Apple last week released the latest version of its Mac operating system, OS X 10.9 Mavericks, and along with the usual bevy of new features, the company also raised the bar by making the download free for all Mac users.
That means that as long as you are running a compatible Mac (anything that worked with OS X Mountain Lion will work with OS X Mavericks), you can upgrade without paying anything — even if that means you are coming over from Snow Leopard.
With Mavericks, Apple is taking a decidedly different tone than it did with iOS 7. This isn’t about reinventing the now 12-year old desktop OS, it’s about refining that OS and making it better. This isn’t the release that merges iOS and OS X — it’s a release that focuses on helping OS X users get what they need to get done more efficiently and with less headache.
I've been using Mavericks since its first Developer Preview earlier this summer on a slew of different machines. With few exceptions, I feel confident stating that this is Apple’s most realized Mac OS release since 2009’s OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. Yes, iOS is Apple’s main focus, but
MaMavericks makes it clear that the company still cares about its Mac users and continues to improve and evolve the OS X platform. We may be in a post-PC world, but plenty of us still have plenty of love for the Mac.
With Mavericks, Apple focused on two main areas: 1) Power and memory efficiency, and 2) tools and features aimed at power users. It may not have the pizzaz of a brand new UI, but it helps underscore one of Apple and OS X’s core strengths: “It just works.”
Inspired by California
Mavericks is the first OS X release to eschew the “big cat” naming convention. Instead, the company decided to focus on parts of California that inspire its employees. It's named for the famed surfing spot not far from Apple’s campus. This fits with the broader “Designed by Apple in California” mission statement and ad campaign the company launched at WWDC back in June.
Even though Mavericks may be the start of a new naming convention, make no mistake, this doesn’t feel like the beginning of a new desktop era for Apple. If anything, the refinements and features feel ever-closer to their natural end points. This isn’t to say Mavericks feels old or outdated — it doesn’t — but it also doesn’t have the same kind of freshness and paradigm shifts that we saw with OS X 10.0 back in 2001.
Still, there are new features (Apple touts 200 of them on its website) and whether this is the beginning of the end or the beginning of something else, Mavericks feels every bit as realized as it should.
Look and Feel
Aside from the new wallpaper (surf inspired, naturally), at first glance you might be hard-pressed to visually distinguish Mavericks from Mountain Lion. That said, there are some major changes in the way Apple has approached the look and feel of its desktop OS.
Although Mavericks doesn’t adopt the Jonny Ive-directed look of iOS 7, it does get rid of lots of the textures and gradients that permeated past versions of the OS. The linen background that existed behind the login screen and in Notification Center is now gone, replaced with a slate ("space?") grey.
Likewise, the Notes, Calendar and Contacts apps have all been refreshed. They don’t look like iOS 7 per se, but they do have a new, flatter design and the corinthian-leather and ripped-paper aesthetic from Mountain Lion are replaced with more attractive replacements.
Oddly, the icons for Contacts, Calendar and Notes remain unchanged. Reminders — which seems to be such an afterthought this year, Apple didn’t even include it on the dock by default — looks the same as in Mountain Lion (which is to say the same as in iOS 5 and iOS 6). Game Center also retains that green felt background that Pete Pachal absolutely despises. All I can think is that the yearly release cycle didn’t allow for enough time for those apps to get updated.
There are some other minor changes to the interface, but I’ll leave that to John Siracusa to dissect.
Hallelujah, Apple has finally fixed the way multi-monitor support works. With OS X Lion, Apple introduced full-screen apps. Full-screen mode allows users to swipe from one “desktop” to another with their fingers (on the trackpad). It’s very similar to the way this gesture-feature worked on iOS 5 and 6 on the iPad.
Unfortunately, full-screen apps had a massive problem — namely working with multiple monitors. If you used a full-screen app while connected to a secondary display, that display would simply be blank. No desktop. No access to other apps. Just a grey screen. In Mountain Lion, Apple adjusted some of those apps so at least the full-screen app could extend across both desktops. Alas, it didn’t bother to make using that second screen any more viable.
With Mavericks, Apple has finally added proper full-screen support for multi-monitors and it has addressed some longstanding gripes from users who use a Mac with another monitor.
