Today, Apple released OS X 10.11 El Capitan, a free update that will run on any Mac which supports Yosemite. Apple addressed some bugs in this release, as well as including a lot of new features in VoiceOver, and we think you'll really enjoy these updates and improvements. If you find any we missed, especially regarding braille or Zoom--which none of us have the capability to test--please leave a comment and let us know.
Before you update, be sure to have a look at our bug list for El Capitan to be sure that you can deal with the bugs.
El Capitan introduces a feature that many people have wanted for a very long time. At long last, you can use the caps lock key as a Voiceover modifier, letting you press just caps lock instead of both control and option. Just like in other screen readers, pressing caps lock twice will toggle caps lock on or off.
To set this up, open the VoiceOver Utility, select General from the categories table, and find the popup button to change this new setting. You can choose between Control and Option (default on pre-10.11 machines), Caps Lock, or Control/Option and Caps Lock (default in 10.11). If you use Karbibeaner and Spiel to remap your Caps Lock key for use with VoiceOver, you can remove those utilities now; if that's you, don't forget to go back into System Preferences > Keyboard and turn your caps lock key back on.
The overall responsiveness of VoiceOver has been improved. Sounds take up less time, and the Alex voice has become extremely responsive. Nuance voices are slightly less so, but are still better than in previous versions of OS X. Sound effects play along with speech, at least to my ear, instead of finishing before speech can start. They also play closer together, something you can really hear if you focus on a field with multiple embedded text items such as Finder tags or auto-completed email addresses.
Splitting Things Up
Horizontal and vertical splitters now announce where they are collapsed, if they are. For example, if you are looking at a table and a scroll area, with a splitter between them, and VoiceOver says the splitter is "collapsed to the left", that tells you the table is hardly visible on the screen and the scroll area is taking up most of the screen space. At least, that's how I understand this feature to work. Similar to VoiceOver's ability to describe face positions and lighting in photos, it's nice to see Apple continuing to try to represent the visual aspects of its products in an accessible way.
There's a new feature called "window spots" in 10.11. It essentially lets you quickly jump to areas in the current window which VoiceOver deems important. You can add your own window spots with vo-shift-cmd-right bracket, or replace right bracket with left bracket to remove a spot.
To access Window Spots, press vo-u in any app, just how you'd access the Web Rotor in Safari. Focus will land on the Window Spots menu, which is a standard VoiceOver menu. This means that escape will close it, space, enter, or vo-space on any item will close it and move to that item, and typing will filter the list of items by what you've typed. You can also access windows spots in the Quick Nav or Trackpad Commander rotors.
To present you with Window Spots, VoiceOver tries to figure out what parts of a window might be parts you'd want to jump to quickly. In Text Edit, for instance, the available spots are the content of the current document and the text alignment. In Mail, they are the Messages Table, Mailboxes Table, and search field. As mentioned, you can add your own if you want to, or remove them (though you can't remove ones which VoiceOver adds by default).
Getting Choosy with Content
Content Chooser is another new feature, accessed with vo-u in the same way as Window Spots. If the app you're in supports it, it shows you a list of visible content without you needing to go find that content. Note that, as mentioned, not all apps will support this feature; so far, only some Apple apps do. It is not yet known if this is something third-party developers can take advantage of yet. If you find yourself using this a lot and discover an app where you think it might be useful, let Apple know so they can get an idea of how and where people want Content Chooser.
If you use cmd-option-f in Mail to run a search, for instance, you can stay on the search field, press vo-u, and use the Content Chooser to look up your results. Press escape and you're still on the search field, letting you adjust your search and try again with no need to move to the table of results. In Notes, you can be anywhere in the window and use Content Chooser to look at the list of all notes in the currently selected folder. Essentially, Content Chooser lets you look at a list of items without having to find that list.
What Activities Do You Do Online?
VoiceOver activities have been around for a long time, letting users customize nearly any setting based on the app they're in. In El Capitan, you can now run Activities based on particular websites, in addition to the per-app support they have always had. For instance, if you need group mode or table headers on one site, but not on any others, you can now set up an activity just for that site. When you open the site, group mode and table headers are enabled, but will go away when you leave the site.
