OS X Mavericks review: Free as in beer
At a Glance
OS X Mavericks
Mavericks adds new productivity features, under-the-hood changes to improve battery life, and new apps. It's a free update that's worth every penny you won't pay for it.
The last time Apple released an OS X update for free, it was playing defense. OS X 10.0 was slow and buggy and adoption was slow; version 10.1, rolled out in September 2001, was an apology release for the pioneers on Apple’s then-new Mac operating system.
Twelve years later, Apple’s playing offense. OS X Mavericks (technically version 10.9) launches a new era of Mac operating systems, complete with a non-feline nickname and a blank price tag. It’s free as in beer, whether you’re running Snow Leopard or Lion or Mountain Lion, and just as with its many free iOS updates, Apple wants you to upgrade.
This review can’t tell you whether or not to spend your hard-earned money on this upgrade, because, well, Mavericks won’t cost you a penny. But I can at least explain the highs and lows of this new update as you make the decision about whether to stay put or accept Apple’s generous offer and catch the Mavericks wave.
(Before we get started, a word about compatibility. Mavericks appears to be the most compatible OS X release Apple has made in years; so far as I can tell, any system that could run Mountain Lion can run Mavericks. That means iMacs and MacBook Pros from as far back as 2007; MacBook Airs, MacBooks, and Mac Pros from 2008; and Mac minis from 2009. That’s a whole lot of Macs, and Apple would love all of them to run its latest operating system.)
Keeping tabs on Finder
Recent releases of OS X have sought to minimize the amount of time users have to spend managing files in the Finder. From the Dock to Spotlight to Launchpad, Apple has invested a lot of effort into offering Finder alternatives.
And yet Mavericks offers new features that are positively Finder-centric. For all of Apple’s attempts to allow users to bypass the Finder, it’s not going anywhere, so it might as well be improved.
Web browsers used to feature separate windows for every webpage. At some point, someone clever decided that window clutter was bad, and that it might be easier to allow several pages to be contained in a stack of tabs inside a single window. A revolution was born, one that has made it all the way to the Finder with Mavericks.
If all you do in the Finder is double-click on things, you’ll never actually see a tab. Double-clicking a folder in the Finder opens it in the same window. If you want to open a folder in a new tab, hold down the Command key while double-clicking. Just as in Safari, you can also type Command-T to open a new tab manually. If you end up with a whole lot of Finder windows open, you can gather them all together as a series of tabs in one window by choosing Merge All Windows from the Window menu.
Each tab behaves like its own Finder window; you can adjust the view settings of each one accordingly, so one tab can show an icon view, another a list view, and so on.
Once you’ve got multiple tabs open, you can move files from one tab to another by dragging and dropping them on a tab. The process behaves just like dropping files on a folder. If you drag and drop, it’ll move the file there. If you drag and hold, the tab will behave like a spring-loaded folder, and that tab will become active.
Along with support for tabs, the Finder now offers a full-screen mode. So if you’re Desktop-phobic, you can shift the Finder into a single window full of tabs and use Mission Control to move into and out of it.
The addition of tabs in the Finder seems like a feature that’s destined for power users, not the masses. For readers of sites like Macworld, it’s a cool productivity booster. But no regular user is ever going to command-click on a folder and discover tabs, and that’s probably fine. As for me, I’m still getting used to it.
Tag, your files are it
Though Mavericks brings new features to the Finder, it’s not as if Apple has recanted the view that users shouldn’t need to dig through files and folders to find what they’re looking for. Spotlight already makes it easy for users to find files based on their attributes or content, and with Mavericks, Apple is encouraging users to categorize their files even further by using tags.
Borrowed from the world of blogging and social networking, tags form a simple, arbitrary method of categorizing information. On a blog, you might add a bunch of tags to every post to indicate its subject matter. This has the benefit of letting users quickly find all the blog posts about a particular subject. With Mavericks, Apple wants you to consider tagging your files so that they’re easier to find later.
In the sidebar of every Finder window (and some Open dialog boxes), there’s a new Tags list. Click on a tag, and you’ll immediately see all of the files on your Mac that have that tag. A small subset of your tags is listed by default, but if you click All Tags, a second column appears that lists every tag on your Mac. And if you start typing a tag in a Finder window’s search box, you’ll see an option to search for files containing that tag.
