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Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks review

Back to the Mac again

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Mavericks
Mavericks

It's been almost exactly a year since Scott Forstall left Apple and Jony Ive and Craig Federighi were put in charge of both iOS and OS X. That gave Apple a chance to create a single, unified design, to make the iPad and Mac into one. Apple's long talked about “bringing together the OS teams” and bringing iOS features “back to the Mac,” and converging the two operating systems seemed like a logical move.

But that's not what happened. Not really. Version 10.9 of OS X, called Mavericks, is just a gentle evolution of the Mac operating system Apple's been building for years. It comes with a long list of new features, plenty of under-the-hood tweaks, but a look and feel that is distinctly Mac. Even as Ive and Federighi reimagined iOS, and as Microsoft bet big on an entirely new way of interacting with our computers, the Mac has stayed the course.

Mavericks is a free upgrade, available to a wide range of people. But is this really the future of the Mac?

Installation & features

Getting started

Like Mountain Lion, Mavericks is available for download in the App Store. But unlike Mountain Lion, which cost $19.99, Mavericks is simply listed as a "free upgrade," available to anyone currently running Snow Leopard or newer on a wide variety of machines. Once the 5.29GB download finished, it took a little less than 30 minutes for my mid-2013 13-inch Macbook Air to update, after which I was prompted for my Apple ID. Like Mountain Lion, the OS is smart enough to know if there were any incompatible apps, a nice touch that helped me know which needed to be manually updated.

Then you’re let loose in the new operating system, which pretty much feels exactly the same as the old OS, except for the new aquamarine wave desktop wallpaper.

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New and updated apps

A facelift for your dock

Apple’s Craig Federighi quipped that "no virtual cows were harmed in the making" of the new Calendar app, which is to say the gaudy fake leather and torn-paper aesthetic is completely gone. It’s a big improvement, making the interface feel much more clean and modern. It’s not exactly flat — buttons and checkboxes still have depth and shading — but it feels a lot more open. It's also much easier to sync, share, and manage Google calendars, which means you won't be driven to third-party options like Busycal.

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Contacts and Notes also received much-needed facelifts, but little more. Contacts now looks more like an email client, with a column of names on the left and detailed information in a larger window on the right — a big improvement over past versions’ book-like design, complete with fake binding stitching. Notes has also lost its skeuomorphism, replacing the fake yellow-lined paper with a subtly-patterned off-white sheet — though it’s still just an ultra-simple app that syncs with your iPhone.

But for all the design changes, Apple forgot about the icons. The Notes icon is still a yellow legal pad, which looks odd against the improved design. As much as people disliked iOS’ new icons, there’s a certain cohesiveness about having all the styles match up. Apple’s redesigned apps should have received redesigned icons, and the result leaves things feelings slightly old-fashioned.

Most of the other core apps haven’t changed much, and Messages and Mail are more basically the same apps as ever. Instead, Apple focused this time on new apps for OS X.

The iOS ports

Apple is freeing iBooks from the iPhone and iPad and bringing it to the Mac. It’s hard to get excited about reading novels on a full-fledged laptop or iMac, but Apple's execution is pretty much all you could ask for, with a built-in store and a really nice interface. Some may find yet another standalone store to be annoying — it might be better to have iBooks built into iTunes, but it’s nice to be only a click away from the all-important New York Times bestseller list.

F-1whw36Maps doesn’t need its own spot in your dock

Apple says you can swipe the trackpad to "flip" through pages, but most traces of skeuomorphism are gone — you won't see any page-turn animations here. Instead, pages simply scroll to the left as you progress through a book. One missing action is the ability to pinch to zoom on pages, an odd omission for an interface that relies so heavily on touch and gestures. There are plenty of options that change theme and size, but the simple truth is that no matter which settings you choose, your MacBook Air will never be a Kindle Paperwhite.

It’s not the only app that feels out of place on a desktop, either. Apple Maps is a strange cross between Google Maps and Google Earth, and doesn’t seem to need its own spot in your dock. While Maps makes perfect sense on a mobile device (and has improved a lot since iOS 6), its usefulness in Mavericks is much less apparent. There’s no benefit over maps.google.com, and I can’t see anyone switching from Google’s established website to Apple’s new Maps app, regardless of how pretty it is.

Reminders is still exceedingly basic and poorly designed, just like on Mountain Lion. The main thing I wish it had is Siri, which makes it easy to set time- or location-based reminders on iOS. The mobile Reminders app is one of Apple’s most poorly designed applications, even with the iOS 7 improvements, and much of the same clunkiness has made it into the desktop version.

Everything is synced through iCloud, so if you have your phone or tablet within reach, you can dictate a reminder that will show up everywhere. In fact, iCloud is a virtual necessity with Mavericks, since SyncServices, which used to govern the syncing between devices, is now gone. You can use protocols like CardDAV and CalDAV, but iCloud is the easiest, and most integrated, solution.

