Mavericks is faster, prettier, and easier to use, without being a complete OS X reboot (hands-on)

Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks adds useful apps, makes the Finder easier to manage, and adds to convenience system-wide.

Jason Parker Senior Editor / Reviews - Software
Jason Parker has been at CNET for nearly 15 years. He is the senior editor in charge of iOS software and has become an expert reviewer of the software that runs on each new Apple device. He now spends most of his time covering Apple iOS releases and third-party apps.
Jason Parker
8 min read

Editors' note: This First Take was updated October 22, 2013, with pricing information announced at the Apple event.

Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks is now available (download it for free from the Mac App Store), bringing iOS features into the fold along with other additions, including iBooks, Apple Maps, Finder Tabs, and a number of other time-saving enhancements.

With Windows 8.1 hitting last week, Apple's Mavericks provides a stark contrast to the vision of Microsoft's operating system. Microsoft's stated intent was to break into the mobile space by creating a touch-centric OS that worked on both desktops and mobile devices. Apple, on the other hand, is keeping its mobile and desktop OS separate, while bringing over iOS apps and features without significantly changing the way you use your computer.

What results is a Mac OS that remains familiar to its users, gives apps a cleaner look, fixes old bugs, and improves core technologies for power efficiency and responsiveness. On top of that, it features new interface elements for Safari, a new tagging system for file management, and much more. But let's stop talking and start looking at some of the more important new features.

Finder Tabs are just like tabs in Safari. Drag to move them around, and hit the plus sign at the right to add a new one. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Finder Tabs
The new Finder Tabs work much in the same way the tabs do in Safari. A plus-sign button on the right lets you open a new tab, and you can drag and drop tabs just like in a Web browser. With Finder tabs, you'll be able to have two folders open side-by-side in one window, and you can simply drag and drop files across rather than copying and pasting like you would need to in earlier versions of the OS.

Having multiple tabs in the Finder also means you could open one tab for Documents and another for AirDrop, letting you share files with a nearby Mac user in a snap.

Finder Tags
With Mavericks, Apple has chosen to go with a more flexible system for organizing your documents, letting you add tags. Now you'll be able to search on one or more tags to get just the documents you want in front of you. To give you an idea how it works, you could, for example, have a tag for "work" documents and then another for "pictures." If you searched for work, you would get all the items with that tag, and if you searched for pictures, you would get all the images in your library. But by searching on both pictures and work, you'll only get the pictures that are related to work.

I think this is a welcome addition to the Finder and a great way to narrow your searches, but it will obviously only be useful if you are dedicated to adding a tag to all your documents. Still, it makes searching for obscure documents on your hard drive much easier.

Full-screen apps
Full-screen apps were unveiled originally in Lion, but users quickly realized the feature wasn't perfect, especially if you use multiple monitors. Fortunately with Mavericks, the feature now finally works the way it should. You can now put full-screen apps on multiple monitors and switch among them effortlessly. This fix has been much-needed for two years now, so it's good to see the problems ironed out, but I have to wonder why Apple waited so long to do it.

Along with being able to sync directions with your iPhone, you can check out Apple Maps' 3D Flyover views. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Apple Maps
Apple Maps got off to a rocky start with iOS, but has improved considerably over time. Testing it out on a MacBook Pro, the app felt great when navigating with a trackpad, with smooth movement and intuitive gesture control. Everything works about the same as it does on iOS, but some extra features will come in handy for getting directions before you leave your computer.

Apple says you'll now be able to find locations on Apple Maps for Mac, then sync directions with your other devices, and as in the iOS version, driving times even account for traffic. This will be especially useful for planning your trip at home, then quickly syncing with your iPhone for turn-by-turn directions when you hit the road.

Apple Maps is built into the Mail, Contacts, and Calendar apps, too, so any time you see an address you can quickly find it on a map and switch to Apple Maps for a better view.

Getting to know Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks (pictures)

See all photos

As one of the features brought over from iOS devices, iBooks looks like it is pretty close to its mobile counterpart. Though it wasn't available in our preview version for this post, Apple showed us at the WWDC keynote that you'll be able to read and shop for books on your Mac and sync them with iCloud so you can switch devices and never lose your place. You'll also be able to swipe to turn pages (using your trackpad), pinch to zoom in on pictures, and scroll smoothly from page to page. You can have as many books open as you want simultaneously (great for students), and you can highlight sections and take notes -- all of which is synced on all your iOS devices. It doesn't seem to be much different from the iOS version, but it's good to finally see these features available for Mac users.

The new sidebar is incredibly convenient for running through your bookmarks on the left and looking at Web sites on the right. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

According to Apple, Safari now demands less from the GPU, uses less energy, and is faster than ever before. Apple says new Nitro Tiered JIT and Fast Start technologies in Safari mean Web pages feel snappier and the app doesn't waste power on Web pages and plug-ins that might churn continuously in the background. That all sounds great, but I tested the latest Safari with the older version side by side on two laptops, and didn't notice a huge difference in performance. Perhaps the performance increases are something that would be more obvious on a slower connection, but we'll have to wait and see if it really makes a difference when we review the OS.

One big improvement 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 networks.

One of the more interesting new interface tweaks 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.

The Calendar app has a clean new look, with design elements that help you focus on the week at hand. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

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 current weather at the event location. Clicking on the map portion of the window launches Apple Maps, where you can take advantage of the 3D views, switch map overlays, get directions, and do other useful things.

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

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 get an address in the Mail app, your Mac will recognize it and give you the option to see it on a mini map. Click again to go the Maps app. 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 six new messages, for example, and it will tell you the number of e-mails you missed while away.

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 it 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.


Pricing and availability
Apple Mavericks should be available today, October 22, and -- in a surprise announcement at the Apple event -- will be 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.

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 know some people are resistant to change. For them, that change is too big to bear. 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, it looks like Mavericks will be a solid (though not life-changing) upgrade, especially when it is 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.