First, full-screen apps now work exactly you would expect. Full screen on one monitor and the other monitor can do what it wants. It can even display its own full screen app. Each screen also works independently in terms of accessing multiple desktops. This means that if I want to have the dashboard connected to my laptop screen but not my secondary display’s screen, I can do that. It also means I can set a separate desktop with a set of apps for that secondary display that swiping through on my MacBook Air screen won’t use.
Even better, the menu bar and dock can now carry over to both screens. No more third-party tweaks required — just a consistent, working menu bar on both screens. The dock is only visible when your mouse is on a certain display (another nice feature) and the translucent menu bar comes more into focus when you change state for which display you want to access.
MuMulti-Monitor support finally works as it should have years ago. Perhaps to make up for the delay, Apple has improved the way AirPlay works with the Apple TV. In past versions of OS X, you could send your Mac screen to an Apple TV using mirrored mode. This meant that your screen was mirrored exactly on the Apple TV.
Now with Mavericks (and supported computers — basically 2011 and newer iMac, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro devices), you can use the Apple TV as a honest-to-goodness secondary display. That means it gets its own desktop, runs at 1,920 x 1,080 (if you have a third-generation model) and can work in addition to whatever number of screens you already have attached to your Mac.
In practice, the Apple TV as a secondary display works great. There is a tiny bit of lag, especially when doing lots of quick movements and animations — the Apple TV’s GPU just isn’t powerful enough to use it to play a high-resolution game — but playing back video, using it for Keynote or using it to show off photos is great. Plus, for $99, you can turn your TV into a secondary Mac display, no wires required.
Finder Tabs and Tags
As a longtime OS X user, I’ve grown to have a love/hate relationship with the Finder. For the most part, I tolerate Apple’s file manager, but there are always quirks and aspects of its structure that drive me batty.
One of those quirks was the lack of tabs for quick transitioning between one Finder window and another. A few years back, I bought the great third-party app TotalFinder as a way to better manage the Finder.
With Mavericks, Apple has finally given hardcore Finder users the ability to have multiple tabs. You can switch between tabs the same way you do in Safari (pressing CMD-Tab Number) and each tab can have its own view structure.
This is immediately beneficial for those of us who like to have a certain tab always available. It would be nice if there was a way to pin a Finder tab, à la Chrome’s pinned tabs — but beggars can’t be choosers.
The tabbed Finder goes hand in hand with one of the other new features, tags. Tags basically work as a way to organize files or folders into a smart grouping system that makes it easy to collate across your entire system.
The system isn’t dissimilar to stuff that apps such as Yojimbo have done for years — albeit at a much less granular level. Think of Tags as the Finder’s Smart Folders, applied to the entire file system.
You can tag files and folders with a specific tag either by using the context menu (right click) to select a specific tag (and color) or by dragging a file or group of files directly to the Tags view in Finder’s sidebar. What’s great about this system is that you don’t have to have all of your files in the same location.
As an example, for this review, I ended up taking hundreds of screenshots (only to use a handful) across three different computer systems. I was able to tag each of them using the same “Mavericks” tag, including stuff on external hard drives, and when I imported those files to the machine where I’m completing my edit, they all appear seamlessly. It doesn’t matter that some of the screenshots are in a Dropbox folder, others on an external drive and still others in a different folder — all of them appear in the same place.
Uber-smart productivity nerds are already looking at how they can implement Mavericks tags into their existing workflows.
Apple gives a lot of attention to its Safari web browser in Mavericks. Safari was first released back in 2003 and in the last 10 years has become, I would argue, one of Apple’s most influential software products.
With Safari, Apple took over the WebKit rendering engine and open-source project. WebKit powers a tremendous amount of the web — especially on mobile. Android, iOS, BlackBerry and Tizen all use WebKit as the basis for their mobile browsers. Until recently, WebKit was the basis for Google’s Chrome browser.
As a many-year Safari die-hard, I have, by all intents and purposes, been using Chrome as my default browser since Mountain Lion was released last summer. Chrome was simply faster, more stable and offered better extensions.
Where this becomes problematic, from Apple’s perspective, is that Safari on the Mac and Safari for iOS can talk to each other in some very interesting ways. From iCloud Tabs (which work the same way Chrome’s tabs work, giving you access to your tabs on another device) to syncing bookmarks to the new iCloud Keychain (more on this below), if you live in the Apple ecosystem, there are benefits to staying with Safari.
