Mountain Lion review: Apple gets its operating systems in sync
One year and one week since the release of OS X Lion, Apple is back with Mountain Lion, also known as OS X 10.8.
Like Lion, Mountain Lion offers numerous feature additions that will be familiar to iOS users. This OS X release continues Apple’s philosophy of bringing iOS features “back to the Mac,” and includes iMessage, Reminders, Notes, Notification Center, Twitter integration, Game Center, and AirPlay Mirroring. There are even a few features that are making their debut with Mountain Lion, and will find their way back into iOS 6 this fall.
As the first OS X release post-iCloud, Mountain Lion offers a much more thorough integration with Apple’s data-syncing service than Lion offered. Mountain Lion also brings options to limit which kinds of apps users can install, offers systemwide integration with social networking and media-sharing services, and gives some recent MacBook models the power to keep working even when they appear to be asleep. And although there are no actual mountain lions in China, OS X Mountain Lion does add a raft of features to speak to users in the country that’s Apple’s biggest growth opportunity.
At $20, Mountain Lion is Apple’s cheapest OS X upgrade since version 10.1 was free 11 years ago; like Lion, Mountain Lion is available only via a Mac App Store download. The combination of the low price and the easy download will likely make Mountain Lion the most quickly adopted OS X upgrade of all time. Given how solid a release I found Mountain Lion to be, that’s a good thing.
(A compatibility note: Some Macs now running Lion won’t be able to run Mountain Lion. For more details, read our Mountain Lion FAQ.)
iCloud comes to the fore
In 2011, in his last public event as Apple CEO, Steve Jobs introduced iCloud—Apple’s Internet-based system of data storage and synchronization. At the time it was clearly a major strategic move for the company, and users of iOS 5 have benefited from several nice features, including cloud backup and preference syncing across devices.
On the Mac, iCloud integration has been limited. OS X Lion was finished before iCloud arrived, which prevented Apple from deeply integrating the two. But Mountain Lion and the forthcoming iOS 6 (due this fall) make much better use of iCloud and—most impressively for users of both Macs and iOS devices—use iCloud to work together.
It starts at setup: In Setup Assistant, the system asks for your iCloud ID and will sync a bunch of core preferences—essentially the information stored in the Mail, Contacts & Calendars pane in the System Preferences app. With this single log-in to iCloud, all your email accounts, contacts, calendars, notes, reminders, and the like, will be available on the Mac you’re using.
These features won’t bring over all your files from an old Mac (you’ll need to use Migration Assistant for that), but imagine a future where most users’ apps are purchased on the Mac App Store, and most apps store their documents in iCloud. In that world, logging into iCloud from a new Mac will be almost as seamless as restoring from iCloud on an iOS device. This is definitely the direction Apple is headed in, even if Mountain Lion doesn’t take users all the way there.
Since last fall, Apple’s iWork apps for iOS (Keynote, Numbers, and Pages) have supported iCloud’s Documents in the Cloud feature, which lets you store documents on Apple’s Internet servers and access them from any iOS device. But the Mac versions of those apps haven’t been updated to support that feature—until now. In a set of app updates timed with the release of Mountain Lion, Apple has updated the Mac iWork apps to support Documents in the Cloud. And TextEdit and Preview, two apps included with Mountain Lion, also support Documents in the Cloud. (Apps from other developers are also free to support this feature, so long as they’re sold through the Mac App Store.)
Here’s how it works: Instead of the traditional Open dialog box, there’s a new box with two options: iCloud and On My Mac. On My Mac is the “traditional” Mac file picker, pretty much the same concept as the one introduced back in 1984. But the iCloud option reveals something quite different: a view of all that app’s documents that are stored in iCloud. By default, this icon-based view shows icons sorted with the recently modified files at the top, though you can also switch to a list view and sort by name, date, or size.
In either view, you can drag one file on top of another in order to make a new folder. If you want to move a file from the Finder into iCloud, you can simply drag it into the window and it’ll be moved. If you want to move a file from iCloud to your Mac, you just drag it out. (Holding down the Option key while dragging does what you’d expect, too—it copies the file instead of moving it.)
