Putting the Cats to Sleep: The OS X 10.9 “Mavericks” Review

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 2.11.00 AM
>tfw it doesn’t say “Mac OS X” anymore

Mac OS has changed. There was a time when Macs were the machines of creative professionals and UNIX nerds first and foremost, as high prices and lack of software compatibility left the mass market appeal of the machines marginal at best. Then, in 2006, the winds of change began to blow. Apple transitioned to Intel’s x86 processors and with the change came increased software compatibility – at first in the form of the ability to run Windows on Macs, and increasingly in the form of more ports of popular software now that the largest barrier to that porting had been torn down. The following year, Apple released the first generation of their iPhone to mixed press reviews but surprising consumer response. Apple was finally a mass-market force in computing, and they could see clearly that the route here was with less expensive but less capable hardware. In 2010, they released the iPad – the new entry point to Apple computers, now with about 99% less actual computer.  Now, iOS device sales account for an enormous percentage of Apple’s revenue and as a result get a disproportionate amount of their development resources. This has resulted in OS X releases that alternately change very little (10.6, 10.8) or are predominately imports of changes from iOS (10.7).

This results in an awkward situation for those of use who use and like Macs a great deal, but do not share the same positive emotions for the less capable, more locked-down iOS ecosystem.  While to some extent “ease of use” has always been a central priority of Mac OS, OS X owes a lot its popularity in the development community to the fact that it is a powerful and versatile UNIX-based operating system.  Sometimes, it seems as if Apple have forgotten just how important that is to some of us, as they shovel out updates filled with useless iOS imports like Launchpad and Game Center.

So it is with some relief that we find Mavericks stripping some of the insanity back out, and focusing on important updates to the core operating system. Things like “full support for OpenGL 4.1” and “timer coalescing” may not mean much to many users, but they’re music to the ears of developers and enthusiasts alike. These under-the-hood improvements are accompanied by the excising of much of the insufferable skeuomorphism that has crept into the OS over the years – but, reassuringly, without the integration of iOS 7’s flat pastels. Yes, once again OS X is taking its own direction, and that’s darn refreshing – even if it is simply for a few visual touches.

There is one surprising – and very positive – way in which Mavericks takes after its bastard offspring, however.  The upgrade to OS X 10.9 will be free to everyone via the Mac App Store. So as long as you meet the minimum requirements – which are exactly the same as Mountain Lion’s, in fact – you’ll be able to upgrade to Mavericks for the very agreeable price of $0.  I can happily report that the in-place upgrade takes about 30-60 minutes and remains as relatively painless as ever. I appreciate that Apple really has mastered this process: while Microsoft forced me to backup and reinstall all of my data to go from the Windows 8.1 Preview to the final build, I successfully did in-place upgrades from Mountain Lion, to each developer preview of Mavericks, to the developer Gold Master build, to the final App Store release (which is in fact a very slightly newer build), all without losing any data or encountering any show-stopping bugs. That’s an impressive feat, even though perhaps it shouldn’t be in 2013.

Before we venture onwards too far, I’m going to go ahead and post a reminder: The Late 2011 15-inch MacBook Pro I’m using for this review is the same one originally reviewed here, save for two upgrades: I have swapped out the 2×2 GB SO-DIMMs for a 2×4 GB setup, bringing me up to 8 GB of DDR3-1333 RAM, and I have swapped out the largely useless optical drive for an 80 GB OCZ Vertex 2 SSD. The SSD and original 500 GB 5400 RPM HDD are joined together in one logical volume using Core Storage, which since OS X 10.8.2 results in the “Fusion Drive” automatic storage tiering behavior.

Of course, you (hopefully) only have to install your operating system once, so it’s a very small portion of your experience with it. The first thing you’ll notice upon rebooting into Mavericks is that the interminable linen texture has been vanquished from the login screen. Fortunately, you’ll find that this is a portent of things to come: it’s notably absent from the notification center, Mission Control, Safari, etc. as well. In its place is a simple gray background. It’s not totally without needless graphical flare – the texture is lighter in the center and fades gradually to a darker gray around the edges, but the effect is understated and nearly tasteful, rather than gaudy as the linen was.  This theme is repeated in other applications, as well. Notes loses the faux-legal pad look and dangerously-close-to-Comic-Sans default font. Calendar and Address Book (now simply Contacts) dump the faux leather and paper for clean, simple layouts akin to those seen in Snow Leopard and before.

