What makes OS X Mavericks so special?

Apple dials down the eye candy and builds in needed efficiencies in its upcoming desktop OS

OS X Mavericks Not surprisingly, iOS 7 got most of the attention at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference earlier this month. Given the importance of the iPhone and iPad to Apple's bottom line, that makes sense. But Apple does still make computers and spent some time showcasing the next version of its desktop/laptop operating system, OS X Mavericks.

Unlike iOS 7, which is getting an overdue UI overhaul, the changes coming to OS X aren't as obvious, but they're still important.

OS X Mavericks -- no feline name for OS X 10.9, which is named after a California surfing spot -- will be released later this year and hasn't yet been priced. But with the name change, Apple's clearly putting the hammer down on the Designed by Apple in California advertising push.

At first glance, Mavericks looks much like its predecessor, although clearly Apple's designers are getting away from highly detailed UI ornamentation -- skeumorphism -- and turning the focus more toward content. We've already seen this approach in the way Apple has gradually evolved apps like QuickTime, which started off with a heavily bordered window around the video that got thinner and thinner over time, to the point that now there are no more borders at all -- just the video you're watching and playback controls that appear on mouseover, then disappear.

With that design minimalism in mind, all of the built-in apps in Mavericks -- everything from Safari to Mail to FaceTime, Messages, Calendar and Notes -- have adopted standard OS X interface elements, ditching of the leather/metal/paper backgrounds that users have grown accustomed to.

The move to less UI ornamentation isn't a surprise, given Apple design chief Jony Ive's penchant for minimalism when it comes to hardware (and he's now in charge of software design). But Mavericks does offer some delights that users should appreciate.

They include:

Finder Tabs: In Mavericks, it will finally possible to group all of your Finder windows into one, just as you can have multiple web pages open in tabs in Safari. Similar to Safari in look and behavior, Finder tabs can be arranged, switched between, and offer customized views per window. Particularly useful is that you can now drag and drop files between the tabbed windows. It's the little changes like this that make OS X a constantly evolving operating system.

Finder tabs will be familiar to anyone who's used tabbed browsing in Safari. (Image: Apple.)

File tagging: Tags are keywords you can use to describe your documents, which will help you better track and find them later on. You can 'tag' a file with a keyword -- or even an entire phrase -- like "In Progress" and then easily find all of the related files by searching for documents using the tag, or navigating to a smart directory in Finder. Tag support extends to iCloud, and there's support for adding tags right from the Save dialogue box. This should be a real time-saver for users.

OS X Mavericks lets users tag files in the Finder, on iCloud, or as shown here, when saving a document. (Image: Apple.)

iCloud keychain: With iCloud keychain, Apple allows you to store all of your passwords remotely (encrypted for security purposes), so they're immediately accessible from all of your devices. So if you're accessing a site on you iPhone that you'd normally view on your laptop -- and you need to login -- you won't have to fumble around trying to remember the password. iCloud keychain does it for you.

With iCloud keychain, passwords are stored remotely and updated automatically for access on any of your devices, whether desktop or mobile. (Image: Apple.)

Better laptop battery life: As users continue the shift to more mobile devices, a renewed emphasis has turned to longer-lasting batteries. Anyone who's used an iPad or the latest MacBook Air can attest to the amazing battery life these machines deliver. Mavericks looks to improve on that, using software to be more efficient with computer resources. For instance, Mavericks uses "Time Coalescing" to keep the CPU in an idle state as often as possible and "App Nap" to throttle back on the processing done in the background. Check out this PDFfrom Apple detailing Core Technologies if you want to get into the nitty gritty.

More battery info: If you're curious about which apps are hogging the most resources, in Mavericks you can simply check the Battery Menu. There's a new section that displays which app is using the most resources; or it'll show you that all apps are using nominal power. This makes it easy to see if something you're running, but perhaps not using, is sapping your battery.

Better use of Spaces: Apple has improved how Mavericks works with multiple displays, and each can be customized to show whatever you want: your desktop, a full-screen app, or multiple apps on any display. Previously, some features like the full-screen option commandeered both displays, even if only one was being used. That's no longer the case and will be a boon to multi-display users. Spaces also displays Menu bars across each display, and the Dock can be set to show on whichever display is active.

More options for AppleTV: In addition to mirroring your current desktop -- something Apple TV already does -- Mavericks will allow you to "extend" the desktop so that your HDTV becomes another wireless display. In concert with the revamped Spaces, which will allow for manual control of each display, AppleTV could make your HDTV a pretty powerful and easy-to-configure presentation tool.

Improved file sharing: File Sharing now uses the AFP and SMB protocols for sharing, and when you're connecting to a shared drive, SMB2 is now the sharing protocol of choice. This is likely an attractive feature for enterprise users, since many servers in business are Windows-based. Using the SMB2 protocol by default should make it a little easier to connect to those servers.

More cross-pollination with iOS: Apple is bringing some apps from iOS to the Mac, including iBooks and Maps. Your iBooks library can be accessed and read from the Mac, and your place in the book as well as and notes and bookmarks will sync across devices. Maps brings with it all the vector art, Yelp info open table-based back-end and 3D Flyovers that are already part of the mobile version. If you plan a trip on the Mac using Maps in Maverick, you can then send the directions to your iPhone.

OS X Mavericks brings with it a desktop version of the Maps app from iOS. (Image: Apple.)

Replies using Notifications: If there's a message or email you want to respond to as soon as you're notified, you can do that without even leaving another app. Just hover the cursor over the Notification icon in the upper right corner of the menubar and you'll get a Reply button. That allows you to fire off a quick response and continue working without having to switch to Messages or Mail. It's a small change, but could be time-saver for multi-taskers.

None of the changes in Mavericks represents a major strategic shift in Apple's desktop/laptop OS, but as is usually the case with each new iteration, Apple has refined OS X to make it work better for users. The eye candy has been dialed down, while better workflows and efficiencies have been built in. And the addition of iOS apps like Maps and iBooks -- combined with the ability to sync and share between desktop and iPhone or iPad -- shows that Apple is intent on taking useful features in iOS and bringing them to the desktop. The result is a thoroughly modern operation system that matches up well with iOS 7 in Apple's ever-evolving ecosystem of hardware and software.

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).

This article, What makes OS X Mavericks so special?, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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