Apple OS X Mountain Lion review: iOS-like features help unify your digital world

The new desktop OS benefits from new features adopted from iOS

Build 12A269 is the official build of OS X Mountain Lion. In February, Apple surprised users by unveiling OS X Mountain Lion, the 10th iteration of the Mac operating system since the first public beta appeared in September 2000. Mountain Lion picks up right where last year's Lion update left off, delivering some 200 new features -- many minor, some significant -- and incorporating lessons learned from iOS, the mobile operating system that's used on the iPad and the iPhone.

Some notable features that were until now limited to iOS are offered to desktop and laptop users, including push notifications, Messages, Reminders and the Notification Center. Not surprisingly, OS X also includes support for some new gestures that are used systemwide and built into applications. The full lineup of changes is available on Apple's site.

The public has known about many of these features for months, since Apple unveiled the developers preview in February. But at its Worldwide Developers Conference last month, the company offered details about pricing ($19.99) and availability (July), and Apple execs had a chance to talk up a few previously unannounced aspects of the new operating system, including system requirements.

I've had some time to try out the new operating system, which should be an easy upgrade for most users. Here's what I found out about it.

Getting Mountain Lion

Mountain Lion generally runs on most Macs sold since 2007, though there are some fairly recent Macs that have been left out in the cold. The easiest way to find out if your hardware is compatible is by clicking on the Apple menu while holding down the Option key and selecting System Information or System Profiler. (After making the selection, you can release the Option key.) Scroll down the list in the sidebar on the left and select Software. Under the System Software Overview, look for "64-bit Kernel and Extensions: No." If you find that entry, it means you can't upgrade to Mountain Lion, since it is strictly 64-bit.

As for cost, the downward trend of recent years continues. After several years of selling Mac OS X upgrades for $129, Apple broke tradition in 2009 when it lowered the price of Snow Leopard to $29.99 -- and then charged the same thing for Lion in 2011. This year's upgrade costs just $19.99, and you can upgrade all of your personal Macs for that one price. That deal doesn't apply to businesses. ( Information about enterprise volume licensing is available on Apple's site.)

This wouldn't be an Apple product without a bit of a twist: Mountain Lion is a digital download and can only be purchased through the Mac App Store, which can be found under the Apple menu. The upgrade is not available on disc or on a USB stick. So if you don't have broadband, you're going to have to find a Wi-Fi hotspot to download the 4.3GB update.

If you're strapped for bandwidth and you have multiple Macs, make sure to keep a copy of the installer before you install Mountain Lion. The installer deletes itself from your Applications folder once it's done, though you can download it again later through the App Store if you need to. Once you make a copy, you can transfer it wirelessly to other Macs in your household and install away.

Once Mountain Lion is downloaded from the App Store, the installation process is almost entirely automated.

If bandwidth isn't an issue, use your Apple ID to log in to the Mac App Store on your other computers and the new OS will show up under the Purchased menu, allowing you to download it there.

As a precaution, it's always best to back up your files before installation, just in case there's a problem. It's also a good idea to delay updating any critical production machines for a little while -- not because Mountain Lion isn't stable, but because bugs can sometimes rear their heads over time. It's definitely a best practice to let others find the faults first. (That being said, I'm a hypocrite: I've upgraded all of my production machines, with zero issues.)

One last tip before installation: Run Disk Utility (in the Utilities folder) to catch any potential disk or permissions problems before you install Mountain Lion. Installing major software like an operating system update can sometimes trigger underlying issues. Better yet, if you really want to play it safe, run Alsoft's DiskWarrior; it's one of the best tools a Mac owner can have.

It took about 35 minutes to install Mountain Lion on my MacBook Pro (which has an SSD drive) after I had downloaded the installer. The entire installation was as easy as can be; once you agree to the necessary terms and select your destination disk, the entire process is automatic.

