OS X Mavericks Review: More Secure, More Fun and More Usable

| In-Depth Review

When a major new release of an operating system is emerging, the developer can take two approaches. First, be heady with agenda and greatly annoy the users with abrupt, dramatic change. Alternatively, the developer can focus on all the areas that make the OS more secure, more fun and more usable. Apple has chosen to skip the first path and take the second with OS X 10.9 "Mavericks."

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Even though Mavericks is a major departure from the long history of cat names for OS X, Apple didn't fall for the idea that a fresh start in the naming scheme would necessarily entail a fresh, perhaps startling change, in the overall OS look and feel. For that steady hand, Apple is to be commended.

Neither has Apple annoyed us with an altogether plunge into iOS-fication, something that has been dreaded by many users for the last few years. Recognizing that, for now, Macintosh customers still use their Macs in different ways and for different tasks compared to iOS, Apple has visibly retained what makes the Mac great, but also added some useful features and services.

Once again, for that steady hand, Apple is to be commended.

If you're thinking about upgrading to OS X 10.9, Mavericks, you should check the Mac hardware requirements first. All that and more advice on how to get ready is contained in Sandro Cuccia's fabulous article, "How to Start Preparing for OS X Mavericks.

In this top level review, I want to take a look at and discuss some of the most important and interesting things to know about Mavericks.

Major New Mavericks Features

Recognizing that mobility is vital to the modern users and that battery powered MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros have the dominant share of sales, Apple has put a lot of emphasis on tuning the OS architecture so as to extend battery life. This is a bold move because it's not a flashy new visual feature. Rather it's something that works behind the scenes to make your Mac computing life better. We'll get into that in more detail in the geek section below.

Finder tabs. Perhaps the most anticipated and welcome feature of Mavericks is Finder tabs. You enable this by View > Show Tab Bar. In the style of Safari -- what else? -- that ads a small "+" icon at the top right of the Finder window. Click it and you'll see the familiar metaphor of multiple tabs just like Safari. This, of course, allows you to look at a lot different folders in different places in just one window, and that's a boon for MacBook Airs with a small display. You can even look at the same folder with different views, say, list in one and icon view in the other.

Tabs in Finder work just like Safari.

But tabs are not just for viewing. You can move or copy a file or folder from one place just by dragging the item to the tab.  You'll see a blue outline around the tab name as a visual prompt that you can release the mouse button. To close a tab, click the small "x" in its title bar, just like Safari. Tabs and copy/move to tabs is a feature Apple customers have been wanting for years.

iBooks. Perhaps the next most wanted feature for OS X has been a native OS X iBooks app. Ever since iBooks was released along with the iPad in 2010, customers have been waiting for that, and now we have it. However, if you think that this opens the door to wholesale archiving and copying of protected books on your Mac, you'd be wrong. iBooks on the Mac downloads purchases you've made from the iBooks Store for viewing only. [However, after they're downloaded, it's difficult to identify their location in the file system. For some great background on this, see "OS X 10.9 Mavericks and Ebooks: The Good, the Bad and the Confusing," by Kirk McElhearn.]

iBooks in Mavericks

Note that if you've built up a collection of personal PDF files on your iPad, these are not synced across devices and will not show up in iBook on your Mac.

Finder Tags. Finder tags are a way of identifying files that are associated with a named project. A file can belong to none or many projects by declaring a tag when the file is saved or by adding one in the Get Info box. You can even tag documents that are in your iCloud.

Image Credit: Apple

In the Finder's sidebar, just click on one of the named tags, and you'll see a window with all the documents that have that tag. This is nice because, heretofore, if you were working on a project, it may have seemed reasonable to collect documents, say, a Pages document and its associated .webloc files and .jpg images in a specific folder. But that may also mean moving files, used for other projects, into a new folder. Finder tags is a way of visually associating and working with tagged items without having to move them.

I can see how this could come very handy in a major research report that has lots of resources associated with it. Or something as simple as this very review. What took Apple so long?

Maps. After you install Mavericks, you'll find another new app in the /Applications folder called maps. It looks to be maps in the typical Apple style of ease of use, but I've not worked with it extensively so far. I did notice that this app fails to identify, southeast of Denver, west Hess Road connecting to I-25 and Castle Pines Parkway. Google maps does, so my initial feeling was that Apple's mapping adventures are not over. Caution is still advised.

A framework for developers, call Map Kit, allows developers to embed maps right into their apps, and that looks to become really handy for merchants who want to help you find them as a matter of course, rather than you having to go hunt them down in a separate maps app.

