Apple OS X Mavericks review

5 out of 5
£free (from Snow Leopard or later)

For

Battery life improvements are great, notifications, improved multiple display support, it's free (from Snow Leopard and beyond)

Against

Different to iOS 7 design language, check for third-party application support to be sure, Quick Look is slow, Mail not as fast

The latest Apple OS X operating system, version 10.9, better known as Mavericks, has arrived. And it's a free upgrade to anyone running OS X Snow Leopard and above.

Not only does Mavericks kill off the animal-based naming system, it also promises a host of new features and new enhancements, including battery life gains.

We've been using the new operating system for the last couple of weeks ahead of its final release, to find out whether the new features really make a difference in your day-to-day Mac life, or whether it's all buzzword feature upgrades that you'll never touch. Is now the time to update or wait it out?

Design

On the surface Mavericks looks to be the same as Mountain Lion that came before it. To say that it's as simple as that would be a disservice of course, but that's the initial thought you will likely have the first time you boot up the new operating system.

The icons are the same, the way that it works is virtually the same as before, and Apple certainly hasn't taken the same approach it took with its mobile operating system, iOS 7, where everything was thrown out and started over compared to its predecessor.

Whether that's because Jony Ive hasn't got his hand in OS X yet in the same way that he has the iPhone and iPad, or because Apple actually likes the way that OS X works, we don't know. There are some design hints that have bled over from iOS 7: Calendar is now cleaner, you now get Maps and iBooks, iLife and iWork have been upgraded too and there is greater cross iCloud support across the board. The OS is also represented by a cleaner "X" symbol - no animal faces to be seen here.

Battery life

But under the surface OS X performs like an animal; it's had a huge overhaul, even if visually it looks like an incremental update. The main benefits are in the engine room, so to speak, where Apple has made the operating system work harder, and yet open up an increase in battery life all at the same time. There's so much to cover, if you want a point by point of everything then cast your eyes over our Mavericks breakdown feature, below.

READ: OS X Mavericks: Here's what your Mac can do now

But the biggest push is in battery life. That is the single most important thing in the update and one that it is worth upgrading for regardless of all the other Mavericks features outlined.

We've been testing it on a 2013 MacBook Air in beta and have been amazed by the push in battery life. The Haswell-powered Air has always been good at battery, but since we've started using Mavericks we've stopped carrying our charger. Battery life now feels like days rather than minutes, and you'll easily get 5-hours of solid use from the machine.

READ: Apple MacBook Air 2013 review

Apple says that performance increases in terms of battery life will depend on your model and the state of your battery - something we've not been able to test in full, but will be dipping into throughout the whole Pocket-lint team as each Mac-using staff member upgrades - but we suspect you'll get around an extra hour from the same machine. That's incredibly impressive.

Interactive bubbles

Once upon a time there was an app called Growl. It told you when things where happening with small notifications at the top right of your screen. Then Apple introduced Notification banners and alerts and now you get to react to those bubbles by either replying straight away or, in the case of emails, delete them without even seeing your inbox. Yippee.

The notifications can now be for a range of things including messages, status updates, app uploads and, new to Mavericks, push notifications from websites when they post new stories, or when your order is being dispatched.

Pocket-lint will be rolling out push notifications shortly for you to enjoy too. Think of notifications on Mavericks acting more like notifications on your iPhone or iPad, informing you what's going on, who's trying to say hello, and generally keeping you connected. If you're worried about the bombardment of information, you can turn them off via a do not disturb feature.

Tags & Tabs

If you've blogged, or pay attention to every detail on the stories you read, then you'll know about tags. Here at Pocket-lint we use them to tag stories so you can quickly see stories about a certain subject. This review, for example, has a tags like "Software", "Apple", and "OS X".

Now Apple is letting you do this kind of tagging for all your files on the Mac, if you want. We suspect the ultimate idea is so you can get rid of folders in the future. After all if you can pull up all files marked with "Holiday" why do you need a holiday folder?

Take it to the next stage you can have files marked with multiple tags rather than having to have copies in multiple folders. We're not really ready for that yet and we suspect you aren't either - depending on how organised you are - but expect this to be the way that things are done in the future. If you're a serious photographer it will be a familiar premise, as that's how pros tend to handle tags in Lightroom or other asset management software. It takes time and patience, and as it'll be a new thing for some it might feel like a lengthier process than folder sorting for the time being.

The opposite solution, in some respects, is that Finder now looks like a Safari window - you can even go full screen - allowing you to open multiple tabs rather than a mess of multiple windows. This is cool for those that like looking at all their files or sorting things between folders. If you use Finder a lot to search our and organise files then you'll love it. If not, it's not a massive thing - no need to explain it in detail to your mates down the pub.

Multiple displays

We've been running Mavericks on a MacBook Air, which is great for the road, but not quite as adept for the office when you want more screen real estate. Previously plugging in a second, third, or even more displays expanded your desktop. Great, until you went full screen on one of your apps and the rest of the screens you were using became a big grey void of nothingness.

Realising this, Apple now lets you treat each screen as a separate screen for individual application display - although they are still joined so you can drag from screen to screen. Only you just can't straddle a screen any more.