When I first opened Pages on my Mountain Lion-powered Mac, I was greeted with a collection of documents I didn’t expect to see—they were all items I had created over the past year on my iPad using Pages. I was able to open them and edit them, and the edits showed up almost immediately on my iPad, too. When the process works, it’s nothing short of magical.
Similarly, when you create a document in one of these apps and try to save it, by default the Save dialog box is set to iCloud. You can switch over to your Mac’s hard drive if you want, but I’d wager that average users will just save their file to iCloud and not worry about navigating their hard drive’s file hierarchy.
Many expert users will blanch at the concept of not using the traditional file system, but Apple believes that most computer users struggle with finding files and traversing file systems. Between Launchpad and Documents in the Cloud, many novice Mac users will increasingly find little reason to use the Finder. Having seen plenty of friends and relatives struggle with file management, I’m inclined to agree with the company. The good news for power users is, Apple doesn’t seem committed to ruining the experience for people who want to save files on their hard drives. It’s easy to move files back and forth between iCloud and your Mac hard drive, the Finder hasn’t gone away, and Launchpad is utterly ignorable.
Even as an experienced power user, I see the appeal of Documents in the Cloud. It’s certainly easier to find a file you were working on recently in a view that shows only one app’s files with the most recent stuff sorted to the top. It’s not that different from what I tend to do these days when I’m trying to open a file: Launch the app, go to the File Menu, and look in the Open Recent submenu to see if the file I want is still there.
The menu that appears when you click on a document’s title at the top of its window is much more useful now. Unsaved documents still appear in iCloud even if you never press Save. There are a lot of really useful touches that will appeal to everyone.
But Documents in the Cloud is not all silver lining. Some file types—text files, for example—can be opened by all sorts of different apps, yet Documents in the Cloud doesn’t share files between apps. For example, there’s no way to insert an image into a Pages or Keynote document via iCloud short of opening Preview, grabbing the file from its iCloud window, and dragging into a page or slide. That seems less than ideal.
And while iCloud is free, that’s only for the first 5GB of data. My iPhone and iPad backups already nudge me close to the limit; adding a bunch of giant Keynote presentations will probably push me over the edge. If Apple wants people to embrace Documents in the Cloud, it might want to give users a bit more iCloud space without charging them for the privilege.
But still: With Mountain Lion, it’s a lot clearer to see how iCloud will benefit everyone who uses Apple products by tying those products more closely together and eliminating a lot of fussing and fiddling with files.
iOS apps come to the Mac
With Mountain Lion, Apple is continuing the approach begun in Lion to sync up the look, feel, and even nomenclature used by OS X and iOS. The Address Book app is now Contacts, as on iOS. iCal is now Calendar. More notably, there are a handful of new apps that have been built specifically to match up with iOS counterparts—and to sync data across devices.
The new Reminders app, which looks more or less identical to the iOS version introduced with iOS 5, syncs your reminders via iCloud. It supports the same basic to-do list functionality as its iOS counterpart, and you can set location-based reminders that will (for example) trigger alerts on your iPhone when you enter or exit a particular place. It’s hardly going to give complicated task-management apps a run for their money, but that’s not always Apple’s goal when it builds an app into its operating systems. This is an app for people who want a basic set of checklists synced across all their devices.
With its yellow college-ruled interface, the Notes app will be instantly familiar to iPhone and iPad users. It’s also a suitable replacement for Stickies, the venerable utility for jotting down a few notes to yourself. But Notes on the Mac has a few extra tricks up its sleeve: It supports rich text with different fonts, hyperlinks, bulleted lists, images, and even file attachments. The Notes app on iOS and Mac sync together, of course, so instead of having various separate notepads on all your devices, all your notes are with you at all times. It really works, and it’s been useful enough to prompt me to start using Notes on my iPhone.
Notes doesn’t use the iCloud syncing, though, which is kind of an odd choice. This is a legacy of the previous way you saw Notes in Mac OS—as a special mailbox in the Mail app. That always felt like a bizarre feature, and it’s good that Apple has finally broken Notes out into its own app. But behind the scenes, Notes still uses the IMAP email standard to sync, which means you have to have a valid IMAP email account entered in the Mail, Contacts & Calendars system preference pane in order to use the syncing feature. It’s something Apple should probably just migrate to iCloud for simplicity’s sake.
