It's that time of year again when Apple releases a new operating system - this year named El Capitan - bringing new features and some changes to its desktop software and your MacBook or iMac.

But with Apple introducing the iPad Pro, and a strong push for 2-in-1 devices from the industry in the guise of the Microsoft Surface range and the newly announced Google Pixel C, does OS X El Capitan keep the desktop relevant in our increasingly mobile-focused world?

We've been using the new operating system for a number of months as part of the beta programme to see whether the new features make a blind bit of difference to your everyday productivity, or if it's nothing more than subtle tweaks.

El Capitan is filled with a number of small changes, many of which are useful. If you're a Yosemite user upgrading then everywhere you look you'll spot the new Apple San Francisco font, which matches the Apple Watch, iPhone and iPad operating systems, but it is less obvious in its OS X format.

READ: Mac OS X El Capitan's 10 new features to try

Other changes include the ability to now move the Spotlight window around, and the ability to shake your mouse (if you have one) or finger on the trackpad for the cursor go massive for a second so you can see where it is - perhaps most useful on a 5K iMac.

For the most part Apple has kept things very similar to Yosemite - El Capitan is the highest peak in Yosemite National Park which gives you a big clue as to the goal of this update - and, for most people, the familiarity of it all will be welcomed. But if there's a key feature that annoyed you in Yosemite, chances are it will still be in El Capitan to continue annoying you. 

A lot of what El Capitan focuses on is trying to improve your productivity so you can spend less time doing the boring stuff. We've never heard anyone ever say they would prefer to be working in front of their computer over being outside having fun, so this can only be a good thing.

The first change is an improved Mission Control. Stacked and hidden layers are now a thing of the past, with everything instead sitting on a single "flat" layer when you access the feature (via a keyboard shortcut or a gesture on your trackpad).

As you can imagine that makes it a lot easier to find a window you're looking for without wondering whether it's behind another file from the same app, which is very much welcomed. A four-finger swipe up to reveal Mission Control speeds things up even more, while four-fingers left and right spins through the desktops or full-screen apps quickly.       

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While El Capitan doesn't introduce the concept of multiple desktops - which we've had for some time in OS X - it does make them easier to access. At the top of Mission Control you'll now find a list of your desktops or full-screen apps currently running and this is where you access the second biggest change in El Capitan: Split View full-screen apps.

Take two full-screen apps and drop one onto the other and you'll get the new spilt screen feature. Once there you can then slide either app across the screen to divide the screen real estate between the two apps how you see fit - perhaps as more space for Mail or less space for Twitter. However, we've found that it drastically depends on what apps you use as to how well the experience works. 

Safari merely reduces the size of the website within the app rather than forcing responsive sites to act as if they are on a mobile device, while apps like Slack have a minimum width they can't go under, forcing them to dominate the screen still, which somewhat defeats the purpose.

Split View is good for focusing on what you are doing, say writing a document and referencing the web at the same time, or checking emails while keeping an eye on Twitter, all the while maximising your screen space. The implementation could be better, though, and having now played with the multi-app screen feature on the iPad, we can't help feeling the implementation of the same feature on iOS is both better and easier to use. Apple's control of the app eco-system works for them in a far better way there, than the diversity of window sizes that Apple has to deal with in OS X.

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Mission Control and Split View aren't the only changes, there are dozens more. Take Mail, for example, which now offers the ability to delete emails in your inbox in the same easy way you can on the iPhone or iPad: a quick swipe to the right.

Suggested contacts is new too. It's a feature that has helped us build up an up-to-date address book that actually has a decent amount of information in it. The new feature works by scanning the email for markers like email addresses, phone numbers or calendar appointments and tries to join the dots, by suggesting you haven't got them in your contacts book.

In Safari you get something called Pins that, as its name suggests, allows you pin a website to the tool bar at the top. You can then quickly go to it without having to open a new tab for your favourite sites. To speed things up even more the sites you pin are constantly refreshed in the background and once you start using them you'll find it hard to go back. That might be enough, when considered along with other features in Safari, to make you ditch Google Chrome altogether.

There's also a quick way to mute audio from any Safari tab (via the address bar) and you can share videos on screen to another device via AirPlay without sharing the whole screen. Useful in their own way, but again not earth-shattering.  

Siri, the personal voice-activated assistant, is always there for you at the bark of a command on iPhone and iPad using iOS 9. Much in the same way Cortana in Windows 10 is tentatively waiting for you to ask her a question. But in OS X El Capitan you get Spotlight... Oh. Not that exciting, right?

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That's a bit unfair, because Spotlight has been improved in this OS iteration so you can type in some questions, but it feels nowhere near as advanced as search using iOS 9. You can now type things like "Weather in Ascot" or "Apple Stocks" into Spotlight to get the relevant details, along with some football scores (not Champion's League though). But using an iOS devices we can simply say "Hey Siri, what was the score last night?" or "Hey Siri, open Photoshop" and watch in wonder as that happens. For now you can't do that in El Capitan.

Under the hood there have been lots of improvements to the OS too. We've been running the system on a mid-2013 MacBook Air, where apps load quickly and battery life is just as good as with Yosemite.

However, we've not noticed a huge difference in performance over and above what we were seeing in Yosemite. Safari does seems marginally quicker as does Mail, but the latter still takes its time if you've got a large inbox.

Apple claims there is anywhere between a 2x and 4x speed improvement, the first when opening Apple apps, the later when opening a PDF. Whoop. But if you're using Office or Adobe products you might not see that improvement.

Speed enhancements are all welcomed, of course, but don't expect your lagging old MacBook to suddenly be super-fast once the update has been installed. 


Updating to OS X El Capitan is free, it won't cost you a penny. So it's absolutely worth upgrading for the minor tweaks that will improve your workflow, even if you won't notice many of them at first. 

And that's the key takeaway here: while Apple hasn't done anything to unravel the OS experience, we can't help but think the company is starting to reach the limits of what can be done with a desktop operating system without a major push on the hardware front. Remember, the iMac and MacBook range don't have any of the fun tech like Touch ID, SIM support, touchscreen, 3D Touch, or host of other goodies. Saying that, we still have the hesitation to go fully iPad for all work-based computing, but with each passing year that line blurs and blurs, especially with the introduction of devices like the iPad Pro.

If you're a Mac user then the El Capitan update is a no-brainer to download, thanks to some new features such as improved Mission Control and Spotlight, Split View full-screen apps, Safari Pins and Mail suggested contacts. But if you also use an iPad you might find yourself wanting and then being disappointed that some of those iOS features aren't to be found in OS X.