That now means you can run one app full screen on one display and then have a desktop on another. Better still if you've got an Apple TV you can have that displaying a specific app and carry on working on your laptop. Great for presentations.

There is lag when using Apple TV, though, especially if you are just on the desktop, but full-screen apps that don't require precision cursor movement work fine.

Safari

The default Apple browser also sees new features, including a reworking of Bookmark management, reading list, and shared links that if, like us, you get a lot of tweets with URLs in them will allow you see them all in Safari rather than on a Twitter client.

It's also faster, has better autofill support thanks to iCloud Keychain, and can now even store your credit cards so you don't have to remember all those numbers or expiry date details.

Mavericks Safari is also clever enough now to know that Flash kills your battery so adverts that use Flash that are out of sight or out of screen view are paused. When you cover up a Safari window because you are working on another file Mavericks knows this and suspends what's going on - again all to save battery life.

Whether it will make you convert to Safari over Chrome or Firefox depends. Other members of the Pocket-lint team use multiple browsers simultaneously for different tasks as they find that best caters for their needs, including quick toggling between browsers for music streaming, work and social media.

Calendar, iBooks, Maps, and Apps

As the march of OS X towards an iOS look continues - even if it's not quite happened in this iteration - Apple has added iBooks and Maps apps to Mavericks to sync up the feel between mobile and "desktop" OSes.

These are the same experience on Mavericks as on the iPad or iPhone and allow you to share data among themselves using iCloud. The Maps app taps into Calendar with some neat features like allowing you to account for travel time - including walking and driving - as well as letting you send directions to your phone as you leave the office.

The iBooks app is more about using it as a study aid rather than reading the latest Bond novel in bed, although you can do that too.

Calendar has also been improved. It's now a lot cleaner, more iOS 7 in its appearance, but aside from travel time and better map support it doesn't really change much in terms of functionality. If it ain't broke...

Aside from the headline features, there are plenty of other tidbits built in to Mavericks including offline dictation support, automatic app updates, and greater control over security and which apps talk to which other apps, although a lot of it comes back to making that battery life last longer.

Any issues?

Many will query whether upgrading to Mavericks now carries with it any risk of software compatibility. From what we've seen, there's nothing hugely untoward from our end - and that's from weeks of use, not just since the general release.

But there are some things of note. For example, Quick Look - peeking into files by pressing spacebar - can be slow on the first load of images, especially for raw files in the first first instance. Some files, such as NEF also show up as an error - teething problems we should think from Adobe Camera Raw not talking to the wider OS. But as we handle our raw files in Lightroom and/or Bridge it's not a significant issue for our personal use.

We've also noticed that Mail's handling of Gmail isn't as speedy as it was in Mountain Lion. We've queried these instances via Apple and they claim the latter point might be something to do with the way that Apple has had to change the API, on Google's request. We are looking into this further, however, to see what else of note comes up. We have also noticed that Ian Betteridge, a prominent Apple commentator in the UK, has also noted it as an issue too. If you use Mail and Gmail it's something to bear in mind.

But our upgrade from Mountain Lion to Mavericks hasn't caused any problems for our use of other apps: Adobe Creative Suite, Microsoft Office, Sonos, various social media apps or the like. It handles robustly and the speed remains at pace throughout.

We're not saying there might not be some application compatibility issues for some software - it depends what you're using, how obscure it is, when its last update was, whether it has ongoing support and how many generations back on OS X you are - but suggest that if an application is integral to your work then double check with the software company that it will be supported from the off. Chances are it will work but won't have been through the official testing process to put a firm tick in the box.

We also upgraded a 2008 machine from Snow Leopard to Mavericks to see if that threw any additional cogs into the works. By and large it didn't: the software pre-warned us that StuffIt Expander wouldn't be compatible following the install, which we accepted, and then after 35-minutes everything was in order. It did take a little longer that we'd like for Calendar to sync back up in its new form, but that was a one time thing. Since we've been doing some heavy-load work via Serato, Photoshop and Bridge to fill out the 4GB RAM on this particular machine and it's still running smoothly - as smooth as it was before anyway.

If you're wondering whether your Mac is compatible, where to find the update and other general info then we've condensed all of that into a feature, below. If you're running a post-2007 Mac then, chances are, you'll be able to jump on board and feel the benefits.

READ: OS X Mavericks: Everything you need to know

Verdict

Mavericks is a free upgrade so it's really hard to complain about, well, anything much. Quick Look seems initially slower than before, while Mail doesn't seem as speedy as its predecessor.

We might also question why Apple hasn't gone down a more iOS 7 route with the design, and yet we're aware that plenty of Mac users out there will be really glad the company hasn't. The design language Mavericks uses remains different compared to the iPhone and iPad experience and while we believe that design should fit the environment you are in, we still feel there is not quite enough parity between the two for all users.

Design quibbles aside the overall improvements Mavericks brings may appear seemingly invisible at first, but run much deeper and will make a huge difference in daily use - particularly if you're on an older version of OS X than Mountain Lion. Overall it's all about the battery boost - that alone is reason enough to upgrade.

Put simply, if you want your MacBook to last longer before you have to charge it, download Mavericks right now. There are slight teething issues with Quick Look and Mail, but they're minor hiccups. Otherwise, for a free upgrade this is incredible stuff.