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Review: Apple shines up OS X with 'El Capitan'

Michael deAgonia | Oct. 1, 2015
In Mac OS X 10.11, most of the improvements are under the hood.

el capitan

Apple's new Macintosh operating system, OS X 10.11 "El Capitan," is named after a prominent rock formation in Yosemite National Park. That's fitting because the new OS is designed with rock-solid stability in mind. El Capitan is the 12th iteration of the OS powering Apple’s desktop computer lineup, and as the name implies, it stands on the shoulders of its predecessor.

Just as iOS 9 was built on the foundation laid by iOS 8 for mobile devices, El Capitan improves on the many changes introduced in 2014's Yosemite -- which included new features such as Continuity and a smarter Spotlight search tool. El Capitan adds more polish than features, though there are quite a few of those to explore, as well.

Among the changes made to apps and sprinkled throughout the operating system are better security and a move to Apple's Metal graphics technology (which debuted in iOS) for the system and apps. (Metal replaces OpenGL.) El Capitan also cements in place the adoption of Apple's home-grown programming language, Swift, which allows developers to write apps with smaller latency and more efficient performance.

Like other recent OS X releases, El Capitan is a free download from the App Store. The system requirements are 2GB of RAM and 8GB of available storage. El Capitan will run on Macs that date as far back as mid-2007. (If you're still using a Mac from 2007, though, you should really look into upgrading your hard drive to an SSD for more 2015-like performance.)

But while older Macs can run El Capitan, those systems can't take advantage of all of its features. For instance, although El Capitan is designed to take advantage of both the CPU and the GPU for processing power, only Macs with modern graphics cards -- basically, those released since 2012 -- will be able to utilize this feature. (More on this below.)

Metal and Swift

The addition of Apple's Metal graphics technology is good news for gamers and other users. Metal is a set of application program interfaces (APIs) designed to supplant OpenGL. The Metal API is actually an Apple-designed combination of OpenGL and OpenCL, which debuted last year in iOS 8. (OpenCL is used to take advantage of every processor on a computer, CPU and graphics card included.)

Metal was designed for efficiency -- a requirement for mobile devices that need long battery life -- and is a much lighter API for graphics compared to OpenGL, letting the graphics card be used more effectively and freeing up the CPU for other tasks. For desktops and laptops, Apple rewrote OS X system software (like the Graphics stack) to take advantage of Metal, resulting in a 50% improvement in rendering performance system-wide and 40% better efficiency (the latter will help laptop users by prolonging battery-charge life).

 

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