Apple on Wednesday released Mountain Lion, the operating system otherwise known as OS X 10.8. Mountain Lion adds several iOS-inspired apps and features, wholly embraces iCloud, and, of course, drops support for some older Macs.
Like Mac OS X Lion, Mountain Lion is available exclusively through the Mac App Store as a 4.34GB download. But it comes at a discount from its predecessor: Mountain Lion costs $20, while Lion cost $30 when it arrived a little more than a year ago. (If you purchased a new Mac on or after June 11, 2012, you can upgrade for free through Apple’s Up-to-Date program.) Your Mac will need to be running Snow Leopard or later to launch the Mountain Lion installer.
Some Macs that could run Lion can’t run Mountain Lion. You’ll need an iMac (Mid 2007 or newer), MacBook (Late 2008 Aluminum, or Early 2009 or newer), MacBook Pro (Mid/Late 2007 or newer), Xserve (Early 2009), MacBook Air (Late 2008 or newer), Mac mini (Early 2009 or newer), or Mac Pro (Early 2008 or newer) to install the new operating system.
Many of the features introduced in the new OS X update will be familiar to anyone with an iOS device.
New apps in Mountain Lion include Reminders, Notes, and Game Center, each of which looks like—and syncs seamlessly via iCloud with—its iOS counterpart. Mountain Lion also includes Messages, née iChat, which now offers support for sending iMessages to other Mac and iOS device users.
Also making the leap from iOS to the Mac with Mountain Lion is Notification Center, a single spot that assembles alerts from Apple’s apps, along with third-party apps and websites that integrate with the technology. Mountain Lion delivers support for AirPlay mirroring to the Mac, letting Mac users send their display to an Apple TV.
The iOS-to-Mac approach in Mountain Lion mirrors the one that Lion took last year. But Ross Rubin, a principal analyst with Reticle Research, expects the transition to be a lot less jarring for users. “[Apple] has focused more on apps and information that consumers will want across platforms such as notes, reminders, messages and notifications as opposed to Lion introductions of full-screen apps and Launchpad,” Rubin told Macworld. “Whereas Launchpad may have seemed foreign to the Mac, Notifications feel as comfortable if not more comfortable on OS X than on iOS.”
Mountain Lion also introduces a number of new technologies to OS X including Gatekeeper, a security feature that gives users control over which apps can launch on their Macs; significant Mail and Safari upgrades; system-wide sharing features; and built-in dictation among other capabilities.
Mountain Lion’s arrival comes at the same time Microsoft is prepping an OS update of its own: Windows 8 is slated to be in consumers’ hands by October. “In contrast to Microsoft, which is creating an operating system with a split personality in Windows 8, Apple is keeping all Mac apps optimized for a user interface driven by a pointing device,” Rubin said. “Mountain Lion also takes further steps to tie the Mac in more closely with the cloud, a strategy that is also important to Microsoft as they pursue Google’s home field ecosystem advantage.”
Real mountain lions are ambush predators: They sneak up on their prey unannounced for surprise attacks. Perhaps Apple took inspiration from the new OS’s namesake when the company first unveiled Mountain Lion last February, announcing the upgrade through selected press outlets but without the fanfare of a press event. Wednesday’s official release of the new operating system was less surprising; the company promised a July release during June’s Worldwide Developers Conference, and Apple executives gave the world a one day heads-up Tuesday about Mountain Lion’s release date when announcing its quarterly earnings.
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iOS users will immediately recognize Mountain Lion's new notification system—it's more or less the same one that debuted on iOS 5 last year. Long time Mac users, on the other hand, will probably recognize its functionality as the same sort offered by the open-source framework Growl (). In either case, the idea is simple: Lots of things happen on your Mac—emails, IMs, alarms, even Twitter updates. Notification Center gathers them in a single location, so you can quickly see at a glance everything you need to know.
Like its iOS counterpart, OS X's notification system actually has two parts. The first is Notification Center itself, a repository of all the notifications you've received. To activate Notification Center, simply click on the notifications icon in the top right corner of the menu bar, or swipe with two fingers from the right edge of your trackpad towards the middle. This works at any time, even when you're in a full screen app. To hide Notification Center again, reverse your swipe, or click the menu-bar icon a second time. If you're more of a keyboard shortcut person, you can configure a key combination to toggle Notification Center in Keyboard -> Keyboard Shortcuts -> Mission Control.
