OS X Mavericks review: Different name, looks the same

Apples new desktop/laptop OS builds on its predecessors, applying polish where needed.

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A smarter Safari

Safari doesn't get a major makeover in Mavericks, but it is now more smartly integrated with the operating system. For instance, when you log into certain social media sites, it will offer to add your login information to Internet Accounts in System Preferences. This then gives any authorized app access to that information, so you don't have to keep re-entering it.

Safari is also integrated with Twitter, displaying tweets from people you follow in the new Sidebar Shared Links section. This allows you to keep an eye on Twitter while you surf, though the list doesn't seem to update dynamically; it only updates when you close the Sidebar and reopen it. The Sidebar also has Reading List and Bookmarks buttons, which give you quick access to sites you've marked for later reading and to your bookmarks.

Safari sidebar
Safari is now integrated with Twitter and displays tweets from people you follow in the new Sidebar Shared Links section on the left.

Apple engineers managed to build in some performance boosts; pages do tend to display a little more snappily. Safari is also more efficient. The new Safari Power Saver can shut down webpages in the background if, for instance, those pages have Flash- or HTML 5-based ads or looping animations. That should offer a small boost to battery life if you're using a laptop, since you're not needlessly using CPU cycles for something you're not even viewing.

Notifications

Notifications, which first appeared in last year's release of Mountain Lion, have been updated with additional functions. For instance, if an instant message comes in, you can reply directly from the notification itself when it pops up on the screen. That's handy if the main Messages window is hidden behind another window or in another desktop Space.

Notifications can be displayed in front of your screen saver if you have one activated, similar to how notifications can be displayed on the Lock Screen of an iOS device. Notification bubbles float on the upper right of your screen, each displaying varying levels of information, depending on the message and your display settings. (You can tweak these settings in System Preferences > Notifications.)

Websites can now send notifications, too, even if Safari isn't running. That's useful if you want updates from places like Facebook or a news site you follow. But notifications don't always show up consistently. Sometimes they're instant, sometimes they're not. And sometimes an instant message will show up in a Messages chat window, and then later I'll get a notification of the same message. This is something Apple needs to sort out if it expects Mavericks users to rely on notifications.

Under the hood

Mavericks introduces several under-the-hood changes (PDF) designed to make the OS more efficient. Apple engineers found a way to decrease overall memory use by compressing any memory that hasn't been used, reducing the need for virtual memory. The compression and decompression happens in a few millionths of a second, according to Apple, utilizing multiple CPU cores to perform the tasks. This should lead to better battery life on laptops by reducing swap-file writes to the hard drive.

Apple has also rolled out new technology called Timer Coalescing, which bunches background operations into like-timed groups and then processes these operations together. This allows the CPU to remain idle for longer intervals, again leading to incrementally better battery life. This is a much better strategy than constantly firing up the CPU every time a process needs to run.

Finally, there's App Nap, which gives the CPU priority to the app you're using, rather than any other apps that are open in the background.

Final thoughts

I've been using Mavericks since the first developer build was released in the summer, and it's been largely stable. In fact, I often forgot that this was still a work in progress.

Of course, all software is constantly a work in progress. If you're one of those computer users who likes to wait for the first or second update to be released before you switch, you'll no doubt have plenty of company. But for most users, the upgrade should go smoothly.

The issues I've noticed so far are mostly minor. For instance, I've had apps suddenly stop accepting gesture input. I had to quit the troublesome app and relaunch it to get rid of the problem. I've also seen some apps forget their place in the new Spaces setup, forcing me to go to Mission Control to get the app visible again. As always, check your hardware and software for compatibility before upgrading.

Enterprise users should note that Mail is still a bit problematic, especially when connecting to an Exchange server. I've found that the Mail app will sometimes drop a connection and stop updating; I've had to quit and re-launch the app to reestablish a connection with the Exchange server. Unfortunately, this bug isn't new to Mavericks, and it's certainly not fixed here.

Overall, I like Mavericks, which isn't a surprise given that I liked its predecessor. It doesn't represent the UI overhaul that iOS 7 did on the mobile side, but it continues to refine OS X, applying polish where needed. Laptop users should be able to notice increased battery life as developers incorporate changes to their apps, and the inclusion of Maps, iCloud Keychain and iBooks should make it easier to seamlessly jump from one Apple device to another.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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