A look at the P3 color gamut of the iMac display (Retina, Late 2015)

iMac 27
The Late 2015 Retina iMac includes the first wide gamut display that Apple has made for a Mac, able to reproduce colors well outside the sRGB color gamut. I had questions about the P3 color gamut of the new iMac, so I went over to my local Apple Store to check it out.

Using a wide gamut monitor can involve certain color challenges, which I cover later in this article. I’ve encountered those challenges using a wide gamut NEC PA272w connected to my Mac Pro. Most people haven’t seen those issues because up to this point it’s been a conscious choice to buy a wide gamut monitor. But the P3 display is now built into all of the new 4K and 5K Retina iMacs, so Retina iMac buyers will now be working with a wide gamut display whether they know it or not.

Wait…what is the P3 color gamut?

A lot of people have heard of the sRGB color gamut that most computer displays and mobile device displays are based on, and many photographers and designers know that the Adobe RGB gamut covers a significantly larger range of colors. But this P3 color gamut is less well known; what is it and where did it come from?

P3 is based on the color gamut produced by the xenon bulb used in digital cinema projectors. Hollywood uses P3 for mastering because it’s the final output space of motion pictures delivered to digitally equipped movie theaters. P3 is larger than sRGB by a big enough amount that a display that can cover P3 colors is considered a wide gamut display. Most wide gamut displays today are based on Adobe RGB.

What’s the default display profile of the Retina iMac ?

At the Apple Store I went straight to the first 27″ Retina iMac I saw. The first thing I did was open the Displays panel in System Preferences to check out the list of display color profiles. On many Macs the display profile set by an OS X install is Color LCD. On the iMac I tried, the selected profile was named iMac.

Default profile for the Retina iMac (Late 2015)

Was the iMac profile the correct profile? I selected “Show profiles for this display only” and the only profile left was iMac. As far as OS X is concerned, the iMac profile is the only one that matches up with the display hardware.

Default display profile for iMac (Late 2015) when showing only profiles for this display

What’s the gamut of the iMac display profile?

But what is the size and shape of the iMac profile gamut? Is it closer to sRGB, or P3? For the answer to that, I opened Apple ColorSync Utility. First I clicked on the iMac profile to see the size and shape of the color gamut. Then I clicked the Display P3 profile. They were nearly identical: The iMac default display profile is very close to the P3 color space. This figure shows a top-down view of the 3D plots of those two gamuts side by side…

iMac and Display P3 profiles side by side in ColorSync Utility

…and this figure shows the same plots of those gamuts overlaid in Photoshop with the Difference blending mode, which revealed very little difference:

iMac and Display P3 profiles overlaid in Photoshop with Difference Mode

So the default iMac display profile does seem to be P3 gamut. I’m assuming that the minor differences are because of the difference between the ideal P3 gamut and the actual performance of the panel as calibrated by Apple.

What if we compare the iMac profile to the Color LCD profile that is also found in the list of display profiles on this iMac? The Color LCD profile gamut is much smaller than the iMac and P3 profiles. However, the Color LCD profile is close to the sRGB profile, so I’m not sure why the Color LCD profile is even included with the iMac because its gamut is too small to describe the iMac display.

Gamuts of Color LCD profile and sRGB profile compared to iMac display profile

Color LCD gamut over iMac display profile gamut (left), and sRGB profile gamut over iMac display profile gamut (right)

I didn’t have time to do much testing with real images, but an article at astramael.com (The Wide Gamut World of Color — iMac Edition) does use sample photos to show the tradeoffs between the Adobe RGB, P3, and sRGB color gamuts. That author also tried something that I didn’t: They brought a colorimeter to the Apple Store, hoping to make their own profile and gamut plot of the P3 display. They report that the Apple Store staff did not allow them to connect and run the colorimeter. For that reason, both that author and I are comparing the Apple-supplied profiles that we found on the iMacs themselves. The Apple Store I went to had no problem with me copying screen shots and profiles to my USB flash drive.

