First Look: Apple OS X Mountain Lion

You always hear about the lion roaring, about the big noise the big cat makes, but you never really hear about the mountain lion. It is more of a reclusive animal, and it is fair to say that Apple’s OS X Mountain Lion takes a lot of cues from its namesake. It is more a subtle change to how you work your Mac than something that needs to roar to make itself heard. 

We’ve been living with the new OS, due out in the summer, for the past couple of weeks to see how it works and whether or not it will change our desktops forever. 

Developers preview

We’ve been playing with the developers' preview of OS X Mountain Lion before we get a chance to play with the full version later in the year. Don't worry, we have a plan to bring you a full review too, covering all the features inside and out. 

It is called a developers' preview because many things won’t have been locked down, some things don’t even work, and parts of the software could change, be adapted, removed, or even new features added. 

In our testing since the preview code was released on the 16 February we’ve not had a single crash and things have gone pretty smoothly, but we wanted to add that caveat and explain that we're not testing a finished OS here, and we suspect there are lots of changes still to come. 

Twitter

Apple likes Twitter, there's no denying that. Its seat as the defacto social networking client on the iPad and iPhone proves it. And now, Twitter is the social networking client of choice on OS X too and it makes sense. Sign in once, and then you can quickly share content whenever you see the "quick share" button in an app. That can be from the desktop by right clicking on a picture, in Safari, or even a link in Mail.

Apple Mac OS X Lion: What’s new?

When you do find something that you want to Tweet, clicking the share button brings up a very similar interface to that on iOS. You can add location and type your status message, but we would have also liked it to  add the title of the page automaticallyto speed things up when sharing web links. This is really necessary in Safari, for example, where you can’t go back to the page you were on to grab a headline or quote without canceling the Tweet. Infuriating! 

Share

It is not just Twitter that you can share to quickly using Mountain Lion. Vimeo, Flickr, AirDrop and Messages are all available options as well. 

Everything now has a share menu associated to it. Mountain Lion automatically works out what the file is and where you might want to share it. Pictures for example get a Flickr share option while videos get a Vimeo one. If you have accounts with either of those services you punch your details in via the account panel in system preferences and it works across the whole OS. It’s easy, works like a charm, and we can see that all services included (note the lack of Google) will reap the rewards come launch day. Sharing just got a whole lot easier.

Is there room for improvement? Of course - on the desktop the Share option is buried within the menu and that needs to be fixed. And so do the available services: Apple might not get on with Facebook, but it would be nice for it to be included too, as would YouTube support

Notifications 

You’re busy, we all are, so thankfully in Mountain Lion you’ll be able to keep track of what is going on with a new notification panel while you work. Sliding out from the side of the screen, the notifications work in a similar way to how they do on iOS, but instead of being tracked from the top, they are dragged in from the side. For iMac users it's by pressing a new circle icon at the top right of the screen and for MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro users by a new two finger gesture. 

Doing so shoots in the new column allowing you quickly to see notifications from the apps that support it. For the Mountain Lion developer preview that's Game Center, Calendar, Reminders, Safari, Mail, Messages, and App Store (updates and the such like). 

Like the third-party app Growl, you can also set the system to display a small banner or alert if you are looking out for something special. All the apps can be individually set as to whether you want to be bothered all the time or just in Notifications, and Mail even goes as far as letting you set whether you want new message notifications to be for just the Inbox, just those in your contacts list, all mailboxes, just email from today, or a new feature called VIPs. 

Just like notifications on the iPad or iPhone you’ll either love the ability to quickly glance at what is going on in your life or find it yet another intrusion. You can’t currently turn it all off quickly if you want to zone out on a set task, like you can just close Mail, and if you are in full-screen app mode you’ll still get the alerts - which if you use Growl, you will know can be annoying. 

Having now played with the spilt panel feature in Windows 8 Consumer Preview we would love for the Notifications panel to have the ability for it to be locked in place, allowing you to get all the relevant information when in full-screen mode working in Pages or browsing the web. It’s something we’ve already found ourselves manually doing with our desktop real estate with a Skype window or Twitter window, and this would formalise that process. 

iCloud

Apple is betting that if you own a Mac the chances are you own an iPhone, an iPad and/or an iPod touch. You like the experience and you want your computer to do many things that the your phone or tablet does too. So it has integrated the desktop into its cloud service iCloud as much as possible. Save something in Pages - Apple's word processing app - and the file is instantly saved so you can access it not only on your desktop, but also on your iPad or iPhone straight away, and up-to-date. 

But it isn’t just Pages that takes advantage of this new connected eco-system but other apps as well. In the setup process you are asked for your Apple ID. If you have one, the system will import your bookmarks, contacts, mail, iMessage details and messages, your notes, your photos, and your reminders from your iDevice ready for you to hit the ground running. It makes a big difference, and will appeal to those who don’t want to faff with lengthy setup procedures. If you are already living in the Apple universe all you need is your email address and password and you're off and that is going to appeal to a lot of people. 

