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OS X Mavericks: hands-on preview

Apple has the art of operating system upgrades down to a science – unlike another well-known OS vendor whose upgrades (think Vista, Windows 8) sometimes cause weeping and gnashing of teeth among its users.

The next version of OS X, officially called OS X Mavericks, adds power, flexibility, and features to the existing version, OS X Mountain Lion. However, if you upgrade to Mavericks from Mountain Lion when the new version is released sometime later this year, you may need a few minutes before you notice anything different. Why? Because OS X started doing almost everything right several versions ago, and each new version has needed little more than minor adjustments to keep up to date with contemporary hardware and today's style of computing.

Incidentally, "Mavericks" is the name of a famous surfing location in northern California, the first of a new place name-based series of monikers for new versions of OS X. Apple says it ran out of cat names after Snow Leopard, Lion, Mountain Lion, and the rest. The version number for Mavericks is OS X 10.9.

An early look

This isn't a review of Mavericks – we'll have a full review after Mavericks is publicly released – but instead a report on what it's been like to work with a preview version of Mavericks for a while. As with any pre-release version, I encountered minor glitches that should be smoothed out in the final release, but I would be happy to use even this preview version for day-to-day work.

So what do I like most about Mavericks? Well, I certainly appreciate the speed enhancing technologies hidden under the hood, but I’m most impressed with the visible new features like tabs in the Finder and notifications that I can interact with – for example, by replying to a text message in the notification window that flies in when a message arrives.

I'm also impressed by the new "tag" feature that makes it easy to organise all the files that are related to my different projects and activities, even if those files are scattered around my disk or stored in Apple's iCloud. Another smart feature is an improved reading list in Safari that saves selected pages for reading offline and lets me use trackpad gestures to scroll continuously through all the sites on my reading list – with no need to click on a second site after finishing the first. Other improvements in the reading list include an option to see pages linked by your contacts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn – Apple having added LinkedIn to the list of social networks integrated into OS X.

I also like the enhanced multi-monitor feature that puts the dock and menu bar on each monitor. I don't have a second monitor for my Mac, but I have an Apple TV hooked up to an HDTV, and Mavericks lets me use the HDTV as a second monitor – so I can watch streaming video on the HDTV while checking mail on my MacBook. Under Mountain Lion, I could use the HDTV to mirror my Mac's screen via the Apple TV, but I couldn’t use the HDTV as a second screen.

Another feature worth having is the iCloud Keychain – this stores and syncs your passwords and credit card data so that they’re available on all your OS X and iOS devices (and heavily protected against intruders). If, like me, you rely on the popular 1Password app for storing passwords and other data, you already know how the iCloud Keychain works, and it's likely that many 1Password users will switch to Apple's built-in solution. I found it easy to use, with a spacious and clear interface that's better than any third-party alternative.

Mobile integration

With Windows 8, Microsoft created a single OS designed to work on both mobile and full-scale devices, and the results are decidedly mixed. Apple continues to keep OS X separate from iOS – the right choice, to my mind – while bringing more and more iOS features to OS X. The OS X version of Maps is basically a more spacious equivalent of the iOS version, and still not quite as mature as Google Maps, but deeply integrated into the operating system. Mavericks' Contacts app includes a "Show Map" button below a contact's address, and the Calendar app lets you open a map of the location from an event's popup menu. I wasn't able to test the OS X version of iBooks because Apple didn't include it in the preview.

Finder findings

The Finder's new tabbed interface won't surprise users of third-party Finder replacements like Path Finder and TotalFinder, but it makes life easier for the vast majority of users who (like me) prefer OS X's built-in file navigation tools. Finder now runs either full-screen or, as before, in a window, and it's easy to drag a file to a folder by dropping it on a tab. The Ctrl-Tab keystroke navigates quickly between Finder tabs.

The other innovation in the Finder is the Tags feature, which looks a lot like the old Labels feature in that it lets you apply colour-coding to a file, but works in a far more powerful way. You assign different tag colours to different activities – for example, documents and photos related to your family might get a green tag, files related to your business might get a red tag, your plans for building a perpetual motion machine might get a yellow tab, and so on. You can assign a tag from the Save dialog when saving a file, or you can drag files to the optional list of tags in the Finder sidebar to tag them. When you want to see all the files that have a single tag, click on that tag in the Finder sidebar, and all the files appear in a single list.

Files can have more than one tag, making organisation even easier. If you already use the long-standing Labels feature, your existing labels will automatically be used to tag files in the new version. This might be annoying if you have apps that were originally installed with coloured labels – some software vendors have a bad habit of highlighting their apps with labels – because an app with, say, a red label will automatically get tagged with whatever category you assign to the red tag colour.

In this early preview version, the Tag feature lacks some refinements that I hope might be implemented by the time Mavericks gets released. For example, in the Finder's display of all files with a specific tag, you can't see at a glance where any specific file is located; instead you need to click on a Show in Finder menu item. I'd prefer an optional column in the file list that indicates the location. You can't create a compressed ZIP archive of multiple files from the list of tagged files; instead, you have to move them all to a single folder and compress them from there. I'd prefer the ability to create a ZIP archive on the desktop that I could then move somewhere else. Also, I couldn't figure out how to remove a tag from the system without first adding that tag to the list of most recently used tags in the Finder sidebar, but this sort of glitch will probably get sorted out before long.

Losing the leather

Mavericks finally loses one set of visual annoyances – the faux leather and torn paper interfaces on Calendar, Contacts, and Notes are replaced by a clean interface that fits in with the rest of OS X. The Calendar reduces the number of clicks needed to edit an event, and now lets you display (for example) the last week of July on the same screen with the first three weeks of August, or similar configurations that correspond to what you need in real life rather than to the names of the months.

Systematic improvements

I wasn't able to experience all the effects of OS X's under-the-hood features because I tested it on a machine (a 13in MacBook Pro) that I had never used with any other OS X version, so I couldn't compare Mavericks with its predecessors. But a few of these features have visible traces in OS X's menus and utilities. For example, the Activity Monitor utility has a new Energy tab that shows which apps are using the App Nap feature that throttles down energy use for apps running in the background. All modern operating systems swap memory out to disk when it isn't being used; Mavericks instead compresses unused memory whenever possible to avoid the delays that occur when swapping to disk.

A developing story

Following Apple's usual practice with a new version of OS X, the Mavericks preview is only available to registered developers. Other users won't get it until the official release at a date not yet announced. If your idea of a useful OS upgrade is a comprehensive overhaul that takes weeks to get used to but is dazzling to look at, then you won't get excited by the newest version of OS X. If you simply want your computer to work better and faster, and to accomplish more, then you'll be glad to upgrade to Mavericks.

You might also want to check out: 10 things you should know about Apple's OS X Mavericks.