Note that for true digital cinema work, just having a P3 color space isn’t enough. The Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) standard also specifies a gamma of 2.6 and a luminance of 48 cd/m2 or 100 cd/m2 depending on whether you’re targeting movie theaters or television, and there are also various white point standards. The iMac at the Apple Store was set to maximum brightness which is way too bright for digital cinema or print work, so you’ll need to crank down the brightness of the iMac display and probably still have to use a display profiling device to make sure the display is hitting the correct gamma, luminance, and white point numbers for the specific standard you’re targeting.

How does the iMac P3 display handle untagged objects?

One of the challenges of wide gamut displays is that the colors in untagged objects (objects without a color profile) can appear oversaturated. This can happen when the color values of untagged objects are defined in a smaller color space such as sRGB, which is usually the case. When those untagged color values are displayed on a larger gamut display, if their gamut is simply scaled up to match the larger gamut the color values can end up further out than they should be in the larger color space, appearing oversaturated.

I believe I saw evidence of this when looking at the Late 2015 Retina iMac. I looked at things like the colorful icons in the Applications folder and the graphics in the Maps application. I opened the same windows on the iMac and on a 15” Retina MacBook Pro near it. Even when I turned up the brightness of the MacBook Pro all the way, the colors in the iMac screen were much more vivid. Not just “this display shows more colors” saturated, but some colors seemed to have that unnatural “radioactive” glow that’s associated with untagged objects on wide gamut displays. To me this indicates that Apple may not have completely color-managed OS X system elements for wide gamut displays. I see the same effect on untagged objects when my NEC PA272w display is in wide gamut mode.

I hope to hear more about general untagged color handling on this display from anyone who knows more or is able to test it more thoroughly.

As for the Web, it looks to me like untagged image and CSS colors are rendered correctly in the Safari web browser, but not necessarily outside Safari, such as in the Finder. The tweets below explain why untagged colors in Safari are no longer as screwed up as they used to be on a wide gamut monitor: Safari now does the right thing, in that when Safari 9 sees colors without a profile (untagged) it will assume the colors are in the sRGB color space and convert to wide gamut from there. When Safari sees an image that is tagged with a color profile it will continue to do what it correctly did before: use the image’s profile to convert its colors to the wide gamut display profile, in this case iMac P3.

Does the iMac P3 display have an sRGB mode?

Wide gamut displays can be a challenge for developers of games, mobile apps, web sites, and other content targeted for average consumer displays, because of the oversaturation of untagged content that I just described. Colors can appear unnaturally intense if they’re not mapped properly to a wide gamut display.

Professional wide gamut monitors work around the oversaturation problem by providing an option that restricts their gamut to sRGB. Some let you switch to an SRGB emulation mode through a control on the front panel of the display; with others you switch modes using utility software. The Retina iMac doesn’t do it either way, or at least not in any way that I was able to find. When I searched the OS X help files of the iMac for “P3” or “sRGB” nothing came up. In general, the help files for color management in OS X are pretty thin.

If the iMac P3 display doesn’t have a way to emulate an sRGB display, buyers of the Retina iMac should be aware that colors might not display as expected in untagged objects or in applications and parts of OS X that are not color managed. I’m not 100% sure that there is no sRGB emulation mode on this display, but that’s how it’s looking. If you have more information on this, please post in the comments.

You may sometimes see a suggestion to open the Displays system preference and select the sRGB profile. That is not going to help, because that’s not how display profiles work. A display profile describes the color behavior of the display, but it can’t change that behavior. So choosing the sRGB profile can’t and won’t make the monitor display the sRGB gamut. What choosing an sRGB profile will do is lie to the OS about the color gamut of the monitor, saying that the display is sRGB when it isn’t. That lie will cause colors to display incorrectly.

But it isn’t Adobe RGB! Or does that matter?

Some creative professionals who don’t work in video may be concerned that Apple has gone with a P3 panel instead of an Adobe RGB (1998) panel. After all, Adobe RGB is the de facto standard for a wide gamut color space. When there’s a color space option other than sRGB in a photography or graphic design application or on a digital still camera, Adobe RGB is usually the alternative you get. For that reason, Adobe RGB is the gamut around which most wide gamut displays are built, such as those made by Eizo, NEC, and Dell.