So fresh, so clean

Once Mountain Lion is installed and your computer reboots, you just need to set up iCloud and your App Store login information. If you've already been using iCloud and purchasing software from the Mac App Store, getting up and running is simple. After you log in with your iCloud username and password, your email, calendars, FaceTime info, contacts and Safari data, such as bookmarks and Reading List links, are automatically configured. And a visit to the App Store allows you to reinstall software you have already purchased.

If you have software that's not compatible with Mountain Lion, the installer creates a folder on your computer appropriately called "Incompatible Software." Look there to see whether you have any apps that won't run on the new operating system.

After you've logged in, the environment should look familiar, since there aren't any major UI changes. The desktop now sports another galaxy cluster background, and the Dock has a frosted glass appearance. If you look in the menu bar, you'll notice that the Spotlight search icon that was off to the right -- a staple since 2005's release of Mac OS X Tiger -- has been shifted to the left in favor of a new icon. That's for Notifications, one of the iOS features that's included in Mountain Lion.

If you have an AppleTV connected to your Wi-Fi network, you'll see that the menu bar sports the now familiar AirPlay icon found in Apple's iOS devices. This is another iOS feature Apple built into OS X.

The Finder window has gained a few new abilities. First, you can move around the Devices, Favorites and Shared categories in the sidebar by dragging and dropping. File transfers are now tracked with an inline progress bar in the Finder window, in addition to the traditional floating box. Also, you can now triple-tap an icon with three fingers to activate Quick Look, although the space key still works as before.

Finder windows now get a Share button allowing you to send a file via email, Messages or AirDrop.

You'll also note that the toolbar for Finder windows has a new button, one that should be familiar to anyone who has used an iPhone or an iPad: the Share button. It's a seemingly minor addition that's deceptively powerful.

Sharing and syncing

In Mountain Lion, Sharing has become a contextually aware systemwide service. The Share button is available throughout the Finder and in built-in applications like Safari, QuickTime and Quick Look, and it will no doubt be included in third-party apps once they're updated.

The seemingly ubiquitous Share button (shown in the Safari toolbar here) allows you to easily share Web content.

Want to save, email or tweet the link you're reading? Click the Share button in Safari. Want to send a document to a colleague? Click the Share button in Finder and send it by way of email, Messages or AirDrop. If you want to share a file with somebody, the Share button makes it easy.

What about sharing information between devices you yourself own? That's where iCloud comes in.

One of the most important advances of Mountain Lion is deeper integration with iCloud. A collection of services that automatically syncs your data across all of your devices, iCloud shifts the responsibility of keeping your data organized from you, the user, to the computer. In other words, living with multiple computing devices -- a Mac at the office, an iPad at home and an iPhone in your pocket -- becomes easier because iCloud makes sure every machine has the same up-to-date information.

The iCloud preferences panel allows users to select which apps can access iCloud.

Photostream is a good example of iCloud in action: If you take a picture with your iPhone, by the time you pick up your iPad or fire up your Apple laptop, the photo is already there. The same goes for much of your data, such as contacts and bookmarks: A single change on one device means all devices are updated.

In Mountain Lion, Apple engineers have taken this syncing a step further with Documents in the Cloud (for apps like TextEdit that have been updated to access the option). Open/Save dialog boxes now feature an iCloud/On My Mac option.

When On My Mac is selected, the dialog box shows the name of the application you're using, the current folder you're in and the Spotlight search field. View options for the file system are at the bottom of the dialog box along with a row of buttons that includes the following: New Document; the Share button, which allows you to share the document through email, AirDrop or Messages; and to the right, the standard Cancel and Open/Save buttons.

When iCloud is selected, the navigation view becomes about as simple as it gets: A pictorial representation of your documents ordered by recent edits on the gray linen background that first appeared in iOS. As a matter of fact, the entire view is lifted wholesale from iOS, down to the ability to drag documents on top of one another to create folders.