Notifications. This was introduced into Mountain Lion in an effort to arrive at cross-platform coherence. I won't call it iOS-ification. Notable improvements for Mavericks include updates from websites, if they adopt the protocol, and the ability to respond from within the notification.

While the specific use of notifications in OS X can be tremendously useful when needed, my take is that a lot of other users find notifications distracting, an intrusion, especially when they're concentrating on something. Often, it's desirable to disable them, and Mavericks is better in this regard because while there's no easy one-click way to disable them, you can set a desirable "Do Not Disturb" range of times. Plus, Mavericks tries to go overboard with notifications on the lock screen, creating a potential privacy issue.  Consider it a delicate package and handle with care.

Mavericks adds "Do Not Disturb" to Notifications. Thanks goodness.

Multiple Displays. When OS X 10.7, Lion first came out, there was an emphasis on full screen mode, and the technical concession to that, an ill-advised diversion, borked the multiple monitor operation that worked so well previously. The problem is still there in Mountain Lion. A good way to see the effect in Mountain Lion is go to full screen mode with a second monitor attached and watch your second display go to blank linen. This was a hideous technical blunder that never should have happend.

As if to cry mea culpa, Apple has fixed Mavericks' multi-monitor operation and gone beyond the original operation to make it even more sensible and convenient. According to Apple, "There’s no longer a primary or secondary display — now each has its own menu bar, and the Dock is available on whichever screen you’re working on. You can have multiple app windows running on either display. Or run an app full screen on each one. Even show a desktop on one display and a full-screen app on another.

This is what I meant when I said that Mavericks is all about making our lives better, even if better means recovering from an ill-conceived technical foray gone bad on the past. It's here now, and I'll take it.

The Geek Stuff

Mavericks is not just about some handsome new user refinements, apps and features. There's also been some tuning under the hood.

Power Saving. Apple has introduced several new power saving technologies that are notable. They include Timer Coalescing, App Nap, Safari Power Saver and iTunes HD Playback efficiency improvements that take better advantage of modern GPU hardware.

App nap is notable because, when using the battery, an app can be suspended to save power if it meets certain criteria. For example, if its window isn't visible and it's not audible and the developer hasn't set a flag to make it exempt, then it will be put to sleep.

That developer power management decision for App Nap is one of the most misunderstood things about Mavericks. That is, users who have tasked an app to, say, do a computation in the background have been worried that their app would be put to sleep if it's hidden. However, if the developer designs the app to block the sleep mode, that won't happen. That's something to look for as computational apps are upgraded for Mavericks.

In Timer Coalescing, also limited to MacBooks when on battery power, Mavericks tries to time low level activities that would normally run in their own schedule to run more closely together in time increasing the idle time for the CPU. Apple says that this technique can reduce CPU activity up to 72 percent because the CPU doesn't have to wake from sleep so often.

When the new MacBook Pros ship with the new even lower power "Haswell" CPU from Intel, the effect should be very noticeable. However, a quantitative evaluation of the aggregate of these power saving features will have to wait until careful benchmarks are conducted on each feature individually, and then in aggregate with typical usage profiles.

Security. While the fundamentals of OS X, based on UNIX, have been tuned for better security over the years, new and imaginative exploits are constantly being developed by the bad guys. One reason to upgrade to a new version of OS X is that, often, fundamental changes are made to prevent exploits and these are not feasible in older versions. At some point, using an obsolete version of OS X is risky because Apple doesn't support it with updates. Unless you know that one of your critical apps just isn't going to function in Mavericks, it's probably good to plan for the upgrade.

For example, just Safari for Mavericks fixes 16 CVD-IDs. (They're also included in Safari 6.1 for Lion and Mountain Lion.)  As for Mavericks itself, there are significant security improvements in the kernel, the firewall, networking and Bluetooth, Core Graphics, mail, the Screen Lock, Launch Services and more.

Networking. As I mentioned back in August, OS X 10.9 introduces an IPv6 feature, RFC 6555, the "Happy Eyeballs" algorithm for "intelligently selecting between IPv6 and IPv4 addresses when both are available." In Happy Eyeballs, both IPv6 and IPv4 servers are pinged, and the one with the best response time is selected. That sounds like something cool, but since then I've heard from one very experienced IPv6 engineer who thinks that, even if the IPv6 server has a slower ping response, IPv6 should always be chosen in preference to IPv4 -- as a natural part of the steady migration to IPv6 in the world. An advanced user setting for this may be called for in OS X 10.10.