By specifying a P3 gamut panel for the Retina iMac, Apple has consciously gone in a different direction. But you shouldn’t automatically conclude that P3 is going to ruin Adobe RGB workflows, because P3 and Adobe RGB are mostly the same size and shape. With P3 you do lose a few blues and greens, but you gain some yellows and reds. If color management is set up properly on your system, it will compensate for whatever color space your display uses and you should see consistent color. The only way P3 might be harder to use compared to Adobe RGB is if your work often involves the relatively few colors within Adobe RGB that are not within P3.

I did see one possible area of concern when comparing some CMYK/print color gamuts against Adobe RGB and P3. Some of the print blues and greens that Adobe RGB can cover look like they aren’t covered by P3. If print is an important output for you, you might want to compare the gamut of your typical printing conditions against P3 to find out if you would rather have an Adobe RGB display. But you’ll still see more CMYK colors with a P3 display than you would have with an sRGB display.

Adobe RGB, sRGB, SWOP CMYK, and iMac P3 gamuts compared

Adobe RGB, iMac P3, sRGB and SWOP CMYK color gamut comparison, based on plots by Color Sync Utility.

Note that the gamut plots I’ve shown are generalizations. For one thing, the size and shape of each gamut varies with luminance, so for example the P3 gamut is going to look a lot different when you dim it down to the DCI luminance spec for a digital projector. If you’re after the best possible visualization of gamuts, rotate them in 3D to see how they behave from light to dark. ColorSync Utility can rotate its 3D gamut plots, or you can use a more advanced gamut analysis tool such as Chromix ColorThink Pro which can also include sample images as part of the analysis.

The P3 iMac: color management required

I welcome any corrections to this article from color professionals who may have more hard data about how the P3 display works on the Late 2015 Retina iMac, and whether OS X was adjusted in any way to better handle wide gamut displays. Especially because my time with the new iMac was limited. But until I hear otherwise, here’s my take on it.

The wide gamut display of the Late 2015 Retina iMac should give you the best color you’ve seen on an Apple display, as long as you work in color-managed applications with content tagged with embedded color profiles. But untagged objects and colors in non-color-managed applications may display with distorted colors when rendered on a wide gamut display like this one. Because the Late 2015 Retina iMac display doesn’t seem to have an sRGB mode, if you need to proof colors for sRGB output, such as graphics in a game or app, or on a web page in a browser other than Safari, you may want to connect an inexpensive sRGB-calibrated display to the iMac.

If you’re creating work that targets larger color gamuts than sRGB, such as fine art printing or digital cinema mastering, the wide gamut P3 display of the Late 2015 Retina iMac looks like a real improvement over previous iMacs, especially if you’re working in a color-managed environment.

If you’re currently using a conventional sRGB-based display, the important difference is that P3 is still a big step up from sRGB, about the same as going from sRGB to Adobe RGB. You win about as much as you would have if the iMac had an Adobe RGB panel.

I’ve read about photographers who bought a wide gamut display and plugged it into the iMac because the built-in displays on the older iMacs didn’t completely meet their needs. Now that the current Retina iMac includes a wide gamut display, most iMac-using photographers no longer need to buy and plug in a separate wide gamut monitor and give up the desk space for it. For those photographers, the new P3 display of the Late 2015 Retina iMac should save them several hundred dollars and free up a few square feet of desk space.

(There is one more thing: While examining the color profiles on the iMac, I noticed several profiles I’d never seen in OS X before. Those new profiles have one thing in common, and I talk about that in the next article: New OS X Color Profiles Strengthen Mac Digital Cinema Support.)

Prints on display from Il Palio di Siena at Art Walk

Promotional image for Conrad Chavez photos at November 2015 Greenwood-Phinney Art Walk

Event: November 13, 2015 in Seattle

I’m showing a set of photographs from my from my series about Il Palio di Siena, including two large images I haven’t printed before. Il Palio is the centuries-old traditional horse race held twice each summer in Siena, Italy. Attending Il Palio was fascinating to me not because of horse racing specifically, but because of the colorful cultural and historical traditions that drive it.