Clicking on any notification in Notification Center will launch the appropriate app and, when possible, take you to the data—the email message, calendar event, and so on—that triggered it. Unread notifications appear with a blue dot next to them, which disappears when you click on them. You can also mark all notifications for a single app read by clicking the X in the top right corner. Note that you can't clear individual messages, and that some apps—such as Calendar—have notifications that you can't dismiss.
When Apple introduced iCloud at 2011’s Worldwide Developers Conference, the company touted the online service's ability to seamlessly sync your contacts, calendars, reminders, notes, images, documents, and other data, along with a free mail account, remote access to other iCloud-enabled computers, and a locator for lost portable devices.
While iOS 5 took early and extensive advantage of iCloud on the iPhone and iPad, OS X Lion did less with it: You could sync your mail, contacts, calendars, reminders, and notes, and send images to your iPhoto library via Photo Stream, but not documents or program settings.
With Mountain Lion, however, Apple has added new features to iCloud and integrated those sorely missing from its desktop OS.
Documents in the Cloud
The biggest of these additions is called Documents in the Cloud. This feature allows the app you’re using to store your documents in the cloud, wirelessly and remotely; you can then access them from any computer or iOS device you’ve linked to iCloud that has that application installed.
Though Apple has long prided itself on the Mac’s safety record, recent events such as the Flashback Trojan horse have proven that the company can’t take the security of its operating systems for granted. And the security upgrades in Mountain Lion make it clear that Apple isn’t.
The marquee new security feature in Mountain Lion is Gatekeeper—but you won’t find a new pane for it in System Preferences. Instead, you open up the General tab in the Security & Privacy preference pane and (after providing your administrator credentials) set the Allow Applications Downloaded From option. That single setting is the front-end for Gatekeeper.
You have three options there: You can choose to run only those apps that were downloaded from the Mac App Store, apps from the Mac App Store and identified developers, or apps from anywhere.
The first and last options are straightforward: The first limits your Mac to running apps from the Mac App Store; the last places no limitations on the apps your Mac can run. The middle option merits explanation: Any developer can register with Apple to get a unique certificate with which to cryptographically sign its apps. Thanks to such signatures, your Mac can know which developer is behind a given app. It can also tell if a signed app has been tampered with. If a signed app is found to behave maliciously, Apple can revoke its developer’s certificate. That would cause a warning to appear before users could install the app.
One of the many features that Mountain Lion has borrowed from iOS is the idea of systemwide sharing. In many apps you'll see a Share button, represented by an arrow popping out of a box, which provides quick, one-button access to easy ways to disseminate the content you're viewing. Whereas in the past you might have had to—heaven forfend—copy and paste a URL you wanted to share into your Twitter client, now you can share that link right from where you found it.
By default, Mountain Lion lets you share through built-in OS X apps like Mail or iMessage. But Sharing is extensible in a couple of different ways.
For one thing, you can add accounts in the Mail, Contacts & Calendars preference pane—including those for popular services such as Twitter, Flickr, Vimeo, and (later this year) Facebook—which then become available as options in Share menus.
By adding an account there, you ensure that you only have to enter your credentials once, rather than every single time you want to share a file. You can even enter multiple accounts for some services, such as Twitter, and choose the one you want to use on a per-post basis which account you want to use.
OS X got a big update Wednesday morning in the form of Mountain Lion, including support for Documents in the Cloud, Apple’s iCloud service for wirelessly syncing your files between computers. Not to be left in the dust by the likes of TextEdit and Preview, however, the Mac versions of Apple’s three iWork apps also received updates to enable access to files stored in iCloud.
It’s hardly a surprise to see iWork Update 9.2 now: Apple previewed Documents in the Cloud support for iWork at the last month’s Worldwide Developers Conference; the company had also been showcasing a screenshot of Pages synced across all Apple devices on its OS X website. As the iWork apps aren’t bundled with OS X, however, they wouldn’t receive Documents in the Cloud support as part of an operating system upgrade—hence, the separate update on Wednesday.
The patch brings support for Documents in the Cloud to Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. Unfortunately, iBooks Author, the unofficial fourth member of the iWork team, did not receive a Documents in the Cloud-centric update.