Unlike in iOS, however, Open/Save's appearance can be changed from an icon view to a standard list view. If you want to add documents to iCloud, you can drag them directly to this window. Doing so makes that document available to every device you own that's connected to iCloud.

How is using iCloud in practice? I like it. I composed the notes for this review in the Notes app, writing parts of it on my Mac, iPhone and iPad over several days. It's clear that Apple is giving iCloud a serious push, and with more than 125 million users already, the service has strong brand recognition and an established base.

Yes, iCloud simplifies the traditional file system, something that can be maddening for more technical users; but I think the simplicity and ease of use far outweigh arguments for a direct file-system access, especially for casual users. Having my documents available on all my devices (as long as I have an Internet connection) is great, to say nothing of the fact that files remain safe even if a computer is lost or stolen.

This isn't really new territory these days, though the sheer scale and ambition behind it may be unprecedented. Similar cloud services like Dropbox already exist, but Apple's iCloud has the advantage of being built into OS X and iOS. As third-party app developers tie into the system, it can only become more valuable.

Easy presentations

One of my favorite features of iOS is its ability to beam video and audio directly from an iPhone or an iPad to a high-def TV with a connected AppleTV. With the arrival of AirPlay mirroring in OS X, any videos, games, music, pictures, presentations, podcasts and apps -- literally, anything that's on your computer -- can be broadcast wirelessly to an AppleTV, in HD and 5.1 surround sound at the push of a button and with no configuration needed.

In Mountain Lion, AirPlay mirroring is built in as a system service. Frankly, it's about time. Previously, the feature was limited to iTunes, which has been able to push video and audio to AppleTV for a while.

AirPlay is set up in the Display preferences panel.

When in range of a Wi-Fi network with a connected AppleTV, you can configure the Display preferences to automatically show the familiar AirPlay menu in the menu bar. Within a few seconds of activating, the Mac will automatically push all audio and video to your HDTV.

Full-screen apps are displayed gorgeously on a 1080p television, as is video and even some games I tested, though there is a slight lag between the time you move the cursor on your computer screen and when the movement shows up on your TV. Although mouse/trackpad movements, scrolling and animations are smooth, you'll notice about a quarter-second delay, something that gamers might care about.

With AirPlay, videos and audio tracks play smoothly within their app windows, such as within Safari or QuickTime. Pressing the full screen button maximizes the video so it takes over the TV, as it should. iTunes behaves differently, however. When I attempted to play a video within the iTunes window, it transmitted the video and audio to the AppleTV, but unlike other apps, the controls remained onscreen on the Mac, even though AirPlay was set to mirror everything.

Basically, if you try to use iTunes to play content, iTunes slips into Presentation Mode behavior rather than exactly mirroring what's on your Mac display. (Apple's own presentation app, Keynote, mirrors the screen like all other non-iTunes apps.)

Why is AirPlay sharing a big deal? First, it's a boon for presenters: Setup is a snap, and the mirroring works as billed. Much has been written about Apple's efforts to work out deals with TV programming providers to get their content into the iTunes store. With AirPlay mirroring, that's no longer necessary. If a TV show is available online and can be played on a Mac, AirPlay allows you to also watch it on your TV, content deals be damned. AirPlay has the potential to be a huge deal.

Notifications

Another feature combo brought over from iOS involves notifications and the Notification Center. One of the more annoying aspects of OS X is the way applications try to get your attention. Sometimes it's by way of icons jumping in the Dock, other times it's through alert windows. Clearly something better was needed. Although the Growl app attempted to fill the void, displaying customizable alerts for apps that supported it, the Mac platform really needed a systemwide service.

In iOS 3, Apple introduced a push notifications service to handle app messages. Then, in iOS 5, the company organized app messages with the Notification Center, the repository for banner alerts. Since the arrival of iOS 3, 1.5 trillion push notifications have been sent through Apple's servers. Scott Forestall, senior vice president of iOS software at Apple, bragged at WWDC that 7 billion alerts are being processed each and every day. It was inevitable that Apple would add this feature to OS X. With Mountain Lion, notifications are on the Mac.

