It’s been just over a year since Apple released OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, in that time we’ve managed to become intimately familiar with the features it introduced. With its successor, OS X 10.9 Mavericks, coming this autumn we’ve updated our Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion review with up-to-date information.
10.8 Mountain Lion is a direct upgrade from OX 10.7 Lion that includes many new features that are pleasant to use, and offer great functional integration (especially if you own multiple Apple devices such as a
Since its release
Microsoft has launched its Windows 8 operating system. For a while it felt like Microsoft Windows releases followed Apple Mac OS X with similar features, but not this time: Microsoft has become radical with Windows 8 and taken it completely different path.
There’s now a really different ethos between Apple and Microsoft about how operating systems should work in the face of increasing popularity of mobile devices (smartphones and tablets). Apple has concentrated on providing a distinctly different interface for Mac OS X and iOS but bringing together data in the form of iCloud services; whereas Microsoft has created a Windows 8 Interface that aims to be identical on desktop computers as well as its Surface tablets.
Apple also follows a path of a new version every year, which it releases for a lower price: much lower these days, Apple is now charging £13.99 to update from Mac OS X 10.7 to Mac OS X 10.8. Indeed the price is so low that cost is rarely a concern for users considering upgrading, instead the reasons for not upgrading are often concerns about stability and compatibility with old software.
We’re currently version Mac OS X 10.8.4 and Apple has ironed out many problems and issues users had with the initial release.
Mountain Lion: Everything you need to know in one place
Mac OS X 10.8 New Features
Much of this brings some of the best from iOS to Mac OS X: notably Notification Center, persistent connection (called Power Nap), improved iCloud functionality and the ability to save documents in a cloud space, Siri-like Voice Dictation, plus key iOS apps like Messages, Reminders, Notes and Game Center, and vastly improved AirPlay sharing.
Those of us who worry about the almost-inevitable convergence of iOS and Mac OS X will be pleased to hear that Apple seems keen on integrating core functionality, rather than interface design (which remains very much geared towards touchscreen on iOS devices and keyboard and mouse on OS X). When we think of the difficulty many users have encountered with the new Windows 8 interface we firmly believe that Apple made the right decision here.
What hasn’t changed much is the overall interface, there are no major new interface elements (certainly nothing along the lines of Launchpad or Mission Control). Although Notification Center and the iOS-style alerts adjust the way you interact with the operating system.
Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion now available on App Store
The major new feature in Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion is the expansion and further integration of iCloud, which is now deeply integrated throughout the system.
Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks features
If you haven’t updated from Lion to Mountain Lion it’s worth noting that the new Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks upgrade will introduce you to all of the features from Mountain Lion plus quite a few new ones:
- iBooks: brings books from the iTunes Store and iBooks in iCloud to your Mac
- Maps: A new Apple Maps app. You can plan trips and send the results to iOS
- New-look Calendar: streamlined interface and now has Facebook events integration
- Safari: a new sidebar will make it easier to visit bookmarks and access Reading List.
- iCloud Keychain. All your passwords will be stored securely in iCloud and shared across machines.
- Multiple Displays: Each display has its own Menu bar and Dock. This makes full-screen working much easier.
- Notifications: These are now interactive enabling you to reply to messages with a notification, for example.
- Finder tabs: Finder now has Tabs like Safari
- Tags: You will be able to quickly add tags to files.
- Advanced technologies: New technologies like Timer Coalescing, App Nap, Safari Power Save, and Compressed Memory will make Mavericks run even faster on lower spec machines.
So it’s worth bearing in mind that if you haven’t already upgraded then Mac OS X Mavericks will give you all your current features, plus a whole bunch of interesting new ones.
Mac OS X 10.8: iCloud and Automatic Setup
As in Lion you enter your Apple ID when installing Mountain Lion, but now Automatic Setup kicks in during the installation process and sets up a variety of accounts in Mac OS X automatically. These include:
- Calendars & Reminders
- Photo Stream
- Documents and Data
- Back to My Mac
- Find My Mac
You can select the ones you want to apply in the System Preferences (which hasn’t been renamed Settings to match iOS, incidentally). The Automatic Setup process ensures that a Mac is much more ‘ready-to-go’ as soon as the installation is completed.