There’s also a new Game Center app, which finally brings Apple’s buddy system for games across from iOS. Yes, you can log in, add buddies, and see what games your friends are playing from the app. But the app isn’t as important as the fact that Game Center is now available to Mac game developers. By taking advantage of Game Center, developers get access to buddy lists, a ranking system, in-app voice chat, head-to-head gameplay, and gameplay across Apple platforms. Expect a flood of Mac games that are versions of games previously seen on iOS.
iMessage supplants iChat
In 2011 Apple introduced the iMessage communication system, a replacement for text messaging that let iOS devices communicate directly with one another. Unlike SMS text messages, the iMessage system transfers data (not just text, but images and files) via the Internet, so there are no text charges.
With Mountain Lion, support for iMessage comes to the Mac as well. And it happens via the Messages app, which is a renamed version of iChat with all its old features intact, plus support for iMessage.
Like Messages on the iPhone, Messages for Mac lets you hold multi-person chats and can optionally let people know when you’ve received and read their messages and when you’re typing a reply. An integrated video-chat button allows you to kick off a video chat with capable devices, either over traditional instant-messaging systems (as iChat has always done) or by launching the FaceTime app.
There’s a lot to like about having access to iMessage on the Mac. When I’d receive a message on my iPhone while working on my Mac, I’d be frustrated that I had to type out a response on my iPhone keyboard rather than the big Mac keyboard right in front of me. It’s now really easy to send a quick text message to my wife when I’m at work—all I have to do is type her name in a new Messages window and then type a message.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t frustrating things about Messages, or iMessage in general. It’s great that using iMessage means you have a record of your conversations on all of your devices, and it makes it easy to keep on having a conversation even if you have to shut down your Mac and head for the bus stop. But every time I receive a message via iMessage on my Mac, my iPad and iPhone also chime or vibrate. Not just at the beginning, but every single time I receive a message. There should be a way for Apple to detect which device I’m actively using to have the iMessage conversation and stop ringing the rest of them. I shouldn’t have to mute my iPad and pull my iPhone out of my pocket in order to have a conversation on my Mac.
This feature has another odd side effect, too: When I opened my Mac up after I had been having an iMessage conversation on my iPhone, Messages opened and proceeded to open a new chat window and display the old messages from that conversation. It’s great that I have a transcript of that chat on my Mac now, but it seems like an inelegant way to do it. (And often times I only see part of a conversation, which is less than helpful.)
I also found a strange, recurring bug when I was logged out of all my services and couldn’t log back in until I opened the preferences window, deactivated the account, and then re-activated it.
The bottom line is that I love the idea of iMessage, relish not worrying about the cost of text messages, and am happy that I can send things via iMessage from my Mac. But Apple needs to focus on making the cross-device experience a little less obtrusive.
Alert! Notification Center appears
Sometimes your Mac needs to get your attention. For years, many Mac app developers have built their own—think of meeting reminder pop-ups in iCal or Microsoft Office, for example. For years, the open-source project Growl has attempted to create a more general notification system, and it’s supported by lots of apps.
With Mountain Lion, OS X gains a system-level notification system accessible to every developer, with features much like those already found in iOS. Alerts appear in the top right corner of the screen in a small bubble. Notifications remain there for five seconds, and then slide off screen to the right (unless you swipe them away first, or click on them to open the relevant app). Alerts, on the other hand, remain on-screen until you click on the Show or Close (or in the case of some alerts, Snooze) buttons.
In iOS 5, you see all your recent notifications by pulling down from the top of the screen to reveal Notification Center. In Mountain Lion, the Notification Center list is a narrow band that lives just to off the right side of your screen. You can reveal it either by clicking on the new Notification Center icon at the far right of the menu bar, or by swiping with two fingers starting at the far right edge of the trackpad. Either way, your entire Mac interface will slide to the left, revealing a list of what’s been trying to get your attention recently.
Not all notifications come from apps, either: Because Mountain Lion includes integrated support for Twitter and (coming this fall) Facebook, Notification Center can display notifications from either service—direct messages and/or mentions on Twitter, and a whole host of optional items (events, application requests, nearby friends, friend requests, comments, wall posts, messages, photo tags, friend confirmations, and place tags) on Facebook. Apple has even built quick sharing links into the very top of the Notification Center list, so you can click to quickly write a tweet or Facebook status post.