UnfUnfortunately, Safari’s performance on the Mac hasn’t progressed as well as it has on iOS. In fact, Google became frustrated with some of the direction of WebKit (and also wanted to be able to exert more direct control over the engine that powers many of its products) and forked WebKit in April with its new rendering engine, Blink.
This has left Safari in a precarious position of losing the biggest committer to its underlying web stack (WebKit). That’s why this version of Safari is incredibly important.
John Siracusa has a great look at some of the deeper changes within Safari, but this is what end users need to know: It’s faster, more stable and uses less battery power.
There are a few new features of Safari – one is iCloud Keychain, and the other is the new and improved Reading Lists feature carried over from iOS 7.
Reading List in Safari is a way for users to bookmark links and save articles or sites for access later. A new feature, first introduced with iOS 7, is Shared Links. This integrates with Twitter and LinkedIn (provided you have associated those accounts with your Mac) and it offers up easy access to the URLs shared by those you follow.
Clicking on a link will open up the browser and you even have the option to easily retweet or reshare a link. Sharing in Safari now includes LinkedIn, as well.
The best feature in Safari (iCloud Keychain notwithstanding) is the new Safari Power Saver, enabled by default, it lets Safari stop running a plug-in (like Flash) on a website if it's in a tab you aren’t using. That means that if you have a tab open and Flash installed, instead of having Flash refresh itself every so often to load a new ad, Safari will automatically pause the plug-in. If you want to, say, continue listening to a YouTube video in the background, you can unpause the plugin with one click.
One of the flagship features with Mavericks is iCloud Keychain. iCloud Keychain is a basic password manager that Apple as built into the core operating system. To be clear, this won’t replace more robust password managers such as 1Password or LastPass, especially when it comes to cross-platform compatibility, but it’s a great start.
I’ve personally written at least half a dozen articles for Mashable about the importance of using good, unique passwords for all of your sites. Phishing is just too common, and basic password crackers are just too fast to risk. If you’re the type of person who uses a mishmash of similar passwords for every website you visit, you need to stop. Now.
iCloud Keychain can be enabled in your iCloud settings. What it does is sync a subset of the OS X Keychain with iCloud. When you turn-on iCloud Keychain, Apple requires setting up some sort of security access code. This access code will be required by any other device that has access to iCloud Keychain (so another Mac or an iOS device).
Before setting up your security code, Apple will prompt you to create a lock screen password if one doesn’t already exist.
Then, you’ll be promoted to create a security code for accessing iCloud Keychain. This can be a four-digit security code, or a more complex character-based code. If you don’t want to do a security code, Apple will need your phone number so you can get an SMS message to verify anytime a new person requests access to iCloud Keychain.
The security codes come into play when you want to authorize another device to access your keychain. To do that, you’ll need to enter in your Apple ID password and your security code. If you’ve configured an SMS code, you’ll need to enter that in as well.
In Safari on iOS and on the Mac, the system will offer to remember your username and password onto sites upon login. If you choose “remember,” you can log into those sites easily from the web browser.
iCloud Keychain supports multiple logins, so you can select what account you want to use when logging in. If you use an existing password manager such as 1Password, iCloud Keychain works seamlessly. Your passwords can be saved in both locations.
iCloud Keychain is primarily designed around Safari, however, third-party apps can choose to store their data in iCloud Keychain as well. This means that if you have an app that is available both for Mac and iOS, it can opt to store credentials in iCloud Keychain and then the user can retrieve those credentials on another device. The apps won’t have access to any other passwords, just the password for that app.
When you create a new account, iCloud Keychain can suggest a generated password and then save it automatically. It can also save your credit card information — except for the three- or four-digit verification code, which must still be entered manually.
WhWhere iCloud Keychain really sings is when it's paired with Safari in iOS 7. I love 1Password but it can be frustrating to have to open a web page inside that app — or open the app to search for a password — when in the native browser. iCloud Keychain takes care of it.
For now, the biggest downside to iCloud Keychain is that it only works with Safari. I understand why Apple has made that decision — and from a security standpoint, I agree. Still, it would be nice if there was a way to share iCloud Keychain data with say, Chrome or Firefox, in a way that those apps couldn’t then sync passwords onto their own servers.