Jony Battles the Gray Stitches
Jony Battles the Gray Stitches

The great purge of skeuomorphism appears to have gone off-track before it got to the end, however. A couple of apps – notably, Reminders and Game Center – still look exactly as they did in 10.8. I understand that development resources are limited and, as apps no one uses anyways, I imagine these weren’t exactly priorities.  For a company with the size and resources of Apple, however, it seems absurd that there weren’t a couple of interns somewhere that could have been directed to strip the pointless felt textures out and replace them with the same gray gradient used everywhere else in 10.9.

Game Center in 10.9
Let’s be honest, would you have ever even noticed?

So, how about changes beyond re-skinning existing applications? Well, there are two new apps on hand in a fresh install of Mavericks: Maps and iBooks. Maps is, as the name would suggest, a front-end to Apple’s much-maligned mapping service. It has most of the same functionality as its iOS counterpart, with the expected satellite and map views, printable driving and walking directions, and search features.  Panning around the map and zooming in and out is quite intuitive with a trackpad, using the two-fingered scrolling and pinch-zoom gestures; with a traditional mouse it switches to the click-and-drag and scroll-wheel zoom interface we know from Google Maps. There is also a 3D view, though I could find barely any locations where it actually had relevant data. The data discrepancy with Google’s mapping ecosystem continues to be the major flaw in Apple Maps – just in the default, fairly-tight zoom over my apartment, it manages to have two business locations wrong.  These aren’t show-stopping gaps in data, but they’re mistakes Google and Nokia don’t make.  There’s also no web interface for Apple’s mapping system, which results in the rather absurd situation that if you email a location link to someone without an Apple device, it opens in Google Maps.  More perplexingly, if you email directions to them, they get a .pdf of the directions – not exactly what most people would be looking for in that situation, I think.

Mavericks Maps
There is not, nor has there ever been, and Arby’s there, and that Dunkin’ Donuts is on the wrong side of the street. Also I’m hungry now.

The other new app, iBooks, finally brings the ability to read purchased content from the iBookstore on the Mac; previously you had to be on an iOS device to actually read the books. It’s simple and doesn’t have much in the way of options of graphical flare, but that’s fine by me. It works well, providing an interface to the iBookstore and a snappy, clean, distraction-free environment in which to read. If you’re locked completely into the Apple ecosystem, there’s probably much to recommend it, but therein lies the biggest problem: there are already decent Kindle and Nook apps for OS X, and there have been for years. Books purchased from Amazon or Barnes and Noble’s stores have the added benefit of working across almost every platform imaginable, as well, rather than being locked into the two Apple product lines. iBooks really is a spectacular way to purchase and consume content, but it’s locked in a walled garden and I have no intention of joining it there.

10.9 iBooks
Simple, yet elegant. You know, like Apple is supposed to be.

So much for the new apps, but what about the ones carried over from Mountain Lion that have received more substantive updates than a fresh coat of paint? First up is one of the most central applications to any modern operating system: the web browser. Safari gets an update to version 7, and with it some new tricks both on the surface and under the hood. On the UI side of things, the new tab page gets a bit of a redesign to bring it more in line with the overall aesthetic of 10.9. The gratuitous faux-3D top sites view is brought back to sanity with a simple grid of recently viewed web pages. Along the left edge lies the usual sidebar with bookmarks and reading list, but it picks up a new tab: Shared Links. Shared Links aggregates all of the links from your synced Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook news feeds in one place for…some reason. To be honest, I can’t see many people using this feature, but it’s pretty harmless and does have a predictably robust search feature. The “+” button next to the address bar for adding bookmarks and the like returns after a brief absence in Safari 6. A quick click throws the current page on your reading list to return easily later, and a short click-and-hold exposes a menu of your bookmark folders to quickly add the link where you want it. Better in than out on this particular feature, but I doubt most people manipulate their bookmarks often enough to be stirred by its reappearance.

