OS X 10.9 Mavericks

25th Mar 2013 | 14:30

OS X 10.9 Mavericks

Apple's newest OS is excellent for power users

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

Like:

Tabs in Finder; Useful new apps; Enhanced performance; Great multi-display improvements

Dislike:

Suboptimal tagging; Some elements still pig-ugly; Few moments of excitement; Feels a bit unfinished

Introduction

Ratings in depth

Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks
Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks
Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks
Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks
Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks

The tenth major revision of OS X, Mavericks, marks an attempt at a fresh start.

Oh yeah, and it's available as a free download! Apple has decided it should treat the Mac community in the same way it has been treating iOS users and ship the update free via the Mac App Store.

Mavericks introduces new features that are aimed at professionals, updates major interface components, it overhauls the system's branding. Big cats are out, and California locations are in (Mavericks being a surfing hotspot).

The default desktop picture can be seen as a huge wave, washing away the overbearing textures most often attributed to Scott Forstall.

While Mavericks is designed to bring Apple's desktop and mobile closer together, this isn't a radical iOS 7-style redesign. It's more a refinement of OS X's existing design language that just happens to be simpler and cleaner. Expect more of the same in OS X 10.10, which is presumably next.

Since launch, Apple has been working on updates for the OS - OS X 10.9.3 is already in beta as of mid-March and re-introduces iTunes syncing for contacts and calendar data.

With the new OS, skeuomorphism is out, so you'll see less fake wood and pretend leather (although it lives on in some applications, including the paper-themed Notes). Mavericks dials down the interface chrome so content can stand out, but it's also suitable for the desktop in the way a stark, text-oriented iOS 7-style theme might not be.

There have been a few teething issues though, with several things clearly not working. First was the need to issue an update to fix an issue that affected users who had connected Gmail to Mavericks (it didn't work) before a further problem related to freezing trackpads and keyboards on it's new MacBook Pro retina 13-inch. Other users have reported issues with Thunderbolt drivers plus sound cutting out.

And some even found external Western Digital hard drives have been wiped clean of data due to compatibility issues between Mavericks and WD's storage management software.

And that's all before we get to the fact Mavericks appears to be tracking how often users are sat in front of their Macs...

OS X Mavericks new features

As with anything Apple-related these days, Mavericks wasn't an upgrade full of surprises. Instead, it was a case of getting our hands on features we've seen demoed earlier in the year, and for the most part these features are welcome - though not always.

Finder gains tabs, which are a genuine enhancement, and tags, which are less successful. Maps is, but you won't get the best out of it unless you have thoroughly embraced Apple for desktop and mobile.

Calendar has been improved with intelligent additions, but regrettably these haven't been applied with perfect consistency. Safari, on the other hand, is unambiguously better in this release, and we hope it will stay that way.

Apple has also used Mavericks to give users more control over their own systems. Fullscreen is much better for multiple display setups and the App Nap function makes it easier than ever to see which applications are consuming power, so you can put them to sleep to preserve your battery life.

And there are also smaller enhancements which, while not exactly revolutionary, promise to make using your Mac a subtly simpler and more satisfying experience.

Installation is straightforward. The update is free to anyone running Snow Leopard, Lion or Mountain Lion, and shows up in brazen fashion at the top of the Mac App Store Updates tab so you really can't miss it.

Supported Macs

According to Apple, Macs back to 2007 are supported, as follows:

Any machines running the update must have 2 GB of RAM and 8 GB of disk space. Our primary test machine was a Mac mini i5 with 16 GB of RAM, running a 23-inch Apple monitor and the 27-inch display of a connected iMac.

We downloaded and installed during the peak rush, shortly after the Apple Event that announced the immediate availability of Mavericks.

Even when demand was highest, the entire process was painless and took under an hour, although the progress bars were typically comical, with "less than a minute" meaning something very different in the world of Apple. That means that anyone who comes after the early can expect a trouble-free installation.

Although our update was problem-free, do back up your Mac first just in case. We've read reports (albeit very few) of data loss - a risk with any flavour of OS upgrade, and one it's always worth taking sensible precautions against.

Finder, Safari and Keychain

Apple's long been criticised for doing little with Finder, but that might change with Mavericks, which brings two major new features to the OS X file manager: tabs and tags.