There’s also a new Notifications pane in the System Preferences app, analogous to the Notifications submenu in iOS’s Settings app. From here, you can choose which apps appear within Notification Center and how their alert bubbles behave.
Notifications are good when you want to see them, but they can also get in your way, depending on context. Apple has made some smart decisions in order to let you squelch notifications when they’re not appropriate. If you scroll up in the Notification Center list, a new option is revealed: Show Alerts and Banners. If you flip the switch to Off, notifications are muted—but only until tomorrow. Apple assumes that you just don’t want to be bugged right now, but doesn’t want you to miss out on important notifications in the future.
Another clever feature is Notification Center’s auto-sensing when a Mac is connected to an external display. I use a second display at my desk, and Notification Center has no problem displaying alerts there. But if I hook up my MacBook to an HDTV or a projector, the alerts will be suppressed. Mountain Lion actually looks for clues that the external display you’ve hooked up to is a TV or projector, and if it is, it won’t show any notifications. Because the last thing you want is for a message from one of your friends on Twitter to float over a slide in an important presentation you’re giving.
I’ve found Notification Center to be a useful addition to my Mac. This is the sort of feature that needed to be a part of the operating system for the sake of consistency and ubiquity, and Apple’s done a good job of implementing it. I appreciate being alerted when someone’s sent me a Direct Message on Twitter or when I’ve received an important email, and the settings in the Notification Center control panel are granular enough to allow me to suppress any notifications that get in my way. (In a way, they may be too granular—I wish there was a way to more broadly set notification settings, rather than going app by app.)
Gatekeeper eyes your apps
Ever since Apple introduced the Mac App Store, many people have speculated that it was only a matter of time until the Mac, like iOS, could only run software sold directly via the store.
I never really thought that was a serious possibility, and Mountain Lion seems to clinch it. The new Gatekeeper feature, found in Mountain Lion’s Security & Privacy preference pane, adds an intermediate level of protection between fully-approved App Store apps and random files downloaded from unknown sources over the Internet. It’s Apple’s attempt to bring more iOS-style security to Mac users even if the apps they use are not from the App Store, and it’s a great move.
By default, Mountain Lion will launch newly-downloaded apps from the Mac App Store as well as any apps written by “identified developers” without complaint. Identified developers are members of Apple’s Mac developer program who have obtained a certificate linked to their identity, which they use to cryptographically sign their apps. (Apple doesn’t do any sort of background check on the developer, and it doesn’t approve any of this software. All it means is that Apple knows who the developer who signed the app was—and that gives Apple the ability to revoke the developer’s license if they’re discovered to be a distributor of malware.) The act of cryptographically signing apps also prevents legitimate apps from being tampered with after the fact, since any modified apps will fail the check Mountain Lion performs.
Most people will only run into Gatekeeper when downloading an app that hasn’t been updated with a developer signature. You can turn off Gatekeeper altogether, of course, but you can also choose to open unidentified apps manually: Just control-click on the app in the Finder and choose Open. Gatekeeper won’t stop you.
It’s also important to note that, as the name implies, Gatekeeper is not a system that continually scans your Mac looking for malware. It works only the very first time you try to open an app, using the same system that warns you before you open just about any file that you downloaded from the Internet. Once you give that app entry through the gate and into your Mac, there’s no more security.
Developers have known since February that Gatekeeper was coming; I’d wager that most Mac developers have acquired their certificates and signed their apps. And the ones that haven’t been signed will still run, once you’ve used your own judgment to decide whether you let them through the gate. It’s a sensible strategy that doesn’t leave developers whose apps can’t be in the Mac App Store out in the cold, and most users won’t notice a thing.
Gatekeeper’s not the only security addition to Mountain Lion. The Security & Privacy preference pane’s Privacy tab is now more granular. In addition to control over location-based data (introduced in Lion) and the sending of diagnostic information to Apple, you can also control access to Contacts, Twitter, and Facebook.
Sharing and social services
In an attempt to reduce the amount of steps required to share stuff on your Mac with others, Apple has added a sharing button to most of its apps and provided access to the same sharing functionality for third-party app developers. When you click on the (familiar to iOS users) share button in an app, you’ll see a pop-up menu listing several ways to share the item you’re working with.
