Hands On: OS X Mavericks

By Pat Pilcher

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With hype building ahead of Apple's next big reveal, there's been a huge amount of hype around new iPhone rumours, yet one of Apple's other products has sadly received little in the way of attention which is a real shame as it's a real winner.

Mac OS was arguably the very thing that helped propelled Apple into greatness back in the early days. While other computer makers were still struggling with arcane and brutally ugly command line interfaces, Apple bought the instantly intuitive Macintosh to the masses, transforming how the world saw computing forever in the process.

Since then Mac OS has blossomed beyond all recognition, eventually morphing into OS X, sporting a series of cat monikers. Now the next iteration is only a week or so away and the feline tradition is gone with the pending release of OS X Mavericks.

RIP Cats
If like me you're wondering what on earth "Mavericks," has to do with cats, the short answer is a resounding nothing. Cutting a long story short, Apple ran out of cat names and decided to use a map of California for naming inspiration instead.

Mavericks happens to be the name of a surf beach in northern California, and signals a move away from cats to Californian place names. Intel have been using US place names for years with their CPU releases so I'm waiting for the legal bun-fight when both decide to use the same name.

Launching a new operating system is a fraught undertaking (just look at Windows 8 RT). Apple must've been watching closely as they've been careful to make the transition to OS X Mavericks as seamless as possible and sufficiently compelling for existing Mac OS X users.

If you're already a Mountain Lion user, you may be surprised by how little there is in the way of changes to what you're using. This is most likely due to the fact that OS X is already a pretty refined beast and because of this, subsequent versions have only needed to incorporate minor interface tweaks (with a whole lot more happening under the hood) to remain relevant.

Under the Hood
Having been given the chance to test Mavericks out on a new MacBook Pro, I found lots to like. Ironically, what stood out most was the least visible - all the work Apple have done for smoother speedier operation and improved battery life. Two tweaks really stood out - Timer Coalescing and App Naps. Naff marketing department branding aside, these are both really nifty and fall into the "why didn't I think of that?" category.

Timer Coalescing groups computing tasks together, maximising the CPUs idle time, reducing CPU activity (and power consumption) by anything up to a healthy 72 percent. Best of all there's no noticeable performance hit either.

App Nap is as clever as it is simple. If like most people you tend to have a bunch of apps on the go at the same time, the slowdown that usually happens can be incredibly annoying. Mavericks can cleverly tell when an app is hidden behind other windows and slows the app down so it utilises less valuable CPU cycles and battery life. Bringing the app back to the front sees it shifted back to full throttle. Apple claim that with App Nap, CPU energy use can be reduced by up to 23 per cent, which translates into even more battery life. Clever eh!

Tags 'n' Tabs
Other more obvious features also stood out, especially tabs in the Finder, which once you've used it simply makes several metric tonnes of common sense. Instead of navigating through a growing pile of windows, you can simply merge them into a single tabbed window. Not only does this de-clutter your desktop, but it also puts all apps where they're a single mouse-click away.

Another gem is Mavericks new tag feature which makes organising files (be they stored locally or in iCloud) virtually bomb-proof and will be especially useful in environments with a strong workflow aspect. Put simply, you simply attach a colour coded tag that you've named with its own category to each file, so in theory you could have a yellow tag called pending and another red tag called "overdue" plus a green tag for "approved".

Tags is a whole lot like the old Labels feature but is also far more powerful. Tags are assigned either via the save dialog box or by dragging files to tags in a sidebar. When you want to see all the files that have a specific tag, simply click that tag in the Finder sidebar, and all the files are viewable in a single list. Nicer still, you can also have more than one tag attached to a file. In theory being able to sort and search by tags promises to make the vast amounts of data most of us accumulate even more manageable.

Multi Monitor Support
Mavericks multi-monitor was also one of the less obvious features that could prove incredibly handy. Not only does it support the dock and menu bar on each screen but like Mountain Lion, it'll play nice with an Apple TV, allowing you to use your telly as a second monitor, this proved insanely handy for viewing YouTube clips and other media with the MacBook. Using Mavericks the Apple TV is also a totally independent monitor, rather than a mirrored screen as with Mountain Lion.

Location Savvy Stuff
The new version of Maps is also tightly integrated into the OS. It is also present in the Contacts app which now sports a "Show Map" button below a contact's address, so you can open a map of an events location (which proved handy for this directionally challenged journalist). Equally impressive is the ability for the calendar app to use Maps to factor travel time into appointments. Because Mavericks is location aware (using your IP address) and it's contacts/calendar app also knows the location of the event or contact, travel time can be added to appointments and will vary depending on how you intend to get to the appointment (you can choose car, public transport or walking). This is also represented visually so you can spot appointment overlaps on a particularly busy day.

Verdict
With Mavericks, Apple have achieved the difficult task of launching a new OS. Not only will Mavericks be instantly familiar (and hopefully pain-free) to anyone already running Mountain Lion, but there's enough clever stuff baked in to make it a compelling upgrade. Mavericks is expected to launch in the Northern Autumn.

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