In an evolution of the old concept of colored labels, there are also ways to identify tagged files visually in the Finder. In the new Tags tab of Finder’s Preferences window you can assign colors to tags (but there are only eight options to choose from), and also choose which tags show up in the sidebar.
The Tags tab also offers a strip of circles that you can drag and drop tags on, which determines which tags show up in the File menu and in a contextual menu that appears when you control-click on an item in the Finder.
Tags can have colors, but those are shown in the Finder slightly differently from the way labels were in the past. Labels surrounded the entire filename of a file (or its row in a list) with the appropriate color. Tag colors have a more subtle effect: A small colored circle appears next to the file’s name. If the file is tagged with more than one colored tag, you’ll see a stack of circles, slightly overlapping. (As a somewhat colorblind person, I found the stacked circles kind of hard to discern, but color cues like this are generally not designed for people like me.)
You can add a tag to a file when it’s born by adding them when you first save a document. In every standard Save dialog box in Mavericks, there’s a new Tags box immediately below the text-entry field where you name your file. To tag your file, just click in the window. First you’ll be presented with a drop-down featuring common tags, as well as a Show All link to display all the tags on your Mac. You can click on items from that list to pick them, or just start typing.
If you’re typing a tag that already exists, a suggestion will appear below as you type. You can click on the suggestion (or just press Return) to accept the suggestion. If you’re typing a completely new tag, when you’re done just select Create New Tag or type a comma—the tags interface is essentially a list of items separated by commas. This means your tags can be more than one word long, if you like.
Once you start adding tags, Mavericks remembers the tags you’ve previously created and offers them as autocomplete suggestions, so you’re more likely to re-use existing tags rather than coin new ones. Once your file is all tagged up, click Save. That’s it. The tagging rides along with your file.
You can also add tags to any file or folder via the Finder. There’s a new Tags icon on the toolbar of every Finder window, which will let you add tags to any items you’ve got selected. The process of adding tags there is identical to adding them via the Save box: click on the Tags icon and a text box will appear, in which you enter new tags.
You can also use the list of tags in the sidebar of every Finder window to tag items. Just drag items on top of one of the tags in the sidebar to add that tag to those files.
There’s one other way to add tags to selected items, available via the File menu or from a contextual menu when you control-click. But this is the least appealing of all the methods, since it’s basically a renamed version of the old Labels command, and only allows you to apply tags that you’ve already created, and then only one at a time.
Though adding tags in the Finder is a pretty easy process, it does require a lot of mousing around. I’m disappointed that there’s no keyboard shortcut to bring up the tagging interface, so more keyboard-oriented users could add tags without clicking on the toolbar.
All of us have different ways of organizing our data. With tagging, Apple has provided Mac users with another organizational option. It won’t be for everyone, but I’m betting that some users will embrace it wholeheartedly. Apple may have shown the Finder some love in Mavericks, but the company still clearly believes that there are better ways of organizing your data than by just tossing files inside folders.
A side of Safari
Mavericks brings with it a new version of Safari, which offers a new sidebar, plug-in management, a redesigned Top Sites page, performance improvements, and a new feature designed to remember your passwords without compromising security.
The Mountain Lion version of Safari offered three features that could be accessed via buttons on the far left side of what it called the Bookmarks Bar: Reading List, Bookmarks, and Top Sites. Safari 7’s newly rechristened Favorites Bar features only two: Sidebar (which somewhat confusingly still uses the Bookmarks icon of an open book) and Top Sites.
The new Sidebar is the new home of Bookmarks, Reading List, and the new Shared Links feature. It’s a gray bar that lives on the left side of the browser window. To open it, click on that book-shaped Sidebar icon on the Favorites Bar, choose View: Show Sidebar, or press Command-Shift-L.
In previous versions of Safari, going to the Bookmarks view replaced the contents of your browser window with a bookmark editor, where you could drag and drop bookmarks and rename them. That window is still there if you choose Edit Bookmarks from the Bookmarks menu, though it’s now a hierarchical view full of folders, instead of the weird old interface where different folders were in a separate sidebar of their own.