Still, at the end of the day, the fact that iCloud Keychain exists is a great thing. Having a built-in password manager is fantastic, especially for the average user.
Maps and iBooks
The two new apps that Mavericks introduces are Maps and iBooks. iBooks means that finally,finally, users can read their iBooks from iOS on the Mac. It’s about time, Apple.
The iBooks app looks very similar to the Mac App Store and iTunes. In the main view, there is a tabbed overview of your library, organized by Collection, Authors, Categories and Lists and you can also use it to search your books.
In the iBooks Store view, it’s the typical Apple storefront, complete with specific sections of the bookstore and top lists. It’s actually redundant because iTunes still contains the books section with the same information, but it’s nice to have access to the store within the reader.
As for the reader, it works as a Mac version of the existing iOS apps, with the exception of not having the wood-lined shelves and a more subtle navigation panel.
You can adjust the type size, font and background color. iBooks also uses multi-touch gesture to turn the pages. Just use two fingers to swipe to the left or right. You can view the book in either one- or two-page view, though viewing the app in full-screen mode means that you will automatically see two pages.
Notes, highlights and additions are easy to add — just select text, choose a color and then add a note if desired. Notes and page position automatically sync to other iBooks devices via iCloud. In my experience, the syncing works nearly as flawlessly as the the gold standard of book sync, Kindle’s WhisperSync.
The other new app is Maps. Maps is basically a Mac version of the updated Maps app on iOS. It has the same visual style as iOS 7 and it uses MapKit for really great-looking graphics.
Apple has taken a lot of flack for Maps over the last year (and rightly so), but in truth, the company has done a great job of making its maps better and better. In most areas, I can rely on Apple Maps as much as I can Google Maps (and in metro-Atlanta, Apple Maps is actually better, believe it or not). It has the same 3D and street-view options as in iOS 7.
I personally really enjoy the 3D views, especially if you have a fast Internet connection. Using gestures to zoom in and manipulate around the map is a visually stimulating — and dare I say it, fun — experience.
With Yelp built-in, it’s actually nice to use the Maps app as a way to find good places to eat, shop or grab a drink. You can send an address or a set of directions to any of the iDevices connected to your iCloud account.
Speaking of directions, you can get walking or driving directions in Maps. No transit directions, which is a real bummer, especially for those of us who live in metropolitan areas that are best served by subway or bus.
The nice thing about Maps is that it’s built into other Apple apps too. Calendar, for instance, has full Maps support, meaning that when you add a location entry to your calendar, you can search for a location and see nearby spots automatically. You can also configure the calendar to show you how much time it will take to get from your current location to your next appointment, using Maps and the traffic information it provides.
Again, this would be even better if it had transit support.
I’m hoping Apple will open up these Maps APIs to other third-party apps (both in and out of the Mac App Store), so other calendar tools (such as my personal favorites Fantastical and BusyCalcan get in on the fun, too.
Performance and Battery Life
Apple has made a lot of under-the-hood changes to the way Mavericks looks uses memory and power resources.
Mavericks has a new feature built-in called App Nap that lets apps use less energy while running in the background. Apple has incorporated App Nap into all of its applications and has made APIs available for third-party apps to use. Even if a third-party doesn’t incorporate all the App Nap stuff into their app now, App Nap will still run.
AppNap works by monitoring what apps are being actively used and “pausing” those that are on the back burner. So if you’ve got a bunch of apps running but you’re only using a text editor, for instance, App Nap can pause those other apps and prevent them from sucking down as much battery power.
The way Apple does this is quite conservative — in my tests, I didn’t notice any app working more slowly or behaving inappropriately. You can choose to disable AppNap for a specific application by right-clicking on its icon, selecting “Get Info” and then checking the box that says “Prevent App Nap.”
In a lot of ways, AppNap works similarly to a great third-party app, App Tamer. App Tamer’s latest version will have features that go above and beyond what Mavericks does with App Nap, but the main idea is the same. If an app isn’t actively being used, it won’t consume as much energy.
There's also a new menu underneath the battery or power icon on the Mac that shows apps that are using a lot of energy. This way, users can find out if there is an app hogging lots of power that might not need to be running right now.
