Odds are your computer meets the system requirements for El Capitan. (If it doesn't, we need to talk about why you're suffering in silence with such slow hardware.) To install the update, you'll need a machine with at least 2GB of RAM, 8GB of available storage and an existing software build of OS X 10.6.8 or higher. (That's Snow Leopard, last updated in 2011.) You'll also need some free time, because depending on your internet connection, the 6GB file could take a while to download and install.
In addition to the new 12-inch MacBook, El Capitan runs on MacBooks from at least late 2008, MacBook Pros from mid- to late 2007, MacBook Airs from late 2008, Mac Minis from early 2009, iMacs from mid-2007, Mac Pros from early 2008 and Xserve servers from early 2009. As ever, even if you have qualifying hardware, not all features will work, depending on how old your machine is.
Same look and feel (almost)
Once you're in, you'll notice that very little has changed, visually. El Capitan has the minimalist, flat aesthetic introduced in Yosemite, with flat, 2D icons and semi-see-through menu bars. Apple did introduce slightly different system fonts for English- and Chinese-speaking users, but for my part, I didn't notice until someone pointed it out.
There's also a cute new feature called Find My Cursor that is exactly what it sounds like: It helps you find your misplaced cursor if you can't see it on the screen. Just shake your finger back and forth on the trackpad and you'll see the cursor become large enough that it'd be hard to miss.
All told, the few visual changes there are all have to do with multitasking. Chief among them is Split View, which allows you to run two apps side by side at full screen. The implementation is similar to what Windows users have been enjoying for years, with the ability to use a slider running down the middle of the screen make one window either wider or narrower. From there, you can interact with each app independently -- say, zoom the text on one, but not the other. You can also hover with the cursor and start scrolling in either window, without having to click on the one you want to use. It's a welcome, perhaps overdue, feature, and one I quickly made good use of: Even as I drafted this review, I kept TextEdit open on one side of the screen, with Safari on the other, allowing me to do research as I wrote.
There are two ways you can enter Split View. One is to click and hold the green stoplight button, the one typically used for going full-screen. It's easy once you know to do it, but as I said in my preview, I'm not sure this will feel intuitive to first-time El Capitan users who haven't read up on the feature (not necessarily Engadget readers, mind you, but more casual users out there). For what it's worth, Microsoft's implementation -- clicking and dragging a window toward the edge of the screen -- still feels more intuitive, even if the end result is basically the same.
The other option is to drag a window on top of another window in the Spaces Bar in Mission Control. Speaking of the sort, the ability to drag anything into the Spaces Bar is an altogether new feature in El Capitan. So, I can not only create a Split View screen that way, but also drag any window up there to create an additional desktop. In any case, because each full-screen Split View layout is its own desktop, you can easily switch to a different desktop using the usual trackpad gestures: either by swiping back and forth with three fingers, or swiping up with four fingers to get to Mission Control.
One more note on Mission Control: It works the same way as before, which is to say, you swipe up with four fingers to get a bird's eye view of everything you have open. Now, though, the thumbnails for each window are flat, and although they're arranged to match where they are on the desktop, these previews no longer overlap with each other, making them easier to find. It's a nice touch, although I confess I didn't find the old layout with the stacked windows particularly confusing.
OS X's built-in Spotlight search received a major overhaul in last year's Yosemite release, gaining the ability to display Wikipedia previews, web search results, movie times and iTunes purchases. Starting last year, too, Spotlight has been redesigned as a search bar that sits in the middle of the screen, with all the search results contained within that box. This year, Spotlight for both OS X and iOS 9 has gotten a little smarter: It can also serve up results for a few more topics, including stocks, sports, transit and web video. In addition, Spotlight now responds to natural language commands, like "apps I installed this week" or "documents I edited in September." Lastly, the search bar itself is now movable, as well as resizable.
