Apple OS X Mountain Lion

Mountain Lion is Apple's latest operating system and according to Apple heralds a new dawn in computing. Costing just £13.99, the question is not why should you upgrade, but what shiny new features will you get? We've been living with the full retail version of the software for the last week, and the developer preview since February to find out.

The main focus here has been to create 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 for example, and that's just the start. 

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

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. 

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. In places the apps are joined like Notes and Reminders, directly with your iPhone's apps; in others, it is the same terminology, the same approach. The connected apps are very clever and really play to Apple’s strengths. 

Take dictation, for example. Now with a double press of the function key you can speak to your computer. While we suspect you won't start dictating letters to the bank manager, you will start using it for more mundane features like tweeting, or replying to quick emails. In the months we've been using the feature in a quiet office, we certainly have used our voices more than ever. 

Then there is a completely new feature called Power Nap that will let you continue to download your emails, calendar appointments, and app updates even when your laptop is shut - as long as you are using a MacBook Air (2011 or newer or the new Retina MacBook Pro). For those who take their computer with them to work every day it's a clever move and saves that "must sync everything before I head out the door" moments you no doubt have on a daily basis. 

But for all its tweaks and enhancements, Mountain Lion still suffers from many of the fundamental frustrations found in previous versions. There is still Apple's persistence to hark back to the devices the computer replaces. The new Notes app features faux ripped paper, as does Calendar. Even the login screen features some faux canvas-like finish. Considering there is nothing quaint about the metal-clad devices Apple puts the software on, this disconnect is getting old and boring. 

But it’s not just the UI that will get your goat. As Apple introduces more and more ways to get to the different elements of the applications you use, the mishmash of desktop, dashboard, Launchpad, Mission Control, Spaces and now notifications, will leave many, we suspect, confused as to where or what they are supposed to be doing. On the company's phone operating system it's Apple's way, or the highway. Here, it seems, you can take the low road, the scenic route, the motorway, and/or plenty of other options in between. 

In contrast Windows 8’s Start page features a clean look and more direct approach - whether you like it or not. 

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 from which you'll benefit. We like the AirPlay mirroring, we like the 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 you aren’t getting that many new features in this upgrade as you would have perhaps liked. 

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

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. 

That's a quick overview, but what are some of the new features that you should be getting excited about?

Notifications 

On the iPad and iPhone users are bombarded with a series of notifications from apps, email, Twitter, and social networks. 

Apple, seeing that trend crossing over to the desktop, has introduced, what it calls, "Notification Center" that sits hidden at the right-hand side of your desktop ready to be revealed when you either swipe with two fingers from off your trackpad on to it or at the press of a button. 

As you can imagine, it works as it sounds with the ability to also launch a new tweet into the world, although chances are you are more likely to use your dedicated Twitter app to do this. Disappointingly even if you have the official Twitter app installed, clicking on a tweet goes to the Twitter.com website. 

The Notifications can be disabled for the rest of the day if you don’t want to be disturbed - it turns itself back on the next day - and all in all it is very handy if you want to get a quick overview of your messages in one hit. Likewise, you can set how different apps react and whether they show a banner and for how long. 

What happens when you click on the notification will depend on the app, but with support for third-party apps this will come in handy in future months. If you've used an app called Growl in previous versions of OSX, Notification Center basically replaces it with a much better system. 

Share with Twitter, AirDrop, and more

Everything is shareable now is the underlying theme from Apple. Right click on a file and you can instantly share it with others be it via email, Twitter, AirDrop, Messages or Flickr. Facebook isn't live yet, but Apple has confirmed it will be coming soon.

When it comes to pictures there is also an “Add to iPhoto” and “Add to Aperture” choice that lets you import the image into those apps quickly. 

It isn't just right clicking though, it's also in the new version of Safari, Preview, and elsewhere. 

Sharing via AirDrop or email is now incredibly easy, as too is sharing to social networks. 

When you do find something that you want to tweet, clicking the share button brings up a very similar interface to that on iOS.

The image is instantly attached, if that's what you are tweeting, and you can add location and type your status message.

In Safari we would have also liked it to add the title of the web page automatically to speed things up when sharing web links, something it doesn't currently do, and more frustrating is that the rest of the app is frozen out so you can't then copy and paste the article title without quitting the Twitter share window. 

Facebook

Coming soon, but not quite yet, Mountain Lion will add Facebook sharing into the operating system at a core level in the same way that it does Twitter. Users will be able to update their status via the notification bar, see who is talking to them and connect Facebook details into their Contacts book. When your friends update their information on Facebook, those updates automatically appear in Contacts - nice. As you would expect, if you do add Facebook friends to Contacts, their birthdays appear in Calendar. 