On the inside, Safari picks up a number of improvements that can really be felt in daily usage of the browser.  First and foremost, it picks up the per-tab process architecture previously implemented by Chrome and Internet Explorer. While Safari 5 introduced a separate rendering process that allowed the browser UI to remain responsive if a web page froze, one misbehaving tab could still bring down all of them. Apple has now corrected this, by implementing a native per-tab process architecture in the underlying Webkit framework. Now if one tab stalls or crashes, the others will remain unaffected. It makes a world of difference for perceived stability. While I spent about a third of my time with Safari 5 and 6 drumming my fingers as my tabs recovered from a malformed bit of JavaScript, Safari 7 hasn’t given me any issues yet, other than a persistent crash when attempting to “Reset Safari” with “Close all Safari windows” checked. There are also optimizations for power consumption at work in the new Safari. There’s an option in the preferences to save power by stopping plug-ins like Flash and Java when they aren’t the primary content you’re interested in. This prevents things like obnoxious Flash ads on webpages from executing automatically and guzzling down your precious battery juices. Content that Safari suspects might not be of any use to you will have a “Click to activate this plug-in” banner on it, akin to the Firefox extension FlashBlock. Safari will also use a similar blocker if it detects that a plug-in you have installed is out of date, and therefore a potential security hole.  I applaud Apple taking an active role in forcing people off of outdated versions of things like Flash and Java; of course ultimately Apple (and everyone else sane) would prefer you just use HTML5 versions of everything, and I’m sure further aggravating Flash users won’t hurt that goal.  Safari also gains the ability the ability to let individual web pages communicate with the system’s Notification Center, allowing pages like Google Play Music to notify you of song changes, for example. It’s not yet arbitrary 3rd-party integration with OS X’s rich notification system, but it’s a start.  Safari 7 also comes with the usual bevy of improvements to HTML5 support and rendering and JavaScript performance. I’m not going to bother with JavaScript benchmarks because they’re pretty much universally a waste of everyone’s time, but subjectively it feels both faster than Safari 6 and still a bit slower than Chrome. For now, however, it’s my browser of choice, at least on battery – I’ll speak more as to why later.

Safari Prefs
Flash. They mean Flash.

There is one change you won’t find in Safari 7, however. You still can’t middle-click to close tabs. I don’t understand why Safari continues to miss this basic functionality that literally every other browser on the platform has, but there you have it. There’s also no keyboard shortcut to clear recent data, another baffling omission (although one that is at least shared by Opera).

The other truly core application for any operating system, then, is the file manager. My relationship with the OS X Finder is a bit love-hate. There are some things it does very well, and some it does infuriatingly poorly. This is largely an artifact of its double life: trying to please both Windows converts who want a drop-in replacement for Explorer and long-time die hards who want a continuation of the classic Mac OS spatial Finder has left an experience that is decidedly bland and unsatisfying for both of those groups. It’s noteworthy, then, that Mavericks has focused on redesigning some of the most core functionality of the file management experience.

The most visible change, at least for most users, is definitely going to be the addition of tabs to the Finder. These tabs share the same basic functionality (and drawbacks) of tabs in Safari – they are represented by a a small bar at the top of the Finder window that only appears when you have multiple tabs open, and each tab can be closed independently with a small ‘x’ button (but not, frustratingly, with a middle click). Different tabs can even have completely different view mods – another nod to the classic spatial Finder, though each tab shares the same menu bar. You now have the option, similar to Safari, to open all new folders in a new tab rather than a new window. Opening an individual folder in a new tab (or window, depending on the aforementioned option) is accomplished by holding the ⌘ key and double-clicking the folder. Sadly, middle-clicking to open folders in new tabs doesn’t work, either – at least Apple is being consistent with failing to implement middle-click actions in Finder, I suppose.

But while tabs are a welcome addition, the biggest change is something a little more subtle. For years – dating back to classic Mac OS, in fact – Finder has supported “labels” for files, in the form of eight colors you could assign to files. They would have little dots next to their icons in the Finder based on which label you had assigned to them, and could be searched for this way with Spotlight. But that was it – the labels weren’t customizable, and since they were stored in a single bit in the file’s legacy metadata header, you couldn’t assign multiple labels to one file.  Mavericks overhauls the legacy label system into a new system called “Tags”, and I say without exaggeration that this seemingly subtle change has the potential to totally change how you interact with your file structure on a daily basis. Tags are fully customizable – you still have the same seven colors which were available for labels to work with, but you can create as many different tags as you please, with any names you wish to give them, and assign as many of them to a file as you want. (Unfortunately, no option to select arbitrary colors for custom tags made it into 10.9, but I’d wager we’ll see it sooner or later.) Every “Save” and “Export” dialog across the system gains a line to add tags to files; the versioning pop-up (that little arrow that appears next to the file name in document windows) has been reworked to bring tags front and center; tags can be listed directly in the Finder sidebar and applied to any file with a right-click. Tags are the new way Apple wants you to organize your files, and you’d do well to give them a chance.

Mavericks Finder - Tags 1
I’m sure you can already see what a vital tool this is.

