Apple OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion Review: The Mac’s Lion Adventure Continues

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Apple Senior VP Craig Federighi shows off Mountain Lion on June 11, 2012 at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco

How do you prep a venerable computer operating system to flourish in late 2012 and beyond?

We’re about to get answers to that question from both Apple and Microsoft, in the form of major upgrades to the world’s two most popular operating systems. Apple’s new Mac software, OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, is hitting the Mac App Store today; Microsoft’s Windows 8 is due just three months later, on October 26th.

Superficially, the two updates share big-picture themes. Both draw inspiration from their makers’ mobile operating systems, Apple’s iOS and Microsoft’s Windows Phone. Each uses an Internet service–iCloud in the case of Mountain Lion, SkyDrive with Windows 8–to share data, settings and other items between multiple computers and other devices.

But what’s most striking about Mountain Lion and Windows 8 isn’t the similarities, but their fundamentally different visions. To swipe a line from Yogi Berra, both Apple and Microsoft see a fork in the road–and they’re taking it.

Microsoft thinks the future is about one operating system that runs on all sorts of gadgets. It’s de-emphasizing the Windows look and feel that haven’t changed much since the mid-1990s in favor of Metro, a bold, touch-friendly interface designed to work on everything from hulking tower PCs to slim, iPad-esque tablets. The company is even going to sell some of those tablets itself: The uncommonly slick Surface is the first-ever PC to carry the Microsoft name.

Apple, by contrast, doesn’t need to give OS X a radical mobile makeover or gin together an iPad-esque tablet–hey, it’s already got the iPad. So Mountain Lion is built for precisely the same machines as previous versions: MacBooks, iMacs, Mac Minis and Mac Pros, equipped with a keyboard and either an oversized touchpad or a touch-sensitive Magic Mouse. This software is happy to be a conventional (albeit ambitious) operating system for conventional (albeit ambitious) computers.

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As with last year’s OS X 10.7 Lion, Apple is doing its darndest to make the Mountain Lion upgrade irresistibly painless. Rather than paying for a shiny disc in a box, you buy it as a 4GB download from the Mac App Store; installation requires next to no human intervention, and went smoothly in my case. (I tried the new operating system on both my own MacBook Air and a pre-loaded Retina MacBook Pro loaned to me by Apple.)

Speaking of irresistible, Apple, which once charged $129 for OS X upgrades such as Leopard, now prices them as if it were Crazy Eddie. Fork over just $19.99 for Mountain Lion–down from $29.99 apiece for the last two versions–and you’re entitled to install it on all the Macs associated with your iTunes account, provided they’re currently running either Lion or Snow Leopard.

When the company first previewed Lion back in 2010, it did so at an event it called “Back to the Mac.” That meant that it was giving operating system features to the Mac which were inspired by iOS, such as a full-screen mode, a minimalist application manager called Launchpad and an App Store. The idea was so big that it’s overflown into Mountain Lion: More than most operating-system updates, this one riffs on the same concepts as its immediate predecessor.

For starters, a bunch more iOS features, including some which didn’t even exist a year ago, have come back to the Mac. The single most important one is probably Notifications, a unified system that lets programs of all sorts briefly command your attention even when you’re not using them, via messages which pop up in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.

Crucial notifications such as calendar reminders stay there until you dismiss them; others, like incoming e-mail messages and updates to apps, fade away after 10 seconds. An icon at the rightmost side of the OS X Menu Bar lets you shove your entire workspace over to the left, making room for a running list of alerts you may have missed.

You can easily customize notifications for individual apps, or temporarily disable all of them when you don’t want to be be bugged. It’s all incredibly useful–and except for the fact that everything appears over to the right, it’s very similar to the Notifications that debuted in iOS 5.

Notifications are also reminiscent of Growl, an open-source alert utility that does much the same thing for many third-party Mac apps. But I like Apple’s take even better, mostly because of that slide-out right-hand panel. It makes it simple to peek at recent notifications when you care–and it’s equally simple to ignore them when you don’t.

Apple programs bundled with OS X, such as Mail, Calendar, FaceTime and the App Store use Notifications right now, but the feature–like several other Mountain Lion additions–will really come into its own as third-party programs start to support it.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that every application you use will get every Mountain Lion feature it would benefit from: Major apps from big companies such as Microsoft and Adobe still haven’t picked up on all of Lion’s goodies from last year. Historically, though, most Mac developers latch onto significant new OS X features swiftly, so expect a flurry of updates in the weeks to come.

Apple also raided the iOS cupboard for Messages, an app whose Mac edition debuted as a public beta and is now built into OS X. Replacing the familiar iChat, Messages is an instant-messaging program with group-chat capability and a dash of text messaging mixed in. It still supports the modes of communications that iChat did–including AIM and Yahoo Messenger–but also does iMessages, Apple’s own super-smart text messaging service which already works on iPhones and iPads. iMessages don’t count against any text-message allotment you get from your wireless carrier, and they do things conventional text messages can’t, such as tell you when the person on the other end has seen them.

Unlike iChat, Message also logs all your iMessages on all your Apple devices and syncs them up. You can start chatting on your Mac, then pick up the conversation on an iPhone or Pad, and you’ll see the whole conversation everywhere.

In fact, all your stuff being available on all your Apple gizmos at all times is a recurring theme in Mountain Lion. There’s more evidence of it in the new Notes and Reminders apps, both of which, like Notifications and Messages, are closely modeled on their iOS equivalents. Whatever you jot in them, on any device, is immediately whisked up to the Internet via iCloud, then back down again and onto every other device.

