Summer's in full swing, the final version of Windows 10 arrives at the end of the month, and so the calendar turns to fall--and an entirely new beta OS cycle, courtesy of Apple.
Announced in June at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco, OS X El Capitan and iOS 9 are due this fall. (Generally that means somewhere around October, about the same time as the release of the next-model iPhone.) Registered Apple developers got their hands on initial development versions during day one of the conference, but now it's everyone else's turn.
Last year, Apple started offering public beta releases to members of the general public who signed up to test them. It wasn't quite a first, but it had been a very long time. This spring, Apple extended that program to iOS as well.
Today marks the beginning of the public beta phases of Apple's new releases for fall 2015, OS X El Capitan and iOS 9.
First, here's how to get off the beta merry-go-round, in case you're not interested in using prerelease software and are tired of being nagged about it. On the Mac, launch the System Preferences app, and click on App Store. Then look for the line of text, "Your computer is set to receive pre-release Software Update seeds," and click the Change button, then Do Not Show Pre-release Updates. That's it--you're off the upgrade train on that Mac. On iOS you need to go to the Settings app, tap General, scroll to the bottom and tap Profiles, then remove the beta software profile.
If you stay on this particular locomotive, here's what you need to know about OS X El Capitan. Apple has, from time to time, embraced a tick-tock pattern for its OS releases, with a major update followed by one that's pitched as more about security and performance than an avalanche of new user features. There was Leopard, then Snow Leopard. There was Lion, then Mountain Lion. That's what's going on with El Capitan, named for a rock formation inside Yosemite (the name of the current version of OS X).
So, about the performance stuff. Apple's making some pretty serious speed-boost claims with this release. The company claims that apps launch up to 40 percent faster, and that switching between apps is up to two times faster than in Yosemite. Opening large PDFs is up to four times faster, and downloading mail via IMAP has been improved, leading to a claim of "up to two times faster" access to new messages.
But the biggest speed claims have to do with Apple adopting Metal on OS X, as it did on iOS 8 last year. Metal is Apple's graphics technology that is directly optimized for modern GPUs. Apple has basically kicked OpenGL and OpenCL to the curb and replaced them with Metal, and it's putting its money where its mouth is--OS X's most important graphics APIs, Core Animation and Core Graphics, now use Metal to interface with the PC hardware. Apple says that leads to up to a 50 percent improvement in render speeds and a 40 percent increase in efficiency.
As a result of this (and the year that Metal has been integrated into iOS), I expect the Metal adoption to be solid. Game developers seem to be exited--the makers of several game engines have announced their intention to update their engines to support Metal--but more importantly, graphics vendors like Adobe are also on the Metal train. Adobe has announced that it'll be adopting Metal for the Mac versions of all its Creative Cloud apps in the future. Even better, since key APIs are being updated to use Metal, existing software should be able to pick up speed boosts just by coming along to El Capitan, where the core graphics features are accelerated using this new subsystem.
Despite being a "performance and stability" update El Capitan offers a bunch of user-facing features, of course. There are some big upgrades to included OS X apps Notes, Safari, Mail, Maps, and Photos. Apple has once again upgraded its Mission Control feature, including introducing a new version of its full-screen view that allows two apps to be run tiled, side by side. (Sound familiar, Windows users?)
Perhaps the most interesting are the upgrades to Apple's Spotlight search technology, which started as a file-finding system and is rapidly morphing (along with Siri on iOS) into a full-fledged search engine. In El Capitan, Spotlight will accept natural-language search queries and adds support for many more external data sources, including weather and sports.
El Capitan also show's Apple's ever-increasing commitment to Asian markets. This release supports a new Chinese system font, four new Japanese fonts, enhanced Chinese keyboard input, improved Chinese expression learning, all-new Japanese keyboard input, and improved support for writing characters directly on the trackpad with a finger.
Finally, the most important part of any beta is keeping in mind that it's a test of prerelease software. That means you shouldn't install it on a Mac you rely on unless you've got a rock-solid backup. And if you find a bug, you should report it using the built-in Feedback Assistant, which is included with the public beta (and a darn sight easier to use than Radar, Apple's bug-reporting tool.
El Capitan and iOS will both be released this fall as free updates to all users, and offer the same hardware compatibility as Yosemite and iOS 8 do.