The event is on November 13, 2015 from 6 to 9 p.m. as part of the monthly Greenwood-Phinney Art Walk. Join me at Nutty Squirrel Gelato, 7212 Greenwood Ave N in Seattle. (See location on Google Maps).

I ate a lot of gelato while attending Il Palio, so I am grateful to Nutty Squirrel Gelato for hosting my Italian photographs in an appropriate venue. In addition to the delicious treats available at Nutty Squirrel, there will be Art Walk-only art discounts and affordable gifts. I will also have additional prints and images that are not already on the walls. Hope to see you there!

More info: List of all participating venues and artists / Map of venues (PDF, 2-up)

If you can’t make it to the event, the photographs are on display throughout November 2015. You can also visit my Palio di Siena project website to see an extended photo essay and video of the works that I continue to create from this ongoing project.

Also, by a complete coincidence, SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival) is screening a documentary about Il Palio on November 14, 2015, the day after this event, as part of their Cinema Italian Style series. I haven’t seen it, but the trailer looks promising. For more information and a preview, see: Palio

Curious about Astropad? I reviewed it for CreativePro.com

Walk into a graphic design or photography studio and you’ll probably see a graphics tablet on the desk. With an app called Astropad you can use an iPad or iPhone as a graphics tablet for a Mac, painting and drawing with your finger or stylus. Astropad even supports pressure sensitivity with a compatible stylus or with 3D Touch on the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. But how close does it get to using a Wacom graphics tablet?

To see what I think, read Review: Astropad, published on CreativePro.com.

Astropad review on CreativePro.com

New OS X color profiles strengthen Mac digital cinema support

For creative professionals, one of the most interesting things about the Late 2015 release of the 4K and 5K Retina iMac is that it uses the first wide gamut display Apple has ever made. And the color gamut it uses is not the Adobe RGB gamut usually seen on wide gamut monitors, but a gamut called P3 which is used in digital cinema.

Mac websites have not gone into much detail about this display except to more or less repeat what Apple says in their marketing materials, so I took a closer look at this display in my earlier article, A look at the P3 color gamut of the iMac display (Retina, Late 2015). As I was examining the wide gamut P3 display, I realized that there are several color profiles installed with OS X that I haven’t seen before. What led me to write this article was that almost no one seems to have mentioned these new profiles…and what they have in common.

New color profiles installed with OS X 10.11 El Capitan

While looking through the profiles included with OS X El Capitan on the Late 2015 Retina iMac, I noticed several profiles that were not installed with earlier versions of OS X:

  • ACES CG Linear (Academy Color Encoding System AP1)
  • Display P3
  • Rec. ITU-R BT.2020-1
  • Rec. ITU-R BT.709-5
  • ROMM RGB: ISO 22028-2:2013
  • SMPTE RP 431-2-2007 DCI (P3)

When I got back to my own old Mac, I confirmed that none of these profiles is included with OS X 10.10 Yosemite, but all of them are included with OS X 10.11 El Capitan. So not only are they new in El Capitan, but you get them even if you don’t have the new iMac, since I also found them in the El Capitan installation on my 2011 MacBook Pro.

Default system profiles in OS X 10.11 El Capitan

Default system profiles in OS X 10.11 El Capitan as seen in Apple ColorSync Utility, with new profiles highlighted in yellow

Profiles for a specific industry

What struck me about these new profiles is that they’re related to one specific medium, and it’s the same medium that’s most concerned with the P3 color gamut: professional digital cinema. Let’s walk through the list.

ACES (Academy Color Encoding System) is a new workflow system specification by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; in other words, Hollywood. Digital production of major motion pictures involves a complex web of hardware, software, and people that changes over time. ACES was designed for archiving, editing flexibility, interoperability, and device independence, helping to standardize that complex workflow and overcome incompatibilities. The ACES CG Linear color space is part of the overall ACES workflow, using a very large gamut so that it can accommodate all input and output color spaces for digital and analog video and film.

P3 is a color space based on the gamut of the high-end digital cinema projectors used in movie theaters. In other words, the P3 color space represents a typical final output device for digital cinema.