Documents in the Cloud, which lets apps access files stored in iCloud, works similarly to the iWork apps as it does with TextEdit, Preview, or any third-party iCloud-enabled app. When you open, say, Pages, you’ll be greeted with iCloud’s Document Library and any file you may have created or saved there.
If you rummage around in your Mac’s Applications folder in Mountain Lion, you’ll still find a copy of Stickies, that venerable (some might say long-in-the-tooth) application for creating short notes that you can pin to your screen. It’s a limited application for taking notes, one that many of us haven't used in years. Mountain Lion’s new Notes application is not an update to Stickies, but rather a Mac-based version of the Notes app found on iOS devices.
Launch Notes, and you'll see an interface very much like the Notes app found on iPads. Unlike the iPad version—where you find a two-column view that shows you a list of notes and then the contents of a selected note—by default the Mac’s Notes application adds an Accounts column to the left of the Notes window. Here you can view all your notes by clicking on All Notes, or choose notes synced with a particular IMAP account—iCloud and a Gmail account, for example.
Within this first column you can additionally create folders for filing your notes—a convenience we’d love to see on iOS devices. Just choose File -> New Folder or Control- or right-click in the Accounts column and choose New Folder. The new folder will appear under the currently selected account heading, but you’re welcome to drag it to another account. Once you’ve created a new folder you can drag notes to it or select the folder and create new notes that will be filed within it.
When creating notes you have three default font options—Noteworthy, Marker Felt, and Helvetica. If you like, you can select a different font by choosing Format -> Font -> Show Fonts and then selecting a new font from the Fonts window, but you can’t designate one of these fonts as the default, which is unfortunate if the three default fonts don’t appeal to you. When you create a new note, you’re back to the three default font options. However, Notes isn’t entirely limited in regard to formatting. You can create colored text, make text larger or smaller, format lists (in bulleted, dashed, and numbered styles), choose the alignment (left, center, justify, or right), assign a writing direction (left to right or right to left), and you can indent text.
Why should the iPhone and iPad have all the fun? In Mountain Lion, Apple continues its process of porting over the best features from iOS to the Mac. Among those is an app first introduced with iOS 5: Reminders.
Reminders, of course, is a tool for recording and storing todo lists, tasks, and any other little bits you want to remember. If you're familiar with the Reminders iOS app, you'll feel right at home in the Mountain Lion version, which is a near-perfect clone.
As with the iPad version of Reminders, the application presents a list of all your lists on the left, with a faux sheet of wide-ruled looseleaf paper on the right.
Because Reminders can sync via iCloud, your Mac and your iOS device can share one common set of todos. They do so via accounts: In lieu of a Preferences option under the Reminders menu, you'll find an entry entitled Accounts. Selecting that actually opens the Mail, Contacts & Calendars pane of System Preferences. There, you can add any iCloud accounts you'd like to use for syncing Reminders. Reminders also works with CalDAV services including Google Calendar and Yahoo Calendar; you can similarly add those accounts in System Preferences.
Safari has been around forever, and you might not think there was much that Apple could do to improve it in Mountain Lion. But in fact the company has found some clever—and welcome—ways to update the app many of use more than any other.
One way Apple's done that is by taking some inspiration from other browsers. The obvious one is the new unified address and search bar. Like Google Chrome, Safari 6.0 has just one text box up top, instead of one box for Web addresses and another for searching. Type a URL in Safari's new universal address box, and the browser will go to that site. Type in something else, and Safari will perform a search for it.
More specifically, as you type, it'll show you a drop-down list of possible hits. First there's a section it calls Top Hits—the things it guesses you're looking for, based on your previous browsing patterns. After that are some possible search terms you might want to use on Google, the default search engine. (You can, of course, change that default in the app's preferences.) And below that are matching hits in your browsing history and bookmarks.
The other way Apple has updated Safari on the Mac is something it's done throughout Mountain Lion: tying the desktop OS and its apps more tightly than ever to iOS and iCloud.
So the new Safari has something called iCloud Tabs. Clicking the new iCloud Tabs button (the one with the cloud on it up in the toolbar) produces a live list of the browser tabs you have open on all of your other OS X and iOS machines linked to your Apple ID and iCloud account. What that potentially means is that you can start reading something on your iPhone, then switch to your Mac later and pick up where you left off. I say "potentially," because this feature won't really become fully functional until the release of iOS 6 this fall. For now, it works well syncing Safari tabs between Macs.