But in parallel, there’s this new Bookmarks tab in the Sidebar, which gives you one-click access to your bookmarks. Just click on a bookmark in the Sidebar, and Safari loads that page on the right side of the same window. Click on a folder to show or hide its contents. You can reorder bookmarks by dragging them around, rename them by clicking and holding for a few seconds, and there’s even a search box above the top of the list, if you need to find a specific bookmark.
The second tab in the Sidebar is Reading List, and it’s not that different from the Mountain Lion version. This is still the place where you can collect pages on the Web that you want to read at a later time, even if you’re offline. The big difference in Safari for Mavericks is that the Reading List scrolls endlessly. Once you’re at the bottom of a Reading List story, just keep scrolling down and you’ll be taken to the next story in the list.
In previous iterations of Safari, there were toolbar buttons to add stories to Reading List and add links to your Bookmarks. In Mavericks, Safari no longer provides those buttons. Instead, there’s a big plus (+) button integrated to the Address and Search bar, just to the left of the page’s URL. Click the plus button to add the page you’re on to Reading List. (There’s a little animation where the icon of the site you’re reading flies over into the Sidebar icon and the plus icon briefly becomes a check mark.) Click and hold to see a menu of options, including adding the page to Reading List, Top Sites, or filing it as a bookmark in any of your bookmark folders.
Now to the third (and most interesting) addition to the Sidebar: the Shared Links tab. Once you’ve logged in to a Twitter or LinkedIn account via the Internet Accounts (formerly Mail, Contacts and Calendars) system preference pane, any posts that contain hyperlinks are displayed in the Shared Links list. If you truly use your Twitter stream as a replacement for RSS feeds, Shared Links is a concentrated burst of Twitter linkage.
In the Shared Links sidebar, posts are displayed with the most recent item at the top. They aren’t bare links, either—you see the avatar of the person who posted the link, their name, an icon representing the service the post came from (just Twitter and LinkedIn are supported at this point), and the text of the post itself. Click anywhere on the post to display it in the browser window, and like Reading List, if you keep scrolling to the bottom of the story, you’ll be able to scroll right on to the next story in the list.
As you read a story, the original post that spawned it remains at the top of the page, so you can quickly find the answer to the question, “Which one of my friends thought this was worth Tweeting about?” There’s also a Retweet button, so if you do approve of the story, you can pass it on.
Unfortunately, Shared Links’s light-gray-text-on-darker-gray-background color scheme makes the text of individual posts hard to read, and there are no timestamps. You also can’t “pull to refresh” in order to see new posts, à la Twitter’s own client app, and Safari itself doesn’t appear to update content rapidly. If I want to see new links, I need to open and close the Sidebar or choose Update Shared Links from the View menu. It’s also too bad that Facebook links aren’t an option, though given the junk littering my Facebook feed these days, maybe it’s just as well.
Next to the Sidebar button is the Top Sites button, and of course there’s a new version of the Top Sites interface, which presents you with six or 12 or 24 of your favorite sites in a grid. (It’s now a proper Hollywood Squares/Brady Bunch style grid, with none of the curved-wall effects of the previous iteration of Top Sites.) I admit I never use Top Sites (my default window: Empty Page), but the look seems more modern, and drag-and-drop reorganization of Top Sites items is a no-brainer addition.
Apple says that it’s made a bunch of under-the-hood improvements that make Safari faster, more realiable, and more secure. Separate pages run in separate processes, and there’s improved memory efficiency; the browser takes advantage of power-saving features of Mavericks to run more efficiently.
One major source of stability, speed, and energy-consumption issues in Safari isn’t actually Safari itself—it’s browser plug-ins such as Adobe Flash. Third-party tools like ClickToPlugin have let users manage whether webpages can load those plug-ins, and in Mavericks, Safari has a similar feature built right in.
The feature lives in the Security tab of Safari’s preferences window, under the Manage Website Settings button. From here you can see every browser plug-in being used by your system and a list of sites that have loaded it. You can turn access on and off on a per-site basis, as well as set a default for what happens on your first visit to a website that’s trying to load a plug-in. For example, you can set YouTube to always load Flash, but all other sites to block Flash on first load.