To set this up, create or edit an Activity as usual. At the end of the Activity configuration options, you'll find a new addition to the popup menu, which used to only offer apps. You can now choose if your Activity runs for apps, websites, or both. You can check any apps you want, as normal, or pick 'websites'. Doing this will open a popup window with a table of web addresses, as well as 'Add' and 'Remove' buttons. Use the 'Add' button to add a new address, then type the address. When you've added all the addresses you want, hit the 'Close' button. The text to the right of the popup menu will tell you what apps/sites this Activity applies to, as will the check marks in the menu itself. Really, the only change to this configuration is the addition of the 'Websites' option, so it should feel familiar to anyone who has used Activities in the past.
Down with Interaction!
VoiceOver can now use one of four grouping modes. Instead of the interaction model that many newcomers to the Mac dislike, you can set VoiceOver to announce or ignore groups, no interaction required. The four options are:
- Standard mode: the interaction mode VoiceOver has always used. This is the default.
- Bookend: as you navigate, VoiceOver will be able to land on elements that speak the start or end of different groups. This is similar to how Jaws on Windows adds textual elements to webpages that tell you about lists, landmarks, and other information.
- Announce: VoiceOver will speak the name of a new group as you enter it but will not land on any actual items that show that information. For example, if you vo-right and move from the main window into a toolbar, VoiceOver will say "toolbar" in a lower voice before reading out the toolbar button on which you just landed.
- Ignore: no grouping information will be given at all as you move.
While the latter three get rid of most interaction, there are still a few places where the Mac will require it. For instance, imagine Mail if there was no quick way to navigate past the table of messages; it'd be a nightmare to get around! For that reason, you might still have to interact with potentially large items like tables. Also keep in mind that, at least in 10.11.0, there's a bug that will sometimes prevent you from leaving an item if you have anything other than the standard grouping mode selected. I've gotten stuck in frames on webpages before, for example, or in the webpage content itself, unable to get to other parts of Safari. The temporary fix, of course, is to switch back to standard grouping until you can get un-stuck and into an app where this won't be a problem. Play with the four modes, and see what you think.
Control the Preview Pane in Mail
In the Mail app, there is a longstanding bug where VoiceOver users could not easily expand or collapse the Preview Pane. Now, in 10.11, you can interact with the splitter to the right of the 'Messages Area Group' and use vo-right to move it. This will close the Preview Pane, letting you arrow through emails without having them marked. Note that you will no longer be able to use vo-j to jump between emails' text and the table of messages if you do this. To bring the Pane back, just find that same splitter and move it the other way. This isn't a feature, per se, but it is a very welcome fix that many users will enjoy.
Our Thoughts on El Capitan
This release has its share of bugs, as do all fresh new releases. However, it introduces a number of very nice changes and additions to OS X as a whole, and to VoiceOver in particular. Some of us are loving the ability to ditch interaction for good, while others are celebrating at the overall improvement in speech responsiveness. Most of the mainstream features in El Capitan are fully accessible, such as the vastly improved Notes app or the re-designed Disk Utility. There are a few odd omissions, though. For instance, VoiceOver seems unable to use the new "split screen two full-screen apps" feature, and despite the addition of "swipe to delete" in Mail, there is nothing like iOS VoiceOver's 'Actions' in the OS X VoiceOver rotor. Of course, it's far faster to press delete than to swipe up once or twice and double tap, and if you can see to use two apps side by side, chances are you don't need VoiceOver to set that up. Still, especially where swiping to delete is concerned, we hope that Apple will continue to improve access to these features; it would be great if new Mac users could manage mail the same way they're used to on iOS.
Should you upgrade? Assuming you can live with the bugs, this is a solid update that introduces some nice new features. It's free, and it'll work on any Mac that is able to run OS X 10.10 Yosemite. It even claims to improve performance, and while none of us have yet seen that for sure, neither have we seen any slow-downs at all. The speed increases and other VoiceOver improvements alone make El Cap worth considering for most users reading this, but if you aren't sure you can put up with the teething problems of a brand new OS, you can of course hold off until an update comes along. Also remember that, as mentioned, none of us are able to test braille support or Zoom on the Mac; if you rely on either of these, we suggest you wait until other users report back.