Like Growl alerts, notifications show up on the upper right part of your screen. As in iOS, these notifications can be customized to appear as banners -- which slide from the menu bar and hang around for a few seconds before slinking off to screen right -- or alerts, which must be manually dismissed.

The Notifications preferences panel is where users select which apps use the feature and decide how alerts should be displayed on-screen.

To the absolute right of the menu bar, in the spot previously occupied by Spotlight, is the icon representing the new Notification Area. Pressing this button, or swiping on a trackpad from right to left with two fingers, reveals an area hidden "under" the desktop where recent notifications are stored.

From here, you can view all system and application notifications, and even compose tweets -- as long as the Share button has been enabled in the Notifications preferences panel. (Facebook integration is coming this fall, no doubt in tandem with iOS 6, which will also get this feature.)

In the lower right of the Notifications area is a small icon that launches the Notifications preferences panel, so you can customize how individual app notifications behave. As in iOS, you have a few options: You decide whether notifications should show up as banners, alerts or not at all; you pick the number of recent items you want to see displayed; you decide whether alerts should also display badges on an app icon; and you determine whether sounds should play when notifications arrive. And there may be app-specific options as well.

One of the most embarrassing aspects of giving presentations is the fact that your life can unexpectedly pop up on-screen for all to see if you're not careful. Thankfully, notifications can be turned off right from the Notification Center: Scroll up and you'll see the option to toggle it on/off. Or you can hold down the Option key while clicking the Notifications icon in the menu bar. Even better: When you connect your Mac to a projector, Notification Center turns off automatically.

The Notification Center in Mountain Lion works better than it does in iOS, simply because the onscreen elements are perfectly sized for mouse clicks. It sometimes takes a lot of taps to hit the X to close in the iOS version. But the Notification Center in OS X doesn't display widgets like weather and stocks as it does in iOS. (They're still limited to the Dashboard.) Apple could make the Notification Center even more robust in the future by adding information from widgets and perhaps consolidating download and file transfer progress information.

Mail

Apple's Mail app gets a few notable improvements, including notification support, inline search for words and phrases, and the optional escalation of selected contacts to "VIP status." Visually, things looks pretty much the same as before, save for a few tweaks. The threaded view now automatically displays replies, something that was hidden in Lion, though it was an option. And clicking the top of the email list scrolls the list to the top, similar to the tap-to-scroll behavior in iOS.

Behind the scenes, though, Mail now syncs a variety of settings -- such as favorites, account information, recent senders, mail rules and preferences, and smart mailboxes -- to iCloud. If you have more than one Mac, that means if you set up Mail on one, all the information is synced with the others when logged into iCloud. Nice and easy.

If there are special people in your life, you can now make them VIPs; their emails will go into a smart mailbox aptly named VIP. And you can adjust Mail notifications to only alert you when you get emails from your VIPs. How do you make someone a VIP? Hover the cursor near his name in Mail and a star will appear: Click that star. Or you can right-click the name and select VIP.

Mail, while nice, still has its share of flaws, many of which have been part of the app for years. Emails that have been read sometimes still show up as unread, and only quitting and relaunching Mail remedies that; sometimes the names listed in the To: field appear jumbled; and Apple's Junk Mail filter doesn't work anywhere near as well as it did when introduced years ago. One would think these issues would have been eliminated by now. One would be wrong.

Safari and Web browsing

Safari, Apple's Web browser, gets its share of improvements with Version 6 in Mountain Lion. The search and address bars have been consolidated into a single bar that does the job of both. Once you start typing in the new bar, Safari tries to help out by listing suggestions from your bookmarks, browsing history and Google searches.

To the right of this unified address/search bar sits the always-present Reader button. This feature reformats the Web content for easier reading by removing ads and superfluous images and by consolidating multipage stories into one -- it isn't new, but it gains a bit more prominence by being integrated with the address/search bar as a bright blue button.