The two profiles that start with Rec represent color gamuts used in the video standards known as Rec. 2020 and Rec. 709. Rec. 709 is a current standard that’s almost identical to sRGB, while Rec. 2020 is a proposed standard that uses a much larger color gamut to accommodate upcoming display technologies.

The SMPTE profile that ends in P3 appears to be another P3 profile; I am not completely clear on how it might be different than the Display P3 profile except that its gamut is a little smaller. Some brief research indicates that there are several variants of P3 due to different white point specifications. The entire profile name is important (SMPTE RP 431-2-2007 DCI (P3)), because there is another standard with “2011” in its name instead of “2007”. If the 2011 version is some kind of update, I don’t know why OS X includes the 2007 version unless it’s a more widely used standard.

If you’ve ever come across a profile named SMPTE-C, that’s a completely separate older profile that’s probably on your system because of an Adobe installer. The reason all of these profile names all start with SMPTE is that they’re standards defined by the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE).

The ROMM RGB profile seems to be the odd one. ROMM RGB is another name for the ProPhoto RGB color space, which I thought was used more by photographers than video editors.

Because I’m not a video professional, my descriptions of those profiles may be a little off. If so, feel free to correct me in the comments. I was able to recognize the new profiles as video related thanks to the online show Home Theater Geeks, which frequently covers emerging developments in color and display technologies that are driven by digital cinema and are often not noticed by photographers and designers.

If you’re wondering how the gamuts of these new profiles compare in size and shape, here’s a chart based on the 3D gamut plots from Apple ColorSync Utility.

2D plots comparing the gamuts of the new color profiles in OS X 10.11 El Capitan

How would you use these new profiles?

They’re not all meant to be display profiles, because for example you can’t buy a display that covers the entire ACES CG Linear or Rec. 2020 color spaces. The very large gamut profiles serve a function that’s similar to the role of the ProPhoto RGB color space in still photography. They cover a wide theoretical color space so that full range cinema masters from diverse sources can be edited while preserving as much of their original color quality as possible. You then preview edits on a display that supports one of the reference output standards, such as Rec. 709 or P3. If you’re using a professional video application such as Final Cut Pro X or Adobe Premiere Pro, having these profiles in OS X should make them available as color space options when you export video. These profiles should also allow soft-proofing (simulating how color will look under specific output conditions) in applications that support it.

In video production it’s common for a dedicated video preview monitor to be hardware-calibrated to a specific video standard. The new profiles can be assigned to such monitors. For example, if your Mac is connected to a monitor that’s hardware-calibrated to Rec. 709, you can assign the Rec. ITU-R BT.709-5 profile to it using the Displays system preference panel in OS X 10.11 or later.

Is Apple defining itself as the digital cinema platform?

Because the new profiles are primarily associated with digital cinema, I get the impression that Apple is using digital cinema to differentiate its platform as they did when they shipped Macs that integrated the DV and FireWire standards of the late 1990s and marketed them as digital video editing solutions. The most powerful technologies used in Macs today — Thunderbolt 2, built-in superfast PCI flash mass storage, P3 wide gamut 4K and 5K displays — provide capabilities that most users don’t need for general computer usage. But all of those technologies are required to support the resolution, color, and bandwidth demands of the Ultra HD/wide gamut professional digital cinema workflows and standards that are already in use or on the way. If you are editing video for P3 4K digital cinema projectors, you aren’t going to see all your colors and pixels with an sRGB-based standard resolution monitor, but you will with the latest Retina iMac. Or with another Mac driving a wide gamut 4K display. I think the new color profiles in OS X 10.11 El Capitan are intended to be combined with the above technologies to give the Mac platform broad and robust support for the emerging standards of professional digital cinema.

OS X 10.11 El Capitan: Will Adobe software work?

OS X 10.11 desktop, courtesy Apple Inc.

With OS X 10.11 El Capitan now available as a free download from the Mac App Store, you’re probably wondering how well your Adobe software and other Mac apps will run on it. Below is a summary of what I’ve seen so far. Upgrading to El Capitan seems to go relatively smoothly for most software.