You can also now sign up for an iCloud account, which acts as your corresponding Apple ID, during the installation process. This will have an @icloud.com email address, though if you signed up for .Mac or MobileMe you can still use the @mac.com and @me.com addresses, as well as @icloud.com. Be aware that you cannot change your Apple ID, although you can create additional email addresses.
iCloud now syncs up Mail information between different Macs signed in to iCloud, such as signatures and account details, although annoyingly signatures aren’t synced with iOS.
Mac OS X 10.8.2: Documents In The Cloud
As well as improved iCloud setup and syncing, the other major new feature is the inclusion of Documents In The Cloud. Apps that support this will save the document to your iCloud account, rather than to the Finder. This makes them immediately available on other Mac OS X and iOS devices. It’s a fascinating new approach to the storage and sharing of document data that works very differently from Finder.
The first thing to note is that Documents In The Cloud only works with supporting apps. Currently in OS X that’s TextEdit and Preview, and the recently updated versions of iWork: Pages, Keynote or Numbers, and iPhoto. We presume that support for the pro apps, such as Aperture and Final Cut may happen further down the line.
It’s pretty neat to work on a Pages document on the iPad and see the changes appear directly in Mac OS X (typically just a few seconds later). By being baked right into the apps the changes appear in real time, rather than when you re-open the documents (as in a service like Dropbox). We’re now starting to see how the cloud-based future is starting to pan out, and we would bet that this sort of functionality convinces many people to switch from programs like Microsoft Office to iWork.
There’s already some support coming from apps on the Mac App Store. We particularly like the integration of Byword on the Mac (£2.99) and Byword for iOS (£1.99) for creating and editing text documents. It’s a neat way to write something on the Mac and carry on with an iPad or iPhone, and a nice clean word processor to use.
The second thing to note is that documents saved to Documents In The Cloud are sandboxed to a specific app. So a text document created in Byword, for example, cannot be opened in TextEdit; while a PDF saved into Preview cannot be viewed in another app such as GoodReader (£2.99).
Users of Dropbox (free), or similar rival services that seamlessly sync a Finder folder across multiple devices may find Documents In The Cloud’s different approach rather puzzling, and if this is truly the plan moving forward, then it’s hard to imagine how professionally useful this feature can truly be. It’s useless for non-supporting apps, for instance. So that’s Microsoft Office, anything to do with Adobe; in fact most office your programs left out of the loop. So don’t remove Dropbox just yet.
Although we find Documents In The Cloud’s approach refreshingly different, it might just be a bit too different for your workflow at the moment. You still often need to move documents from one program to another. But when more and more apps start to support the feature, we might find it completely changes the way you go about working and sharing documents.
Which brings us to our third observation of Documents In The Cloud, the Finder interface. When you open a new document in TextEdit, Preview or any other supporting app, you are presented with a new type of Finder window that displays either icons or a list of files (icons at the bottom enable you to determine between the two). The documents are all placed in a flat folder structure, although you can drag two documents together to create a folder (as you can with apps in iOS or Launchpad). You can’t, however, create a folder hierarchy by dragging folders into folders.
It’s incredibly refreshing to see some of the complexity taken out of the Finder system. With its multiple layers of folders we’ve long wondered if there isn’t an easier way to organise documents: especially for non-computer buffs. Apple seems to be tackling this situation with iCloud
And if you don’t appreciate the simplicity of Documents In The Cloud, you can continue to use the Finder as normal in association with services such as Dropbox. For now we’re enjoying using both and seeing how Documents In The Cloud pans out when it supports a wider range of apps that we use on a regular basis.
The most visual new feature is almost certainly the Notification Center, which has also made its way from iOS over to Mac OS X. This is a list of notifications from installed apps that appears on the right side of the desktop. It’s accessed either by clicking a new icon in the menu bar, or by dragging two fingers in from the right of a trackpad (you can also set a keyboard shortcut).
There are two types of on-desktop notification: Banners and Alerts. Both appear in the top-right of the screen just below Spotlight: Alerts remain onscreen until they are dismissed (you can either Close or Open the program, and apps some have a Snooze option); Banners disappear on their own after five seconds.
