Everything You Need to Know About OS X Mavericks

15 months after OS X Mountain Lion was released, Apple’s upgraded the OS that started it all. This time, though, it’s the name of a surfing location in California that graces the latest OS X instead of another cat name — but then, it is hard to top a Lion when it’s the king of cats.

So OS X Mavericks 10.9 it is. It’s the last OS before Apple either decided to use a two digit number after 10 or bumps the number up to 11 — or totally rebrands it as OS Xi, my personal favorite prediction. And instead of being a sweeping UI overhaul of the OS like the dramatic changes in iOS 7, OS X Mavericks is a release that’s almost not noticeable at first. You could use a Mac running Mavericks and not notice it wasn’t running Mountain Lion if you weren’t looking close — it’s that similar.

And yet, it’s not the same. Mavericks is a core release that makes OS X faster, more power efficient, and brings some great new apps and power user features along for the ride. It’s the foundation of things to come, and yet, it’s going to be a great OS for the next year in the mean time. And it’s 100% free for all Macs, so there’s no reason not to upgrade.

A Wave of Change

Hello World.

Hello World.

Seeing is believing, they say, but you’ll have to look close to believe that you’re really running Mavericks. Sure, there’s the new wave background picture, but beyond that, there’s very little on the surface of OS X that’s changed this time around. But there are design changes if you look around.

First up: textures are gone. The login screen is a dark grey gradient instead of the the canvas, and your login picture lost its silver frame. Same in the Notifications pane, iCloud File browser, and Dashboard: no more canvas backgrounds.

The new Launchpad, sporting no new icons in older apps.

The new Launchpad, sporting no new icons in older apps.

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 11.07.20 PMLaunchpad, even, got a mild refresh, with new glassy folders and magic pixie dust around new apps that haven’t been launched yet. It otherwise works the exact same, and the new “folders” if anything are more shiny than before instead of the flat design trend everyone assumes Apple’s bringing to the Mac, which is interesting at least.

The Dock is the most obvious shiny part of OS X that’ll presumably have to get slimmed down drastically — perhaps OS X Puma style — if the Mac is going to get the iOS 7 treatment. And yet, in Mavericks, the dock mostly looks the same. That is, until you put in on the side of your monitor, and then you’re in for a treat if you wanted a new dock. On the side, the OS X Mavericks dock is flat, translucent, and seems every bit like what an iOS 7 inspired redesign of OS X could look like. Sadly, though, there’s no way to enable that style in the default bottom position for now.

Everything else looks exactly the same as before — Dictionary, Calculator, TextEdit, and Preview even is mostly the same aside from a few changes to icon positions in the toolbar. Mail looks the same, though it does seem far more reliable and better at syncing than before. And for all the talk of ridding OS X of skeuomorphic interfaces, Reminders and Game Center both look exactly like they did in Mountain Lion, leather and felt and all. The social network sharing tool, which now include LinkedIn sharing of all odd additions, still has the paper background as before.

But the three apps everyone kept talking about did get redesigned: Calendar, Contacts, and Notes. Gone is the fake leather and ripped paper, as is the page-turn effects. In there place is … nothing. Really. It’s odd, but it feels like Apple simply ripped the texture image assets and left the apps the same. Contacts, especially, looks incredible bare with its stark white interface, while Notes managed to keep a faint background texture like its iOS 7 counterpart but failed to get the letterpressed text effect that iOS 7’s notes has. Calendar, at least, got extra features in its event inspector, and brilliant Maps integration, but otherwise looks pretty sparse itself. There’s a difference between too much texture (which Mountain Lion’s apps arguably had) and too little, and I think Apple veered too far towards the latter this time.

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The good thing is, the apps still work great as before, and the Quick Add feature in Calendar continues to be an amazingly great Fantastical competitor that few seem to know about. Calendar, Contacts, Notes, and Reminders will get the job done in Mavericks, odd design choices aside, but next OS X upgrade, they’ll still need attention just as badly as they did this time.

