Apple OS X 10.9 Mavericks review

Apple launched OS X Mavericks on 22 October and - most surprisingly - it is a free upgrade for all versions of Mac OS X going back to Snow Leopard. Read on for more details about Mavericks, its release, specs and features, in our Mac OS X Mavericks review.

The cat may never again be let out of the bag. Not by the measure of new updates of Apple’s computer operating system anyway. With the tenth version after 12 years of the primary interface for every Macintosh, Apple has abandoned its big-cat codenames for Mac OS X and plumped for ‘Mavericks’, a seemingly random title from a surfer’s beach in California that’s named after, here quite ironically, a dog.

While we appreciate that there are only so many cat monikers left available, the new name is all too surfer-hip for our feline fancying taste.

Read our OS X Mavericks tips and tricks, get more out of Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks feature to uncover the best new features in Mavericks. We have also published a series of tips on how to master Safari in Mavericks, and tips for how to use Calendar in Mavericks. You can also find our Maps tips here, our Mail on a Mac tips here and you can read our iBooks on a Mac tips here. Finally, read how to use two screens at the same time in Mavericks.

Continuing the trend of the last several updates, it’s still evolution rather than revolution, yet it may also literally prove the most popular through the simple expedient of being free for every Mac user.

The system requirements are modest – essentially the same as for Mountain Lion, so hardware support extends back to the MacBook Pro and iMac from 2007. We’ve tried 10.9 on several Macs, from a MacBook Pro (Early 2008) up to current models and there’s no sign of any of the kind of slowdown issues we’ve seen when running iOS 7 on some older devices, for example.

Already looking ahead to the next version of Mac OS X? Read our collection of rumours about Mac OS X 10.10, and our list of possible names for the follow-up to Mavericks.

Apple OS X 10.9 Mavericks: First impressions

In its look and feel, Mavericks is Mountain Lion, with a little more spit and polish. The 10.7 update of Lion wrought many system-wide changes, which were tidied and refined again for 10.8 Mountain Lion. Now 10.9 is superficially a gentle refinement again.

You’re first confronted by the majestic blue and green sea wall of the default Wave desktop picture. Other themed new images include Mountain Range and Rolling Wave. The Finder looks different by virtue of a row of coloured dots under Tags in the sidebar. By clicking a colour you’ll instantly see in a Finder window all files and folders that have been tagged with that colour. You may already have been using colour markups on your files; if not, you should find it easier to do so now as you’re often prompted from Save dialog sheets to pick a colour each time you create a new file.

Colours are limited to Apple’s rainbow choice of seven though, and despite the option to add more tag categories you’re still stuck with red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple and gray [sic].

Apple OS X 10.9 Mavericks: Finder for keepers

Tabbed Finder windows are a power user’s dream. There has been similar functionality available before from other developers – we used to rely on TotalFinder – but having Apple integrate it into the OS means there are no surprising glitches. You can create a new tab with Cmd-T, and we’ve found this is a handy way to set up file move or copy operations between disparate directories, dragging files from one open tab to the actual tab bar of the window’s second tab. If you’re used to having several Finder windows open at once, it’s worth trying and you may find yourself appreciating the reduced window clutter.

Mind when you’re picking up a Finder window from anywhere in the top bar though, as if you click too low this can have the unexpected effect of tearing off the tab to create a new window, like with Safari tabs.

In line with almost every other application running on the modern Mac, you can now put Finder into full-screen mode with the usual system-wide Cmd-Ctrl-F. We can’t imagine this feature being eagerly requested by users but it does signpost more of the iOSification of OS X.

Read our Finder tips and watch our video guide below

Apple OS X 10.9 Mavericks: iBooks

Ported from iOS we now have iBooks as a native Mac application. You have to log in again to the app to buy new books from Apple’s bookshop or download previous purchases. With the aid of full-screen view you can get a great big-screen view of books. PDFs still open in Preview though.

The biggest disappointment here is that there doesn’t seem to be a way to synchronise your own PDFs between Macs and iOS devices over iCloud.

Read our iBooks tips

Apple OS X 10.9 Mavericks: Maps

The Standard view from Maps

Bringing Apple’s controversial Maps service to the Mac is actually a good idea. With the benefit of a screen bigger than any iPad you can really appreciate the aerial photography, particularly that available in larger cities where a rendered 3D option can be overlayed on the map drawings. And if you select the Hybrid or Satellite views, real photography takes over with even buildings’ side elevations illustrated. Not entirely faithfully with some strange side-view rendering but the feature is quite remarkable and can’t be criticised for some misalignments.

The hybrid view overlays the Satellite image onto the standard map.

Being able to devise a route from the comfort of your Mac, then send those directions to your phone or iPad is a very handy asset too.

Read our Maps tips here.

Apple OS X 10.9 Mavericks: Calendar and Address Book

Personal Information Managers, or PIM, used to be the cover-all label for ways to manage your diary and address book. In Mavericks, both Calendar and Address Book have received the iOS 7 treatment. That means no more leather-bound desk diary effects, for example. The resulting Calendar.app 7.0 is very like that on an iOS 7’d iPhone, which we at least find harder to reader since the Jonathan Ive touch means it’s so minimal, there are no lines between days in Month view for instance. No more slow scrolling of pages either, since the calendar runs like an endless sheet of paper down the screen.