Tabs are reminiscent of those in Safari. Command+T adds a new tab to any window, and documents can be moved/copied between tabbed windows by dragging/Option-dragging them to a tab.

The system has frustrating shortcomings. It's easy to drag out a tab so it becomes a standalone window, but not to return it to a tabbed window elsewhere. There is a "Merge All Windows" command, but that proved flaky during testing, sometimes being greyed out.

Generally, though, Finder tabs are useful and usable, matching third-party efforts at bringing this kind of functionality to the Mac, and finally allowing Finder to make some sort of sense in fullscreen mode.

Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks

During testing, we found tags less successful by some margin. They resemble enhanced OS X Finder labels, but with user-definable extensibility. Tags can be added in Finder or when files are saved, and then used for organizing and grouping documents.

The major benefit over labels is that multiple tags can be assigned to a single document. But ropey implementation has left tags a mess. In Finder, tagged items display tiny overlapping dots that are meaningless in isolation - although there is at least an optional Tags column in List view, which shows comma-separated assigned terms for each tag.

Only allowing seven colors provides backwards compatibility with old OS X labels, but at the expense of true extensibility. Also, the Tags section in Finder's preferences is baffling, an example of dreadful interface design.

The net result for us was liking the general concept behind tags, but wondering whether we'll actually use them in the long term: if we do, it's something that will remain rooted to Open and Save dialogs, rather than being used to spot certain documents in Finder by their tags.

Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks

There have also been other, more minor, changes to Finder, for better or worse. Better: the ability to show the Library without a Terminal command (go to your Home folder and use Command+J to access the View Options window). Worse: translucent column headers wheeled in from iOS 7, which reduce clarity.

Safari and Keychain

Safari's one of Apple's most inconsistent products, at times being an industry-leading browser but often being a buggy and unstable embarrassment. Of late, it's tended very much towards the latter.

New underlying technology has improved things dramatically under Mavericks. Safari now finally uses a process per tab, which seemingly eradicates the maddening "webpages are not responding" dialog that then forced every open tab to be refreshed.

In theory, tabs can also be quit individually in Activity Monitor, but they unhelpfully lack any kind of differentiating label. Still, this all means Safari works - at least for now. We might update this review in a few months with a huge *sadface* GIF if Safari suddenly lurches back to rubbishness.

Back to the present and performance is further boosted by bundled plug-in management. You can turn off the likes of Flash and QuickTime entirely within Safari, or set plug-ins to be allowed or blocked for each individual site.

Additionally, there's also an option buried in Safari's Advanced preferences, "Stop plug-ins to save power." This attempts to freeze auto-playing components until you request them, and during testing it intelligently didn't stop videos we wanted to see but did block adverts. These controls when combined are impressive enough that we'd consider reinstalling Flash on our Macs, rather than using Chrome as a Flash ghetto.

Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks

Beyond performance, Safari adds a minor interface revamp to its sidebar and Top Sites page, push notifications, and iCloud Keychain.

The sidebar now has bookmarks and shared links alongside Reading List. Shared links are pulled in from configured social networks (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn), and you can search and retweet, respectively, from within the sidebar or at the top of the shared page. Top Sites has a rather simpler overhaul, which is a flat grid of large thumbnails, boosting usability.

Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks

The iCloud Keychain is less of a usability success, in part because it's a pain to set up. During first launch, you must define a passcode and SMS number. Because we were updating various devices at once, our test Mac and iPad both seemingly refused to acknowledge iCloud Keychain's existence.

On smacking everything with a digital wrench, the feature finally fell into line and mostly did its job, autofilling passwords and payment card details. However, it was less reliable than 1Password (especially on forums), which has the added advantage of working with non-Apple browsers and platforms.

Apps

There are two properly new apps bundled with Mavericks: Maps and iBooks. Both are further efforts by Apple to bring aspects of the iOS ecosystem to OS X, and both are long overdue.

Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks

Maps will either prove a joy or superfluous, depending on how immersed in the iOS ecosystem you are. The app is a fairly straight translation from iOS, providing zoomable maps and driving/walking directions.