Note: if you’d like new iOS 7 style apps for your Mac, go try the new iCloud.com web apps. They’re just like their iOS 7 counterparts, but run great on the Mac.

The future of Mac app design?

The future of Mac app design?

The curious thing, though, is that the real future-facing redesigns in Mavericks are not in Calendar and Contacts, no matter how much of a deal was made of their redesign. Instead, Maps and iBooks, along with iTunes 11, seem to point to the direction Apple is leaning with the future of Mac app design with their new pop-over menus and more basic interfaces.

It’s the Core that Matters

What really matters, though, is how OS X Mavericks works, and how it helps you work. On that front, Mavericks exceeds better than any other OS upgrade I’ve ever seen. It feels faster than Mountain Lion on the very same hardware, and should extend your current average battery life. The conventional wisdom that your computer will run faster on the older OS is totally wrong this time — Mavericks is fast.

Apple has focused their energy this time on the core of the OS, and it shows. In a tradition started with Snow Leopard, Mavericks is a release that focuses far more on the innards of OS X than the UI. And that focus this time is about optimizing OS X to squeeze the most power out of your Mac while using less power than before. To do that, Apple added Timer Coalescing to group low-level processes together so your CPU can idle more, and introduced App Nap that slows down apps that are hidden behind other windows and aren’t currently doing anything for you. It’s something that’s hard to see in action, but is quite obvious if you watch Activity Monitor — which, itself, goes into App Nap if it’s behind another window and stops its graphs from ticking along. Then, OS X now has Compressed Memory that will compress RAM data from your inactive apps to free memory for what you’re currently doing, to save power and speed up your work since more memory is available for what you’re currently working on.

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Speaking of Activity Monitor, that’s another app that’s been completely redesigned in Mavericks. You can now see the energy impact of apps, as well as a graph of your Mac’s battery over the past 12 hours, from the new Energy tab in the app. There’s new toolbar tabs for CPU, Memory, Disk, and Network usage that show detailed info on processes in each area separately. If your MacBook battery is dying faster than you think it should, Activity Monitor is the perfect tool to see what’s really eating up your resources in the ways that matter most in today’s computers.

There’s more, too. OS X Mavericks is built on the Darwin 13 core, the same core in iOS 6 and still one version behind iOS 7’s core as has been the tradition for years now. Other open source components have been updated, with Apache 2.2.24, Ruby 2, Python 2.7.5, PHP 5.4.17, SQLite 3.7.13, Bash 3.2, Emacs 22.1.1, VI 7.3 and more included in OS X now. Developer tools, such as git and g++, as well as the Java runtime, will request to download and install when you first try to use them but aren’t included out-of-the-box. Font geeks will be excited to know that there’s over 20 new typefaces in Mavericks, including all the reading fonts in iBooks and a number of international fonts. And for file sharing, Apple’s switched to the SMB2 file protocol for networking which should vastly improve networking with Windows PCs.

For developers, there’s a lot in Mavericks to take advantage of. There’s the aforementioned energy saving features, which developers can use to optimize their apps and make sure they work great with App Nap and more. There’s a new Maps kit and AV kit to make integrating maps and multimedia easier than ever, and a Sprite kit to make high-quality OpenGL 2D games. With that and more, it’s exciting to see what developers can make of the new features in their apps, something we’ll see more over the coming weeks.

Your OS, now more helpful

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Features are no good if you can’t use them, so Mavericks features a number of fully redesigned settings panes that make it much easier to find the features you need. Most notably, you’ll find the Accessibility pane fully changed, and you’ll have to reenable apps like TextExpander under the new Privacy -> Accessability settings. You’ll also find a new Bluetooth pane that makes it easier to manage your devices, and internet account options for LinkedIn of all odd additions.