By default you get Calendar events, Reminders, FaceTime calls, Safari and Game Center Mail messages and Tweets (both direct messages and mentions). The settings for each app are located in System Preferences, where you can select the type of alerts and how many items want to appear in the Notification Centre. Developers will be able to integrate Mac OS X apps with Notification Center as they move forward and you may have to manage down notifications when a number of programs support it.
Twitter also enables you to enable and disable direct messages or mentions. Annoyingly though, the settings are universal for all Twitter accounts, so you can’t just have direct messages to one personal account.
At the top of Notification Center is a Click To Tweet button that enables you to share whatever is on your mind at that moment; we assume that this will be joined by a Facebook button when Facebook integration comes in the autumn.
Whether or not you like Notification Center will have much to do with your personal level of intrusion. The onscreen alerts are remarkably similar to Growl (£1.49), which is loved and loathed by OS X users in equal measure. It didn’t take us long to remove the onscreen Mail alerts, and Twitter mentions shortly followed.
You can scroll up in Notification Center to reveal a switch that turns off Alerts and Banners, but they turn on automatically the next day. The only way to permanently switch everything off is to go through each app individually in System Preferences.
Power Nap is a really neat, if small feature. Essentially OS X still fetches emails, notifications and photos when in sleep mode. This persistent gathering of information ensures Mac OS X works a little more like iOS. It makes less sense when the Mac can’t switch itself on to deliver a notification, but it does mean everything is ready to go when you wake Mac OS X up.
Mac OS X 10.8: Further Sharing integration
Twitter has been integrated further throughout OS X and you can Tweet web pages from Safari using the Share button. You can also highlight text in any part of the operating system and choose Tweet from the contextual menu to share it. This is great although as time has gone on we’ve found Facebook and Twitter integration a little limited, it’d be good to expand this to include other services like Google+, LinkedIn and Pinterest although Apple has shown little sign of moving towards wider social networking sharing integration.
The Share button also works its way into many different parts of Mac OS X including Finder, Address Book, Notes and Preview, and enables you to share items with Mail, Messages or AirDrop, and even upload images straight to Flickr.
The integrated Share button in Safari has increased our Twitter output, we like being able to quickly create tweets from various places within Mac OS X.
Reminders and Notes
Two other big inclusions are OS X versions of Reminders and Notes, both of which integrate directly with iCloud, so items you create on the desktop appear on other Macs or iOS devices.
Both are great: Reminders is a particularly well implemented, allowing you to create and organise lists of things to do and tick them off. While ‘to do’ list program is by no means revolutionary (it was already handled by Calendar prior to Reminders appearing), it’s the implementation here that’s pretty special.
In particular you can associate Location Services with a ‘to do’ so you get an alert when leaving or arriving at specific areas. So you can add a new item at work, say pick up cat food, and then have it when you leave your current location. You don’t even have to set locations manually, just type in a postcode or Address Book entry and you’ll get the alert when you’re in that area. Because it push syncs to iOS devices the alert will ping up on your iPhone when you’re out and about: it’s really good.
Notes is also useful, if perhaps less forwardly impressive. You can create and add lists of notes, and again the seamless integration between Mac OS X and iOS is what really makes it useful. It’s worth noting that this feature is actually integrated with your email accounts, so you can have separate notes accounts for each Mail account. The separate Notes app replaces the notes function in Mail, so you have different settings for each account (controlled through System Preferences). We found it easiest to turn off Notes for all accounts other than iCloud, but you might have instances where you want notes in separate accounts.
Individual notes can be dragged out of the Notes app and dropped onto the desktop, where they resemble individual Post-it notes. Old fans of Mac classic Stickies will be please to hear that it’s still around. We would, however, suggest moving to Notes from now on, as it serves largely the same purpose but in a better way.
Another nice touch of Notes is that you can drag web URLs and links to webpages into them, as well as images and links to documents (which open in the original document). Although you should note that these images and document links don’t appear on iOS devices.