To the left of the address bar, Safari gets a new Share button that allows you to add a Web page to the Reading List for later viewing, add a bookmark, email a Web page, send a URL via Messages or tweet a link.

Next to the Share button is a feature Apple calls iCloud Tabs. It consolidates all of the browsing sessions on all of your devices using one button and allows on-the-fly access to whatever you were reading on your current device. For instance, if you were reading a Web page on your laptop at home, you could pick up where you left off on your iMac at work. Eventually, when iOS 6 rolls out, this functionality will be expanded to the iPhone and the iPad.

Reading List has become decidedly more useful. To add your current page to Reading List, click on the Share button and choose Add To Reading List. A link will then leap into the Reading List icon -- the icon looks like a pair of eyeglasses -- and the Reading List icon will become a small progress bar, before returning to the normal black glasses icon when the sync is complete.

Using the "pinch" gesture, you can shrink tabbed windows in Safari and scroll between them by swiping left or right with two fingers.

One issue I had with Lion was that Reading List didn't save stories for offline viewing; in Mountain Lion, it does. Using iCloud, stories you save in Reading List are available for offline reading on your other Macs, a feature that will also be extended to the iPad and the iPhone in a future update.

Apple boasts that Safari has a much faster JavaScript rendering engine than previous versions; the browser does, indeed, feel fast. That peppiness can also be attributed to the fact that Safari has hardware acceleration, and scrolling feels much more responsive. (Apple now allows websites to access Notification Center; we'll see how many take advantage of that feature -- and what they do with it.)

Safari's Preferences now has a Passwords panel, so if you ever forget your password for a website, you can find out what it was by entering your Mac account's password. Privacy settings allow you to ask websites not to track you and you can stop search engines from providing suggestions.

Finally, Safari features a nifty "pinch" gesture in Mountain Lion. If you use the pinch-to-close gesture with multiple tabs open, the gesture will shrink the current Web page to a Cover Flow-type image, and you can swipe left and right between your tabs using two fingers. It's a more graphical way of moving between tabs.

It's not all good news for Safari fans, though. This version of the browser no longer has a built-in RSS reader. If you try to connect to an RSS feed, you get a prompt to search the Mac App Store for alternative readers. I've been an avid RSS user in Safari and was initially disappointed with the change. I ended up buying the RSS reader called Reeder, and I recommend it for other RSS fans.

A more secure OS X

The trick to making a system secure is finding the right balance between limiting access to detrimental processes while maintaining as much freedom of choice as possible. In iOS, there's a reason Apple locks down what apps can be installed on an iPhone, iPad or iPod, but funneling all installations through an Apple-approved channel wouldn't work on the desktop. Or would it?

Currently, you can install and run programs on OS X from anywhere, and you'll receive just one warning that untrusted downloads can be harmful, and that warning will appear only during a program's first run. The Mac App Store alleviated most fears about potentially harmful software, since Apple has to approve any digital wares sold there. In Mountain Lion, Apple has come up with what seems like a fairly logical compromise between a Wild West download world and a total lockdown. That compromise is called Gatekeeper.

Apple's Gatekeeper feature allows a user to limit what apps can run in OS X.

Gatekeeper embodies a new security paradigm in which you pick one of three types of security modes for OS X. The first allows apps downloaded from anywhere to run -- it's an option literally called Anywhere, and it can be found in the "Allow applications downloaded from:" section of the Security preferences panel. This will let your Mac behave as it has in the past, with app installations from any source allowed with the proper permissions at a user's discretion.

The second option allows apps to be installed only if they come from the "Mac App Store and identified developers." This allows digitally-signed apps to run on your Mac. Because apps must be digitally signed, Apple can revoke privileges for troublesome apps and track down the responsible parties, since each signature is unique. Applications that aren't signed won't run in OS X when this mode is enabled.

