MacBooks, Mavericks extend Apple reach

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Mavericks is available as a free download from the Apple Inc. App Store for Macs running any of the three most recent editions of the operating system. Source: Apple Inc. via Bloomberg

When the same company controls the hardware, software and services, it's called "owning the stack." And no one does it like Apple.

Take the new version of OS X, the Mac's operating system, called Mavericks after a fabled California surfing spot. Coupled with a new generation of the flagship MacBook Pro laptop, it provides the most powerful and polished experience in computing these days.

That's if you find its completely Apple-centric environment comforting rather than stifling and can afford the pricey hardware.

As OS X upgrades go, the most noteworthy thing about Mavericks may be its price: There isn't one.

The previous version of OS X cost $20, which was still much less than Microsoft charges for its major Windows upgrades. Mavericks, though, is available as a free download from the App Store for Macs running any of the three most recent editions of the operating system. (Those are Snow Leopard, Lion and Mountain Lion.)

I've been using Mavericks on three Macs: the newly released 13.3-inch MacBook Pro With Retina Display, where it came pre-loaded, and recent-vintage models of the iMac and MacBook Air, where I installed it myself.

Bumpy upgrade

Neither of the upgrades went entirely smoothly. The Air stopped in mid-download, informing me that "an error has occurred" without specifying what the error was. (I was able to resume the process with no ill effects, however.)

And the iMac upgrade came to a screeching halt with a warning that my system was corrupted and I should immediately back up all my data, wipe the drive clean and mix a stiff drink. (OK, I made up that last part.)

I ignored the warning and tried again. This time, Mavericks installed without a hitch, and has been humming along for more than two weeks with nary a performance glitch. After examining logs from my computer, Apple said my experience was likely an anomaly.

The new operating system introduces two important apps, both migrating from Apple's iPads and iPhones: iBooks and Maps.

The books app works exactly the way it does on iOS devices. Purchases from the iBooks store can be stored in the cloud or locally, and bookmarks, highlights and notes are synced across all devices, so you can pick up on the Mac exactly where you left off on an iPad.

Memos, papers

You may not read the great American novel on your Mac, but it's certainly useful for memos, school papers and the like.

Maps is similarly integrated through Apple's cloud services. Look up a location on the Mac and you can send the directions straight to your iPhone, where they automatically launch the Maps app.

While it's all very neat and seamless, it also points up what some people see as a major issue with the Apple ecosystem: While both iBooks and Maps are improving, neither is remotely the best of breed in its category.

Those honors belong to, respectively, (AMZN)'s Kindle family of apps and content and Google (GOOG) Maps. Both are available for Apple devices, but without the same level of integration, forcing you into a choice between quality and convenience.

Mavericks features a number of small but welcome enhancements, including the ability to assign tags to help locate related files, and recommendations for hard-to-crack passwords that are remembered by Apple's iCloud Keychain service.

Extended life

Laptop buyers, though, will be more interested in how it works with Intel (INTC)'s latest microprocessors, called Haswell, to extend battery life on the updated MacBook Pros. The answer is: very nicely.

While Apple claims the new 13.3-inch model can go for up to nine hours between charges, I exceeded 10 without much difficulty. Apple puts the battery life of the updated 15.4-inch version at eight hours.

The new MacBook Pros are less expensive than their predecessors: Prices are 9 percent to 13 percent below comparable models from a year ago. Moreover, in a shot across Microsoft (MSFT)'s bow, Apple is now including its iWorks productivity suite, its answer Microsoft Office, with new Macs, along with its iLife photo, video and music apps.

Even with lower prices and bundled software, though, no one will describe the new MacBooks as value-priced. The 13.3-inch model starts at $1,299. My test unit, with eight gigabytes of memory and 256 gigabytes of fast flash storage, costs $1,499. The 15.4-inch version starts at $1,999.

Taken together, the MacBooks, Mavericks and the newly bundled applications -- knit together with the iPad-iPhone universe through Apple's cloud services -- create a start-to-finish experience that no competitor can match.

Rich Jaroslovsky
Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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