Year after year, Apple proves that it knows exactly what's needed when it comes to an operating system upgrade. Just like the last few upgrades of Apple's desktop-and-laptop operating system, OS X Mavericks smoothly slots in a few hundred new features, but doesn't force you to forget what you already knew about OS X, or send you on wild-goose chases for features that you used to rely on.
At first glance, OS X 10.9 Mavericks looks like OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, with the addition of a Maps app and an iBooks app that iPhone and iPad users have had for years. But as you start using it, you discover features that make life much easier – for example, when a new message notification slides into the upper right of the screen, you can click on a Reply button and answer directly from the notification, without switching back to the Messages app.
New conveniences include optional background downloads of OS and other updates, so you spend less time clicking Update buttons in the App Store, and only need to click a notification button when the updates are downloaded and ready to be installed. Small improvements are everywhere – for example, in Messages, you can finally delete individual messages on your computer as you've always been able to do on your iPhone.
Meanwhile, deep below the surface, new power management features extend the battery life on your laptop. I can't test this, but Apple claims that some of these new technologies can reduce CPU usage by 72 per cent, and I've certainly noticed that the 2012 MacBook Pro that I've been using with Mavericks has noticeably better battery life than it did under Mountain Lion.
Other mostly invisible improvements include major enhancements to security so that apps and browser plug-ins are more tightly controlled than before.
The most obvious change between Mountain Lion and Mavericks is the name, of course. Apple has stopped naming OS X versions after big cats, and started naming them after California landmarks – Mavericks is a famous surfing site, and the default desktop image in Mavericks is a spectacular wave.
If you buy a new Mac, you'll get Mavericks installed on it. Any Mac that can run Mountain Lion can also run Mavericks, and you install the new version by downloading it from the App Store. Mavericks, like Mountain Lion, is available only by download, not on DVD or a USB stick. I installed it on a 2009 MacBook Pro running Mountain Lion, and the installation, after I finished downloading, took about twenty minutes. (See this article for full instructions on how to download and install Mavericks).
The new and the improved
The most visible changes in Mavericks are the two new apps, Maps and iBooks, both familiar to most OS X users from their iOS versions. The Maps app, as you'd expect, is an elegant alternative to Google Maps, and Apple has ironed out most, but not all, of the glitches that hampered Maps when it was introduced in iOS. What makes Maps stand out from Google Maps in OS X is its tight integration with the rest of Apple's apps. Hover over a street address in the Contacts app, and a link appears, offering to show the address in Maps.
In the Calendar app, when you create an event and type in a location that OS X recognises as an address, a map appears on the panel with details of the event, complete with a miniature weather report for the location. Hover over an address in a Mail message, and a map appears.
Among the glitches remaining in Maps is an annoying disconnect between the street maps and satellite data. In many small-town locations I looked at, Maps' hybrid map-and-satellite view showed a street running through the middle of someone's living room. In the same locations, Google Maps tended to have worse looking satellite imagery, sometimes only in black-and-white, but far more accurate street data.
As for the iBooks app, it has few surprises if you've used the iOS version. Your notes and bookmarks all get saved to your iCloud account, and the general layout is spacious and customisable. One integration feature lets you copy a passage from an iBooks book and paste it into a Mail message or document, and a citation is automatically added in the form of a web link. However, the link takes you to iTunes and is only useful on a Mac or iOS device that has access to the same book in iBooks – it isn't usable as a footnote in a college paper, for example.
Apple has got rid of the silly “realistic looking” torn paper edges on the Calendar and the false leather covers on the Contacts address book seen in previous versions of OS X – just as it ditched these "skeuomorphic" distractions in iOS 7. I hope that someday Cupertino drops a few other pointlessly realistic looking interface effects like the shiny red, green, and yellow buttons at the top left of every window, and the gradient effects on menu bars. They were fun to look at for the first few years of OS X, but now they're merely distracting.
Safari made better
Some familiar apps have unexpected improvements. Safari's sidebar, for example, now lets you scroll through all the pages that you've added to the sidebar reading list – just use two fingers on the trackpad to scroll up and down through each page as you normally do, then swipe twice at the foot of a page to scroll down to the next. Believe me, it's easier to do than it sounds. I wish, however, that Apple would let me do the same trick when I use the cursor and scrollbar to move through a page instead of swiping with two fingers; it's one of the places where you expect the interface to be more consistent than it is.
Social networking addicts get shared links from LinkedIn connections and people they follow on Twitter, with a button to retweet a link when they see it in the sidebar. An under-the-hood improvement makes Safari run each open page as a separate process, so a slow download on one page won't slow down everything else. This was a major annoyance in older Safari versions, but it's now gone.
Security and syncing
If you've been using a third-party app to store your web passwords and credit card data, take a look at Mavericks' built-in iCloud Keychain. This saves passwords to all your iOS and OS X devices, offers to generate strong passwords, and protects everything with 256-bit AES encryption. I'll continue to use Agilebits' 1Password app partly because it offers a Windows version, and I work on Windows and OS X machines, but OS X's new iCloud Keychain may be all you need if you stay inside the Apple ecosystem.