The last option only allows apps downloaded from the Mac App Store to install or run. That's as self-explanatory -- and secure -- as you can get.

I ran into Gatekeeper when installing a new version of Parallels. Mountain Lion stopped the process, said I didn't have the security rights, and told me to go to the System Preferences and change the install options. To change security options requires an administrator username and password, and once I changed the setting to allow installs from anywhere, Parallels loaded up just fine.

As more apps become "Gatekeeper aware," concerns about malware or installing from untrusted sources may be something IT departments can stop worrying about regarding their Macs. But that will take time.

As another security measure, Mountain Lion disables Adobe Flash if it sees that it's not the latest version. Users can then download the update from Adobe's site. Java is a separate download as well. If any of your apps need it, you'll be prompted to download it; it's an easy install through Software Update.

There are a few other additions to OS X's security, including these: kernel ASLR, which arranges kernel components in memory arbitrarily, making it more difficult for attackers to divert kernel functions for their purposes by calling known memory addresses; sandboxing, which isolates applications from one another; and enhancements to the built-in disk encryption system called FileVault, including the ability to encrypt mounted volumes via right-click menu in Finder.

Mountain Lion is also now in the process of being certified for the government security standard FIPS 140-2.

A little more iOS

In Mountain Lion, iOS continues its influence on built-in applications. For instance, Address Book and iCal have had their names changed to Contacts and Calendars, respectively. A rose by any other name is still a rose, and, while the functionality of these apps remains the same, the updated names provide consistency across Apple products.

Contacts has been updated to include a third view option, which shows the contacts source, such as Exchange or iCloud; before, the contacts source could be viewed by clicking Address Book's red bookmark. The change makes the source list a little easier to access.

Sharing information from the Address Book used to launch an email client; in Mountain Lion, Contacts sports a Share sheet, which allows email, Messages and AirDrop sharing from within the app. Also, if you have the same contact with different information across multiple services -- say, a contact has an email address in Exchange, but the same contact has a phone number in iCloud -- the Contacts app merges them into one entry for easier reference.

Calendar, like Contacts, now displays the source list inline instead of as a pop-up. It has also received a few tweaks, including better search, Notification Center support, and a more refined way to select dates when making new entries.

The Notes app now allows you to pin notes to your desktop and share notes among devices using iCloud.

In earlier versions of OS X, Notes was part of the Mail program. Now, in yet another cue from iOS, it is a stand-alone application. Like Notes in iOS, the Mountain Lion version also automatically syncs using iCloud, making sure your devices stay up to date with all your notes.

Notes has also learned a few tricks that make it a more powerful tool, including the ability to pin notes to your desktop (just double-click the note and it'll open in its own window); full-screen support; rich text support with (finally) more font choices; support for drag-and-drop hyperlinks; a built-in Sharing button; and organization via folders. Searching within Notes is improved, too, and you can build lists with bulleted items. You can also add images and attachments to your Notes, but those don't (yet) show up properly in their iOS counterparts.

The Reminders app makes the move from iOS to OS X as well, and like Calendar, Contacts and Notes, it automatically syncs with iCloud, keeping your devices all on the same page. Like the mobile version, the desktop app can access Location Services, which means that you can set Reminders to alert you when you arrive or leave a specified location. Gesture support allows you to swipe between lists in single-column view. And as with other Apple apps, support for Notification Center is built in.

Messages

In Mountain Lion, iChat has been supplanted by Messages, which now allows you to go beyond simple instant messaging and communicate with anyone who has an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch running iOS 5. Because Messages supports iCloud, it's also possible to begin a conversation on one device and then continue it on another.

Like most messaging apps, Messages allows you to send text, videos and images to others using AIM, Yahoo, Jabber and Google Talk -- and you can send text messages to phone numbers. As you type in the name of the person you want to chat with, their information (from Contacts) pops up, allowing you to designate which service email or phone number to use. Also supported: delivery and read receipts, searchable message contents, full-screen views, access to Notifications and, last but not least, FaceTime video.