Mac OS X 10.8: Messages
The other big change is the introduction of Messages, which replaces iChat. Messages has been up and running for a while now, so we’ve had a good chance to get acquainted with it. This feature integrates with iMessage, allowing you to send text messages to other iOS users. So you can send a message via the internet to anybody running another Mac, iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. It hooks up to Address Book, and you can start an iMessage conversation using any phone number or email linked to a person running OS X or iOS.
The good news is that Messages is indispensable on Mac OS X when you start using it. The wider user base from ‘people who use iChat’ to ‘anybody who uses iOS’ has given Messages a shot in the arm. We use it on a daily basis and wouldn’t want to be without it.
The bad news is that after a year of use it still fails on a daily basis. Messages are flagged with “Message not delivered”, conversations often disappear from our message list, and messages are often displayed out of order. It’s so unreliable that many people we know are switching it off on iOS devices and reverting to SMS texting instead.
Like other iCloud services, the real joy of Messages is the way you can start a conversation on your Mac, and then continue it on an iPhone when you’re out and about. Also, because you no longer have to worry about the SMS limit, you can treat text messages more like a traditional iChat, bouncing messages back and forth in rapid succession. The flow is much more like having a text-based conversation than SMS.
You can still use Google Talk, Jabber, AIM and Yahoo chat accounts in Messages, but there’s still no support for Windows Live, which is disappointing because without it Messages can never be a universal chat solution (so many people still use Windows Live). One key advantage of Messages over other chat services is that you no longer require the other person to approve you before you can send them an iMessage. It’s also possible to start FaceTime conversations from Messages, although this fires up the separate FaceTime app, which works as before.
We hope Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks improves Messages, but we think it’s more likely to be gremlins in Apple’s server rather than the software implementation. Hopefully Apple can iron out the problems over time.
Keen gamers will be pleased to see the presence of Game Center in OS X. You can sign in with your Apple ID and it works in a fairly similar way to iOS, you can join online games and take part in turn-based games (the built-in Chess app is Game Center enabled to get you started). One really interesting feature is that Game Center can offer cross compatibility between iOS and OS X games. So you’ll be able to take part in games on the Mac platform and carry on in a mobile platform.
Between Game Center and the Mac App Store, the Mac platform is becoming an increasingly viable modern gaming platform, who would have thought it? Although the games tend to be the smaller, modern releases such as Angry Birds rather than the old-fashioned triple-A hits like Modern Warfare. As with most things, Game Center in Mac OS X depends on developer support. We presume most developers will want to integrate Game Center support as soon as possible after launch.
Mac OS X 10.8: Voice Dictation
Siri hasn’t quite made the leap from iOS to Mac OS X (and won’t in Mac OS X Mavericks either), but the Dictation feature has, and you can now speak text into any part of the new operating system where you can see the cursor. So it doesn’t just work in Apple apps, but also in other programs such as Microsoft Word.
To activate Dictation, you simply tap the Function key twice and a microphone icon appears underneath the cursor. Speak away and tap Function again when you’re done. It’s a shame that it’s not always content aware, for example if you’re in Safari and activate the feature, it doesn’t automatically enter what you say into the search box (you have to click it first to bring up the cursor), which seems an oversight. Contacts works though, as the cursor is automatically placed into the Spotlight search box. You can also use Dictation with Spotlight itself to search for anything you want.
How much mileage you get from the feature largely depends on your pronunciation ability versus your patience for speaking rather than typing. As writers charged with typing hundreds of words per day, we’re perhaps not the best judge of this, as we can typically all type faster than we can talk on Macworld. Consequently we tend to find voice dictation services incredibly frustrating.
But there’s no denying that voice control has really coming along in leaps and bounds in recent years. The technical challenges involved in accurately deciphering vocal instructions can’t be underestimated, and Apple is doing a great job in iOS, and now here on Mac OS X. And you can use English (US, UK and Australian dialect), French, German and Japanese. That’s not to say there isn’t a way to go yet, and Apple is clearly coy about bringing Siri itself out of beta on the iPhone (and now iPad) and all the way to the Mac. But if you’re into talking to your computer then Voice Dictation is the way to go.
Safari and Mail
Safari has taken a leaf from Google Chrome and unified both the URL text field and the search field. So if you type in a URL you go directly to that, if you type in anything else it performs a Search (Google by default, although Yahoo and Bing are also available).