Some of us remember when Apple's old MobileMe service automatically provided synchronisation features that disappeared when iCloud replaced it. Under Mavericks, iCloud now brings back a lot of that lost synchronisation, and if you enter your account information for Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook in one Mac running Mavericks, iCloud pushes the account info to all your other Macs running Mavericks. Incidentally, iCloud integration has been built into more of Apple's apps, so that Automator and the AppleScript Editor now let you store files in the cloud as TextEdit and Preview already did.
Tabs and Tags
Catching up with features formerly supplied only in third-party apps like PathFinder or TotalFinder, OS X's built-in Finder finally gets a tabbed interface, so you can say goodbye to the clutter of multiple Finder windows that probably filled your desktop in earlier versions.
Tabs in the Finder work exactly as they do in Safari: Cmd-T (or the plus sign on the tab bar) opens a new tab, and Cmd-Tab switches between tabs. You can easily drag a file to another folder by dropping it on the other folder's tab, without opening a full view of the folder. As you'd expect, you can have two or more tabs displaying the same folder, with one tab showing a Cover Flow-style view and another showing a detailed list, or any other display option. The Finder, for the first time, gets the full-screen display option already available in many other Apple and third-party apps.
The other new Finder feature is Tags, which looks almost exactly like the old Labels feature but is far more powerful. You can attach one or more colour-coded tags to any file, so that a photo, for example, can be tagged with both a blue "Work" tag and a red "Urgent" tag. By clicking a tag colour in the Finder sidebar, you can display all the files tagged with that colour. If you have colour-coded files with labels in earlier versions of OS X, those labels are automatically converted into tags. (By the way, it took me a while to figure out how to delete a tag that I no longer wanted to use: Ctrl-click the tag in the Finder's sidebar or on the Tags tab in the Finder's preference pane, and choose Delete from the menu).
The Tags feature is terrific for keeping track of all the files related to a single project, no matter where they are, but it still lacks at least one important convenience: If you select some files that all have the same tag, but are not all in the same folder, you can't create a ZIP archive of the selected files from the Finder's Ctrl-click menu, as you can when you select multiple files that are all in the same folder.
There's no obvious reason for omitting this ability when selecting files with the same tag in multiple folders, and it took me less than a minute to create a "service" in OS X's Automator app that added that exact ability to the Ctrl-click menu – creating a menu item that made a ZIP archive of multiple files and saved the archive to the desktop.
Other improvements include better use of multiple monitors, with a desktop and dock on each display, removing the old annoyance of configuring one monitor as primary. An app can run full-screen on one monitor while the desktop runs on another – exactly as you can already do with a single monitor where you switch between two or more desktops, with the difference being that you can now see all the desktops at once.
Mavericks' hidden improvements include "App Nap," a feature that gives less CPU time to apps that aren't the front-most window, but is smart enough to kick in only when the app isn't doing anything useful like playing music or videos. Memory management automatically compresses the least-recently-used memory so that current operations get more room to work in. Also, OS X can decompress compressed memory much faster than it can retrieve data saved to disk, which is what OS X used to do with data that it needed to swap out of RAM. One side effect is that a Mac now wakes from sleep much faster than before.
Speaking of sleep, one slightly unsettling change is that a Mac laptop’s power button now instantly puts the machine to sleep when you press it. If you want the familiar menu that lets you restart, sleep, or shut down, you need to press Ctrl-Power or choose an option from the Apple menu.
New security features won't get in the way of most users, but advanced users will notice some differences and possibly some inconveniences. In the past, a single setting in OS X allowed applications to click buttons and choose menu items as if you had clicked them by hand. Now, every application that wants access to these "User Interface elements" has to get specific permission from the user, and a few third-party apps will need to be rewritten to accommodate this change.
A few special-purpose apps that I've written using OS X's built-in AppleScript automation features needed some rewriting before they would work under Mavericks, and if you're one of the few people who use out-of-the-way apps written by amateur developers like me, you may want to hold off on upgrading to Mavericks until the developers update their apps. This warning only applies to a tiny percentage of OS X users, however.
Mavericks has been in semi-public testing for almost five months, and almost all of the minor glitches that I found in early test versions are now completely removed. The only problem I found in the final version is that the Maps app isn't as flexible as it should be with typed-in addresses. For example, I had to change "28 Street" to "28th Street" so that Maps could find it – while Google Maps had no trouble with the address that OS X's Maps couldn't find. Other than that, Mavericks has been a smooth-running pleasure to use in every way.
That doesn't mean that there won't be obscure problems that turn up in these first few days following the public release. As I’ve already mentioned, if you only run widely-used apps, then I think you can upgrade immediately, but if you rely on apps from small developers, then you might want to wait a week or two and check in with the developers' websites for any special information regarding Mavericks compatibility.
Once again, Mavericks shows that Apple got things right when it chose to create separate operating systems for computers on one hand, and for phones and tablets on the other. OS X is the smoothest, most reliable, most convenient, and most manageable consumer-level operating system on the planet, and you'll need a very good reason to choose anything else.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
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