OS X Mavericks review: Free as in beer

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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.

A notification bubble for an incoming message (top); mousing over reveals a Reply button (middle), replying to the message directly within the bubble (bottom).

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.

Another interesting new feature lets websites send push notifications to my Mac even when Safari’s not running. Websites will need to use Apple’s existing push-notification infrastructure to support this—it’s not just a matter of adding a few lines of JavaScript to a webpage. But I like the idea that my favorite websites can ping me on my Mac when something big happens. We’ll have to see how many sites will go to the trouble of implementing this feature, but I received a New York Times notification within a few hours of signing up for notifications via its site.

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 New York Times would like to send you notifications.

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.

You can send IMs, post Facebook statuses, or tweet, all from the top of Notification Center.

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.

Mission Control in Mavericks gives you independent spaces on each monitor.

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.

Use your HDTV as an external monitor via Apple TV.

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.)

Mavericks’ Display control panel when connected to an HDTV via AirPlay.

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.

Boooo! It's a ghostly inactive menu bar on the display you're not using.

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.

At a Glance
  • 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.


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


    • Mail app seems worse than before
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