At first blush, tags just seem to duplicate the basic functionality of having a folder structure in a slightly more colorful way. If you have a bunch of photos, and tag each of them with the location they were taken, how does that differ from putting them in folders based on those locations, anyways? Well, it doesn’t – but what if you also want to sort them by date taken? Or resolution? Or by photos for your blog and for work and for sending to friends? Sure, you could accomplish some of this with Smart Folders, but now with tags, you can do it all at once. Tag all your photos from Paris with “Paris”, all the ones you want to post to your blog with “Blog”, and all the ones you think would make good wallpapers with “HiRes.” Suppose you also want to post an entry you wrote in Pages to your blog as well? Well, just tag it “Blog” as well, and it shows up in Finder under the “Blog” tag, even if it’s still in your Documents folder…or even only on iCloud and not in your Mac’s normal file structure at all. And of course, Tags are fully integrated into OS X’s robust metadata and Spotlight search functionality. Tag everything related to a specific blog post, and then do a spotlight search for that term; everything related comes up. Want to reuse some files in another blog post? Just add the second tag, and they appear under searches for either one. Much like how last year’s Fusion Drive was focused on hiding the complexities of managing which drive your files are on, this year Mavericks wants to get folder structures out of the way. Tag your files to organize them in a way that makes sense to you, not in a way that made sense to the people developing the Unix file structure 30+ years ago, and let Finder and Spotlight do all the dirty work for you. It requires a little effort up front to get set up, but the promised payoff is enormous.  Much like virtual desktops (“Spaces” in OS X parlance) back when I first started using Gnome years ago, this is a feature I initially balked at that has come to define large parts of my workflow. Just as it now profoundly annoys me to use Windows for many tasks due to its baffling lack of virtual desktops, I suspect so too will the lack of tags and tabs come to vex me when having to deal with Windows Explorer.

10.9 Finder - Tags 2
Multiple tags + OS X’s robust search = Bliss

I will close this section on the Finder with a lingering complaint, however: The new back/forward gestures introduced in Lion still don’t work in the Finder. The implementation of these gestures throughout the OS remains mystifyingly scattershot – the App Store supports them, Finder does not. Dictionary supports them, System Preferences does not. The iTunes Store supports them, the new iBooks store does not. There’s no apparent rhyme or reason to these decisions, and it’s ceaselessly frustrating to have to resort to the arcane ⌘+] keyboard shortcut (or click the button, like some sort of savage) to go “back” in the Finder.  This really seems like another one of those things that could be sorted out by our Game Center felt-removal intern in a few hours. Especially odd? If you revert to the old three-finger gesture for back/forward through System Preferences, some of the apps where the two-finger gesture didn’t work now do (like System Preferences itself), but some (like – sigh – Finder) still don’t. I’ll reiterate what I said earlier about the lingering skeuomorphism: these are not show-stopping problems, but for a company that prides itself so much on attention to detail, these sort of inconsistencies are disappointing.

There is a third application that sees a significant overhaul with Mavericks, but it isn’t one with quite the user-facing implications of Safari and Finder. Activity Monitor sees some redesigns to shift focus from raw system performance to power consumption, much as the theme is throughout Mavericks. It’s difficult to go into too much detail with the modifications to Activity Monitor without journeying into the under-the-hood changes in OS X itself, but I’ll briefly touch on the UI. Foremost is a new “Energy” tab that tracks a variety of stats about your computer’s power consumption: how much power each application is using (both instantaneously and averaged over time, boiled down to a single “lower is better” numerical value in each case), the charge state of the battery over the past 12 hours, the current graphics card on systems with switchable GPUs (and which apps request the discrete GPU), which apps support 10.9’s new App Nap feature, and which user launched the process.  Of course, many of these fields are completely customizable, as they are in all Activity Monitor panes. The memory page has also been updated with a graph of “memory pressure” rather than raw usage, though that information is of course still available. This not only provides a clearer idea to novice users (who may not understand how virtual memory caching works) of just how close to running out of usable memory they are.  It also ties neatly into another new feature in Mavericks that I’ll get into later. Unfortunately, even Activity Monitor suffers a minor casualty in its redesign: the floating CPU activity monitor is gone, although essentially the same functionality can be achieved by using the CPU usage window and selecting “Keep CPU windows on top” under the View menu.

