OS X Mavericks: Different name, looks the same

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

Apple's new desktop/laptop operating system, OS X Mavericks, looks and works a lot like its predecessor. But that doesn't mean Apple hasn't made it a better OS for users. Michael deAgonia explains what's new and what's not.

Mavericks is the first version of OS X not named after a big cat. OS X 10.9, better known as Mavericks, is the 10th iteration of the operating system that powers Apple's desktops and laptops. Unlike previous versions, Mavericks is the first to be named after a place in California instead of a large cat -- and the first to be given away by Apple for free. Even so, it still looks and acts very much like its predecessor, Mountain Lion, meaning there's no major learning curve for users who upgrade.

Like iOS 7, Apple's just-updated mobile OS, Mavericks has been stripped of skeuomorphic elements. Unlike iOS 7, the overall user interface has been left largely intact. Instead, Mavericks is focused on refinements throughout the operating system and built-in apps, a few invisible features largely designed to improve laptop battery life and a couple of big additions borrowed from iOS.

Installing Mavericks

Before you install Mavericks, be sure to back up your Mac. In fact, it wouldn't hurt to do a scan of your system using Disk Utility (it's in the Applications > Utilities folder) or with a third-party utility like Disk Warrior, just in case things aren't running as well as they should be. Thousands of files are about to be swapped around your hard drive as you upgrade to Mavericks, so it makes sense to make sure everything is in tip-top condition.

Mavericks is available through Apple's Mac App Store (which can be found under the Apple Menu). Open the App Store and, if Mavericks isn't in the Featured area, click on Updates. OS X Mavericks should be at the top of the list of software you can download and install. Note: You can install Mavericks on any Mac that's authorized with the Apple ID you're using. And it has the same hardware requirements as any Mac that can run Mountain Lion. (You do need to be running at least OS X 10.6.8 -- Snow Leopard -- to upgrade to Mavericks.)

The Installer downloads to your main Applications folder, so if you're strapped for bandwidth and have multiple machines -- or even if you just want to keep a copy of the installer on your computer -- make sure to drag the installer out of the Applications folder before you begin the update. (You need to hold down the Command key when you drag the installer to a different location.) If you don't move it to a different location, the installer will delete itself after the upgrade.

The OS X Mavericks installer takes up about 5Gb of space and downloads to the Applications folder.

Installation on my 2012 MacBook Pro (Retina) took just under 35 minutes, and the process is simple. Double-click the Installer, enter your username and password, select your target destination -- for most users this is the Macintosh HD -- and the installer does the rest, even rebooting itself when needed.

After the installation, a setup assistant will prompt you to log into iCloud and set up iCloud Keychain. This brings us to our first new feature.

iCloud Keychain

iCloud Keychain is what your keychain is for your keys -- for passwords. iCloud Keychain is a single place to store your username and passwords for all types of applications, network shares, disk images and websites. This is nothing new to Keychain users -- this technology has been included on every Mac dating back to 1999's Mac OS 8.6. What's new is the addition of iCloud support, which keeps all authorized computers (and, eventually, iOS devices) up to date with the latest password data, which is stored in a 256-bit AES encrypted file. When you're prompted for a username and password by a network share or Internet site, Keychain automatically fills in the information so you don't have to.

Security experts always advise users to create a unique password for every account, but few people do that. iCloud Keychain could help change those bad habits with a built-in password creator that can be used when setting up a new account. It generates a random series of numbers and letters, producing a password that would be tough to guess (and maybe tougher to remember). But Keychain remembers it for you, and passes that data to your other devices. So the next time you log into a site on any device you own -- including a mobile device like an iPhone -- the username and password is remembered by Keychain via iCloud and entered automatically.

Keychain also remembers credit card data -- if you allow it to -- so you don't have to keep pulling out your credit card and manually entering data when doing online purchases. (For security's sake, you're still required to fill in the 3-digit security code located on the back of the card.)

After you've installed Mavericks, you can decide whether to set up iCloud Keychain now or wait until later.

Knowing what iCloud Keychain is, you can make an informed decision during the initial setup about whether to use it. You can either activate it now or leave it for later. If you do use iCloud Keychain, it will require you to verify who you are. One way that's done is by sending notifications to your other devices, so you can confirm that you are, indeed, the owner of the Apple ID account you're signed in with; the alternative is to send an SMS message to the phone number listed in your Apple ID. (Once you get the SMS, you input the code into a dialog box in Mavericks.)

After setting up iCloud Keychain, I chose the first option, which allows me to approve any changes to my iCloud status from another device. As a result, when I used another Mac running Mavericks, I was asked to allow that machine to have access to my keychain data. After that, the other Mac had the same access to my info as my own laptop.

One note: While the iCloud keychain setup worked fine for me, a Computerworld editor who tried to do the same thing ran into trouble verifying his account. Your mileage may vary.

Tweaks to the Finder

When the desktop, Dock and menu bar load, you'll notice that Mavericks looks pretty much like Mountain Lion. The big change, if you can call it that, is that the Dock has a translucent background when pinned to the left or right side of the screen and there are a slew of new desktop wallpapers to choose from. Mavericks lacks the major user interface (UI) overhaul that made iOS 7 such a hot topic when it rolled out last month. Instead, Mavericks unifies the themes used in earlier versions of OS X, removing (as I mentioned before) the last remnants of skeuomorphic elements. That's not a bad thing. The Notification drawer (accessed from the upper right corner of the menu bar) now lacks the "linen" backdrop, the Dashboard has a new background, and apps like Calendar get a new UI to match the other apps.