The main Messages window shows a list of conversations to the left and the conversations themselves to the right.

The main Messages window shows a list of conversations to the left (displaying time stamp, last message sent, user avatar and the name for each person in the list).

Below this list is the online/offline status for each service you're logged into, plus the ability to set your Away or Available status. To the right is the main conversation window, where you'll see a little camera icon in the upper right-hand corner where you initiate FaceTime calls. It's all pretty straightforward.

I use Messages all the time, so believe me when I say this: Messages is not Apple at its finest. Even though the build number for Messages is Version 7.0, this program still acts like a beta app. The main Messages window is obnoxiously, unnecessarily large, even when made as small as possible.

More annoying: Messages you send don't always make it to all devices. That might be acceptable if you're using just AIM or Yahoo, but Messages also lists a contact's phone number and email addresses.

If you send a message to a phone number associated with iMessages, only the person's phone gets the text. A message sent to an Apple ID- or iCloud-associated email address, however, does go to every device. If you're not careful about how you're sending your messages, the recipient may not receive it on all devices, even though the information is correctly associated with iCloud and Messages.

Considering Apple's reputation for attention to detail -- and the fact that Messages has been a public beta since February -- these issues should have been sorted out by now.

Dictation

For the first time, real speech-to-text dictation is built right into the Mac. Although the Mac OS has been capable of understanding voice commands via the customizable Speakable Items since the mid-1990s, the addition of Dictation now allows you to write with your voice. Best of all, it works!

Dictation can be activated anywhere text entry is used. By default, a double-tap of the function key brings up a sight familiar to iPhone 4S users: the Siri microphone. Simply wait for the tone, then begin speaking a sentence out loud; that's all there is to it. When you're finished dictating, just press the Done button or hit the function key again. In fact, this was dictated without any keyboard input. I'm starting to think I should do this more often.

If allowed access to Contacts, Dictation also recognizes names. The limitation? Dictation requires a network connection, just as Siri does on the iPhone 4S; attempting to activate it offline just causes the Dictation box to shake a sideways "no" at you. Also, Dictation is not at all the same thing as Siri. You may be able to write with your voice, as I'm doing now, but you can't use the service to answer questions.

The Dictation preferences panel is used to turn on the new feature and designate the keys that will be used to trigger it in various apps.

Changes to System Preferences

There are some new settings in the System Preferences area that are noteworthy. In the General preferences panel, you can now choose how apps act when they're re-opened. The option "Ask to keep changes when closing documents" brings back the traditional OS X behavior where you're prompted to save a document before closing an app. If you're annoyed by the Autosave feature introduced in Lion, this option will do the trick.

Below that, there's another option to reverse a behavior introduced in Lion. Selecting "Close windows when quitting an application" means that when you re-open an app, all of the windows that were open when you last used it won't be restored.

The Desktop & Screen Saver preferences panel includes several gorgeous new desktop wallpapers, and there are new slideshow themes in Screen Saver. The Security & Privacy preferences panel is where Gatekeeper options are located (under the General tab); the Privacy tab shows you which apps have access to some of your information, such as Location Services and Contacts.

The Desktop and Screen Saver preferences panel shows a variety of new desktop wallpapers. (A few non-Apple desktop images are included in the mix here.)

In yet another nod to iOS, there's now a consolidated Mail, Contacts & Calendars preferences panel. From this one location, you can sign in to services such as iCloud, Exchange, Yahoo, Gmail, AOL, Vimeo, Flickr and Twitter. You can also add IMAP and POP mail accounts, CalDAV accounts, CarDAV accounts and LDAP accounts, among others, and support for Chinese localizations. Once the account is created, you can then customize various options for it.

The Speech preferences panel is now known as Dictation & Speech. (Speakable Items has been relocated to the Accessibility preferences panel.) This is where you turn Dictation on and off, set the keyboard shortcut used to trigger the service and adjust which language Dictation uses.

