OS X Mountain Lion’s 10 Most Important New Features

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We knew OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion’s arrival was imminent after Apple announced at WWDC 2012 that we’d see it in July, and sure enough, Apple just posted the final version of its revamped operating system for the Mac — the so-called “gold master” — to developers on July 9.

The days of sending gold code off to disc duplication centers weeks before actual product shows up in boxes or gets installed on computers at retail are in the past: Mountain Lion will be available day one as a download through the App Store, like Lion before it. Also like Lion, it won’t be available on disc as an alternative, and whether Apple’s planning to offer a significantly more expensive USB-based version, as it does with Lion, remains to be seen.

(MORE: Apple’s OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion: The Mac Gets Even More iPad-Like)

When can you snag your own copy for $19.99 (in fact $10 cheaper than OS X Lion sold for a year ago)? Apple has until the end of July to make good on its WWDC promise. If we assume the company’s aiming for a Wednesday release again, we’ll most likely see it on either July 18 — a week from today — or by the following Wednesday, July 25.

As Snow Leopard was to Leopard, Mountain Lion’s relationship to Lion is deceptively conservative, appearing at first blush all but identical to its predecessor, save for cosmetic refinements like the less glassy Dock (think “frosted”) or the extra icons in the menu bar. Almost all of what makes Mountain Lion what it is lies beneath its skin — the skin of a computer operating system still, of course, but one now harboring an interface that’s much more iOS-like, and whose watchword might as well be “unification.”

Apple claims Mountain Lion will ship with some 200 new features, most of them incremental, but a few alter the playing field enough to warrant special mention. Here’s a rundown of the 10 most significant ones.

AirPlay Mirroring. Arguably one of Mountain Lion’s most important, game-changing new features, AirPlay Mirroring will allow you to stream whatever’s on your Mac’s screen, audio included, to an Apple TV-connected television, just as with an iPad or iPhone 4S. Wireless presentations, check, but also: No more dragging your laptop into the living room and plugging in a mini-DVI to DVI or VGA or HDMI connector when you want to watch anything at all — say the latest episode of a TV show streaming from a network channel’s website, or a home video in a non-Apple-TV-friendly format.

Notification Center. Modeled after the Notification Center Apple added to the iPhone in iOS 5 last October, this is your new locus of “what’s happening now,” with recently received (or upcoming) information lurking just beneath your desktop wallpaper on the right side of the screen. Click the new icon on the menubar (to the right of Spotlight, superseding the latter’s position of importance) or slide two fingers from your trackpad’s righthand side and your entire desktop shifts to the left, unearthing a dark gray column filled with dates, reminders and anything else in the offing. As new messages arrive, they’ll pop up in this corner of the screen, keeping you apprised of what’s happening in one catch-all location.

Messages. Already available as a public beta for OS X Lion, Messages is Apple’s multi-protocol iChat messaging replacement, rolling everything iChat was into a modified one-stop GUI and folding in iOS 5’s iMessage functionality. With Messages, Apple lets you send free text messages as well as photos or videos to anyone with an iOS device (running iOS 5) or another Mac running Mountain Lion. And instead of limiting you to a Buddy List (don’t worry, that window’s still there if you need it), Apple’s performed a simple Skype-like trick, drawing from your full Contacts when you type a name into the “To” field.

Power Nap. Like Nintendo’s 3DS gaming handheld, Macs running OS X Lion will still be capable of quietly performing tasks while snoozing, such as checking mail, updating notes and reminders, collating incoming messages, pulling down software updates and running Time Machine backups. And they’ll do all that whether plugged in or running off the battery.

(MORE: 6 Reasons Apple Is So Successful)

Game Center. Game Center comprises another straight up iOS import, styled just like the version you’re used to on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Think Xbox LIVE for Mac and you’re in the neighborhood: Your Apple ID becomes your game name, you can upload contacts to get friend recommendations, you have a total game score (dubbed “Points”) and while Apple still has miles to go to make OS X as viable and desirable a gaming platform as PCs, consoles or even iOS, Game Center represents a significant step in that direction.

Gatekeeper. Gatekeeper is a set-and-forget riff on Microsoft’s digital signature vetting process for drivers, only here it’s applied to apps and designed to help you combat malware by extending OS X’s existing authentication-based installation routine. You get three options: download and install from anywhere, same as in OS X Lion, only install apps from the Mac App Store, or only install Mac App Store apps that have also been signed with a Developer ID.

Safari 6.0. Safari for Mountain Lion (v6.0) is loaded with new, if subtle features, including a unified Chrome-like address bar and search field (finally), a “share” button that includes options to tweet, email or message web pages, the option to view saved passwords (after authenticating, of course), a new set-and-forget “do not track” privacy option, the option to rename bookmark bar items (though, sadly, not drop-down subsets) and iCloud integration whereby you can browse where you left off when switching from a Mac to an iOS device.

Dictation. It’s not yet clear how well dictation’s going to work, but voice commands run through Apple’s servers, just like they do on Apple’s newest iPad. Apple claims it works in any app, and that all you need to do is select a text field, enable the service and start talking. Once you’re finished speaking, you click a button to convert your speech to text, and you can either dictate messages or search for names in Contacts, all without special voice training routines (Apple says the app trains itself to your voice and accent as you go).

Reminders, Notes and Twitter. Is listing three at once cheating? Once more, you’re looking at the iOS-ification of OS X: Both Reminders and Notes are iOS 5 apps formerly linked to OS X apps like Mail and Calendar. Reminders promises more sophisticated to-do lists with location-based notifications, while Notes allows you to create advanced notes with photos or attachments. What’s more, Twitter now comes integrated at the “Mail, Contacts & Calendars” level under System Preferences: Sign into your Twitter account there, and apps like Safari that support tweeting at the operating system level will let you dispatch notes to the microblogging service instantly (the only downside, for those looking to ditch a standalone Twitter client: no way to monitor your Twitter feed).

iCloud. I know, Macs already have iCloud. But the changes in Mountain Lion are substantial and system-wide, folding in a little of everything, from built-in sharing to synchronization of apps like Reminders and Notes to something Apple’s calling iCloud Document Library, a way to access your documents across both Mac and iOS devices. According to Apple, “the iCloud Document Library shows your iCloud documents for the app with the most recent one at the top.” Yes, Apple’s done away with agnostic storage repositories like iDisk and won’t offer a Google Drive or Dropbox analogue here, but if your file synchronization needs are limited to Apple’s iCloud-enabled apps, it may just suffice.

MORE: Apple Shows Off Air-Like MacBook Pro, iOS 6, Mountain Lion and More