Safari’s also got a Power Saver feature that will sometimes prevent plug-ins from loading until you click, emulating ClickToPlugin’s approach. I wish that Safari went further, though, and allowed the Manage Websites Settings option to set certain plug-ins to only load on a click, somewhere between a pure block and actually loading the plug-in.
And when Safari’s blocking a plug-in, the browser replaces the space occupied by the plug-in with an empty box. This happens because Safari’s reporting to the web server that it has the plug-in, but doesn’t show the content. Some sites offer non-Flash equivalents if a device (such as an iPhone or iPad) doesn’t have Flash, but Safari doesn’t see those if Flash is installed but disabled.
In general, I like that Apple is providing Safari users with this level of control over browser plug-ins. However, the implementation is kind of weird. Most users will probably not know the difference between Allow, Allow Always, and Run in Unsafe Mode, all of which are available as possible options on a per-website, per-plugin basis.
Passwords in the clouds
I’ve been a user of 1Password for a few years now, and I love it. I remember a single master password, and 1Password remembers my passwords, personal information, credit-card numbers, and enters them into my web browser when I tell it to.
Mavericks offers a new feature called iCloud Keychain that, in true Apple fashion, addresses some of the basic needs addressed by utilities such as 1Password while leaving plenty of room for add-on tools that go beyond what Apple offers.
iCloud Keychain stores your passwords, credit-card numbers, and personal contact information and syncs them between devices. Since it’s all synced via iCloud, it should all stay in sync across your iOS 7 devices, so if you save a password on your Mac, it’ll be there when you next visit that site on your iPad. Pretty cool. (This is an optional feature—nobody’s forcing you to put your stuff in the cloud. You turn it on by checking the Keychain box in the iCloud system-preference pane.)
iCloud Keychain enjoys some major advantages over utilities like 1Password, in that it can integrate directly in the browser (rather than via an extension) on the Mac. Passwords and user names fill in automatically when you visit a page, so you don’t have to click around like you do with 1Password. And in iOS, the advantage is greater: 1Password can't fill passwords into Safari at all (you have to either browse with the 1Password app or retrieve your password from there and then paste it into Safari), while iCloud Keychain is integrated directly into the iOS Safari browser (assuming you've updated to iOS 7.0.3).
Safari’s been able to remember your password for ages now (only the syncing part is new), but it will now also suggest a random password for you when you’re prompted to create one. (This is good, because simple passwords are insecure.) Then Safari will save the random password in the keychain, so you never have to remember it. Safari can also remember your credit-card information and automatically fill it (well, most of it—it won’t store your card’s security code, which Apple says “is in accordance with industry practice” and I say is a silly practice) when you want to buy something.
There’s another problem with emphasizing auto-filling of passwords. When a Mac is running and unlocked, someone could use Safari to log in as you. If you’re concerned, you’ll need to set your Mac to automatically lock when it goes to sleep or when the screen saver activates, and set a very low timeout before that happens. I think I’d prefer an option to have to enter a password to unlock my iCloud Keychain. You can set the Mac’s normal keychain to lock after a period of inactivity, but the iCloud Keychain can’t be set to auto-lock. That seems like an oversight to me.
Notification Center gets interactive
In recent years, Apple has shown a predilection for improving operating-system features in their second iterations—think Time Machine and FileVault, to name just two. With Mavericks, Apple has done the same for Notification Center. But while the result is more useful, it still doesn’t feel as organized as it should be.
Notification Center has two manifestations: Floating notification bubbles that appear on your screen when you need to know something, and a notifications list that slides out from the right side of your screen when you click the Notifications icon at the far right side of the menu bar. (There are also two kinds of bubbles: Banners and Alerts. Banners eventually fade away if you ignore them, while Alerts stay on screen until you act on them.) In a year of using Mountain Lion, I have come to appreciate the floating bubbles, but I’ve rarely, if ever, used the sidebar list.
In Mavericks, those bubbles have become much more useful, mainly because they’re now more interactive. When you receive a message in Messages, for example, you can reply directly from the bubble: Click on the Reply button, and the bubble expands to reveal a text area. Type a reply and press Return to send it.