[Update: In OS X 10.11 there were serious problems affecting pro audio software and Microsoft Office 2016, but Apple’s release of OS X 10.11.1 has resolved many of the audio problems and fixed causes of Microsoft Office instability. But 10.11.1 does not seem to fix most of the problems listed below.]

While there’s lots of information throughout this article, if you’re in a hurry you can jump down to:

El Capitan and current versions of Adobe software

Before its final release OS X 10.11 El Capitan had been available as a public beta for some time, giving users an opportunity to test Adobe software. While I haven’t seen every user report, what I have seen indicates that Adobe Creative Cloud applications generally run at least as well on El Capitan as they did on Yosemite. As problems turn up I’ll post them here, so keep checking back.

Adobe compatibility FAQs: When a new major version of OS X comes out, Adobe usually publishes a general statement on Creative Cloud compatibility. That hasn’t appeared yet, though I’m watching for it. Some product teams have posted official statements; see below.

While it might seem odd that Adobe doesn’t have a general compatibility statement about El Capitan ready to go even though beta versions have been available, Adobe is not the only company that delays declaring compatibility until they get a chance to test with the version that actually ships to the public. Over the years a number of developers have been caught by surprise by incompatibilities that appeared only in the final release.

Some Adobe applications may not work as expected with OS X Full Screen and Split View features. Adobe often uses its own window drawing code that can provide additional useful features, but at the expense of compatibility.

Photoshop CC 2015: The Photoshop team has posted an article (Photoshop and El Capitan | Mac OS 10.11). It lists known issues including various delays and sluggishness with specific actions, and a graphics glitch when using Image Size. [Update: That “Photoshop and El Capitan” help document now contains a link to download a new Adobe “OSXCompatibility.plugin” file that is supposed to be an interim fix for many of the existing glitches.] Adobe continues to collect reports on the Photoshop feedback site where you can vote up and comment on issues that are affecting you, or report problems that aren’t already in there.

If you import images from cameras using the Photo Downloader that is part of Adobe Bridge, in El Capitan apparently Photo Downloader is having problems that are related to the Lightroom camera tethering issues below.

Lightroom CC 2015: The Lightroom team has posted an article (Lightroom and El Capitan). “Lightroom Queen” Victoria Bampton is also watching for issues (Lightroom and El Capitan Compatibility). So far it looks like tethered shooting with Nikon and Leica cameras is not working, and there may be an issue with LUT-based display profiles. With Lightroom CC 2015.2 and 6.2, there are El Capitan crashes that can be avoided by turning off the new Add Photos screen.

Although there has been no announcement, Lightroom CC/6 seems to be able to use OS X full screen mode. This will appeal to users who have wanted to take advantage of how OS X full screen mode gives an application its own desktop Space. However, using OS X full screen conflicts with the traditional Lightroom full screen commands in the Window > Screen Mode submenu. For example, as long as you’re in OS X Full Screen mode, you won’t see the menu bar if you choose Window > Screen Mode > Full Screen with Menubar, and Window > Screen Mode > Normal won’t exit full screen to a floating window.

There seems to be a bug related to this, which others are also reporting. When Lightroom is started, the Command+F keyboard shortcut is assigned to Library > Find as it always has been. In El Capitan, Command+F somehow gets reassigned to Window > Full Screen/Exit Full Screen, and Library > Find now has no shortcut. From what I can tell, the shortcut switch may be triggered by switching to another module or switching to another application while Lightroom is running. Restarting Lightroom seems to restore the original shortcut location temporarily. [Update: Adobe is now investigating.]

Two sets of full screen controls in Lightroom

Two sets of full screen controls in Lightroom on El Capitan.

Acrobat DC: If you enter OS X full screen mode, most Mac applications let you exit full screen mode with the Esc key or Control+Command+F. Neither shortcut works in Acrobat; you must hold the pointer at the top of the screen to reveal the window title bar so you can click the full screen button again.