Extending the theme of sharing, Apple has integrated Twitter and Facebook, as well as other services including Flickr and Vimeo, throughout Mountain Lion. (I was able to try the Facebook functionality on a demo system loaned to me by Apple; the initial release of Mountain Lion won’t support it, but it’ll be made available in an update sometime this fall.)
In Safari, the Share button lets you post a link to Facebook or Twitter (and in a nice touch, that choice will bring up a “share sheet” where you can compose your own text, rather than sending out a generic pre-formatted message), add a bookmark, send a link via Messages, add the page to Reading List, or send the story via email. (If you choose to send the story via email, you can choose to send a link, the HTML of the page, or a stripped-down view of the page in the style of Safari’s Reader feature.)
You can add your Twitter and Facebook account information in the Mail, Contacts & Calendars system preference. Once that’s done, it becomes easy to quickly share items from just about anywhere via the Share menu or the buttons at the top of the Notification Center list. I was able to post an image to Twitter and Facebook from within Preview, as well as send it to Flickr. I could even transfer it to a nearby Mac via Apple’s AirDrop file-transfer feature, all without leaving my Preview window. You can even choose whether to make your Facebook posts public, just to your friends, or to a limited list of friends.
Twitter and Facebook integration goes beyond that, though. Mountain Lion can sync with your Facebook contacts list, so that all your Facebook friends appear in Contacts. If the denizens of your Contacts list are also your Facebook friends, Mountain Lion will do its best to avoid making duplicate entries. (A few of my friends were duplicated when I tried this, but merging them back into one record wasn’t too hard using the Merge Selected Cards command in Contacts.) Mountain Lion can also optionally update the pictures attached to each of your contacts based on those contacts’ public Facebook profiles, even if they’re not Facebook friends, and can do likewise with Twitter avatars.
A few years ago I tested a Palm WebOS smartphone and was impressed with its attempt to sew my social networks and address book together into a unified collection of contacts. Apple has, up to now, resisted deep integration with services like Twitter and Facebook. The good news is that with Mountain Lion, Twitter is fully integrated and this fall Facebook will finally be likewise. It will be a great convenience for users of these services. (And if you don’t use them, you won’t miss anything.)
Mac, take a memo
Dictation, a feature previously available only on the iPhone 4S and the third-generation iPad, comes to the Mac with Mountain Lion. Mountain Lion’s dictation engine appears to be identical to the one found on iOS, and requires an Internet connection. (Keep in mind that Dictation and Siri are two separate functions. Mountain Lion doesn’t offer Siri.)
Mountain Lion dictation can be used just about anywhere there is a blinking cursor. If you can enter text there, you can dictate text into it—no app updates required. By default, you kick off a dictation session by tapping the Function key twice, although you can customize this to a different keyboard shortcut in the Dictation and Speech (formerly Speech) preference pane. Then you just say what you want to say, and once you’re done, your utterances will be rendered (usually quite accurately) as text.
It’s a great addition. Of course, there are better speech-to-text options available commercially—Nuance offers Dragon Express for $50 and Dragon Dictate for $200. Those programs work on your Mac without an Internet connection and offer voice-training and customizability that Mountain Lion’s dictation feature can’t match. But not everyone who might use Dictation needs that level of customizability.
I’ve never managed to use most dictation products for very long, but I find that I use iOS dictation every now and then when I need it. I look forward to being able to do the same on my Mac with Mountain Lion.
When a Mac is asleep, it’s basically dead to the world. When an iOS device is asleep, it’s still doing stuff—checking your mail, making alert sounds, and even backing up. It means you can flip open an iPad and your Inbox is already current, for example.
With Mountain Lion, Apple is introducing a version of this iOS feature to the Mac. It’s called Power Nap, and it’s a somnambulant state that’s neither asleep nor awake as we currently understand them.
First, the restrictions: While I’d wager that most future Macs will support Power Nap, right now it’s only supported by a handful of systems. On day one of Mountain Lion, you’ll only be able to take advantage of Power Nap if you’ve got a Mid-2011 or 2012 vintage MacBook Air or the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display.