If you have a 2012 or 2013 Mac, Mavericks will really give a big battery boost. Apple says that the new 2013 MacBook Air gets an extra hour of battery life on Mavericks than it did in Mountain Lion. Still, even older Macs get improved energy performance from the new technologies in Mavericks.
I’ve tested Mavericks on a 2013 MacBook Pro with Retina, a 2012 MacBook Air and a 2010 MacBook Pro and with the exception of the 2013 MacBook Pro (which came preinstalled with Mavericks), I can attest to improved battery life across the board.
Better RAM Usage
In addition to AppNap, Apple has also improved the way OS X handles memory. With the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro with Retina, Apple moved to integrated RAM in its laptops, meaning that users can’t upgrade the RAM later on. As a result, there are lots of users who have a laptop with 2GB of RAM or 4GB of RAM that find themselves running low on memory when using OS X.
This gets worse if you have a smaller hard drive (say a 64GB or 128GB SSD), because what typically happens is that when a system runs low on physical RAM, it will use swap space on the disk drive to make up the difference. My work machine is a 2012 MacBook Air with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB hard drive. The hard drive is honestly too small for my needs and as a result, I’m constantly running on about 15GB of free space.
The problem is that when I use RAM-heavy applications — like a web browser — the system ends up eating much of my free space to keep stuff running. Before I know it, I’m down to 4GB of free space on my hard drive and only shutting down all my apps or restarting from scratch will empty the cache.
With Mavericks, Apple has introduced new compressed memory technology to make this situation less of an issue.
IdleIdle applications are now stored in compressed memory, meaning they don't eat up as much RAM. When you bring an app back to the forefront, it will take up its proper RAM usage and other background apps will use compressed RAM.
As a result, Mavericks hits the swap file (that is, the hard drive or SSD) much less frequently than in the past. And even if you do exhaust all of your RAM and need to hit the hard drive for more resources, the swap file is now compressed too, which means it takes up less space.
In my tests, this works beautifully. Within one day of installing the final version of Mavericks, I was able to see my MacBook Air go from typically taking another 8–10GB of swap files to 3GB at most, all within the same usage. For people that don’t frequently have 30–40 browser tabs open at once, I imagine the benefits are even better.
Notification and Other Miscellaneous Features
Notification Center now supports replying to messages from the notification itself. That means that if an email comes in, you can choose to delete or respond to it immediately.
The same is true for iMessage, which will let you reply to the message in-line without opening up the app.
You can also now compose iMessages from Notification Center as well as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter accounts.
In addition to LinkedIn, Flickr and Vimeo support is also built into Mavericks for easy sharing and uploading.
Applications can also now automatically update in Mavericks, the same as they do in iOS. You can opt-out of auto-updates if you so choose.
The one weakness with Mavericks — at least for Gmail users, is the Mail app. It looks the same as in Mountain Lion, but apparently Apple has changed the way it interacts with Gmail’s weird IMAP implementation (which to be fair, isn’t standard). As a result, if you’re someone who has disabled the “All Mail” folder from showing up in your IMAP settings in Mail.app, you now have some problems.
Joe Kissell at TidBits details the problem in-depth. Unfortunately, short of re-enabling All Mail (and waiting for all of your messages to download again), there doesn’t seem to be a solution. Hopefully this is something Apple will address in OS X 10.9.1.
Mavericks is easily the best version of OS X since Snow Leopard. From fixing multi-monitor support to iCloud Keychain to the big improvements under the hood, this is an all-around great release.
As a Mac enthusiast and power user, I’m thrilled that Apple has focused on some of those power user features, including Finder Tabs and Tags. I also really love the performance of Safari and think that the new Maps and iBooks apps are good additions to the flock of standard apps.
TheThe big question with Mavericks is, where does Apple go from here? This is presumably the last version under the auspices of OS X. So do we get an OS XI next, or does Apple inch closer and closer to unifying its platform?
Mavericks doesn’t look long in the tooth, but I can’t help but think that an iOS 7-sized UI makeover is something that has to be in the works. When we’ll see that — or in what way — remains to be seen.
For now, Mavericks is an OS release I would gladly pay for. Fortunately, Apple has made it so you don’t have to.
- Multi-monitor setups finally work properly
- iCloud Keychain is a great security feature
- Mail app is worse, broken Gmail support
- No transit directions in Maps
- Reminders, Game Center, Messages not updated