Mavericks Activity Monitor
The Activity Monitor “Energy” tab in action

Changes to the task manager may not be the most exciting new features of an OS release, but what they portend under the hood might well be. As I’m sure you’ve seen by now in all the press surrounding the 10.9 release, Apple was laser-focused on two things with this release: First was getting rid of the leather textures and establishing an actual visual identity for modern OS X, and second was extending battery life. We’ve seen how they’ve succeeded on the first front, so how about the second? To go ahead and spoil the next section: What they’ve accomplished in this regard is nothing short of incredible, and there are plenty of benefits to the under-the-hood tweaks even for those of us who don’t spend much time away from an outlet.

Mavericks introduces a variety of tricks to try to reduce power consumption. One is something called “timer coalescing.” On a computer, you likely have dozens of applications running at once that all expect to be able to do something at a very specific time in the future. These could be things like Mail checking a POP server for new messages, or Tweetbot refreshing your Twitter feed, or an actual timer app counting down until some specific time in the future. Normally, these timers fire with incredible precision – we’re talking on the order of a microsecond. For some applications, this may be necessary, but for the vast majority – for example, everything I mentioned above – it is not. Most of those would barely need better than whole second precision, but yet they could easily be staggered such that they’re waking the CPU from its precious sleep state every several times in the course of a millisecond. Each time the CPU wakes, it takes about 20 microseconds to go back to sleep. If timers can fire at will, the CPU could barely get to sleep at all for seconds at a time, drawing extra power. By rounding up all the timers set to go off in a certain time interval and merging them into one block that fires in sequence, however, it is possible to let the CPU get its beauty rest and still get the precision you need for an overwhelming majority of applications. By default, Mavericks uses an interval of 100 milliseconds for its timer coalescing, and will only compress timers forward – that is to say, they will only be delayed, never fire late. All of this is configurable with new APIs introduced for developers in Mavericks, however – so if you’re, say, designing a simple egg timer app that doesn’t need better than to-the-second precision, you could tell the OS that it’s allowed to delay your timer firing for up to 500 milliseconds, greatly reducing the potential that your application will be waking the CPU needlessly. Don’t fret, however: if you’re developing an application that absolutely must have microsecond-perfect precision, you can also tell OS X not to delay your timers at all.

Another tool in the Mavericks power-saving arsenal is a feature called “App Nap.”  The premise here is a bit easier to understand. In a traditional desktop scenario, every running application continues to update its state at the same frequency in the background, even if it isn’t visible at all or doing anything at the time.  While this means applications are immediately responsive when you switch back to them, it also means they’re wasting CPU cycles updating themselves for no one to see. App Nap provides a way for applications that are hidden from view and completely idle to automatically go into a reduced priority state, freeing up resources for other applications or simply reducing power consumption. Like timer coalescing, this is on by default for Cocoa applications: when an eligible app has no detected activity and is completely hidden from view – either by being on another Space or by having 100% of its window covered by another application – it will “nap”, essentially being given a lower priority. There is, again, an API provided to developers to allow them to customize how their application interacts with App Nap. If you’re designing some sort of document viewer, for example, you could effectively allow your app to suspend completely when it’s not viewable.  This is more powerful than Lion’s automatic termination feature – while Lion would only close apps that expressly permitted themselves to be closed, and would only do so when the resources they were consuming were needed for another application, Mavericks will “nap” applications more aggressively and even if there is no immediate competition for resources, just to reduce potential power consumption. This should still be largely seamless for the end user, however, as apps “wake up” as soon as even one pixel of their window is visible, and applications that are performing some detectible action in the background – playing music, for example – will not suspend.  Once again, developers using the 10.9 APIs have the option to exempt their applications completely from this feature if they feel it is necessary, and users can even use a new checkbox on the “Get Info” page for the .app bundle to exempt a specific application if they find that it behaves improperly under Mavericks’ new power-saving features.

10.9 Get Info pane - .app
Don’t snooze me, bro!

Mavericks makes one last, more user-facing change to try to combat power-hogging applications. If you click on the battery status indicator, you now get, in addition to the expected estimated time remaining and link to Energy Saver preferences, a list of applications using “significant energy.” This allows users to quickly see what’s eating their battery life, and clicking on a listed app will take you directly to that app in the Activity Monitor’s Energy tab. I mentioned earlier that Safari was my browser of choice on Mavericks, at least when on battery, and this is why: I quickly discovered that Chrome was using quite a bit more energy under the same circumstances than Safari. This makes sense: Safari is fully optimized for the new power-saving technologies in Mavericks, being Apple’s own application, and testing shows I can eke an extra half an hour or more out of my battery by using Safari for my browsing when away from an outlet. Having to use the little ‘X’ – or the keyboard shortcut – to close tabs is a small price to pay for the extra longevity.