Two familiar OS X applications get new names in Mountain Lion: Address Book becomes Contacts and iCal becomes Calendars. But the changes in both are deeper than altered names.
In Contacts, Apple looks both back and forward. While that look back doesn’t remove the not-entirely-popular leather-organizer look that was introduced with Lion, it does bring back a popular view. As for forward-looking features, it’s all about incorporating contacts from a broad variety of sources and social networking.
Starting with the return of the old, Contacts brings back the beloved three-column view found in Snow Leopard’s Address Book. In Lion, Address Book offered a two-column view—either groups on the left page and contacts within the second group on the right, or when clicking the Contacts bookmark at the top of the page, viewing contacts within a group on the left page and information about a selected contact on the right. Mountain Lion’s Contacts places groups in the first column, contacts within the selected group in the middle column, and contact information in the last column—just as it was done in Snow Leopard. If you’d like you can switch between three-, two-, and one-column views by clicking the appropriate buttons at the bottom of the Contacts window or by choosing Groups, List and Card, or Card Only from the View menu respectively.
Messages is not just a reskinning of iChat. Sure, the interface looks different. But in addition to its updated interface, Messages introduces a big change to the way instant messaging works on the Mac.
That's because, unlike iChat, it works with the iMessage platform that Apple introduced last year with iOS 5. It still works with standard IM networks such as AIM and Jabber, and it can still send SMS texts to non-iOS phones.
But iMessage isn't just another messaging platform like those others. Rather, it ties your Mac and iOS devices into a single unified ecosystem. You can—in theory—begin a conversation on your Mac and then pick it up later on your phone. You can—again, in theory—see your entire chat history with a contact, regardless of the devices you used for those chats. And—for better or worse—when someone chats with you via iMessage, you'll be alerted on your Mac as well as on your phone and tablet.
New look and feel
Messages feels different from the moment you open it. Instead of iChat's single column buddy list and separate windows for chats, Messages's default interface has a two-column interface, with contacts on the left and a chatting pane on the right.
Mountain Lion was certainly popular with the reviewers (our own Jason Snell included). But it’s the masses that matter when it comes to OS X, and, according to a press release from Apple, the masses were quite enamored of the release, downloading more than 3 million copies in the first four days.
Last year, Lion racked up 1 million downloads in a single day, and by the end of Apple’s fourth quarter it passed 6 million; in contrast, Mountain Lion looks set to beat that adoption rate, assuming its downloads stay at this level. Apple also described Mountain Lion as the most successful OS release in the company’s history.
Price may have helped, in part: Mountain Lion is $10 cheaper than its predecessor; additionally, consumers can upgrade directly from Snow Leopard, letting those who weren’t so thrilled with Lion make a jump to OS X 10.8 without paying for the intermediary step.
Mountain Lion also brings OS X more in sync with iOS, expanding iCloud’s connectivity, adding other features from the popular mobile OS, and bringing new apps and services to Apple’s desktop platform.
Though it falls short of full Siri integration, Mountain Lion's system-wide Dictation tool does bring iOS's transcription functionality to the Mac.
Anywhere you can type text on your Mac, Mountain Lion lets you dictate it, too. On iOS, the onscreen virtual keyboard provides a little microphone key that you can use to trigger Dictation mode. Because your Mac can't update your hardware keyboard dynamically, Mountain Lion instead requires you to use a keyboard shortcut instead.
By default, that shortcut is tapping the Fn key twice. (You can also use the new Start Dictation item near the bottom of the Edit menu.) But you can customize the keyboard shortcut in the Dictation & Speech preference pane in System Preferences. (Before Mountain Lion, that pane was merely called Speech.)
On the Dictation tab, you can turn that functionality On or Off, tweak its shortcut, choose the microphone, and specify the language you'll be speaking in. Dictation needs to know that last bit before you start talking; it will obviously impact the way the software transcribes your words. Supported languages include English (in U.S., UK, and Australian variants), French, German, and Japanese.
When you adjust the keyboard shortcut, Apple includes a few suggestions of its own: In addition to the default Fn Fn option, you can choose to use double-presses of the left Command key, right Command key, or either Command key. If you prefer to select some other shortcut, you can—but you can only create traditional keyboard shortcuts (such as Command-Shift-Option-D), not any based on double keystrokes.