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Safari-242Keychain-242FinderFinder-tabs-242
Safari

Safari

Apple hasn't tried to reinvent the game with its latest version of Safari. Instead, it’s spent the last year working to speed up the browser on every platform, and the results of that effort are noticeable. Safari feels quicker, lighter, and more responsive in Mavericks, thanks to improved JavaScript performance and memory optimization. Like Chrome, each webpage now runs as its own process, which should ensure that your entire browsing session won't collapse if one website or plug-in becomes unresponsive.

But there’s another reason to give Safari a shot when you install Mavericks: Apple has brought some genuinely useful social integration to its browser. Once you’ve enabled your Twitter and LinkedIn accounts within OS X’s system-settings pane, a new Shared Links section — which appears both in the Safari Sidebar and alongside your Top Sites in any new tab — provides a list of everything your friends are linking to. It’s one of the best new features of the entire OS, and I started using it often. By sticking purely to tweets that contain links, it cuts down on the constant noise that can overwhelm my Twitter timeline, and I never failed to find a link that piqued my interest. And when I finished a page, I could just keep scrolling — Safari takes you straight to the next link.

Safari is worth another chance if you’ve been ignoring it

All in all, Safari’s definitely worth another chance if you’ve been ignoring it in recent OS X releases. It might not totally replace Chrome’s simplicity and huge extension library, but it’s a far better, cleaner browser than it’s ever been.

iCloud Keychain

iCloud Keychain

I’ve been using 1Password for years, and I don’t know what I’d do without a secure and convenient password manager. iCloud Keychain is a built-in replacement for the $50 app: it’s a system-wide password manager, complete with a secure password generator and the ability to auto-fill credit card information.

Unfortunately, the implementation just isn’t up to the standards of the third-party competition. iCloud Keychain is deeply integrated into Safari, but doesn’t do me any good for the time I spend using Chrome. I couldn’t find any way to import my information from another app, and the Keychain Access app only offered a limited feature set. It’s great to see Apple getting started with password management, but it’ll take some time before it’s ready to replace the real power-user options.

Finder

Finder tags and tabs

Apple’s Finder now has an organization system more akin to Gmail or Evernote. The oft-ignored color labels for files have been rebranded as tags, allowing users to view all files or documents within an assigned category. There are six tag colors, and users can write their own labels — with text or emoji.

The tags system works exactly as described, but it’s a hard system to push on users. If you upgrade from a previous version of OS X (rather than doing a clean install of Mavericks), all your previous labels will be automatically converted to tags, ready for sorting. But any other type of organization system needs to be built from the ground up, with each file manually selected and labeled. And even then, the only real benefit is being able to view a finder window with each of those files, which is a lot of work for something that so closely resembles a traditional file folder. A single file can have multiple tags, which is cool, but not cool enough to rethink the way you organize everything.

Once tags get integrated more deeply with other apps, then I’ll be more excited. If I could tag a file "dropbox" and have it automatically upload to my Dropbox account without moving to a different folder, then and only then would I start tagging documents.

Finder now supports tabs, too, just like major web browsers, allowing users to cut the Finder window clutter when navigating through numerous directories. Command-T opens a new Finder tab, just like Safari, or you can select New Tab in the File menu — though it’s oddly the sixth option down, and easy to miss or forget. There’s no little plus button indicating that users can even make a new tab, either, and with the same interface as Mountain Lion it’s easy to slip into old habits.

Like a browser, holding the Command button while double clicking a folder will open it in a new tab, which I liked, but there was no way to make all new Finder windows open as tabs. Whenever you open a folder from anywhere other than Finder itself, you’re stuck with a new window. The Finder should be cleaner than ever, with tabs and tags, but it’s mostly the same. And Finder’s buggy date-based organization, the missing features that have sprung a cottage industry of third-party replacements, still remain.

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Performance

Behind the scenes

Last year’s Mountain Lion update gave OS X a noticeable improvement in speed and performance, flying through files and folders and waking up from sleep much more quickly. That doesn’t really leave much room for improvement, but Mavericks is able to keep up with the the previous system for the most part. One area that does leave some room for improvement is scrolling throughout the system. It feels slightly choppier, even when compared to Mountain Lion running on a mid-2012 13-inch Macbook Air. It’s a slight difference, barely noticeable, but it's definitely not as smooth.

Initially, battery life seemed like one of the most obvious reasons to upgrade to Mavericks — just by upgrading, Apple said, your computer would instantly last longer. There are a variety of reasons, but one is particularly clever: in order to conserve power, Mavericks puts any app that’s not currently being used in slow motion mode. This is a smart move for Apple, ensuring fast performance even for users who never quit out of their apps. I didn’t really notice any tangible difference in day-to-day use, and you can disable it for any app you choose as well. Having more free memory space is worth the tradeoff, especially if Apple can translate it into better battery life.