Also, System Preferences > Network > Advanced > TCP/IP doesn't do a better job than 10.8 of labeling the multiple IPv6 addresses that are typically used, such as EUI-64 and privacy. I was disappointed there. See "How to Obtain the IPv6 Address of Your Mac and iPad." Apple's OS support for IPv6 was early and is now legendary. However, Apple's surfacing of options and information to the user has been poor. I'd like to see that get better in the transition era -- until IPv6 is routine.

Reliability. As a final note, I want to mention that OS X has been with us since the fall of 2000 when the public beta was released.  In my experience, because of the continuous improvements in OS X and HFS+ over the years, the basic BSD UNIX core and file system is stable and trustworthy for typical use. I've been using it routinely since Developer Preview #3 which came out in early July, along with others at TMO, and I've found it to be safe and reliable for everyday operations.

File Closed

Mavericks is not a drastic update. It fixes some things that needed fixing, like multi-display usage, and introduces power saving, iBooks and the Maps app. It installs nicely over Mountain Lion in my experience with little fuss. Considering that it's free and has solid new features that will make your life better, you should be able to upgrade with confidence.

Product: OS X 10.9.0 Mavericks

Company: Apple

List Price: Free

Pros:

Longer battery life on MacBooks, introduction of iBooks app, better control of notifications, great support for multiple displays, Finder tabs, Finder tags. Free upgrade. A steady, sensible continuation of Apple's OS X/Unix heritage.

Cons:

No significant "cons" noted.

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5 Comments Leave Your Own

ipaqrat

Long download (5+ GB), but installed without a hitch. First boot was slow going. On that first boot, WIFI would not initiate, though the history of configured networks was intact in Network Preferences; reboot solved that problem, no idea what went wrong.

First application launches seem pokey. New preference files, security handshakes, etc?  Overall, I notice a performance falloff with each upgrade. I run a mid 2009 13” aluminum MacBook (before rebadging as MacBook Pro’s); time is catching up.

iBooks is irrelevant to me. The Apple store doesn’t permit me to search/filter precisely for the sci-fi action I like to read on my commute, so I use Amazon Kindle.

I believe I’ll use the tagging in Finder, as well as tabs. Nothing to write home about.

Improved multi-monitor support is obvious and helpful immediately - Menu bars on both screens - very nice!

notifications work as described, again, nothing to write home about. Even working at my desk, I use my 5s as comms hub.

I still need to test my Fujitsu SnapScan and Dragon Dictate.  Need to check the X support for Scribus, GIMP and InkScape, Ghostscript, etc.

How come we still can’t have colored icons in finder and app sidebars? That would be an ideal opportunity to integrate trade dress from iOS 7 without screwing up the UI.  Mac OS seems so lifeless without color in these spots. With color tagging in the finder, they can’t even claim that greyscale was for section 508 accessibility.

mrboba1

If anyone is using Office 365 and trying to use mail and calendar, you will be happy with this update.
Mavericks works perfectly with whatever MS did to force Outlook use, but with Mavericks, all programs seem to be working just fine (including BusyCal).


That made my wife very happy!!

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

John, Your blurb about multiple monitors is what got me to upgrade today rather than just wait a couple of weeks for this new release to sort itself out. I’m glad I jumped (for now). They finally got this right. Although it was helpful to lookup Spaces in the Help and learn a few more things about the feature.

I especially like how the Spaces for different monitors can be different. That’s huge. I do miss the right menu bar indicator from Snow Leopard though. Might have to find a utility that does that. It’s a very useful indicator.

davidneale

Mavericks is fine. Still hasn’t solved the WiFi connection problems on my wife’s MacBook Air, which is a pain, but we’re gettting used to restarting because of that. The really big disappointment, however, is Maps. The quality of its images, at least here in Europe, is just pathetic when compared to Google Earth and I can find nothing to compare to Google’s Street View. That aspect of Mavericks is disappointing, I’m afraid.

smu

RE: Mavericks upgrade

So far, enjoying Mavericks upgrade.  LOVE the inactive program compression—helps RAM out a lot!

Has anyone found Preview annotating of PDF files frustrating?  I really like the minimalist approach and am discovering the features again, but, previously in 10.7.5, I could save a PDF with annotations and email it.  Now, the file apparently saves—just for me to view—but I cannot send the file I’ve made annotations on for someone else to view… Any lamentations, ideas?  Running on Mid-2007 15” MBP.

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