There’s similar functionality when it comes to Mail alerts: You can reply directly from the notification bubble, or opt to delete the message you’ve just received. Deleting messages from a notification bubble might seem a bit extreme, but if you’ve set Mail to alert you every time you get an email, there will probably be some spam you want to get rid of in there. It would be nice if you could flag or archive messages from the bubble, too, but Mavericks doesn’t offer those options.
Incoming FaceTime calls are likewise heralded by a notification bubble. You can answer or decline from the bubble, or even reply with an iMessage explaining why you don’t want to take the call right now.
Since Mavericks includes the option to automatically update your Mac App Store apps, Notification Center also now alerts you about apps that have been updated, and warns you if an update requires you to quit an app or restart your system. There’s also a Later button that allows you to set when Notification Center will bug you again about installing that update.
Some other system alerts have moved into Notification Center, too: Warnings about a dying battery, a failed Time Machine backup, and ejected disks that would previously have spawned a big warning dialog box instead create a Notification Center bubble.
I set my Mac to automatically lock when I put it to sleep or after a certain amount of inactivity. When I wake the Mac up but before I log in, Notification Center now displays some basic information about things that have happened since I went away, including any email alerts I’ve received.
This might be handy, but it could also be a security flaw, since someone could view potentially sensitive information without entering a password. Fortunately, the Notifications system preference pane in Mavericks lets you lock this down: App by app, you can decide which notifications display when your Mac is locked. For Mail and Messages, you can separately opt to show or not to show the contents of the message you’re being notified about. It’s great that these features exist, though I’d prefer an option that would globally prevent such notifications so I didn’t have to go through a list of all my apps and uncheck the boxes one by one.
When a site offers this notification feature, a sheet will slide down from the top of Safari’s window asking if you want to receive notifications. You can click Allow or Don’t Allow, and then make changes later in the Notifications section of System Preferences.
The semi-hidden Do Not Disturb feature introduced in Mountain Lion (if you scrolled all the way up in the Notification Center sidebar, you found an option to silence warnings until the next day) has been fleshed out in Mavericks. A new Do Not Disturb setting in the Notifications preference pane in System Preferences lets you mute notifications at particular times, as well as when your display is sleeping or when your computer is attached to an external display. You can also squelch FaceTime alerts using this preference.
Honestly, I don’t find myself using the Notification Center sidebar very often; it’s usually full of lots of old junk and gives me no way to filter or quickly clear it. I wish it was better organized and took a broader overview of what was going on (a la the Today view in iOS 7). It provides too much information, and I find myself accidentally triggering it via an inadvertent trackpad swipe more often than purposefully opening it.
Those complaints aside, one thing I do like in the new Notification Center is the ability to send instant messages from within it (not just Twitter and Facebook posts, which you could do in Mountain Lion). Just as you can reply to a message you receive directly from within the notification bubble, you can start a conversation with a friend by clicking on the Messages icon at the top of Notification Center. This seems like a great idea, especially for people who don’t keep Messages open all the time.
A space for every screen
The Mac OS has always tolerated users with more than one display, but it’s never truly embraced them—until Mavericks. If you frequently use more than one display on your Mac (or if you’ve longed to use your TV as a second monitor), Mavericks will be a serious upgrade to your Mac experience.
My main Mac is an 11-inch MacBook Air, which I dock to a Thunderbolt Display when I’m at the office. With earlier versions of OS X, I just ran the laptop in lid-closed mode, but the new multiple-screen features in Mavericks make me want to leave that second screen on.
OS X Lion added support for full-screen apps and coalesced all of its window-management features into one place, Mission Control. These features were nice for people with one screen, but users who work with multiple displays have felt left out. If you popped an app into full-screen mode on one monitor, the other monitor went blank, displaying only a stock linen pattern. All spaces encompassed both displays, too, so when you switched between spaces, the content on both displays changed.
With Mavericks, Mission Control behaves exactly as I had dreamed it would on multiple displays. Each screens can act independently, with its own spaces and its own full-screen mode. If you pop the Calendar app into full-screen mode on a laptop’s screen, the calendar window expands to fill that screen—but the external display remains fully functional.