Messages

Messages is Apple’s desktop version of iMessage which is basically Apple’s version of BlackBerry Messenger - a free way to send text messages. 

The long and short of it is that you can now send text messages (with video and pictures up to 100MB) to other Apple users regardless of whether they are on their iPhone, iPad, or the desktop.

The Messages app is simple to use and focused around conversations, rather than buddy lists, and as long as your mates also use the same service there will be plenty of people to talk to. In conversations with various people over the past couple of weeks we’ve found the system works really well and is really fast. Fast enough to have an almost instant conversation with them - but if your friends aren’t on iPhone or iPad or Mac Mountain Lion users you won’t touch it. 

Reminders and Notes

Two apps for which you don’t have to rely on others having an Apple device are Reminders and Notes, although to get the best out of them, you need to use Apple devices. 

Notes breaks out of the Mail app and lets you make, er, notes that can be instantly shared with your iOS device. If you are one of those people who constantly sends yourself emails on things you are thinking about, not just things you need to do, then this works well. Bringing it out of Mail gives it its own relevance and doesn’t mean your note will be buried under a thousand emails, which is certainly the case with us. 

Reminders, as you can imagine, are a way of reminding you to get the milk on the way home, or take the dog for a walk. The benefit of having your computer and your phone connected this way is that, regardless of what medium you are working on, you can make a reminder. You don’t have to stop what you are doing, get your phone out and jot down the reminder, you just add it to the Mountain Lion app. Everything is sync’ed - meaning that as soon as you knock it off one list it disappears off another. People who live by the "Getting Things Done" school of thought are going to love it. 

Mail 6.0

The biggest new element to Mail is VIPs, allowing you to star your favourite or most-important people and create a separate inbox for them. This means you can quickly see their latest messages - aside from your main inbox, that, no doubt constantly overflows. RSS controls within Preferences is now gone too.

Safari 5.2

OS X Mountain Lion sees a new Safari and a couple of new changes here to enjoy. The biggest one you’ll notice straight away is the inclusion of a single URL and search bar - so it now looks like Chrome. 

That’s a bonus for a number of reasons, mainly that typing in a search into the URL bar no longer presents you with a “can’t understand” error message but results from Google instead. 

There are other small changes too. URLs in the URL bar are now greyed out apart from the main url. Anything before the first slash is black, anything after is greyed out and almost impossible to see. Apple is saying you don’t need to be worried with the boring file structure of websites so we won’t bother showing you. For most we suspect they won’t even notice, but if you do, you’ll probably give a knowing smile of how the internet is constantly changing. 

While the URL gets swept under the carpet, the Reader button gets shoved in front of everything. It’s a big blue button that is now going to get pressed a lot more, especially if you are into long-form copy like this review - although it still isn’t perfect in reading pages. 

The final big new element is the introduction of a share button that lets you share any page on the internet quickly via Twitter, email, message, save it to your reading list, or bookmark it. 

Of the five, three are current links, but improved. The ability to Tweet pages without having to hunt down the bird icon on a webpage should make a massive difference over using Twitter on the desktop. Namely by saving you lots of time in copying the url, pasting it in a third-party client and then pressing send. Now it is almost instant, and for Twitter fans that’s got to be a win-win.

Safari gets other minimal updates too. The tabs now emulate the iPad Safari browser experience with wide tabs that fill the window rather than small ones as currently in Lion. As always with Apple it's all about the little details. It’s all about making you feel like you’ve seen it somewhere before (your iPad in this case) and that according to Apple makes you feel comfortable. 

Apps 

Apps as you might expect continue to play centre stage in OS X Mountain Lion and that means greater protection for you and a more conscious shift by Apple to make developers move towards the Apple Mac App Store. 

In Mountain Lion that means a new behind-the-scenes feature that is asking developers to become a part of a digital key system so that users can block apps that don’t have the key. Called Gatekeeper, it is clever stuff, but boring in terms of how you will use it. All you will care about is the ability to install or not install apps based on three options buried in the system preferences panel.

Download and install apps only from the App Store, only from trusted developers, or live life on the edge and do what you want. The best way to think about it is like safe search on Google, that restricts your results, but turning it off means that you could get a load of results that you really don’t want to see. 

Game Center

Apple has never been that strong a contender when it comes to games, but with the iPhone and iPad enjoying so much gaming popularity it is hoping some of that success will rub off on to the desktop. 

That means Games Center comes to the Mac so you can either play against your iPad or iPhone touting mates or merely use it to check your achievements and the such like. 