Auto Save—a feature introduced with Lion that allowed you to browse back through previously saved versions of a document much like you retrieve files from a Time Machine backup—gains new, improved capabilities in Mountain Lion. In the Lion version of Auto Save, you could click on the title of a document and choose to lock, duplicate, revert to last saved version, or browse all versions of the file. In Mountain Lion this Auto Save menu becomes more useful.
In addition to those Duplicate, Lock, and Browse All Versions options, you'll now find commands for renaming and moving files as well as for retrieving the last saved version of your file. Which of those commands you see depends on whether you’ve already saved the file and where you’ve saved it to.
Saving to iCloud
For example, if you were to create a TextEdit document and type a single character, the file’s title would have the words Untitled — Edited appended to it. Edited means that your file has been automatically saved to iCloud—without you having to go through the motions of invoking a Save command. This is useful, should TextEdit inexplicably quit without you having saved changes.
When you save the file you have the option to save it on iCloud (provided you have an iCloud account and have granted your Mac access to it) or to your Mac. (Interesting tidbit: TextEdit will claim that it has saved your document to iCloud even if you don’t have an active Internet connection. Obviously, the file is stored locally as it can’t be put online. However, once you do establish an Internet connection, the file is automatically moved to iCloud.)
When iOS 4.2 debuted, Apple changed the name of AirTunes—the feature that let you stream music from iTunes to an AirPort Express—to AirPlay, and in the process upgraded it considerably. In addition to streaming audio from iTunes on your computer, you could now stream from any AirPlay-enabled iOS app—you could even stream video to Apple TV. In fact, as of iOS 5, you could actually mirror the screen of an iPhone 4S or later, or an iPad 2 or later—whatever that screen displayed, you could view on your TV through your Apple TV.
AirPlay mirroring was such a great feature that people wanted it for their Macs. And in Mountain Lion, Apple has delivered: You can now send your Mac’s screen to any second- or third-generation Apple TV on the same local network and mirror it on any connected TV. The only catch: Your hardware must be relatively new. Specifically, it requires a mid-2011 or newer iMac, Mac mini, or MacBook Air, or an early 2011 or newer MacBook Pro.
If you have the requisite Mac, using AirPlay to mirror its display is simple: Mountain Lion automatically detects if a compatible Apple TV is on your local network. If so, an AirPlay Mirroring pop-up menu appears in the Displays pane of System Preferences. (You can opt to have an AirPlay Mirroring menu appear in the menu bar whenever an Apple TV is available.) Choose your Apple TV, and in a few seconds your Mac’s screen appears on your TV, with the Mac’s audio playing through your TV or home-theater system. Apple says the video stream is encrypted for security and optimized to give you the best image quality without stalling or experiencing glitches.
Mountain Lion gives you a few options for choosing the best screen resolution, though your options depend on where you set them. From the system-wide menu, you can choose whether your Mac’s screen appears at its standard resolution on your TV or changes to match the TV’s native resolution—the latter option offers the sharpest image on your TV. In the Displays pane of System Preferences, you can choose your screen’s native resolution (Best For Display), the best resolution for streaming to your TV (Best For AirPlay), or any of the other resolutions supported by your Mac (Scaled). The Displays pane also lets you enable overscan correction.
More than a few Mac users worry that OS X is becoming too much like iOS, thanks to the former gaining features obviously inspired by the latter. But even the most anti-iOS Mac user has to admit that sometimes this is a good thing. To wit: With our iPhones and iPads, we’ve come to expect that even when the device has been asleep, waking it will immediately present us with our latest email messages, events, reminders, changes to contacts, and more. These devices will even back up to iCloud and sync with iTunes when unattended. Under Mountain Lion (OS X 10.8), if you’ve got a compatible Mac laptop, you’ll get many of the same benefits thanks to a new feature called Power Nap.
Which Macs are compatible? Currently only the Mid 2012 MacBook Pro with Retina Display and the Mid 2011 and Mid 2012 MacBook Air models. Each of these models requires a SMC firmware update (Mid 2011 Air, Mid 2012 Air, Mid 2012 Pro Retina) to support Power Nap.