Audition CC and CS6: When El Capitan was originally released, the Audition product team posted an advisory to avoid the upgrade. Fortunately, Audition plug-in issues in El Capitan appear to be resolved by fixes in the OS X 10.11.1 update released by Apple on October 21, 2015: Audition CC and OSX 10.11 (El Capitan)

Premiere Pro CC: After reports of various issues with Adobe Premiere Pro CC in El Capitan, the Premiere team has posted a article on the Premiere blog (Premiere Pro CC and Mac OS X 10.11 (‘El Capitan’)). Product manager Al Mooney says: “We are working hard to resolve these issues in an forthcoming release but currently recommend users remain on OS X 10.10.x.” If you see graphics corruption when running Premiere, a suggested workaround is to switch the Mercury Graphics Engine to software mode, although that disables GPU acceleration.

It is not yet clear whether the above problems will need fixes in OS X or in the Adobe applications. In the past, a number of issues seen in Adobe applications were because of OS X bugs that were fixed by Apple in later OS X updates.

After Effects CC: The Adobe After Effects team has posted an article (After Effects ready for Mac OS X v10.11 (El Capitan)) that says After Effects CS6 through CC 2015 have been tested and no new issues turned up.

Metal: Apple claims that the new Metal API speeds up graphically intensive software. In presentations about El Capitan, Apple used Adobe After Effects as an example, citing an 8x improvement in rendering times. It is not yet clear how real these gains are across Adobe Creative Cloud applications. I’ve seen some on social media misinterpret Apple’s After Effects demo figure as if it means all Adobe software will see an immediate 8x speed boost; that’s a gross over-generalization. On Twitter, Adobe clarified that the Metal demo showed a “preview” of “1 possibility” in After Effects. We should probably not expect widespread Metal acceleration in current versions of Adobe software, but in the future Adobe will probably take advantage of Metal where it makes sense, as they recently have in several applications with OpenCL graphics acceleration.

Upgrading to El Capitan with older Adobe software or from earlier versions of OS X

If you’re upgrading from OS X 10.10 Yosemite, OS X 10.9 Mavericks, or OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion you probably won’t run into any new surprises. But if you’re making a bigger jump from an earlier version of OS X, or from Adobe software earlier than CS6, you may find issues that affect your migration. In many cases you can clear up problems by reinstalling the Adobe software.

Note that CS2 applications, including Photoshop, were written for Macs with PowerPC CPUs. OS X 10.11 El Capitan only runs Intel CPU-compatible software, so El Capitan will not allow CS2 to run or install.

Adobe CS3, CS4, and CS5 applications should run, but Adobe has not said that they’ve been tested on El Capitan. I upgraded a test Mac to El Capitan with those versions of Photoshop already installed and have been able to run them, as shown in the figure below, after running the Java installer mentioned later in this article. License activation and deactivation work fine. Registration might not work, but registration is not required to run the software. I have not tried printing or serious editing with those versions.

Photoshop CS3 working in OS X El Capitan.

Photoshop CS3 and up will run in OS X 10.11 El Capitan.

In Photoshop CS6 in OS X 10.8 through 10.11, if you are having problems with keyboard shortcuts or brushes, including lags when painting, and especially with a Wacom tablet connected, you may need to install the “white window workaround” plug-in and try updating your Wacom driver.

Illustrator CS5 appears to be crashing consistently for several people; scroll down to this article’s comments for discussion and additional links (thanks readers!).

Photoshop Elements 11: A reader reported that Photoshop Elements 11 is freezing when saving a document in El Capitan. There’s an Adobe Communities forum thread with other reports about it; if anyone knows how to solve this please reply in the comments.

Java requirement: When launching some older Adobe software for the first time in OS X El Capitan, OS X may say that a Java runtime needs to be installed. If a button is provided, click it; you can also download the Java installer directly from the Java for OS X 2015-001 page at Apple Support and install that. Note: Sometimes when you visit that link to Java for OS X, you get a blank page. If you see this in the Safari web browser, try opening Safari preferences, click the Advanced tab, and turn off the “Never use font sizes smaller than…” option. If that doesn’t work, try this direct download link: Java for OS X 2015-001 download

Install legacy Java SE 6 runtime

Some users have reported that the Adobe launch issue is not fixed until you reboot a second time after the Java installation. Also, some report that earlier versions such as CS3 are not working with the latest version of Java (currently Java 8), but it does work if they install Java 6, which is provided by Apple in the link above.