Battery life does get better — just not at first

At first, though, battery life was significantly worse with Mavericks on my mid-2013 13-inch Macbook Air. I needed to plug in the computer by mid-afternoon, whereas before the notebook would easily last well into the evening hours, even with constant use.

The Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of websites and high-res images at 65 percent screen brightness, showed the same results. The most recent 11-inch MacBook Air model, running Safari, lasted 7 hours, 57 minutes with Mavericks compared to 10 hours, 23 minutes for the same notebook before the OS upgrade. Those numbers have improved over time, but are still only slightly better than on Mountain Lion. Other publications have seen much bigger gains, and we're still running more tests — we'll update here as we go.

Notifications and Dictation

One of the handiest improvements in 10.9 is interactive, synced notifications, a feature sadly still missing from iOS. Users can respond to Messages directly from the notification alert, and reply to or delete emails without leaving their current app. Almost all of Apple’s apps have been updated to take advantage of the enhanced abilities, and hopefully third-party developers do the same in short order. It’s the fastest, best notification system Apple’s ever had, far better than iOS.

Messages

Mountain Lion provided a very basic way to silence notifications: a switch that turns alerts and banners off until the following day. Mavericks makes this feature actually useful by giving it the same advanced options as Do Not Disturb for iOS. It’s handy at night, and even more so if you’re just trying to get focused work done.

Multiple Displays

It’s rare for a nerdy feature like improved multiple-display support to be a major selling point for a new desktop operating system, but considering how much of a headache it’s been since Lion, there’s good reason to pay attention to the changes Apple has made here in Mavericks.

Using multiple displays has been bad for a long time

Using more than one display got complicated when Apple added virtual desktops (called "spaces") in Leopard, as Macs could no longer simply extend the usable desktop across two monitors like Windows does. Instead, each virtual desktop was extended across both displays, leaving you with multiple pairs of extended desktops. When Apple added long-overdue support for full-screen apps in Lion, things got much worse; opening a full-screen app on your laptop would leave your external display with a useless panel of gray linen.

Mercifully, the situation is a lot better with Mavericks. The desktops on your primary display and your external display are no longer bound to each other. You can see this when you enter Mission Control: if you have five virtual desktops on your laptop, your external monitor will then show up as "Desktop 6." And since they’re not paired together, you can switch between desktops on your primary display without changing anything on the external monitor. You also aren’t forced to have multiple virtual desktops on your external monitor anymore, and moving apps from your primary monitor to your external display is as simple as dragging it in Mission Control. (This was inexplicably impossible to do in earlier versions.) Full-screen apps now function properly as well: you can open an app in full-screen on any display, and the other monitor remains unchanged. (No more gray linen on entire displays.) And if you use two full-screen apps at the same time, it all works just as it should.

With Mavericks the menu bar is now on both displays, as it always should have been. The display in focus gets the standard menu bar, while the other monitor is left with a very transparent version. The menu bar you see corresponds with whatever app you’re using on each display; for example, it will give options for Chrome on your laptop while the menu bar on the external monitor will simultaneously offer choices for Finder. Apple’s also decided to duplicate the dock on the secondary monitor. It’s hidden, however, and you’ll have to hit the bottom of the screen with your cursor to make it appear. Unfortunately, this rarely works, and I had to tap at least twice to make it appear. More importantly, I’m not convinced that there’s a good reason to have two docks.

If you just can’t get enough displays, Mavericks lets you use a television connected to an Apple TV or another AirPlay device as an external monitor rather than just a mirrored version of the primary display. It works impressively well, though you’ll need a newer Mac (from 2011 or later) to use the feature.


A free upgrade that feels like a free upgrade

At Apple, it's clearly still about cars and trucks. While Jony Ive and his team focused on making iOS 7 usable and enjoyable for everyone, they've split the Mac into two. One on side, there's the power user, who will upgrade to Mavericks to get Timer Coalescing and Energy Optimized Audio Buffers. On the other side are Mac owners who only pick up their laptop when their iPad battery dies. iBooks, Maps, the improved iCloud sync with your phone — that's all for them. For the massive middle, the regular laptop users who use Office and Chrome and maybe a little Photoshop on the side, little has changed.

Everyone should upgrade to Mavericks, though. There's no good reason not to — it's free, it's faster, it has a few new and improved apps. You'll probably see your battery life improve after a few days. But don't expect a radical rethinking of what a desktop computer can or should be — that job seems destined for a future version of iOS.

Dan Seifert, Dante D'Orazio, and Chris Welch contributed to this review