Cloud Tabs is a new feature that enables you to quickly access pages that are open on different devices – so in Mac OS X it shows you what web pages are open on your iPhone and iPad. It’s a pretty neat feature (like Messages and Documents In The Cloud) that enables you to move smoothly between an iOS device and Mac OS X. You can also pinch to zoom out all the open tabs (or click the Show All Tabs button) and the flick left and right between them. It’s like having Mission Control for all open tabs.
The reading list now works offline, so if you add an item to your reading list in Safari you can access it when you’re away from a network connection. Which is pretty handy when you’re out and about.
You can now access a list of stored passwords associated with websites, and view and edit them. We still set a lot of store by programs like 1Password (£34.99), but if you use a lot of different passwords this is a good way to manage them.
Do Not Track is another new feature that’s found it’s way into Safari’s preferences. This is a new standard that tells websites not to track you when you’re on their site. It’s an emerging and voluntary scheme and not everybody supports the standard (it’s doubtful whether dubious websites ever will), but it’s one more tool for your privacy toolset.
Apple is also claiming marginally faster Java Performance (six per cent). We’ll await the results of Macworld labs testing, but we don’t think you’ll be able to notice any real difference (although Safari remains our favourite browser mainly for speed reasons).
A new feature in Mail is the presence of a VIP inbox that enables you to view inbox messages from specific people (or groups). You can add people to the VIP list in Mail and Address Book on either Mac OS X and in iOS 6; the VIP list is synced across all machines. VIP Inbox is a really handy feature that enables you to focus on important emails when in a hurry (which is usually all the time for most people). Again there’s one slight niggle in that we’d like to be able to get Notifications for just VIP mail messages, but we’re sure this sort of thing will come.
Mac OS X: AirPlay
In what seems a minor feature, but will come as a real boon to Apple TV owners, OS X now features AirPlay support, and can mirror the display and stream individual QuickTime files straight from your computer. This is great as you can now play just about any kind of video on your television without having to faff about converting it to a format Apple TV understands (and syncing it with iTunes). It’s worth noting that AirPlay only works on the more recent Apple Mac computers (those released since 2012) and isn’t backwards compatible with older machines.
It’s also going to be great for giving presentations, displaying photos, or just about anything that you have on your Mac and what to view on a large television screen.
AirPlay seems to be one of those features that’s quietly getting better and better, bridging the gap between computers and television displays.
Apple seems to be taking several concrete steps to increase security in Mac OS X (both in visible terms and under the hood tweaks). The most high profile new feature is Gatekeeper, which only allows you to install apps from developers that have signed up with Apple. It’s not quite like the App Store, where Apple checks each app, but it does enable the company to create a list of approved developers and can blacklist anyone that includes malware or any other malicious type of coding.
This seems a good compromise between having the security of authorised developers that you have via the App Store, without having the restriction of Apple approving individual apps. You can turn Gatekeeper off, or allow individual apps to be installed even if they haven’t been approved by Apple.
Mac OS X also now asks you to approve any app that wants to access your contacts. With increasing amounts of business revolving around hoovering up contacts, rather than outright payment, this seems like a sensible security feature.
Under the hood OS X 10.8 now has kernel ASLR (Address Space Layout Randomisation), which means every time it launches it randomly allocates parts of the operating system to different parts of memory, which makes it much more secure to certain types of security attacks. Your Time Machine backup is now encrypted, which can be a good or bad thing (we’ve hacked into Time Machine backups to extract certain items in the past).
Finally, Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion now checks for updates daily, so Apple can roll out security updates more quickly.
Mac OS X 10.8: Other new features
There are a few other slight enhancements, so here’s a few things to look out for:
- The Calendar has had a slight refresh and the sidebar showing groups has returned. This will be completely revamped in the next edition of Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks.
- You can now search for apps in Launchpad with a Spotlight text box.
- Dashboard now also has a new Widget browser based on Launchpad.
- The Finder now has inline progress bars (that look like the App installation bars in iOS).
- QuickLook with three-finger tap (still easier to just press the space bar).
- There’s a selection of new Braille languages for the blind.