Facebook is expected to be added in the Autumn. 

Mountain Lion Messages

Available as a beta in OS X Lion, Mountain Lion features the final version of Messages, allowing you to chat with your iMessage buddies around the world from your desktop. 

If you already use iMessage to talk to your friends, the extension here to your desktop saves you getting your phone out to send a message - great if you want to ping Mrs Pocket-lint a message before you leave the office. 

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 months we’ve found the system works really well. It is fast enough to have an almost instant conversation, but if your friends aren’t iPhone or iPad or Mountain Lion users you won’t touch it because it doesn't work with other messaging clients like Skype or Whatsapp. 

Reminders and Notes in Mountain Lion 

Reminders and Notes are desktop versions of the iPad and iPhone apps and act as standalone apps - the latter of course, breaking free from Mail.  

You don’t need to have an iPhone or iPad to use them, but it does help - but to be fair you’ve probably been using services like Evernote up until now anyway if you are all about everything being available everywhere. 

Notes breaks out of the Mail app and lets you make, er, notes that can be shared instantly 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. Notes can be stuck to the desktop, include images, and even be shared or organised into folders. 

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. 

In practice it works as it sounds. It's simple, but effective. But again if you use an Android or Windows Phone alongside your Mac, you won’t benefit. 

What’s new in Mail 6.0 Mountain Lion

The big change here is the introduction of VIPs to the Mail app, as well as Power Nap support. VIPs allow you to highlight work colleagues or family with a star so you can find their emails quickly. 

We’ve found it really handy for pulling out emails from the Pocket-lint team and adding new VIPs to your list is as easy as clicking on a star next to their name. The VIP list also comes in handy in notifications as you can request that you are told only about those emails as pop-up messages rather than all emails. 

Smaller changes include an improved search functionality that looks a bit like the new Safari single search bar. Press Command + F now and you’ll get a search box that sits above your emails. As soon as you start searching the email is dimmed and the words you are searching for highlighted. Finding an instance of something in your emails is a lot easier that it was previously. 

RSS in Mail gets the chop though. We suspect you haven’t used it in a long time, but if you have, tough, you can’t anymore. 

What’s new in Safari for Mountain Lion 

Mountain Lion sees a new version of Safari, and with it new features and improved hardware accelerated speed.  The biggest visual change 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 several reasons, mainly that typing a search into the URL bar no longer presents you with a “can’t understand” error message but results from Google instead. 

There is now greater Cloud support as well - handy if you use more than one Mountain Lion computer, or iPhone or iPad (when iOS 6 launches later this year). When signed in, it tracks the tabs you have open in Safari and lets you access those tabs on other computers if you are logged in there too. That’s going to be helpful if you’ve been reading an article on the way home and then want to enjoy it on a bigger screen when you get back. The beauty here is that it isn't about tabs you've left open, but tabs you've had open in your last session. Warning - it could also catch you out if you are searching for birthday presents.

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. 

Apple has also updated its Reading List feature so that Safari now saves the whole page for offline reading rather than just a link. Having used the feature on a plane it’s very handy indeed. 

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. 

Safari 6 also gets the Share button as explained earlier in this review. And if you are sharing a webpage you get a number of options when the email opens in Mail. You now get to chose whether you want to send someone only a link, the page embedded in the email, a pdf of the page, or a reader version. 

The tabs now emulate the iPad Safari browser experience with wide tabs that fill the window rather than small ones as currently in Lion while pinching on your trackpad also allows you to then scroll left and right through your open tabs. It’s a bit like command + tab lets you quickly scroll through open apps. If you don’t use that feature you probably won’t use this one either. 

As always with Apple it's all about the little details. It’s 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. 

Dictation in Mountain Lion

Apple is putting a lot of focus on Siri on the iPhone and iPad, and while it hasn’t brought the intelligent assistant to the desktop as yet, it has enabled dictation for Mountain Lion users, albeit as long as you are online. 

Once you’ve said yes to the service and set up a shortcut command - in our case double tapping on the Fn key - you can fire up Dictation at a moments notice. The app then lets you speak to your computer without having to type, but it’s frustrating you can’t see what you’ve said as you can with Google translate. Pressing return saves your verbal command and commits it to paper. 

The dictation feature can be used anywhere on the operating system you can normally type into whether that’s searching for an app, or writing a Tweet. It can’t however act as an assistant - ie, “load Safari” for example. The catch is that you will need to be online to use it.

Will you use it? It depends on whether you are in a quiet environment, feel embarrassed by talking to your computer, and more importantly have the ability to dictate words. it’s a lot harder than you think.

