So the latest version of OS X, 10.9 Mavericks was official released a few days ago and I decided to upgrade. I’ve only been a daily OSX user for the last 18 months or so, but I’ve settled into a system of keyboard shortcuts and scripts that makes light work of tedious tasks. Without wanting to sound one-eyed, I’ve come to appreciate how OSX kindly removes itself from between the user and their work/content. Focus is a well understood concept, unhindered by random system prompts.
To be sure, I read John Siracusa’s riveting in-depth review (to give you an idea of just how in-depth – in this and previous year’s reviews, he’s covered even slight differences in system fonts and scrollbar positions, to the pixel – it’s brilliant). Especially interesting was the section on battery life improvements. As somebody who’s primary machine is a Macbook Air which clocks up a hefty amount of use while on the road and relied heavily upon, this was something I had been looking forward to.
You can read Apple’s White Paper on 10.9 improvements (PDF) here. The important things are – CPU timer coalescing allowing for more precision in ramping up/down CPU speed (note that this is something which Windows has had since Windows 7 – to little avail). App Nap, which is the marketing term of backgrounding inactive apps to save power by throttling CPU/IO and thread priorities. Plugin sleep, only relevant for Safari – it’s already a function that’s built into Chrome and available for Firefox. There are a large number of non user-facing changes as well, like OpenCL improvements, default SMB2 capability (AFP is being phased out) and improvements in Xcode.
The installation was seamless, I pressed Install, walked away and came back 30 minutes later and it was done. Cosmetically, Mavericks is mostly unchanged, bar some settings being in different places, and file tagging being more prominent. What was noticeable and very welcome was a 20-25% gain in battery life as I’ve used it over the past few days, or about an hour gain in the real world on my 2012 Air. Scrolling responsiveness also appears to be improved, though I don’t have the stats to back any of this up, it’s purely subjective so take it as you will. I seemed to also have gained an extra 10GB of free space, but that could be due to something else.
If you had a 2013 Air, you’d see up to 15 hours of real world use without clunky add-on batteries. That’s noteworthy as an engineering feat.
The Activity Monitor is also more detailed now, with power consumption being a prominent metric. It’s also important to note that in the event of RAM shortage, memory compression is used (presumably similar to zRam, Apple claims up to 50% compressibility), app cache is reclaimed, and as a last resort, swap is used. With the PCIe-based SSD’s in today’s notebooks, it’s still a way off DDR3 speeds, but light years ahead of spinning disks, if it came down to it. I did also monitor App Nap (from Activity Monitor) and it was working retroactively with older apps, putting them into a low-power state when they were hidden. I’m usually quite pedantic about closing apps when they’re not in use from the dock, but for most part, this is no longer necessary.
What I did appreciate was not only was the upgrade free, but such meticulous attention was poured into tuning for performance, without substantially altering the workflow or UI that we’re used to. No gimmicks or flashy glitz here to show off. Speaking of Windows 8, Jeff Atwood (of Coding Horror fame) raised the question about battery life under Windows, under the same hardware, or namely why is it nearly twice as bad. Sure, some of it can be put down to poorly-optimized Boot Camp drivers by Apple, but I’m inclined to believe that OSX’s BSD roots are more efficient than Windows bloated structure (I’m also thankful for the terminal commands on a daily basis, and GNU tools are just a Homebrew away), not to mention many years spent controlling the entire stack to work properly together.
Why does this strategy work? It’s because Microsoft has traditionally made it’s money from selling Windows licenses. If people stick to XP/7, they’re not buying $120 copies of Windows 8. Enticements and trinkets are required to get people to upgrade (also see DirectX requirements from previous version). As Windows revenue tumbles year on year, Microsoft is firmly rebranding itself as a devices and services company. This means less boxed copies of software, and more hardware / online services. When Apple releases an OS update for free, it’s because they already made the money selling you the machine. Their interest then is in making the OS incrementally better, not inciting widespread online riots – the software is there to make the hardware shine, and vice versa.
I’ve fretfully cycled through more than a dozen Windows laptops over the years and even now the latest Ultrabooks are just coming close to the usability of the Macbooks. By usability, I mean the whole package – how the software and hardware allow you to get your tasks done, how much mental effort is freed from having to attend to configuring or maintaining your machine. I remember spending far more time fixing/tinkering and tweaking the Windows machines just to get them right, or running maintenance on them because they would bloat over time for no good reason (see winsxs/registry/installers for example).
It doesn’t help that Microsoft doesn’t know what it wants to do, and still botches it up. I don’t want my laptop to have a touchscreen at all, or widgets for weather, I just want the basic functions to be even better. If I’m on my laptop, it means I want to get things done as quickly as possible. I want the little details to be taken care of. I want a system that can be as simple or powerful as I want, and I want to choose it because it really is the BEST tool for the job, regardless of vendor. For computing, that’s a modern OSX machine, for mobile, that’s an modern Android device.
Sure, I also switch between Windows and Linux machines on a daily basis, but if I had to choose one laptop to take with me on an indefinite trip, I’d pick up the Macbook every time.