To turn Power Nap on and off, you use the new Enable Power Nap setting in the Energy Saver control panel. By default, Power Nap is turned on when your laptop is connected to a power adapter and turned off when on battery, but you can choose to turn it off completely or turn it on for both.
Power Nap works by periodically waking up a MacBook even when it’s closed, but it’s not the usual wake-up. Fans don’t spin and the screen doesn’t come on. And since Power Nap only works on systems that use flash storage instead of spinning hard drives, disk access is silent too. From the outside, you’d never know that it was awake.
When in this dark-wake state, your MacBook will (once an hour, if you're connected to a power adapter or have more than 30 percent of battery remaining) check your mail, sync your contacts, update your calendars, sync reminders and notes, make sure Documents in the Cloud are synced, and update Photo Stream. If you’ve got the Find My Mac feature turned on, it’ll also phone home with its current location just like an iOS device would.
A few Power Nap features are a bit more intense, and will only work if the MacBook is plugged in to a power adapter. If you’ve ever groused about leaving your laptop open in order for Time Machine to run, Power Nap will let you finally just close it and forget it. Now those Time Machine backups will keep on running when the computer is “asleep.” If you’ve set your laptop to automatically download software updates in the background, those downloads will also happen during sleep, so they’re ready to be applied when you wake it back up.
I have to admit, it never really occurred to me that my Mac could be doing a lot more when it’s sleeping. But I certainly don’t expect my iPhone or iPad to be dead to the world when they’re asleep, so why not ask my Mac to keep on working too? I’m especially excited about my MacBook Air finally being backed up regularly, since it’s rarely awake long enough when I’m at home to do a full Time Machine backup over my network.
The next step here, of course, would be for Apple to allow certain third-party apps to have access to Power Nap. Users of online backup services, for example, would love it if their MacBooks would do all of that work in the dead of night. But Apple likely will be judicious in this area—nobody wants to wake up in the morning and discover that their laptop’s hot and its battery hasn’t recharged.
Goes in here, comes out there
There aren’t that many different ways to say, “Here’s a feature that you’ve seen on iOS that’s also now on the Mac.” But here we are again: AirPlay mirroring, a feature introduced in iOS 5, has arrived on the Mac.
For a while now, Macs have been able to play back iTunes audio and video to Apple TVs (and audio to AirPort Expresses), but in Mountain Lion, you can mirror the contents of your Mac’s display on any video device connected to an Apple TV (so long as it’s the small black version).
When a 2011-vintage or later Mac running Mountain Lion senses the presence of an Apple TV on the local network, an AirPlay icon appears in the menu bar. Click and select an Apple TV, and your desktop will be duplicated on the TV it’s connected to. By default, the contents of your screen are scaled down to fit on the TV, but you can adjust the Displays preference pane so that the video on your Mac screen is scaled to match the shape of the HDTV. (Basically, you’re choosing which display you want to be the clearest—your Mac’s, or the TV’s.)
If you’re in a Mac-centric office, equipping every conference room with an Apple TV seems like a no-brainer. And I found myself using this feature all the time at home. The other day I found a funny Internet video show that I wanted to watch with my wife while we ate lunch. It was on a Flash-only website, so there was no way for me to play it on my Apple TV or on an iPad, but it played just fine on my Mac. So I turned on AirPlay Mirroring, pressed play, put the video into full-screen mode, and we sat back and watched as the video (and its accompanying audio, of course) streamed without a hitch.
There’s one other nice AirPlay addition in Mountain Lion: Now all of the AirPlay devices your Mac can see appear as options in the Output tab of the Sound preference pane. If you want to channel all your system audio through an Apple TV or AirPort Express nearby, all you have to do is switch to that device in the Output tab. It’s simple and works exactly as you’d expect.
Safari makes strides
When Apple first announced Mountain Lion in February, it didn’t make a big deal about changes to its Safari Web browser. But now Safari makes Apple’s list of the major changes in Mountain Lion. And quite right, too—there are numerous nice additions in Safari that make it a much better browser.
The biggest addition to Safari has been done by subtraction: The search box next to the address bar has vanished. Instead, as in the style of Google’s Chrome browser, the address bar is also your search field. If you know an address, you can type it there, but if you don’t, you can just enter in search terms and Safari will perform a search using your preferred search engine.