There's also Apple's half-hearted 3D zooming that Google Street View probably laughs at behind Apple's back, although Maps counters with a rather lovely fully zoomed out live view of Earth, city lights gleaming in the inky blackness of space.

Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks

As with the iOS version, the data in Maps is uneven, but tends to be robust for postcode-to-postcode directions and poor for locating specific businesses. Sharing and export is also variable.

If you're running iOS 6 or higher, it's great - you fire a location or set of directions at a device and this instantly shows up in Notification Center.

Otherwise, you must send directions via other means: for example, email provides recipients with a vCard and a PDF.

This shows how Google's online-first mentality can pay dividends under certain circumstances, although there's no denying the user experience of Maps is otherwise generally superior to Google Maps in Safari - and, unlike Google, Apple also uses standard UK map colours.

OS X 10.9 Mavericks

iBooks is a rather simpler affair, but we mostly loved it. The app doesn't seek to replicate the fake-book mess that iBooks is saddled with on the iPad. Instead, the chrome is basic and grey, and then almost vanishes entirely when you're reading, allowing the content to shine.

A smattering of reading adjustment settings is handled ably, and the app intelligently collapses from a spread to a single page as the window is narrowed.

Outside of books, it's a touch less impressive. The store is clunky and slow, like the Mac App Store, and although PDFs can be imported, Preview is required to view them. However, the reading part of iBooks is spot-on, making this a suitably impressive Mac debut. (Now roll on Newsstand…)

Notes, Contacts and Calendar

Three OS X apps are similarly notable to iBooks in being stripped of interface chrome. Notes, Contacts and Calendar are now rather plain and almost dull. However, in use, only Notes (which retains the most texture with a sort of drab yellow paper background) fails to impress, being a simpler but still ugly app.

Contacts no longer pretends to be a real address book, and works a lot better for it. There's no distracting interface "leather," but also the three panes - groups, contacts, details - can be resized. It works as you'd expect an OS X application to, rather than a book, and that alone is a big plus.

Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks

Calendar now also sets the right expectations. This is not a digital facsimile of a desk calendar, but a product that works within the realm of OS X.

Although initially appearing to be functionally identical to its predecessor, Calendar offers useful additions: week view has infinite scroll, rather than snapping to a predefined start day of each week, although controlling this was finicky on our test Mac with a Magic Trackpad and Magic Mouse.

Individual items can also have mapping and travel times assigned if you include an address. Oddly, Calendar only bothers adding travel time to the start of an event, though, not the end. Presumably it imagines all your meetings are on the Enterprise, whose crew will benevolently teleport you home once you're done.

Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks

Multiple display, power and misc

The fullscreen mode introduced with OS X Lion was no doubt an attempt to bring to the Mac the kind of singular focus iPad apps provide.

The drawback was that Apple clearly had no idea what to do with multiple-monitor set-ups. Its solution: tile a linen background on all but your primary display, turning them into very expensive wallpaper.

Mavericks revolutionises fullscreen, and works very nicely indeed across multiple displays. Apps can be made fullscreen on any display, and those on other screens continue on as normal. To cater for app navigation on displays without fullscreen apps running, the menu bar appears, albeit only in opaque fashion on the screen with the current in-use app.

If Mission Control is invoked, it also provides an overview of what's going on for each display, handily numbering each desktop.

In theory, the Dock can also move between displays, but we could only get that to work when it was pinned to the bottom of the screen and set to auto-hide - and even then it took seconds to make an appearance.

OS X 10.9 Mavericks

Some people will doubtless find fault with Apple's new implementation. There's now no means of spanning a single window across multiple displays, and the semi-transparent menu bars can be horribly indistinct with certain backgrounds; unfortunately, there's no "look, just stop already with the translucent menu bars" option lurking in the Desktop System Preferences pane.

Still, fullscreen now broadly feels like a feature fit for power users, whereas previously it was more like Apple wanted your Mac to become a giant iPad and for you to unthinkingly hurl your other displays out of the window.

With Apple having been accused of thumbing its nose at professionals for a while, Mavericks in part aims to make such users deliriously happy. Finder tabs and enhanced fullscreen are two prominent ways of doing so, but the latest OS X also includes a number of power-saving features.

