10 of the most impressive new features in Apple’s OS X Mavericks

With prices steadily dropping, it was almost inevitable. Lion was £21, and Mountain Lion went for a very reasonable £14, but at its autumn event in San Francisco, Apple dropped a bombshell by announcing that its new desktop operating system, OS X 10.9 Mavericks, would be a free download.

While it's true that Mavericks is not the OS paradigm shift represented by Microsoft's Windows 8 (itself recently updated for free to a much improved Windows 8.1), Mavericks does bring quite a few new capabilities to the Mac. In fact, the company notes more than 200 new features.

A pair of completely new apps – iBooks and Maps – have made the leap from iOS to the Mac, and a pair of longstanding Mac OS X features have been considerably improved – Calendar and Safari. Safari not only gets a redesign, but also a speed boost, a new Shared Links feature, and more standards support.

Also improved are some system tools, including multiple display support, notifications, the Finder, and Keychain password management which can now sync among all your Macs and iOS devices. A new organisational tool, Tags, functions in the same way that tagging in photo apps has worked for years: Attach a text keyword to any file, and you'll be able to find it quickly in a Finder sidebar.

To put Apple's new OS through its paces, I installed Mavericks on a 15in MacBook Pro with Retina Display and a 2.3GHz Core i7 CPU.

iBooks

The fact that book reading software is the top-billed new feature in Apple's new desktop OS gives you a hint about the update's evolutionary rather than revolutionary nature. That said, iBooks for Mac is a smartly implemented piece of software, just as you'd expect from Apple.

As with the latest iTunes desktop app, a button switches you between your library and the store, which boasts over 2 million books (compared with Amazon Kindle's claimed 2.7 million and Barnes & Noble's 3 million). Look up words, make use of highlighting and notes, and rest assured that everything is synced among all your Macs and iOS devices.

Multiple display support

One of Windows 8's big boasts was its multiple display support, which allows users to show the taskbar on more than one screen, and even stretch wallpaper across displays. OS X Mavericks now follows suit, allowing multiple monitors to show the Dock and menu bars. It requires no configuration – for real: I plugged in a Dell monitor and immediately saw the Mavericks wave wallpaper. It also works with Apple TV-connected HDTVs as well as HDMI and Thunderbolt monitors. One limitation I ran into was the inability to span a window across displays, though.

Maps

People have been using maps on the web for over a decade – first with MapQuest, then Yahoo, Google, and Bing Maps. But having a dedicated OS X Maps app adds some definite benefits, especially if you use multiple devices in the Apple ecosystem – iPads and iPhones as well as Macs. The Mac Maps app lets you route trip directions and send them to your iPhone for turn-by-turn audio directions once you leave. It also sports a dazzling Flyover view for a 3D look at the world.

Calendar

The updated Calendar app lets you search for addresses in appointments, set alerts based on the time it will take you to get to an event, and it integrates with the new Maps app to show you the way. The app's design takes cues from iOS 7, but maintains colour coding, multiple calendar support, and subscriptions.

Safari 7

Apple's browser gets overlooked sometimes, with Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer making news more frequently. But Safari is a browser to be reckoned with, boasting plenty of its own innovations. The version that comes with Mavericks brings HTML5 compliance up to speed with the leaders, with a score of 385 on HTML5Test.com. It also features an updated Top Sites page, to keep the design more in line with iOS 7. Speed-wise, in preliminary benchmarking I saw an improvement from 10,757 to 15,567 – a pretty significant boost on my 2.3GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro.

iCloud Keychain

The number of new web and app sign-ins you need to cope with is always increasing these days. We’ve been telling readers to use strong password management tools like LastPass for years, and the recent spate of high-profile breaches makes this even more essential. With iCloud Keychain, OS X Mavericks gives you a way to secure your passwords that works across all Macs and iOS devices. It also saves credit card numbers and Wi-Fi logins – just don't expect it to keep out the NSA.

Finder Tabs

For generations of Mac users, the desktop could easily become cluttered with multiple Finder windows, but Mavericks finally addresses this issue. Each tab can have a different view – list, icon, column – and you can drag and drop files between tabs. A new full-screen view for Finder makes all these tabs even more useful and easier to manage.

Notifications

Mountain Lion introduced the new OS X notification centre at the right side of the desktop, but Mavericks enhances it by letting you reply to messages and emails right in the notification. It also adds notification types, including those from websites, system messages, and software updates. In another homage to iOS, notifications can now appear on the computer's lock screen.

Tags

Speaking of managing files, tags, which have been used as an organising and finding tool by photo software for years, now come to all files with Mavericks. The Tags feature lets you not only create a text description for any file, but also lets you apply a colour code to it. Your colours and text tags show up at the bottom of every Finder window for easy filtering.

Enhanced dictation

OS X was graced with the iOS-like dictation capability in Mountain Lion, but Mavericks improves on the feature in some pretty cool ways. With Enhanced Dictation (which requires a one-time 785MB download), you no longer need an Internet connection for the feature to work. Secondly, you can dictate in an unlimited stream of speech. And finally, you'll now see your spoken words appear in a stream of text on-screen.

For more on OS X 10.9, see our full review of Mavericks, and our guide to downloading and installing the updated OS.