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

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The Good Mac OS X Mavericks brings new apps, streamlines familiar features, and improves power efficiency and battery life for laptop users.

The Bad Older features like Gatekeeper and Launchpad could have used some renovations, but were left untouched in Mavericks.

The Bottom Line As it's a free upgrade that gives you more apps, improved features across the board, and better performance, there is really no reason not to get Mavericks on your Mac.

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8.8 Overall
  • Setup 9
  • Features 8
  • Interface 9
  • Performance 10

Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks is now available, bringing iOS features into the fold along with other additions, including iBooks, Apple Maps, Finder Tabs, and a number of other time-saving enhancements. As a free download from the Mac App Store, Mavericks gives you better security, new features for all the core apps, and tons of handy additions that make it a no-brainer to upgrade.

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, and while I like the upgrade for overall performance, I still think changing the way people interact with their computers amounts to more trouble than it's worth (as I wrote in this post last year). Apple, on the other hand, is keeping its mobile and desktop OSes 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, brings more iOS apps to your desktop, 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. So while there are tons of new and useful features here, the Mac OS remains familiar, friendly, and functioning mostly the way it always has.

Some changes, but mostly the same
One thing that strikes me about Mavericks, along with many of Apple's updates over the past year, is that it is more evolutionary than revolutionary. You certainly get more features and performance boosts by upgrading to Mavericks, just as you do by getting an iPhone 5S or an iPad Air, but there's nothing shockingly new that really stands out in this OS. With hardware, there are things you can change to make the experience different (thumbprint scanners and lighter hardware, as examples), but with a software upgrade like Mavericks, it's tough to think of new features at this point that will truly wow users short of tapping directly into your brain. I kid, but how much is there left to add to our operating systems that will change the way we work with computers that really is for the better? I suppose it's a question the big companies are wrangling with now, so we'll have to see what happens as time wears on.

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

Installing OS X couldn't be easier, requiring just a quick trip to the Mac App Store and hitting the download button. I should note that my experience was not typical because I had to download several successive developer previews before downloading the final version. But most people will just download and install the new update, which takes about 20 minutes including an automatic restart of the computer.

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 can 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 or iOS user (thanks to iOS 7) 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 of 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 about 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 take care of it.

Along with being able to sync directions with your iPhone, you can check out the 3D Flyover views in Maps. 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, I found 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.

Now, you can find locations on Maps on your Mac, then sync directions with your other devices, and -- just like the iOS version -- its driving times 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.

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 and to get directions.

As one of the features brought over from iOS devices, iBooks looks pretty much like its mobile counterpart. Just like on iOS devices, 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. While this will be nothing new for iOS users, it's great to finally see these features available for Macs.

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, the Safari browser 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 we're going to test the latest Safari with the older version side by side on two laptops, to see if we 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 take it down to our labs. Check back here soon to see the results.

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.