10.9 Power Menu Applet
Hint: It’s always the web browser.

So what is the end result of all of these changes. Well, apparently on Macs with already absurd battery life like the new 2013 MacBook Air, the upgrade to Mavericks can add as much as an extra three hours of time away from the charger – I’ve seen benchmark rundowns of the 2013 13” Air reaching 15.5 hours on a single charge before dying. On my considerably less efficient 2011 15” MacBook Pro, it isn’t quite as jarring of a change, but it’s definitely still noticeable. While I was getting an average of 6-7 hours of battery life under typical usage, with a peak of about 8 hours, when the machine was brand new, it’s two years old now, and that’s going to cause any battery to peter off a bit.  I had dropped off to about 5-6 hours of regular use just prior to the Mavericks upgrade. Over the last week or so, I’ve been trying to use the machine on battery as much as possible to get a feel for how much improvement the new OS has brought with it, and I’m pleased to report my typical battery life is back to an easy 6-7 hours, with the peak right back around 8. That peak seems more consistently achievable than ever before, however – I can leave more applications running and just let App Nap handle the details now. Mavericks will definitely improve your battery life, just make sure you have realistic expectations: if you were only getting 3 hours on your 2008 pre-unibody 17” MacBook Pro with 10.8, don’t expect the bump to 10.9 to get you a whole day away from AC power. But it might just get you an extra half hour.

Now, this wouldn’t be a review of an operating system upgrade without saying at least a few words about performance. I’ll spare you a detailed history lesson, but suffice it to say that, like most operating systems, OS X has been a bit of a roller coaster in this regard. Mac OS X 10.0 was notoriously sluggish – so much so that Apple actually gave away 10.1 as a free upgrade as well, and it focused almost exclusively on fixing the performance problems of its predecessor. More recently, OS X 10.7 “Lion” was also the subject of much wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding its performance, with the 10.8 “Mountain Lion” release focused at least partially on restoring Snow Leopard’s excellent responsiveness. Whether or not it succeeded in that goal is a matter of some debate, but what I can say is that 10.9 is definitely not a step backwards. There are some minor niggles, of course – there always are in 10.x.0 releases, it seems – but on the whole, Mavericks is as snappy or more so than its most recent feline predecessor.

10.9’s significant under-the-hood changes in the pursuit of improved power efficiency might initially seem unsettling to those concerned primarily with performance, but in fact they have to potential to aid in responsiveness. After all, the main goal of App Nap is to free unnecessary CPU cycles from being monopolized by background applications. It stands to reason, then, that those freed cycles can be put to use in the current foreground application to improve its responsiveness and performance. 10.9 also revamps the virtual memory system to use a fast compression algorithm when free memory is low, rather than purging caches or paging out to disk. The logic here is simple: non-volatile storage mediums are much slower than RAM – even relatively fast ones like the PCIe SSDs in the new MacBook Airs are orders of magnitude slower than main system RAM. Any information that has to be paged out and then reloaded from disk has to both wake the disk (which consumes power) and then very slowly bring the data back into RAM. If this can be avoided, even at the expense of a few extra CPU cycles, then you should have a net savings of both power and time. You end up with the seemingly odd situation of Mavericks being able to store about 12 GB of data in 8 GB of RAM, sacrificing CPU cycles to run quick-and-dirty compression and decompression on data as needed to avoid paging out to disk for as long as possible. The upshot is that OS X remains responsive under far greater memory pressure than ever before. There’s definitely a performance penalty when you exceed your raw physical memory, but for another few precious gigabytes of data, 10.9 soldiers on without incurring the massive performance and power penalties of thrashing the disk. This is going to be felt most by those unfortunate souls stuck on 4 or even 2 GB of RAM – a configuration that Apple was still selling as standard on the MacBook Air as recently as May of 2012, appallingly enough.