- VoiceOver now supports drag and drop with modifier keys, press and hold, and drag items to hotspots
- Preview now offers PDF entry field, so you can tick checkboxes and fill out text fields.
Mac OS X 10.8: interface and design
When Apple announced it was planning to bring the best of iOS over to Mac OS X we all worried that the Mac operating system would become more difficult to use as it tried to implement interface ideas that were only really suited to the smaller touchscreen.
We’re glad to see that most interface elements from iOS being brought over to OS X are being tucked away, either as Launchpad (which serves as an addition to several traditional means of launching programs), or now as a Dashboard widget manager and that we can still very much use a Mac OS X as a computer not a glorified iPad. That said, the interface hasn’t really changed that much from Lion to Mountain Lion. The Finder still operates in much the same way, and has much of the same style (the rumoured Marble interface redesign that would make everything black and grey; like iMovie, hasn’t materialised).
The design of different apps does, however, look a little odd to us. There seems to be two main styles: all the old apps (Mail, iTunes, Safari, now have a monotone grey look) whereas apps such as Calendar, Address Book and Game Center all have this weird beige teak-wood effect. Reminders is the reverse of that being in a solid business black. Apple started to implement new look apps in Lion and has continued it in Mountain Lion, but without any real consistency. It’s worth noting that the next iteration of Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks does away with many of these issues and implements a new design.
There must be some method behind these design choices. We assume that Apple, famous for paying a lot of thought to design, has decided that things to do should be presented in an inverse colour scheme; while gaming, contacts and your calendar both belong to a fake wood effect; everything else in monochrome: but we’re darned if we can figure it out.
Mavericks looks set to iron out some of these issues with a redesigned Calendar app that’s more familiar to long-term Mac OS X users. In time we think the design will move over to a ‘flat’ design style being implemented in iOS 7, but for now users will have to keep using a variety of different styles.
Of perhaps more annoyance is the creeping inconsistency with keyboard shortcuts. Auto Save (introduced in Lion) is the prime suspect here. Pressing Command-S saves a document in most traditional programs, but in iPhoto it now brings up the Straighten tool. Command-Shift-S in most programs is Save As, but in programs with Auto Save (like TextEdit, Preview, Pages, and Numbers) pressing Command-S duplicates a file. In an Auto-Save program, the unusual Command-Shift-Option-S combination now performs the Save As command instead. Confused? Imagine being new to the Mac OS X operating system.
Imagine being new to the Mac OS X operating system.
We’re all for change, but users rightly act confused when confronted with an operating system that has inconsistent stock commands, especially when they’re such stalwarts as Save and Save As. And we’re not wholly convinced that Documents in The Cloud is going to simplify matters or muddy the waters even further. On the whole Mac OS X is still a heck of a lot more intuitive than Windows, but we think Apple should stamp out some of these interface inconsistencies.
Mac OS X 10.8 Compatibility
With the cost of upgrading to Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion fairly negligible, you might be tempted to upgrade straightaway. As ever there are advantages to sitting out for the first few weeks just to see if there are any major problems. So far we’ve found the two big programs: Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite CS5 and CS6 all run fine (although we had to re-install Photoshop CS6 for some reason).
You should ensure that all software is up-to-date before installation. We had difficulty with Parallels Desktop 7 which would not launch after updating to Mountain Lion (because we weren’t running the latest update). Because the program would not launch we could not update from inside the Parallels programs, although the
Mountain Lion-compatible update is available from the Parallels site. We also noticed that Elgato’s GameCapture HD does not function correctly (although we imagine an update will arrive soon), and there may be a few programs that you rely on that have issues with OS X 10.8. So if you rely on programs outside of Office and Creative Suite, you might want to test them out first. A website called
RoaringApps is hosting a wiki of compatible apps and programs.
It’s worth noting that Rosetta is now completely removed from the Mac OS X operating system so if you have any old Mac OS 9 programs running through Rosetta you won’t be able to use them on the new system.
If you’ve waited this long to upgrade to Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion you might as well wait another few months and see what Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks brings. Having said that most of the kinks are now all ironed out, and it’s a stable software update so if you’ve been waiting for it to settle down and for third-party applications to be tested on it now is a good time to upgrade.