It’s understandable that some people avoid installing Java because to its security issues, but OS X won’t let some Adobe applications launch without it. In the case of Photoshop, Adobe says Photoshop doesn’t need Java at all, but OS X puts up the message anyway.

OS X Gatekeeper may prevent older Adobe software from starting: Gatekeeper is an Apple security feature (added in Mountain Lion) that helps protect you from running malicious applications. If you run Adobe software released before Gatekeeper, you should know what to do if Gatekeeper prevents Adobe software from starting. Adobe covers that in this tech note: Error “has not been signed by a recognized distributor” | Launch Adobe applications | Mac OS. The short answer is to bypass the error by right-clicking the application icon, then choose Open from the context menu. Depending on the Mac you use, instead of right-clicking you can also Control-click, or if you have a trackpad set up for two-finger secondary click you can do it that way instead.

Adobe software released after Gatekeeper was introduced properly conforms to Gatekeeper requirements, so no adjustments are needed for them.

Intel compatibility required: If your Adobe software is earlier than CS5, to run under El Capitan at all it must support Intel processors. After Apple switched to Intel-based Macs, Apple started phasing out support for running software based on the older PowerPC processors. Starting with Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, Mac OS X no longer runs PowerPC-based software. You’ll have to check compatibility for each of the Adobe applications you want to run; for example, Photoshop CS3 was the first version of Photoshop that ran on Intel-based Macs. But even if your software older than CS5 runs on El Capitan, it may still have other issues because OS X has changed a lot since then.

Upgrading from Mac OS X 10.6 or earlier: You may also want to read my blog post “Mac OS X 10.7 Lion: Will Adobe apps and other software work?”, so that you can also be up to date on the more dramatic changes that were introduced in Lion, such as the end of OS X support for PowerPC-based software.

General compatibility and other info

To learn about OS X software compatibility of Mac software in general, one resource is the Roaring Apps database. It lists OS X software and its reported compatibility with the last few versions of OS X, and it’s crowdsourced from user reports which are said to vary in reliability. As always, for any software that you cannot afford to be without, you should do two things: Check that company’s support website to verify compatibility, and also set up a test installation of El Capitan on a separate volume (like a spare hard drive or even a large enough USB flash drive) to run tests with your own files, peripherals, and workflows.

Wondering what El Capitan is all about? For the most in-depth El Capitan review you’ll probably find anywhere, read the OS X 10.11 El Capitan review at Ars Technica. As with every major release of OS X, the Ars Technica review not only evaluates the visible features that Apple promotes, but goes under the surface to explain changes to some of the underlying technologies in OS X and how they affect your Mac experience.

TRIM support for third-party SSDs: If you replaced your Mac’s original internal drive with a solid state drive (SSD), depending on the brand it may be a good idea to enable a feature called TRIM for better long-term performance. There was a time during the OS X 10.10 Yosemite release when TRIM could not be enabled in Yosemite without compromising certain aspects of OS X security. Fortunately Apple later provided a way to enable TRIM starting in OS X 10.10.5, and that restoration of TRIM support is still present in 10.11 El Capitan. For the details, see Trim Enabler and Yosemite by Cindori Software, creator of the Trim Enabler utility.

10-bits-per-channel video displays: For many years, Photoshop users and other graphics professionals have wanted proper support for 10-bits-per-channel video displays (also known as 30-bit when counting the three RGB channels together) on Macs. This isn’t about the file format, but the data path to the video monitor.

While 10-bpc-capable displays, graphics cards, cables, and software (such as Photoshop) have been ready for some time, OS X itself has been the last missing piece everybody has been waiting for. Some developers have found clues in El Capitan that hint at possible 10-bpc support, and now some users are finding that OS X is reporting 10 bits per channel from some Retina iMacs, as in the following tweet is from Juergen Specht. Apple has not commented on this, but 10-bpc displays on OS X might finally be a reality.

Now. What am I personally doing about El Capitan? While I’ve got El Capitan on a test system, my production Mac is still on Yosemite. I’m watching the reports coming in and will decide when I feel confident that any El Capitan issues that might stop my work from getting done have been resolved by Apple or application developers.