Mavericks also brings with it updated OpenGL drivers, fully supporting up to version 4.1 of the standard. While this still lags slightly behind the version available on Windows and Linux – OpenGL 4.4 was finalized earlier this year for those platforms – it’s definitely an improvement over the partial support for 3.3 shipped with 10.7 and 10.8. Apple has also worked with the various GPU vendors to improve the performance of their drivers. This can be felt even by those who don’t do much gaming or 3D rendering on their Macs. When I first bought my MacBook Pro, it shipped with OS X Lion 10.7.2. Under that OS, there was a very noticeable framerate drop when invoking things like Mission Control and Launchpad while on the integrated Intel HD 3000. In fact, invoking and dismissing these animations repeatedly would actually bring the discrete AMD Radeon HD 6750M online to bring the UI framerate back up, in turn negatively impacting thermals and battery life. Over time, however, new versions have OS X have brought with them updated drivers that have mitigated this problem somewhat; on the latest version of Mountain Lion, the performance of these animations is greatly improved, and I no longer would see the AMD GPU brought online to recover the UI framerate. As of Mavericks, this one performance bugbear seems to have been put to bed. While I’m not sure I’d characterize the animation as completely smooth – it’s close to but definitely short of a steady 60 FPS – it is fast enough to not be distracting. Performance in the few games I play on the system – mostly using Vavle’s Source engine, like Counter-Stirke: Global Operations and Team Fortress 2 – is improved as well, though how much of this is owed to improved OpenGL performance under 10.9 versus improvements to the Mac port of the game engine is difficult to say.

That’s not to say that performance under Mavericks is all roses, however. While boot times are snappier than ever (on my custom “Fusion Drive” setup, I see the spinning gear on the boot screen for about one second between POST and the login screen animating into view), the bafflingly slow shutdowns introduced in Mountain Lion remain unaddressed. Similarly, while waking from sleep is instantaneous, the machine takes a galling amount of time to actually go to sleep – upwards of 10-15 seconds at times. At first, I assumed this to be related to a misbehaving background application or the new memory compression algorithms, but even after a fresh boot with all startup applications suppressed I still see protracted sleep times. For comparison, I have around here a Gateway laptop from late 2004 running Crunchbang Linux 11 (this one, if you recall), and I can put it to sleep, wake it back up, and put it to sleep again before my MacBook Pro finally goes to sleep under 10.9. There’s also a slight pause when invoking quick look which I never noticed under 10.8; it’s just a fraction of a second, but it’s annoying and locks all of Finder while it’s happening. Mail will periodically hang attempting to sync IMAP folders, taking several minutes to finally finish what has previously always been a near-instantaneous operation. It also takes far too long for TextEdit to spawn a new window, even when it’s already running – this was somewhat of an issue after the iCloud integration was introduced in 10.8, but it’s definitely worse under Mavericks. None of these problems are too destructive, but I’m definitely hoping for quick resolutions in a 10.9.x release.

Finally, I’m going to briefly address a few less headlining changes that don’t really fit into any other section. Mavericks moves to SMB2 as the primary file sharing protocol, even between two Macs. This has the result of improving interoperability and performance when sharing with Windows machines, and you can definitely feel the difference. When both my Windows 8.1 desktop and MacBook Pro are connected to the same gigabit router by Ethernet, I can actually see large files transfer at 120 MB/s – pretty much complete saturation of the link. The other facet of this change is that it puts the writing on the wall for the venerable-but-limited Apple Filing Protocol. Some day we’ll likely see it deprecated completely in favor of more interoperable and open platforms like NFS, FTP, and SMB. There is one slight networking-related snag I’ve run into, however. When sharing an ethernet connection to the internet over WiFi, I’ve had OS X suddenly stop actually transmitting any data to connected clients several times. Disabling and re-enabling internet sharing typically fixes the issue, though once it refused to re-enable at all until I rebooted the system.

10.8 brought the voice dictation functionality over from iOS wholesale, including the need to transfer the information to and from Apple’s servers to provide a result. I – and many others – argued that while this made sense given the extremely limited CPU performance and always-on connectivity of iOS devices, it was completely unnecessary on the Mac. Clearly someone at Apple agreed, as a new “Enhanced Dictation” option is available that downloads the necessary files from Apple’s servers and allows you to run all dictation locally, without needing to transmit any data over the internet. This brings the added advantages of providing truly real-time response to your dictation, without the lag provided by waiting for the response from Apple’s servers, and allows the system to “learn” to some extent as well. Overall, the new dictation system works surprisingly well, even on my single-microphone MBP; it should be even better on newer machines with dual microphones for hardware noise cancellation.