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The App Store looks the same as it has ever since it was first released, but you’ll find new App Store settings that let your Mac now automatically install app and system updates, just like on iOS 7. It introduces a new annoyance, though, since your Mac will now ask to restart if it installs updates that require a reboot while you’re working. That’s where the new interactive notifications come in handy — you can reschedule update restarts, reply to messages, emails, and Tweets, and more directly from notifications now in Mavericks. You’ll even find it easy to add emoji to your iMessages right from your message notifications, thanks to the new autocorrect that turns text smilies into their emoji equivalents and a new special character pane that’ll open anywhere if you press CTRL+CMD+Space.

If that all wasn’t enough new settings and tools, you’ll also find that Apple finally paid attention to the needs of Macs with more than one screen. Each display will now have its own menubar, and the dock will appear on the screen where you’re currently working. You can run full-screen apps on all of your displays individually, and view mission control for each screen separately. AirPlay even gets in on the fun, letting your Apple TV turn your TV into a full second Mac screen, complete with its own menu bar, mission control, and all.

It’s All About the Apps

If that was all there was in Mavericks, it’d be a nice, Snow Leopard-style upgrade. But that’s far from all. Mavericks also includes a deeply revamped Finder, now with tabs and tags, Dictation that works offline, the new iTunes Radio, and brings Maps and iBooks to the Mac for the first time. There was so much to cover in each of them, we split them out into their own articles, and saved the best for last. So click the titles or images below to continue reading everything you need to know about Finder, Safari, iTunes, iBooks, Maps, and the revamped Dictation in OS X Mavericks:

Finder in Mavericks

The long-forgotten Finder finally gets a ton of upgrades, with support for tabs and tags on files at long last. Here’s the scoop on everything new in Finder

Safari 7

It’s just a browser, but it’s faster, and more focused on browsing than ever before. If you haven’t switched from Chrome yet, this is the version that should get you to switch.

iTunes 11.1

Already released for Mountain Lion, iTunes 11.1 is included in OS X Mavericks and brings the new iTunes Radio along so you’ll never run out of music on your Mac again.

Maps

Apple Maps got quite the bad rap on iOS at first, but it’s matured now, and is a nice addition to the Mac — one that integrates beautifully with your iPhone.

iBooks

iBooks has finally come to the Mac, and it’s great. It presents what I think is the future of OS X design, complete with the study features to make iBooks the perfect student companion.

Dictation

While not a standalone app, Dictation in Mavericks is a feature that was worth digging into on its own. It works offline with continuous dictation, and is good enough that everyone should try it out.

Go Upgrade to Mavericks

Typically, this is where a review would tell you to wait for the first round of updates to an OS before you go upgrade, unless you’re especially adventuresome. This time, though, there’s no reason to wait. I can fully recommend OS X Mavericks without reservations for anyone already running Mountain Lion — and for anyone with a Lion or older Mac that’s Mavericks capable. Mavericks is similar enough to previous versions that there’s really nothing new to learn, and yet it’s faster and includes some great new apps. It’s been nearly perfectly stable in my use throughout the beta, and every single app I use works perfectly in the final version of Mavericks. And yet, it’s 100% free — every feature in Mavericks is ready for you to install on your Mac for free today.

The upgrade is simple: like in Lion and Mountain Lion, you’ll download it from the App Store, run the installer, and in an hour or so your Mac will be Mavericks-powered. You should absolutely backup your files first, with your Time Machine drive or other backup system you’re used to, but you don’t need to worry about doing a clean install. An in-place install should work perfectly fine with Mavericks if you’re upgrading from Mountain Lion. And Mavericks will run on any Mac that’ll run Mountain Lion, including an 2007 iMac or 2009 Mac Mini.

You might want to wait until the weekend so you have some free time, but really: there’s no reason to wait too long. OS X Mavericks is a great new OS, one we’ll be more than happy to use for the next year.

And now, it’s time to start speculating what Apple will do with the Mac next year.


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