OS X Mavericks review: Free as in beer

At a Glance
  • Apple OS X Mavericks

    Macworld Rating

    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.

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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.

Safari tabs
Three views are available in the new Safari sidebar.

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.

Hold down the plus button to quickly file away a page.
Hold down the plus button to quickly file away a page.

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.

Shared links in Safari's sidebar.

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.

Shared Links includes the source of the link at the top of the page.

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.

We tested Apple’s claims that Safari’s JavaScript performance was dramatically improved in Mavericks, and found them to be true. In almost every case, Safari 7 on Mavericks was faster than Safari 6.0.5 on Mountain Lion. However, the just-released Safari 6.1 for Mountain Lion seems to add most of those same improvements without the need to upgrade to Mavericks. It was more of a back-and-forth game between Safari and Google Chrome, with Safari beating Chrome on the Sunspider and JSBench tests, but Chrome prevailing on the Kraken and Peacekeeper benchmarks.

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.

Set your plug-in preferences in the Security tab.

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.

iCloud Keychain suggests a password.

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.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    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.

    Pros

    • Numerous new power-user productivity features
    • Battery-saving features

    Cons

    • Mail app seems worse than before
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