10.9 Voice Preferences
It’s almost like I’m on a real computer or something.

iCloud in OS X 10.9 (and also iOS 7.0.2) also brings back Keychain sync between all your signed in Macs and iOS devices. This feature was available in MobileMe, although there it only functioned for Macs. There’s also a function to have OS X suggest random passwords and remember them for you, much like LastPass or OnePass. I won’t weigh in on Apple “Sherlocking” another major 3rd party developer, but if you don’t already use one of the above systems and live exclusively in Apple’s ecosystem (always the qualifier with iCloud, isn’t it?) it’s definitely worth a try. On a related note, I’m still having issues with iCloud’s “Find My Device” functionality – it’s enabled in my iCloud preferences, but the website usually (though not always) insists that my MacBook Pro is offline – even if the device I’m checking from is, in fact, my MacBook Pro. This has been a persistent issue since iCloud launched, and the seat-of-my-pants impression is that it hasn’t improved any in 10.9.

iCloud Find My Device
iCloud, summed up in one image.

Mavericks finally brings an option for the App Store to update apps automatically in the background. Furthermore, the Software Update preferences pane is gone entirely, wrapped into the App Store one.  “Internet Accounts” replaces the exhaustingly named “Mail, Calendars, and Contacts” preference pane, though it is functionally identical. There’s system-wide integration of LinkedIn now, in the same vain as Facebook and Twitter in Mountain Lion, just in case you felt you weren’t getting enough notification spam. Mail now leads you to this preference pane when you click “Accounts” from the main application menu, although the main Mail preferences window still contains the traditional Mail account preferences, for those situations where you have to get down and dirty with SMTP port numbers.

10.9 App Store prefs
Let’s not dwell on why the App Store preferences are under System Preferences, but every other core app has theirs under their own application menus.

The “special character” menu option now has a default keyboard shortcut in the form of ⌃+⌘+Space, and results in a small popup menu at the insertion point rather than a separate window appearing. The “Input Sources” tab in migrates from the “Language & Region” preference pane to the “Keyboard” one, as part of the obligatory reshuffling of System Preferences in each new version of OS X. There are some new accessibility options as well; I won’t go over them in detail, but feel free to poke around for yourself. Of note is an almost overwhelmingly customizable system for subtitles.

10.9 - Special characters popup
More special characters than a whole school district full of short buses.

Some of the default command line utilities have received minor maintenance updates, but it’s almost more of note that the default bash install is still a comically old 3.2 release. Similarly, rsync is still on release 2.6.9, dating back to 2006; either Apple has philosophical issues with GPLv3 or just really wants you to use Time Machine for your shadow copy needs. Pleasantly, however, Python is the latest stable 2.7.5 release. Perl, less impressively, is stuck on 5.16.2 – dating to mid 2012, this isn’t the worst it’s been, but it could be better. Java is excised completely from the core install, and in fact if you had any version of Java installed on 10.8, it will be blown away by the upgrade. If you run java -version from the CLI, you don’t even get Software Update offering to download it for you anymore.  You’re directed, essentially, to go to Oracle’s site and download the latest version. Honestly, that’s probably for the best, given how vital it is to keep Java up to date. Of course, all of these CLI utilities can be updated either manually or with MacPorts – and I mean, half the fun of running Unix-based OS is tinkering with it, is it not?

10.9 Python
I’d say I know just enough Python to be dangerous, but I doubt I’m all that dangerous with it.

Now it comes time to rope this wandering steer in for a conclusion. In reviews of past versions of Mac OS X, there was always a value proposition to consider: are the new features worth the $129, or later $29, that this latest version costs? With OS X Mavericks, however, the only investment in upgrading is your time. With the entire install process taking under an hour (not counting the background download of the installer itself, which will obviously vary based on your internet connection), is 10.9 worth your time and effort? If you have a portable, the answer is obviously an emphatic “yes.”  A few minor performance nits and 10.x.0 bugs aside, Mavericks will magically imbue your MacBook with an extra 10-20% battery runtime and overall smoother performance, and that alone is worth the effort.  Even if you don’t have a notebook where the extra battery life is a concern, the added performance under memory-limited situations will probably save you at least a little bit of frustration from time to time, and as ever upgrading to Mavericks is the only way to get the latest versions of Safari, Finder, and so forth. Speaking of the Finder, the new metadata features added with 10.9 are absolutely worth investigating, as is the new tabbed interface. Finally, if you’re tired of being optically assaulted by core applications like Calendar and Contacts (neé Address Book), Mavericks can provide you some relief. Essentially, my recommendation is thus: if your Mac is a professional workstation on which you absolutely rely on having 100% uptime, there are probably just enough minor bugs and potential performance nits that you may want to wait. If you are in that small niche, you’re probably used to waiting for the 10.x.1 or .2 release to upgrade anyway. If you’re anyone else, you’ll want to go ahead and upgrade (after making sure your Time Machine backup is up to date, of course). After all, the time is all you’ve got to lose.

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