Sadly we haven’t been able to try this out on our Mountain Lion install in the office. However we have seen it in action, thanks to a demo Apple gave Pocket-lint at a behind-closed-doors, one-to-one briefing in New York. Apple showed us how iPad users will, in the future, be able to play games such as Reckless Racing 2 against Mac desktop users - even though they are on two different operating systems and two very different devices.

In our demo of Game Center running on Mountain Lion we were shown two gamers playing against each other, both connected via Game Center over a standard Wi-Fi connection. Apple was keen to point out that the two devices don't need to be on the same wireless connection or even near each other. 

It works in the same way as multiplayer gaming does already with Game Center on the iPad, iPod, and iPhone and we could easily see it becoming popular with games like Words with Friends. We like it a lot. 

AirPlay Mirroring

Just like the AirPlay feature on your iPad or iPhone, Apple is letting OS X users get in on the whole sharing your screen to your TV screen act. Although you will need an Apple TV plugged in. 

The difference here however is rather than your being restricted to certain apps, Apple lets you share the entire screen. That’s going to be great if you are giving a presentation in your boardroom and you can waltz in with your computer and not then spend 10 minutes trying to find the cable. And at home too, it will stop arguments while you sit on the sofa wanting to share something on your TV for the rest of your household to see too. 

The downside to all of this is that Apple hasn’t implemented in as good a way as we would have liked. Although, like everything in this preview, that could change come launch. At the moment, as the name suggests, it's all about mirroring the screen rather than expanding desktop. So, what you get are two screens blurting out the same content, be that a game, a video, or just the web. In practice we found you have to turn your laptop screen brightness down to off, or be distracted. 

Also frustrating is that you need to have your laptop open for it to work, and that currently the Apple TV only supports 720p streaming rather than 1080p (at time of writing). 

Overall though, it is a welcome feature, and one that we can see many users, who also have an Apple TV of course, using more that some of the other features.

Enhanced, refreshed, but still annoyances

With something as big as an operating system there are always niggles and annoyances that you have and that you hope will be fixed next time an update comes. For us plenty of those niggles have been fixed. 

Now, searching Launchpad so you can quickly search for your apps is possible too. And while it doesn’t make it as easy as in the Windows 8 to search - where you start typing the name of the app - it makes a big difference. Whether apps are in folders or not, as soon as you start typing the list of apps narrows down, letting you find what you need quickly and efficiently. We would really like to see it where you just type rather than having to load Launchpad and then type. 

Elsewhere there is greater location control in the privacy settings allowing you let certain apps know where you are, and manage what you want to let them know and what you don’t. Just like location on phones, Tweeting from your laptop from somewhere you aren’t supposed to be could get you in trouble, so it is nice that you can turn it off.

On the dislikes we still aren't sure why Apple insists on using a graphic interface of faux leather or ripped paper in apps like Calendar and compared to Windows 8 Metro design this is starting to look kooky. The nostalgic throw-backs to a yesteryear era of Moleskine notepads just doesn't work any more. If I want a Moleskine, I'll buy a Moleskine. People buy Apple products because the hardware design is cutting edge, and for us the interface needs to reflect this better. Apple software designers reading this - you really are better than faux ripped paper. 

Verdict

Apple has created a desktop operating system that moves towards the same experience many have on their iPad or iPhone. The names of apps are now the same, iCal becomes Calendar, and that's just the start. Mountain Lion is a slow movement though to a complete transition rather than Microsoft’s approach with Windows 8 that is very much a head-first ordeal. 

Having now played with both the Windows 8 Consumer Preview and OS X Mountain Lion extensively over the past couple of weeks, what's fascinating is that both are gunning for the same finish line, but with at times, very different approaches. 

Apple’s approach here is to make those who already use the company’s iPhone and iPad devices feel very much at home and connected to the Apple eco-system. The connected apps are very clever and really play to Apple’s strengths. 

Where Mountain Lion gets complicated however is the mishmash of desktop, dashboard, Launchpad, Mission Control, Spaces and now notifications, leaving many, we suspect, confused as to where or what they are supposed to be doing. It's here that Windows 8’s Start page works so well and is a far more intuitive experience for managing everything in one place. 

As for Mac OS X users who are looking to upgrade from OS X Lion, Snow Leopard or even before that, there is a lot here that you will benefit from. We like the AirPlay Mirroring, we like Notifications, and we like the new features in Safari, but we do feel that if you don’t have another Apple device, be it the iPhone, iPad, or even Apple TV you will feel that you aren’t getting that many new features in this upgrade. 

There are plenty of new features of course, but without that eco-system, apps like Reminders just won’t be used. 

This is Apple continuing to join the dots, the Empire Strikes Back, if you will, between OS X Lion, and whatever comes next. 

If you are looking for the almost crazy leap of faith that Microsoft has taken with Windows 8 you won’t get it here but, rest assured, you are unlikely to be disappointed either. 



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