Dictation supports English (U.S, UK, Australian), French, German, and Japanese and will automatically fill in text when your system is set to one of these languages. Apple has promised support for Cantonese, Mandarin, Canadian English, Canadian French, Italian, Korean, and Spanish in a software update to Mountain Lion in the future. No, we didn't dictate this review. 

As a geeky aside, if your MacBook Air or Pro fan is running, the dictation feature knows this and will temporarily stop it so the Mac can better hear you. Clever. 

Power Nap

“When your Mac goes to sleep, it still gets things done with Power Nap” is how Apple describe the new feature that basically continues to carry on downloading emails and other iCloud elements when your laptop is shut but not turned off.  

Before you get carried away that this exciting new feature is coming to your MacBook, chances are it isn't. It will be available on MacBook Air models only from 2011 onwards with Flash storage, and the new Retina MacBook Pro. If you've got one of those and it doesn't initially work it might need a firmware update that Apple is delivering on the day of the release. 

We tested the feature on MacBook Air and a Retina MacBook Pro during our Mountain Lion review with a Gmail account and it works as detailed. You do not need to have an Apple email account via iCloud or me.com for it to work.  

Apps included in the feature are Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Reminders, Notes, Photo Stream, Find My Mac, and Documents in the cloud. It downloads software updates and makes backups with Time Machine. You can run it when in battery mode, however for Time Machine backups and software updates you will need to have power connected. 

What we especially like is that you can set Power Nap to work only when you are connected to a power source as well as well on battery, so if battery life is a major requirement you don’t have to worry that leaving it on overnight in the hotel room means you’ll head to that meeting with only minutes of juice left. 

Security - Contacts, Location, Twitter

With every operating system from Apple comes a bevy of new security features. The biggest one here is the move to allowing you to block from where you can download apps. 

Called Gatekeeper, it is clever stuff, but boring in terms of how you will use it. 

The three options you can set are whether you can 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. It works and that’s all there is too it. 

Other security features include a more Windows-like approach to security updates, allowing Apple to work fast to fix holes when and if it finds them. 

Now in Mountain Lion your system automatically checks for required security updates, and if needed will automatically install any updates on your computer without your having to worry. We’ve yet to try the feature, but suspect it will work without bother, let’s just hope that it doesn’t completely follow Microsoft’s approach and start forcing resets when you have an important deadline looming. 

Search in LaunchPad

With more and more apps appearing on LaunchPad - the iOS style application launcher in OS X Lion - finding your app quickly has fast become a problem within the feature. If you’ve used Lion you’ve probably just found yourself using command + spacebar and typing in the name of the application there, but now you can do it in LaunchPad as well. It’s just another way of doing things, and again highlights how Apple is giving users more and more ways of doing the same thing. That’s either helpful or confusing, depending on which way you like to look at it. 

New screensaver options

Apple has even revamped its screensaver feature in Mountain Lion. Not that sexy we know, but aside from making it easier to choose a screen saver - there is now a more graphical interface - Apple has also added a number of slideshow effects that you can load in either from your iPhoto library as before or. for the first time, National Geographic.

It’s a lot more clear than previously as found on Lion, while Apple TV and even PS3 owners will recognise some of the effects. 

AirPlay Mirroring with Apple TV

AirPlay Mirroring is another feature borrowed from iOS and allows Mac owners who also happen to own an Apple TV to stream content from their computer to set top box device without the need for cables. 

With the two devices on the same Wi-Fi network, all that is left to do is select the Apple TV you want to send it to. Display Preferences include setting the resolution “Best for built-in display”, “Best for AirPlay”, and “Scaled”. We’ve found all three give good results, although the second will force the Mac to match the TV screen’s resolution which might not be best look for your laptop. 

Sounds great doesn’t it? And in a way it is, but some will want more. You can’t use it to display one thing on one screen and one thing on another (think presentations), nor can you close your MacBook Air/Pro and use the system, so in effect you have two screens staring at you. 

Still, what it does mean, is that you’ve got a way of quickly and easily displaying what’s on your computer on your television, be it a movie, a Skype call or a game, without the need for a wire trailing across your living room. 

Updates via Mac App Store 

Chances are if you use OS X Lion you’ve used the Mac App Store about three times. Apple is hoping to change this by forcing updates to appear in the Mac Store instead of a separate isolated window of its own as has been the case for the last couple of OS X versions.

Just as you currently update iOS apps, all updates appear on the update panel in the Mac App Store. It’s a small point, but one that Apple hopes means you might check out some of the latest apps while you are there. 