Now if you type “eleventh doctor” into that box, you’ll get a bunch of links about Matt Smith instead of an error message telling you that Safari can’t find the website “http://eleventh%20doctor/.” Much more useful, right? As you type, Safari will also make suggestions, including search terms and pages from bookmarks and other pages you’ve visited, including a Top Hit area with the most likely pages you’re looking for based on your previous browser history.
Another new Safari feature that I like a lot is iCloud Tabs, an icon on the Safari toolbar that displays a list of all the webpages you’ve got loaded across all your devices. This feature is mildly useful today for people with multiple Macs, but it will become much more useful with the release of iOS 6 this fall. At that point, you’ll be able to start reading on your Mac and then pick up right where you left off on your iPad.
The new Tab View feature certainly looks good: If you’ve got more than one tab open in Safari, and pinch on your trackpad, Safari zooms out until you see the current page on a gray background. Now you can swipe left or right and view the contents of all the other tabs. It’s a pretty, visual way to see all your currently open tabs, and it makes a great demo. That said, I don’t see how I’d ever use it. Clicking on tabs works great. If I want to see a page in Safari, I click on the tab. Pinching, then swiping, then clicking? It doesn’t seem efficient, but I admit that sometimes efficiency is boring.
There are several more additions to Safari, too—it’s a solid upgrade. As I mentioned earlier, the new Share menu appears in the Safari toolbar. The Safari Reader button has gotten large and now sits just to the right of the address bar, turning blue when a page is eligible for Reader. The Reading List feature now offers an offline mode, so you can save articles to read later even if you’re not connected to the Internet later.
I spend an insane amount of time in Safari, and in general this update is a good one. However, Apple has changed the Safari interface so that it feels like pages load more slowly than they used to. I don’t think they actually load slower, but the blue progress bar creeps across the URL window more slowly, and the status bar at the bottom of the screen no longer points out that it’s looking up domains and loading various web-page elements. Most of the time, it’s not a big deal. But when I’m faced with a slow-loading webpage, it’s a little frustrating—there’s no indication about what’s happening, so I just have to wait and hope that Safari loads the page eventually. Maybe most Safari users won’t care, but I found it disconcerting.
Mail gets its priorities straight
I’ve got a love-hate relationship with OS X’s Mail app. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. It’s more of a tolerate-hate relationship. During the Snow Leopard era, I got so fed up with it that I switched to Gmail, but the improvements to Mail in Lion lured me back. Mail hasn’t received a major upgrade in Mountain Lion, but its support for Notification Center has led to the addition of one big feature: VIPs.
It’s logical that you’d want Mail to notify you when you get new mail. But for anyone who gets a large volume of mail, that’s just too many notifications. So you can choose, from Mail’s Preferences window, just how you want Mail to use Notification Center: Every time a message comes in, just when a message comes to your Inbox, when you get a message from someone in your Contacts list, or when you get message from a VIP. (You can also trigger a notification via a Rule.)
To mark someone as a VIP, just open a message they’ve sent you and move the cursor over their name. Just to the left, you’ll see the faint outline of a star. Click it and it will darken slightly. That’s it. That Person is now Very Important. Little stars show up next to their messages in your mailbox. That's how important they are.
Simply limiting notifications to people in your Contacts list would have been a pretty good feature, but this is better. It’s an easy way to mark your most important people and make sure you know when they email you. I set Mail to notify me only when I get VIP messages, and after a few days of granting little gray stars to people, the system really started to work well.
There’s even a VIPs filter in the toolbar, so I can quickly see just mail from all my VIPs or even one particular person. This fall, with the release of iOS 6, this feature will also appear on iPhones and iPads—and presumably your VIPs will sync across your devices, which will be even more useful.
Now even when I’ve got Mail in the background, I get a subtle reminder that someone important has sent me a message. Given the volume of mail I get in a day, and my tendency to forget to check it, that’s invaluable.
This is not to say that I don’t still have issues with Mail. I find its search functionality occasionally brilliant and occasionally useless, and I can’t figure out why. It sometimes takes forever to check for new mail, especially over slow connections. But though it undoubtedly marks me as an old-school email user, I still prefer using an app to reading my mail in a web browser. Mail suffices, and with Mountain Lion, it just got a bit better.
