle compared to Yosemite. If your Mac has a trackpad you can swipe left or right on a message to Trash or Delete the message, as in third-party apps like Mailbox. Annoyingly, Gmail users can’t swipe to archive a message, and there’s no configuration option to control the swipe feature. You can’t even turn it off. Nor can you click and drag with a traditional mouse to swipe in this way, which is again a little infuriating.   

In full screen mode new messages can be minimised to the bottom of the screen, and several new messages can be arranged as tabs in a feature very reminiscent of the tabbed browsing feature that arrived with Finder in OS X Mavericks.

If your Mac has a trackpad you can swipe left or right on individual messages to bin a message, or mark it as unread

Notes in El Capitan is essentially a whole new app compared to Yosemite, featuring much more control over text formatting. The app is also now a share destination from within other apps, so you can send a map location straight to a new note, for example, or even a file from Finder/the desktop. The Reminders app can also receive items in this way via its own new entry on the share menu.

Alas, to gain access to the all-new Notes features you’ll need to upgrade your Notes iCloud database. The chance to do so appears when you first run Notes on El Cap, but doing so makes your existing notes instantly incompatible with earlier versions of Apple’s operating systems.

Maps gains a new Transit button alongside standard and satellite views that shows buses, trains and other public transport routes overlaid on the standard 2D map. Unfortunately you can’t switch to 3D/satellite mode and also view transit lines, something which would be frankly very cool. Still, you’re able to see the tube lines in London mapped geographically, which is lots of fun, and can ask Maps for the best way to get from Tooting to Canary Wharf via public transport, for example. Read: Apple Maps versus Google Maps

Maps can now give directions via public transport and display transit routes geographically

Alas, in the UK it appears that only London has transit directions right now. Every other UK city we examined in the app showed an error message if the Transit button was clicked. Maps has always been a work in progress and we’re sure this situation will improve as time goes on –possibly even in time for El Capitan’s launch later this year.

Alas, the new Transit feature in Maps only works for Londoners – or at least right now

Calendar has a new option in the list of calendars that will show “events found in Mail”. We’re not entirely sure if this means Calendar picks-up events within emails even if you haven’t specifically added them. In our tests it failed to pick-up on appointments within existing messages but, again, we mustn’t forget we’re reviewing beta software.

Messages is one app arguably in desperate need of a complete overhaul but that sadly hasn’t arrived in El Capitan. Recent feature additions like tying in your iPhone’s SMS via Handoff have essentially been bolted on to an app that’s a decade old. In El Capitan there’s signs of some refinement – the preferences dialog box is now less cluttered, for example, but this is to the detriment of the ability to add a messaging status icon to the menu bar. Why would Apple take this away?

System tools in OS X El Capitan vs OS X Yosemite

With the core system tools most of use everyday without noticing Apple appears to have taken the approach of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Finder seems to be functionally and visually identical to Yosemite, for example.

A true relic of the Jobsian era, Dashboard lives on in El Capitan but, as with Yosemite, it’s deactivated by default within the Mission Control pane of System Preferences. It’s hard to Dashboard surviving into OS X 10.12 next year, especially considering that it still hasn’t been updated for Retina-equipped screens.

The new Spotlight window introduced in Yosemite can be moved around in El Capitan by clicking and dragging. It can also – thank ye Gods! – be resized to show more than a handful of results. There’s a slightly annoying caveat in that you can only make the window taller and not wider. However, the window does remember the resizing choice you make, and the position you leave it on screen.

Spotlight in El Capitan also responds to Siri-like queries, such as “photos from last November in Germany”. Quite why Apple hasn’t gone the whole hog and ported Siri to OS X is a little baffling but this is a very welcome step in that direction.  

The Spotlight window in El Capitan can be resized, but only vertically

Disk Utility has been given a visual overhaul compared to Yosemite and now features a bar graph showing how full a partition is, and what kind of files are taking up the space. Strangely, the age-old ability to repair permissions has vanished. In Yosemite this tool had started to return false errors (no doubt leading to non-essential calls to Apple Care) so its removal is perhaps understandable. However, it could fix some problems on misbehaving systems. You can still scan a disk for errors via a First Aid toolbar button, though.

Disk repartitioning within Disk Utility is now handled via a more common sense pie chart representing the entire disk, with a handle on its border that can be dragged to resize individual partitions. Showing that Apple is ever ready for the future, you can set unit sizes with Disk Utility of exabytes (EB) and zettabytes (ZB). It’s unimaginable that storage will ever get that big but once upon a time 100GB of storage seemed insanely large...

Disk Utility features a much-improved partitioning tool plus the ability to set exabytes and zettabytes as size units

Little things in El Capitan

You can now set the App Store to not require a password for free downloads, or purchases/in-app purchases once the password has already been entered for that session.  

The Photos app introduced with Yosemite gets a handful of minor updates, and we’ll be looking at them in detail soon, but perhaps the most significant is the ability to expand its editing abilities via third-party plugins. The folks from Pixelmator already provide a Repair Tool extension for use anywhere in OS X Yosemite, for example, so it’s not hard to imagine what kind of extensions we might see.  

The editing component of Photos can be expanded in El Capitan with third-party extensions, which could make it an extremely powerful image tweaking app

One of the little things we noticed, but sadly don’t have space to mention, is that the Voice Over accessibility feature sadly doesn’t get the pleasant British English Siri voice found in iOS 8 and later. Instead, you’re stuck with the voice that’s sampled from the same somewhat brusque guy who provided the voiceovers for The Weakest Link.

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

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