These involve a mix of best practices, rethinking background processes, and an "App Nap" feature/API, the combination of which in theory makes OS X snappier and increases battery life.

App Nap is invoked if a number of conditions are set, including an app's windows being hidden or minimised and it not being audible. The idea is, for example, if an app is devouring resources in the background, it'll be temporarily but intelligently frozen should it be entirely covered.

The feature can be overridden on a per-app basis for those apps that support it (in the Get Info dialog), although during testing, we never thought it negatively impacted on performance.

OS X 10.9 Mavericks

Power hogs can also be spotted and eradicated in Activity Monitor's new Energy tab. The numbers are a bit opaque, but we imagine if everything's doddering along in low single figures, but your Mac's fans are going nuts and Safari's sitting there with a guilty expression and an "Energy Impact" of 52.7, it's probably a candidate for quitting if your battery's running low.

It's hard to quantify the impact of Apple's efforts in this field over the short time we've been running the final build of Mavericks, but an ageing MacBook Pro's battery life reduction seemed to drop by about 10–15% under general use. As ever, your mileage may vary.

Other features

Smaller features and changes also add to Mavericks, improving the overall experience. Offline dictation now exists (at the one-off expense of a 785 MB download), and worked flawlessly during testing.

iOS-like responsive scrolling improves the feel and flow of Apple's native apps if you tend to rapidly scroll through pages. And the Mac App Store can download and auto-update apps, without you doing anything (although, bizarrely, the settings are in System Preferences and not the Mac App Store app itself).

OS X 10.9 Mavericks

Notification Center's had a minor overhaul. App update notifications can mercifully now be snoozed (for an hour, to "tonight" or to "tomorrow"), meaning you're no longer forced to dismiss them by clicking "Details."

Some notification types are also actionable, such as those from Messages, although there's a usability issue in including a Cancel button but not one for Submit.

Tweets, oddly, can't be replied to in this manner, instead bumping you to Safari. A "do not disturb" section in System Preferences rounds everything out, providing the means to block notifications during certain time periods and/or when mirroring to TVs and projectors.

OS X 10.9 Mavericks

Elsewhere, the Internet Accounts pane (formerly known as "Mail, Contacts & Calendars") now includes LinkedIn, Control+Command+Space brings up a pop-up Emoji panel, and Accessibility settings now cater for switch controls and captions.

Sadly, there's still nothing to assist people with balance disorders, despite OS X increasingly being packed full of vertigo-inducing animations and transitions.

Verdict

For the most part, we think Mavericks is a decent upgrade. While there's nothing transformative here, nor is there anything that will make OS X a drastically unfamiliar experience, and that's a good thing when it comes to the lifeblood of your desktop.

What we have instead are a number of refinements that will make your Mac for the most part easier to use and nicer to look at.

We liked

We liked the emphasis on power-saving and battery life, twinned with efficiency and performance benefits that will be a boon for all users.

The majority of app updates are welcome, even if some work better than others. It's also great to see Apple providing a system-based means of encouraging people to create complex website passwords that they themselves don't have to remember, thereby increasing their online security for relatively little effort.

The look echoes iOS 7 in the interface getting out of the way and not distracting from content. That the overhaul isn't nearly as radical as that seen on iPads and iPhones doesn't strike us as a negative, not least because Apple's mobile design language wouldn't necessarily work on the Mac anyway.

We disliked

On the flip side, there are inconsistencies here and there: typography is poor throughout the OS, and there are questionable design decisions, both from a visual standpoint (notably, iffy translucency) and in terms of interaction.

Aesthetically, there's an argument OS X has become a bit dull and staid - and though that's not strongly to the detriment of this version it does make us wonder if Apple knows where it's going.

Finally, although third-party apps generally ran fine on Mavericks, we discovered some services weren't fully compatible. Tags don't play nicely with Dropbox, and Gmail accounts don't always work well with the new version of Mail.

Final verdict

On balance, the experience is positive, but there's a feeling Mavericks is a touch unfinished and that this iteration of OS X was rushed.

Our hope is that Mavericks represents further evidence of Apple rapidly iterating OS X, bringing new features and ideas across from iOS, but not trying to turn OS X into iOS. We also hope it sets a precedent for OS X updates once again appealing to power users and consumers alike.

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