To give you some usage examples, if I type in "AAPL," I'll see Apple's own stock ticker symbol pop up, along with the most recent price and stats like the opening price, trading volume and 52-week high and low. For weather forecasts, you can type in phrases like "weather," "weather Boston" or "weather Boston Tuesday." Web video results come from sites like YouTube and Vimeo. It's a handy feature -- if you know what clip you're looking for; because you only get one to hit for videos, it's better if you know the title of the video you want to see, instead of searching by topic. Interestingly, though, if the web video you're searching for is actually a TV show, you'll instead see Spotlight results for iTunes and whatever website you can stream it on -- say, Hulu or AMC.com.
Additionally, you can use Spotlight to access system settings. So, if I type "sound output," the top hit will be "Sound" in system preferences. And, while the preview version let you look up sports rosters and schedules, this feature at first only worked with NBA and Major League Baseball teams. Now it also works with the National Hockey League, National Football League, college football, Women's National Basketball, men's and women's college basketball, the English Premier League and other European soccer teams. So good news for you, sports lovers.
Apple's newest browser, Safari 9, brings a few useful features, some more important than others. Starting with the bigger stuff, Safari adds pinned sites. If you've used a similar feature in other browsers like Chrome, the concept here should seem familiar: When you pin a tab, it shrinks down; it's always open, with no "X" button allowing you to close it. When you launch Safari, your tabs will always be there, and in the same order (unless you choose to rearrange them). When you click a link in a pinned tab, that link opens in a new (non-pinned tab). So if your pinned tab is Facebook, you never have to navigate back to the home page after you click on, say, an Engadget story.
In my case, there are no fewer than nine tabs I look at multiple times a day, seven of which are related to my job as an Engadget editor. To the extent that the number of open tabs on my desktop reflects the amount of work I have to do, it's convenient to be able to shrink down some of those tabs to help save space (and make my workload seem less intimidating in the process). The only downside with pinned tabs is that you don't see in-browser notifications for sites like Facebook. In fact, during my testing, there was a point where I had double Facebook tabs open: the pinned one, and then another to keep up with an ongoing Facebook Messenger conversation.
Another handy feature is the ability to not just find, but also silence noisy tabs. I make that distinction because there are other browsers, like Chrome, that also show you were loud autoplaying videos are coming from, but don't give you a fast and easy way of shutting them up. Here, you can tap the speakerphone icon in the tab to quickly mute it. From there, you can right-click on the tab to see others that might be playing sound, and then either jump to those, or choose to mute them.
Wrapping up, Safari 9 also has Spotlight suggestions, to match the system-level Spotlight search. So, you can get previews of stock and weather information here too, for example. Safari also now supports AirPlay video, which means you can play video from a webpage to your Apple TV, without the webpage taking over your desktop. Lastly, there are new fonts and themes in Reader mode, including "Sepia," "Gray" and "Night."
Back in February, before Apple was even talking about OS X El Capitan to the public, the company released a major update to iPhoto. The update was so big, in fact, that the app took on a new name -- Photos -- and gained enough editing features that Apple decided it would replace Aperture. Underpinning this new app is iCloud Photo Library, which allows you to access your photos on any other device where you're signed in with your Apple ID, whether it be a Mac, iPhone or iPad. Even in Yosemite, the version of OS X that came out last year, I've been using the Photos app to access my iPhone Camera Roll on my desktop, which I can then use to upload to Facebook, attach to emails, send as text messages and what have you. An optional setting (disabled by default) lets you pull in photos from other sources as well, such as Instagram and Layout.
The app itself has a whole new look, with sorting options similar to Photos on iOS. That is to say, by default photos are presented according to the occasion ("moment"), but if you zoom out on your trackpad, you can take a wider view and instead sort pictures by week, month or year. Zoom out as far as you can possibly go and you'll see your photos arranged in a colorful mosaic of tiny thumbnails, which you can preview by holding down the trackpad and scrubbing the cursor over each photo.