Time Machine now allows backups to multiple locations. That means you can have a backup disk at home and a separate one at work, and perform backups to both.

The software update tool now allows OS X to install system data files and security updates automatically, a response to the recent uptick in malware aimed at Macs. And you can now tell OS X that apps bought through the Mac App Store should automatically be downloaded to other Macs that share your AppleID.

Software update now allows Mountain Lion to install system data files and security updates automatically.

More changes

In addition to the major changes noted above, there are a slew of minor tweaks throughout OS X designed to improve usability in a variety of ways. They include the following:

  • In Dashboard, you'll find it easier to add and delete widgets, and find new ones you might like. Hitting the small plus sign in the lower left-hand corner of the Dashboard window brings up a new widget view based on Launch Pad, and clicking More Widgets whisks you away to Apple's Dashboard Widgets site.
  • The new Game Center consolidates game ranking and leader board stats, achievements, social components such as in-game voice chat, and game recommendations in a single location. It also links to your Apple ID, allowing you to challenge players to games, even if they're on a Mac and you're on an iOS device, like an iPod Touch or an iPad. Game Center also supports Parental Controls and Notifications.
  • Accidentally pulling items out of the Dock is much harder in Mountain Lion, because you have to click and drag the app icon -- and keep it out of the Dock longer -- before it's deleted.
  • You can rename documents using the title bar. Hovering your mouse over a document title brings up a small triangle, which can be clicked to reveal a drop-down menu with several options, including rename. You can also add documents to iCloud by clicking on the document name and selecting "Move to."
  • Launchpad can be searched using the magnifying glass at the top of the screen.
  • The App Store has built-in support for Notification Center, and alerts you when an app, or Mountain Lion itself, needs to be updated.
  • When using the built-in high-definition export settings, QuickTime X encoding is now hardware-accelerated.
  • OS X's built-in screen-sharing feature now supports drag-and-drop file copying.
  • Finally, if you own a recent MacBook Air or a Retina display MacBook Pro, you get a new feature known as Power Nap. It allows your Mac to receive emails, notifications and updates even when it's sleeping. Power Nap even does Time Machine backups and software downloads while retaining battery life.

The Dashboard gains flexibility, allowing users to more easily manage the widgets they have -- and to find new ones.

Final thoughts

In the time I've spent with Mountain Lion, I only experienced one crash where it did not wake from sleep, although Parallels had problems in Coherence mode. That's a reminder that, despite being built on a decade of experience, Mountain Lion is a v1.0 product and some software will need to be updated to work correctly.

For users with production-critical machines, it may make sense to delay upgrades for a bit. For most users, however, there's no real reason not to take the plunge. Certainly, pricing shouldn't be an issue; this is the cheapest OS X update ever.

Other than those couple of glitches, everything worked as expected. Mountain Lion was as speedy as its predecessor. Battery life remains consistent with earlier versions of OS X. An annoying bug that caused problems reconnecting to Wi-Fi after waking from sleep seems to be fixed. The new additions are well implemented, and the ability to access data and files across all your devices makes this upgrade a no-brainer.

Mountain Lion continues the trend of cross-pollination between iOS and OS X, as Apple cherry-picks features that can logically enhance the functionality of whichever hardware you use, be it desktop or mobile. In contrast to Microsoft's one-OS-fits-all plan for Windows 8, OS X remains distinct from iOS.

As I noted when Mountain Lion first appeared back in February: What Apple is doing with this new operating system is creating a consistent ecosystem to unify your digital world, from media creation to distribution to viewing and sharing. It's designed to make sure your data and files are with you on whatever device or computer you're using, wherever you are. That's what makes this release so important: It takes OS X where computing really needs to go: toward a world of unified data and interface consistency.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter ( @mdeagonia).

Read more about mac os x in Computerworld's Mac OS X Topic Center.

2 Comments

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