Each screen can have its own collection of full-screen apps and its own sets of desktops. When the Calendar app is displaying in full-screen mode on my laptop screen, I can move my cursor to that screen and swipe with three fingers to switch to other views. I can switch to a desktop view, another full-screen app, or even the Dashboard. (Yes, Dashboard still exists! It’s gotten only a few new abilities, including a new sparkly effect when you add a new widget and the ability, for the first time, to move it from its leftmost space.) As I swipe from screen to screen on my laptop, the external display remains blissfully still, showing me all my other stuff. As it should be.
If you really prefer the old arrangement, you can still choose to have spaces remain constant across your displays, thanks to an option in the Mission Control preference pane.
No monitor? No problem
Not everyone has the luxury of owning a display to pair with their laptop or iMac. But if you’ve got a TV and an Apple TV, with Mavericks you can still have an external Mac display. While Mountain Lion introduced AirPlay Mirroring—the ability to display the contents of your Mac’s screen on an HDTV connected via Apple TV—Mavericks lets you just treat that TV as a full-on second display.
Making the connection isn’t much different from how AirPlay Mirroring works in Mountain Lion. If you’re on a local network containing Apple TVs, an AirPlay icon shows up in the menu bar. You can select an Apple TV from the menu, and choose to mirror your current display or extend the desktop. (If you’re running both an external display and an AirPlay display, you can also opt to have the same screen mirrored on all three of them, or have the AirPlay display mirror either display.)
Running in extended-desktop mode, the TV becomes just another display. You can set an arrangement via the Displays preference pane, use Mission Control to manage spaces and full-screen apps, and all the rest. (Apple says that AirPlay requires a second-generation Apple TV or later and a 2011-era Mac or later.)
The display being driven by an Apple TV does suffer a little bit from lag. As I moved my finger on my MacBook Pro’s trackpad, the cursor responded, but it was definitely a little bit behind where I expected it to be. As a result, I moved the cursor much more carefully on the TV display and was careful not to overshoot and click in the wrong place.
The lag was much less than I expected, and I’d consider it usable, but it’s noticeable. It was reminiscent of the lag I’ve experienced when I’ve used Air Display to turn my iPad into a second small external display. In fact, I was able to use the Air Server utility, which turns a Mac into an AirPlay server, to turn another Mac into a second display for my Mac running Mavericks. If you’ve got an old iMac around, you may be able to use this approach to turn it into a serviceable second display.
So far as I can tell, you can only use one Apple TV at a time as an external display, and you’ve got to have a “real” display connected as well.
One dock, two menu bars
Up to now, the OS X menu bar was inviolate: There was only ever one menu bar. With Mavericks, though, each display can have its own menu bar, and each menu bar can feature the contents of the menu for a different app—for example, the TextEdit menu bar on an external display and the Maps menu bar on a connected laptop screen. The currently active app’s menu bar looks like normal; the inactive app’s menu bar is semi-transparent. When you switch displays or click on the currently inactive menu bar, their transparency (or lack thereof) swaps.
It’s another win for the users of multiple monitors. Before now, even if you used a second monitor on your Mac, the menu bar would remain on the primary display, necessitating a lot of mousing back and forth unless you installed a quirky add-on menu utility like SecondBar.
There may be many menu bars, but there’s still only one Dock. But it gets around. When I move my cursor to an external display and start working in an app over there, the Dock remains where it was, on the first display. However, if I move my cursor to the bottom of the display (as if trying to summon a hidden Dock), the Dock slides out of view on my first display and slides back into view on the second. If your Dock is set to auto-hide, it may end up feeling seamless.
A few other long-time Mac windowing conventions have changed with the introduction of these features. Most notable is the ability to place a window so that it straddles two displays; in Mavericks, as you drag a window from one screen to the other, it begins to fade away—and then reappears on the other display. No halvsies. If you miss this feature and want it back, you’ll need to turn off independent spaces for each display, log out, and log back in. Once you’re back to the old method, your windows will span multiple monitors as in days of old.
Apple makes a lot of claims about Mavericks making MacBooks more energy-efficient, thereby extending battery life. The new App Nap feature aggressively regulates apps that are out of your sight so that they aren’t draining your batteries as they sit idling. That sounds sort of scary, but at no point when I was using Mavericks did I feel I was delayed by a “napping” app that should have been awake. The changes that Apple has made are, to this user at least, completely invisible.