The Finder does get something new: Tags. Like Labels before it, the Tags feature lets you highlight and organize files with different colors. Tags have more support than Labels throughout the operating system. First, tags can be synced with iCloud and onto your other devices, so that the tags remain consistent across your various Macs. Documents stored in iCloud and tagged retain that tagging whether you're using Pages for Mac, or Pages for iOS.

You can tweak Finder Tags to suit your needs in the Finder > Preferences area.

The Finder sidebar now includes an area for tagged shortcuts, which automatically groups similarly tagged items for quick access to related files. Every Finder window also gets a new button -- located to the right of the Share button -- that lets you tag selected files. Tags can be added to files in the Save dialog box, which is located under the File menu.

You can edit the labels for your Tags under Finder > Preferences > Tags. From here you can rename the existing tags, delete them or assign them a different color. You can also drag favorite tags to the bottom of the Tags window, which sorts the order they're displayed in other areas of the OS.

Tags isn't the only thing new addition to the Finder. There's also Finder Tabs. (Yes, this may be confusing at first.) Finder Tabs work just like tabs in a Web browser, allowing you to group multiple Finder windows together in one. As in Safari, the Command-T key combo allows you to create new tabs, with each tab retaining its own view settings. You can drag and drop files between tabbed windows, and you can pull tabs out to create their own separate windows in the Finder.

Tabs is a welcome and overdue feature. My only problem is that I have grown so accustomed to the Finder not having them that I keep forgetting to use them, even though using tabs would be easier. Old habits die hard.

Finder Tabs work just like tabs in a Web browser, allowing you to group multiple Finder windows together in one.

Spaces, the desktop and Calendar

In previous versions of OS X, whenever you used Spaces on multiple monitors, switching to another Space shifted the view of every display. In Mavericks, you can finally control each monitor's space independently of the others. Go to one monitor, swipe away that Space, and those on the other monitors stay just where they are. Like Finder Tabs, this is another "it's about time" feature, though it means users will have to relearn how they use Spaces.

The menu bar, which has been limited to the main display since the Mac was first designed, now extends through all of your screens. That means no more mousing back to the primary display just to access a menu item.

Another change allows the Dock to shift between primary and secondary displays; it's accessed by moving the cursor to the bottom of the screen on any of the displays -- at least, theoretically. The problem? It didn't always work for me. I've moused to the bottom of the screen on many occasions while the Dock stubbornly refused to move to the new monitor. That's pretty annoying, and clearly something that needs a fix when 10.9.1 rolls out.

Conversely, one new feature I love -- and one that works as billed -- is the AirPlay Display. iPhones, iPads and Macs can already beam music, video or the entire screen to an AppleTV-equipped HDTV. With Mavericks, you can now use that HDTV as an extension of your monitor, not just as a mirror of what's on your laptop or desktop machine. The extended desktop is fully supported by Spaces and Mission Control. Obviously, the refresh rate isn't as fast as a built-in monitor, so fast-moving images and intricate effects won't look as good on the TV. But it's perfect for things that don't require fast refresh rates like email, twitter feeds and even surveillance feeds from security cameras.

The Calendar app also gets some notable changes. It now sports a traditional Mac-like window wrapper, and there are hints of iOS 7 throughout Calendar's views; borders and boxes in the app have been replaced by minimal lines.

The Calendar app's Inspector pane gives you more information about an event you have planned, including a map of your destination.

In addition to its new look, Calendar now has an Inspector that displays more details pertaining to a highlighted event. Along with date, time, alert, invites and note fields, there is a new travel time field. You add the estimated travel time before your meeting -- or you can enter a location and the Calendar app automatically calculates driving/walking time. Calendar can add the travel time to your appointment so you know the best time to leave in order to arrive on time.

The new Inspector will also display a map of your destination, as well as an avatar representing the forecast with high and low temps.

I'm also happy to see that Dictation has been improved. It no longer has a time limit, and text appears on the screen in near real time instead of waiting for you to stop talking before the text shows up.

Maps arrives in OS X

Maps on the desktop is pretty much the same as Maps in iOS. It includes all of the data sources the mobile version uses and is framed by a standard OS X border and controls. Like the iOS version, Maps uses Yelp for restaurant reviews and other information. Basically, if you've used Maps on an iPhone or iPad, you know what to expect.

Maps on the desktop is pretty much the same as Maps in iOS. This is the "hybrid" view showing New York City.

At the top left corner of the Maps window are three buttons with icons for showing your current location, switching to 3D view and showing traffic. Next to that is the Directions button, which slides out a drawer on the right with places to type in the starting point and destination and choose between walking and driving directions. (Bookmarks and recent directions are here, as well.)

And to the right of that is the Sharing menu, which lets you easily share a location via email, AirDrop (to nearby Macs or mobile devices), Twitter and Facebook. The best part of Maps is the ability to send a location to iOS devices, so if you've just looked up a destination on your desktop machine, you can send it to your iPhone wirelessly and let it guide you while you're out and about.

In the center of the toolbar are buttons for Standard, Hybrid and Satellite views. And finally, there's a Bookmarks button, with access to Bookmarks, Recents and Contacts, and a Spotlight menu for all address searches.

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