Big in China
Apple’s had huge success in China lately, most particularly with the iPhone. With Mountain Lion, the company is trying to improve support for those who write in Chinese as well as recognizing that most of the popular sites that Apple integrates with OS X aren’t actually available within China.
On the text-input side, Mountain Lion offers better suggestions and corrections via a dynamically updated dictionary. Apparently English words are often inserted in Chinese text, so Mountain Lion allows the mixing of Pinyin and English without switching between keyboard layouts. Apple says Mountain Lion also doubles the number of characters recognized by trackpad-based handwriting recognition.
On the Internet services side, Mountain Lion offers support for Chinese alternatives to several worldwide services. Search-engine Baidu is now an option in Safari. Chinese microblogging service Sina weibo is supported in Share Sheets, just as Twitter is. In addition to Vimeo and Flickr, Mountain Lion will support sharing to Chinese video-sharing sites Youku and Tudou. And Mail, Contacts, and Calendar syncing will be supported to Chinese service providers QQ, 126, and 163.
According to Apple, most Mac users won’t see these features. Mountain Lion will determine—based on your location and language settings, whether you’ve “expressed an interest” in Chinese features. For example, if you activate a Chinese keyboard layout. Once you’ve shown an interest in China, the support for the Chinese service providers surfaces. (As someone who has never been to China and doesn’t speak Chinese, I couldn’t test any of these features.)
New features, across all devices
The biggest story in the release of Mountain Lion isn’t a particular feature. It’s Apple’s new dedication to a yearly release cycle for OS X, and more important, to a cycle that’s synchronized with the release of iOS.
Last year’s OS X Lion—and Mountain Lion to a somewhat lesser extent—offer numerous feature additions that were brought back to the Mac from iOS. But Mountain Lion also offers some features that will be coming to iOS 6 this fall. Apple’s new operating-system strategy is not to copy iOS to the Mac, as some cynics might have said at the time Lion was announced. Rather, Apple’s strategy is to roll features out across all its devices, on both operating system platforms, simultaneously—or at least as close to simultaneity as possible for a company that has two separate operating systems to update every year.
It seems to me that, in large part, Apple is no longer as focused on Mac features or iPhone features or iPad features as it is on features, manifested in appropriate ways across all of its different products. There will always be features that are tuned for the very different interactions that users have with their iPhones than with their MacBooks, but most of the basic ideas will span devices and operating systems, and most of them will sync together using iCloud.
To those who would argue that these features water down the Mac, making it a simpler device more akin to an iPad with a keyboard rather than the heavy-duty device it’s often used as, I’d point to a feature like Power Nap. Allowing your MacBook Air to back up wirelessly while it’s closed and leaning against your nightstand doesn’t seem like a regression; that seems like a manifestation of the always-on iOS philosophy, but translated into a quintessentially Mac-focused feature.
Yes, some of the features Apple has introduced in Lion and Mountain Lion are specifically designed for new and novice users, and that’s appropriate given how many of those users there are. But features like Launchpad and Gatekeeper and Documents in the Cloud are easily ignored or overridden by expert users; on the Mac, Apple seems to have chosen a path that makes the out-of-the-box Mac experience better for new users without wrecking things for the experts.
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All told, I found Mountain Lion to be a stable, solid release. Even prerelease builds were far more stable than I’ve come to expect from OS X betas, leading me to wonder if Apple’s new annual schedule is leading to more careful incremental updates (with fewer bugs) rather than great leaps (with more, nastier bugs).
Traditionally at the end of an operating-system review, you’d expect a discussion of whether the upgrade is really worth the money. But at $20 (and that’s a one-time purchase that can be used on every Mac you own), the money isn’t the issue. Do you have an iPhone or iPad that you’re going to be upgrading to iOS 6 this fall? Or are you going to buy Apple’s next iPhone when it comes out? Do you want to have access to the latest features Apple is rolling out across its entire product line? If so, your answer is a definitive yes.
Mountain Lion is the next step after Lion. It’s Apple’s current state of the art. If you’re running Lion (or even if you’re a holdout running Snow Leopard), I recommend hopping on board.
[Jason Snell is the editorial director for IDG Consumer & SMB, and is in charge of the editorial operations of Macworld, PCWorld, and TechHive. He's written about every major OS X version since version 10.0.]