There are other power-saving features, too, including a lower-power video playback mode and a clever feature called timer coalescing that smooths out the tasks sent to your Mac’s processor so that it can spend more time coasting in a low-power idle.
Our tests showed that Apple has indeed improved battery life in several scenarios. Three of our four battery-life tests showed clear improvements for Mavericks, most notably a video playback test that took advantage of the lower-power playback feature to eke out 18 percent more battery life. Tests like this are tricky because they don’t necessarily match real-world usage patterns, but they do indicate that Mavericks can definitely reduce power consumption under certain circumstances.
One place where Apple is more aggressively exposing power-consumption information: In a drop-down menu under the Battery icon in the menu bar, you’ll see a list of currently running applications that are “using significant energy.” It’s a quick way for a user to get feedback on why the battery is draining quickly or a laptop’s fans are blowing. And the Activity Monitor utility—one of my favorite Mac troubleshooting apps—now offers a new Energy tab that shows you the energy impact of all the currently running processes on your Mac, plus historical data going back several hours. If you’re desperately trying to get the most out of your battery, it’s a great way to see what apps you might want to quit.
Mavericks comes with two new Apple apps as well as updates to a couple of familiar ones: Maps and iBooks are making their Mac premieres, and Mail and Calendar both get significant improvements.
I used to use Mail every day, but it’s most definitely a love-hate relationship and I’ve left it several times for another email client only to come back and give Apple’s offering another go. That relationship continues to run hot and cold in Mavericks.
When I got Mail to behave, it was most definitely faster than previous versions. Opening large message threads used to take a long time, especially if they contained complex HTML messages. Everything opens quickly now and scrolls smoothly. That’s great news.
I’m a Gmail user, and have two different Gmail accounts, one for my personal life and one for work. I’ve found that oftentimes Mail just slows down to a crawl, apparently because it’s downloading huge amounts of data from Gmail in the background. Occasionally I would click on a new message in my Inbox and it would take Mail more than 30 seconds to display the contents of the message. Call me crazy, but an email client should be able to prioritize the single most important thing any mail client can do: display the text of a new message that just appeared in the Inbox. Mail still doesn’t seem to do this well, and it’s exacerbated by slower connections.
I also ran into an infuriating set-up bug in Mail. Though all my email accounts are on Gmail, all my attempts to connect to them via Mail's Google-centric account setup failed. l had to configure my Gmail account as a generic IMAP account instead.
Calendar’s biggest change is to its look. Gone is the faux leather. But it also has some nice under-the-hood tweaks. For example, you can change the range of weekly and monthly views using a two-finger scroll. A fast two-finger swipe from right to left in the week view will advance you to the next week. Calendar also has a nice, subtle variation on that gesture: If you swipe slowly with two fingers from left to right, you can advance the view by individual days. A two-finger scroll upward in month view will, similarly, let you scroll week by week, so if you’re at the end of one month, you can see most of the following month too.
Calendar’s event inspector, which you summon by double-clicking on an entry, has been revamped. At last, you can specify a buffer of travel time in advance of an event; unfortunately, the Google Calendar with which my Calendar app syncs doesn’t seem to want to display that information. The location field of the event inspector is also tied in to Apple’s location database, so it will display map information and attempt to autofill your location information when you enter an event location. When calculating travel times, Calendar uses your locations to make guesses about how much time it will take to get from one place to another. Sometimes its guesses are good, sometimes not, but it’s nice that the app is making the effort.
The new Mac Maps app lays bare all of Apple’s mapping and location data. Perhaps it’s best to describe it as the Mac version of the iOS Maps app, because that’s what it is. You can look up locations, see maps in 2D or 3D relief, view vector map illustrations or overhead photographic views, get directions, see live traffic—the works. I found Maps to be a bit easier to navigate than Google Maps, probably because it’s a native app and can take advantage of the trackpad in some way that Google Maps can’t, embedded as it is in a browser window. Zooming in and out and rotating the map via trackpad gestures all worked naturally.
iBooks has finally arrived on the Mac with Mavericks. (What took it so long?) Regardless, now Mac users can read not just ePub-formatted ebooks, but all the fancy multimedia books created in iBooks Author that were previously readable only on the iPad.