Users will also be notified of updates via Notification Center as well. 

Speed improvements

Does OS X Mountain Lion make doing anything faster? In our time with the operating system we haven’t noticed any noticeable improvements in speed aside from in Safari - browsing is much faster. We tested the new OS X on a number of machines including a 13-inch top of the line 2011 MacBook Air and the company's new Retina MacBook Pro. 

Preview gets better

Preview gets its fair share of updates in OS X Mountain Lion. It too gets the share button as found in Safari and that means you can quickly share your images or documents with others be it via email or Twitter. 

Pictures also get further contextual options including “Add to iPhoto” and “Add to Aperture” choices in the list and that lets you quickly import pictures into those applications. Preview also gets Apple iCloud support as well. Notes have also been tidied up to look smarter and less invasive.

Game Center

Yet another iOS feature brought over to Mountain Lion. This time it’s Game Center and the ability to play games with others on your Mac.

The Apple Mac has never really been one to embrace gaming on the go, but presumably seeing what a great success it is on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, Apple hopes it can emulate that success here too. Game Center is designed to give you that nudge, allowing you to play games against other Mac users, but when possible, against other iOS users as well. 

 

Users will be able to keep track of friends and their performance, manage the games that are Game Center-friendly and request more friends to grow their burgeoning social circle. 

The system works in exactly the same way as on iOS and that means you'll either be all over it like a bad rash or never give it a seconds thought. 

We've yet to play against others as there are no Game Center games enabled right now, however we've seen a number of demos from Apple of the system working. Once we get more time with the service we will update this part of the review. 

iCloud and Documents in the Cloud

Apple’s cloud service is even more apparent in OS X Mountain Lion, however not always at the forefront of the apps that benefit from it. 

There is the Cloud tab support for Safari for example (which is very good), or tie-ins with Pages, Numbers, and Keynote that automatically save documents to the cloud so if you use Pages on your iPhone or iPad you can see the changes instantly.

Apple has used this approach to change the way we think of documents, Mountain Lion wants to you think of the app first, then the document, rather than the document then the app. With that in mind, new Pages documents are saved automatically to the cloud, but aren't saved in the documents folder. While the Documents folder still exists, it's now pretty much dead to Apple's apps. 

Then there is the Photo Stream in iPhoto that syncs your photos with the cloud, as well as all the previous iCloud features you know and already use. Put basically, this operating system has your Apple data backed up without you really having to worry about backing it up. 

Upgrading your current Mac

Easy, go to the App Store, buy Mountain Lion and then wait for the 4GB file to download. You won't be able to buy it in store, but the upgrade process is very easy.

Just like installing an app, and on the machine we installed it on - a MacBook Air - the whole process took around 30 minutes (once we downloaded the file). All our current data and apps were untouched, although we would recommend you backup your computer just in case something goes wrong. It shouldn't though.

The one licence will work on all your Macs so you don't have to buy multiple copies for every machine. 

It might not work on all your Macs

With all these new enhancements and features, it is not surprising that some MacBooks aren't powerful enough to run it. The original MacBook Air for example isn't upgradeable, while some features like Power Nap won't work on a mechanical hard drive or a SSD drive you've fitted.

Apple recommends that Mountain Lion will run on the following machines:

• iMac (Mid 2007 or newer)

• MacBook (Late 2008 Aluminum, or Early 2009 or newer)

• MacBook Pro (Mid/Late 2007 or newer)

• MacBook Air (Late 2008 or newer)

• Mac mini (Early 2009 or newer)

• Mac Pro (Early 2008 or newer)

It also recommends you have 2GB of memory and 8GB of hard drive space to run it effectively. For Power Nap you will need a MacBook Air (Mid 2011 or newer) or a MacBook Pro with Retina display. 

To enjoy AirPlay Mirroring you'll need a:

• Apple TV (2nd generation or newer) 

• iMac (Mid 2011 or newer)

• Mac mini (Mid 2011 or newer)

• MacBook Air (Mid 2011 or newer)

• MacBook Pro (Early 2011 or newer)

Verdict

For all the new features Mountain Lion offers a lot are really just refinements of what you are already using. Things like letting you show only the percentage of the battery rather than the time are small changes, but ones that pull the Apple experience across multiple devices together. OS X Mountain Lion takes inspiration from some of the best apps available and bakes them into the OS as standard. 

There is little to complain about here if you are already using OS X Lion, and the £13.99 is well spent -more so if you use an iPhone or an iPod. 

Grumbles we have however are Apple’s insistence on being “cutesy”. On making things hark back to the last century, which is strange, considering all the features OS X Mountain Lion provides are so cutting edge. 



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