Read our Calendar tips here.

Apple OS X 10.9 Mavericks: Multiple monitors

Mission Control display overview performs differently now in Mavericks when more than one monitor is used. Rather than double up on every virtual desktop when using two screens, for example, each panel can switch independently, and have as many virtual spaces as you wish – up to 16 anyway.

Using a two-finger sideways swipe on a Magic Mouse, or three- or four fingers on a trackpad, moves desktop on the display focused by the mouse cursor. We found this made more sense but if you prefer the old way you can deselect ‘Displays have separate Spaces’ in System Preferences/Mission Control.

A curious visual change is the sight of a ghostly half-window as you drag from one monitor to another, the unfocused display side rendered quite translucent.

Expanding your screen space doesn’t even require an extra monitor, if you have an Apple TV available. Mavericks lets you use your television screen through an Apple TV to expand your desktop, or mirror your main screen. We found this feature works without hitch, and you can even run full-motion video smoothly.

The Notifications system has been increased in scope, able to let you quickly reply to emails from the pop-up itself. The new Do Not Disturb feature ported from iOS brings a welcome full-time respite to continually annoying distractions, by simply setting DND to run 24 hours every day.

Read how to use two screens at the same time in Mavericks.

Apple OS X 10.9 Mavericks: Under the bonnet changes

SMB2 is the surprising default file-serving protocol now, replacing long-standing AFP for Mac to Mac connections, with AFP now only used for Time Machine connections unless you force otherwise. It’s surprising since Server Message Block is a purely Microsoft network protocol devised for Windows. It seems Apple has quietly acquiesced to the system, perhaps because it has more on its plate than to maintain its own venerable networking stack.

In our tests of networking performance, SMB2 is now working effectively as fast as AFP between two Macs running Mavericks. Previously we’ve found large-file transfer speeds were lower with SMB/CIFS but now, up to gigabit connections at least, SMB2 is about as good in raw throughput.

To improve efficiency and thereby extend battery life on MacBooks, a few changes have been made behind the scenes – principally App Nap, Timer Coalescing and potentially helping here also, Compressed Memory.

We ran a trial on a MacBook Pro (15-inch, Retina, Late 2013), our standard looped-video playback test over Wi-Fi, to see by how much battery runtime had improved. As it turned out, it was no different, although that’s perhaps not so surprising when you consider the battery-related changes in Mavericks.

App Nap pauses apps running in the background, the usual example being web pages with cycling advertisements consuming your battery. In our normal battery test, we have no web browser or any other app open at the same time.

Timer Coalescing aims to reduce the continuously running system calls in the background for general system housekeeping, instead saving them up to present to the processor in groups and less frequently. This enables the processor to take longer naps between chores.

Compressed Memory should help get the best out of available physical memory, by compressing in the background whatever’s stored in RAM when it’s all in active use. For our battery test, neither this nor Timer Coalescing are being utilised, which could explain the identical runtime.

Clicking on the battery indicator in the top menu, you can check easily which apps may be using significant battery power, and optionally do something about it yourself such as quitting the app if it’s not really required at that time.

Activity Monitor in OS X Mavericks keeps track on the way applications make use of your computer.

Digging deeper into Activity Monitor you’ll find a redesign of its layout, including a tab view headed Energy which will usefully inform you of the Energy Impact of every running application. A battery monitor graph gives a rough guide to the last 12 hours’ activity on your system, although this could really do with some scale markings. Missing from Activity Monitor now though are the pie graphs that usefully showed disk and memory capacity.

For the security-minded, it’s worth knowing that Apple has removed the option to synchronise your Contacts book between Mac and iPhone directly over a USB cable. Now we can only rely on iCloud to act as middleman with our address book data. Most people don’t consider their address books to be so valuable, but for businesses this can break corporate policy, while more cautious users may prefer not to share such private data with an American company.

More subversive may be the introduction of iCloud Keychain. During setup you are asked if you’d like Apple iCloud to look after all your banking and financial logins, credit card details and other sensitive data. These credentials will then be available on any other Apple products, such as your iPhone or iPad too.

Given that US companies are being compelled to deliver all of their users’ private data to their government, we’re surprised that anyone would want to make it so easy for US/UK security agencies, by putting all your secure login details under the security of just one iCloud login password.

Elsewhere, changes are even deeper in the system and effectively invisible. For example, upgrades to OpenCL 1.2 and OpenGL 4.1 should mean improved hardware acceleration from graphics cards, and improved rendering to a display device, respectively, using the increasingly important graphics processor of any Mac. And Mavericks now allows OpenCL to function even with Intel’s integrated graphics processors, which are increasingly important as more computers rely on these rather than discrete nVidia or AMD graphics solutions.

Read more about Maverick's energy saving features here.

OUR VERDICT

OS X Mavericks may come with an unloved codename but the software behind it shows another strong step toward the unification of Macs and iOS devices. But some added features can also make users focused on Mac productivity cheerful too, and the system seems to run as fast, or faster, than any of the preceding two Lion builds. At the price, we have little against it at all, and even if it’d been a £15 or £25 upgrade we’d still be giving OS X 10.9 are hearty recommendation.