I'm not sure I'd ever choose to read a book on my Mac, but some of those enhanced iBooks Author books are multimedia extravaganzaas that play really well on the Mac, sort of like the CD-ROMs of old. And as someone who also publishes ebooks, I know for a fact that many Mac users do want to read books on their Mac.
iBooks for Mac is a 1.0 product for sure, but I was impressed by some of its features that its competition still lacks. For example, you can opt to have iBooks not justify text and turn auto-hyphenation off as well. (Take that, Amazon!) It's exciting to see this last piece of Apple's digital-entertainment store ecosystem finally make it back to the Mac.
I don't want this review to grow to enormous size, but that means not covering every one of the 200 new features Apple says it's added to Mavericks. In the coming days Macworld will cover many individual Mavericks features in much greater detail. But for now, here are a few of the other features I found notable. You'll probably find one or two of your own favorites scattered among those 200.
The Software Update feature has received an upgrade in Mavericks; as in iOS 7, you have the option of having your apps—only those purchased in the Mac App Store, of course—automatically updated. No more checking the App Store app and pressing the Update All button; the app updates will be downloaded and installed in the background without any intervention from you. I found this a little disconcerting at first, but pretty convenient once I got used to it. And a setting in the App Store pane of System Preferences lets you turn off automatic updating if you’re afraid that a favorite app will get an unpleasant or unwanted update.
Mountain Lion introduced support for built-in dictation, which works more or less just as it did on iOS: When you have an Internet connection, you can begin speaking and, when you’re finished, what you spoke will appear as text, powered by speech-to-text processors on a server somewhere in the cloud.
That feature remains in Mavericks, but you can opt to download a 780MB Enhanced Dictation package that is available regardless of your Internet connection status. More important, Enhanced Dictation also displays the words you’re saying more or less as you’re saying them, in the style of third-party dictation products such as Dragon Dictation. This built-in dictation still doesn’t offer corrections and individual calibration as Dragon does, but it’s a major upgrade and makes dictation much more usable, in my experience. I always felt strange speaking without any feedback about what I was saying. Now, as I’m talking, I can see the words appear on screen. That feedback helps a lot.
AppleScript and Automator also have a few new features—perhaps most notably, AppleScript Libraries, which lets scripters reuse code and create custom commands. A new Display Notification command ties into Notification Center, and the AppleScript Editor now supports iCloud’s Documents in the Cloud feature.
The Library folder, obscured in Mountain Lion in an attempt to keep users from ruining their systems, can now be returned to visibility. Visit your home folder, press Command-J to bring up the View Options panel, and check Show Library Folder. That wasn't so hard, now was it?
And here’s an earth-shattering feature to end on: Messages no longer translates your ;-) into graphic smileys. If you want those smileys, you’ll need to click on the triangle and smiley-face symbol at the far right corner of the Messages text-entry area. You’ll be greeted with an entire emoji browser, so you can pick smiley symbols to your heart’s content, no typing required.
I’ve been using Mavericks for several months now, and with the possible exception of Mail, I find it to be a solid, stable release. It’s free and it’s good. It adds some nice power-user features, a couple of interesting new built-in apps, and a whole bunch of cool behind-the-scenes stuff, mostly focusing on decreasing power consumption and increasing battery life.
Mavericks isn’t a visual rethinking of OS X the way that iOS 7 was for iOS. Yes, some of the leather has been removed from Calendar and Contacts, but Mavericks isn’t a radical change. It’s a grab bag of tweaks, simplifications, advances made in lockstep with iOS, and improvements under the hood. As such, it’s hard for me to pinpoint what the unifying message of Mavericks is supposed to be, other than that the Mac continues to move forward into a glorious future free of cat names.
So let’s boil it down to the essentials. Mavericks is free, compatible with a whole lot of Mac hardware, and makes the experience of using your Mac better in numerous (mostly but not entirely small) ways. It’s worth every penny you’re not paying for it.
[Portions of this review appeared in a series of articles published on Macworld this summer, after I was granted access to the first Mavericks developer preview by Apple. It's been altered and updated based on the final version, and all images are from the shipping version of Mavericks.]