Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks review: No reason to forgo this free update

One big improvement in Safari is the new sidebar that keeps your bookmarks close at hand, and you can use tabs at the top of the sidebar to get to your Reading List and another new feature called Shared Links. Shared Links are recent links from people you follow on both Twitter and LinkedIn, giving you another option for discovering new Web sites and other interesting content from people who use those social-networking services. The sidebar is probably my favorite new feature improvement in Safari because I like quickly switching between Web sites.

Another useful new interface tweak is the Top Sites screen, with its new, flatter look. With Mavericks, you can change your Top Sites by dragging to rearrange them, and you can drag a bookmark from your side column into Top Sites if you want to keep it handy.

Mavericks
The Calendar app now has an incredibly useful Event Inspector so you can get directions, driving time, and more. CNET

Calendar
The Calendar app got a fresh look in Mavericks, adding Facebook integration to show Facebook events along with an Event Inspector that lets you get more information about a party, meeting, or location.

Now you can mouse over an event to bring up the Inspector, where you'll find handy information like driving time to the event with traffic information supplied by Maps and the current weather at the event location. Clicking on the map portion of the window launches Maps, where you can take advantage of the 3D views, switch map overlays, get directions, and do other useful things, such as send the directions to your iPhone.

The interface has also been tweaked to include smooth, continuous scrolling between days, weeks, and months, and it works very well using the MacBook trackpad.

Notifications
The Notifications system got some tweaks as well. Notifications are more interactive in Mavericks, so if you receive a message, an e-mail, or a FaceTime video call, you can react within the notification window with a reply or launch FaceTime straight away.

When you view an address in Mail, your Mac recognizes it and gives you the option to see it on a mini map. Click again to go to Maps. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

You also can allow Web sites to send you updates like the latest scores from ESPN, breaking news stories from CNET.com, and more via Notifications, even when Safari is closed.

When you return to your Mac when it's in a sleeping state, you'll be able to get all the notifications you received while you were gone in a brief summary before unlocking your screen. This means it will combine messages to show you had, say, six new messages, and it will tell you the number of e-mails you missed while away, for example.

Mavericks will also update your apps automatically and let you know via notifications when the process is complete.

iCloud Keychain keeps your log-ins safe
There have been a number of great third-party apps over the years to manage usernames and passwords, but iCloud Keychain brings the functionality straight to your Mac for added security (not to mention relieving you of remembering all those passwords). It also makes your saved Web site usernames and passwords available on all your iOS devices. All of this information is protected using 256-bit AES encryption both on your devices and while in transit. Apple says that it only sees the already encrypted data and -- the way iCloud Keychain is set up -- does not have the key to decrypt it.

Like popular third-party password managers, iCloud Keychain will suggest complex passwords, then push them to all your devices. It also autofills log-in fields so you don't need to remember them.

Apple

Leftover features that are still confusing
I've pointed some of these issues out before in my review of Mountain Lion , and while they are not really bad things, it seems they could be reworked, but there are no changes to them in Mavericks. For example, Launchpad is still an alternate way to open apps while the Finder already has a way to do the same thing. Isn't there a way to make it one way or the other rather than shoehorning an iOS user experience into the Mac OS? I admit it's probably a matter of taste more than anything, but I'd like to see them combined somehow in the future in a way that makes sense. Like I said, it's not necessarily a bad thing, but it seems like it could be better.

Another feature from Mountain Lion that's still the same and doesn't seem that useful is Gatekeeper. Gatekeeper gives you three choices for downloading apps: downloading from the Mac App Store only (most safe), allowing both Mac App Store downloads and files from sites that have been identified by Apple (likely safe), or from anywhere (least safe). I suppose Gatekeeper is good for new Mac users, but people with even a little computing experience will likely set it to "Anywhere" and just try to be cautious. Like Launchpad, Gatekeeper isn't really a bad thing and might be useful to a subset of users, but I just don't think it's really necessary for most people.

Pricing and availability
Apple Mavericks is available now, and -- after a surprise announcement at the Apple event -- is free to all users, even if you're currently running an OS as old as Snow Leopard (2007). Mountain Lion cost users $19.99 to upgrade, and I expected it would be the same for Mavericks, but it's a great move for Apple to decide to make the new OS free when Windows users are stuck paying quite a lot more to upgrade.

Conclusion
Mac OS X Mavericks is not a sweeping change, but improves upon a solid foundation, with new features brought over from iOS to give Mac users more to work and play with. For Mac users I think the added features provide definite benefits and, as a free upgrade, why not add new useful features? But is Mavericks ambitious enough to woo Windows users into making the switch? Probably not, but I think there's more to consider than just the feature set of the latest Mac OS.

Though with Windows 8.1 Microsoft has made some concessions to people who didn't like the touch-focused interface (adding a Start button and letting you boot to desktop), it's still off-putting to many mouse-and-keyboard desktop users. To be honest, I happen to think Windows 8.1 is a fine upgrade on many fronts, but I also know people are resistant to change. With Windows 8 you get a completely new experience with the Start menu and Metro apps, and not everyone likes the new way of interacting with Windows. So, what we're probably going to see are Windows users making the switch to Mac more in protest of Microsoft's vision rather than for what they think Mac OS X has to offer.

For Mac users, Mavericks is a solid (though not life-changing) upgrade, especially when there's no cost to current OS X users. And for Windows users looking for anything other than Metro, Mavericks will be an easier transition than ever, with more features that add convenience and speed to a (now) familiar way of computing.

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