On a similar note, iCloud has a new feature called Documents in the Cloud which really should have been there from the get-go. (It replaces a far clunkier service called Programs such as Apple’s Pages, Numbers and Keynote now have file browsers that provide access to all the documents you’ve created on as many Macs, iPhones and/or iPads as you’ve got. Third-party developers will be able to use Documents in the Cloud to add the same functionality to their own wares, and I hope that many of them will.

Other Mac developers–the ones who build games rather than mundane useful stuff–will want to get to work on supporting Game Center, Apple’s social network for gamers. It’s now available on OS X as well as iOS X, and even makes it possible for programmers to write games that let Mac owners compete against iPhone and iPad users.

They can even do that competing on a big-screen TV, thanks to AirPlay Mirroring. Like its equivalent in iOS, this option lets you beam your Mac’s display and audio, effortlessly and wirelessly, to an HDTV hooked up to Apple’s grilled-cheese-sandwich-sized $99 Apple TV box. If you needed an excuse to spring for Apple TV, which can also stream iTunes, Netflix and YouTube directly off the Net–well, you just got it. (Apple says it thinks AirPlay will also be a hit in classrooms.)

Mountain Lion’s new sharing features, also iOS-influenced, puts quick-sharing icons into the toolbars of the Safari browser, Preview, Photo Booth and other programs. Each one gets sharing options tailored to the app at hand.

In Safari, for example, you can Tweet a link to a web page, send it via Messages or e-mail it as a link, a PDF attachment or inside the message’s body. In Photo Booth, you can upload photos to Flickr and videos to Vimeo. (YouTube, however, isn’t supported: Maybe ongoing tensions over Google’s Android have left Apple disinclined to add new features relating to its rival’s properties.) Third-party developers will be able to add the sharing icon, with relevant services, to their apps.

These sharing tools would be even better if they allowed other companies to plug in their own social networks without having to make nice with Apple–that is, after all, possibly the only way we’ll see Google+ in there.

Of course, for every one Machead who craves Google+ integration, there are probably several dozen who’d use built-in Facebook. The social-networking kingpin isn’t part of Mountain Lion yet, but it will be soon enough in an update Apple plans to make available this fall. (The company provided it to me in pre-release form.)

Facebook won’t just show up along with Twitter and other sharing options. Your OS X Contacts database will also pull down your friends’ names, snail-mail and e-mail addresses, phone numbers, birthdays and profile pictures, then keep them up to date whenever they change back on Facebook. It makes perfect sense: Why worry about all those details when your friends will do it for you?

For all of Mountain Lion’s iOS-derived goodness, one highlight plenty of folks would love to see in OS X is still missing in action: Siri, the voice-controlled personal assistant. At the moment, she only does her thing on the iPhone 4S. The iPad is next, when Apple releases iOS 6 in the fall.

But Mountain Lion does add its own version of iOS’s dictation feature, which lets you enter text into any application by tapping the Fn key twice and then speaking–crisply and clearly–into your Mac’s microphone. Almost any application, at least–I couldn’t get it operating in Google Apps’ browser-based word processor.

As with Siri and iOS dictation, you need to be online for this to work: Mountain Lion captures your voice and sends the recording to the cloud for processing. The results aren’t flawless. Even though the feature asks permission to peek at your contacts so it can recognize their names more accurately, it still got befuddled by some of mine. When I tried to pull up Ponzi Black, for instance, it thought it heard “Ponzi Blaak” and couldn’t find her.

Another odd glitch: The Mountain Lion online help system alludes to spoken commands you can use with dictation, such as “all caps” to CAPITALIZE the next word. At the moment, however, some of these handy options aren’t working–on Macs, iPads or iPhones. Apple says that it knows about the problem and is working on a fix.

Snafus aside, the accuracy of Mountain Lion’s free-form dictation is mostly impressive: It nails phrases I assumed it would fumble, such as “take me to the RadioShack on John Daly Boulevard off highway 280.” You’re not going to use it to compose your master’s thesis, but you might well find it worthwhile for e-mail or text messages.

Gatekeeper, a new security feature, might be the biggest Mountain Lion addition that has nothing to do with either iOS or iCloud. (Yep, Macs aren’t impervious to online threats, as a few high-profile attacks, such as last spring’s Flashback, have reminded us.)

Apple is now vetting developers and allowing them to sign their apps with digital certificates indicating that they’re not distributing malware or other dangerous programs. By default, Mountain Lion will only let you install programs carrying these certificates. You can also choose an extra-cautious option which only permits installation of programs from Apple’s own Mac App Store, all of which have undergone individual scrutiny. Or you can tell Mountain Lion to let you install any software you please, regardless of where it came from or whether it includes a certificate.

There’s plenty I haven’t mentioned yet. Apple has accounted for more than 200 new features in Mountain Lion, many of which will matter to lots of people. Mail, for instance, now lets you specify VIPs such as bosses and spouses, then view their messages in a special inbox. Like other major browsers, Safari finally has a unified bar that lets you enter both web addresses and search queries.

Safari also remembers the passwords you enter at sites, and will even let you see all the ones you’ve saved in one place–no asterisks involved–once you’ve entered your Mac security credentials. It’s a sort of universal “forgot your password?” option that’s a Godsend if you’re as absent-minded as I am.

Did I mention that Apple only wants $19.99 for all this? Some may choose to spurn this upgrade, but nobody will do it based on grounds of insufficient bang-for-the-buck.

Still, the big news about Mountain Lion isn’t that it’s so cheap. It’s how it largely completes what Lion started, bringing a common set of features and apps to the Mac, iPhone and iPad and using iCloud to tie them all together. People have been praising Apple for seamlessly melding hardware, software and services for so long that it’s practically a clich√©. But OS X 10.8 makes it feel like a fresh idea all over again–and the more Apple gear you own, the more you’ll get out of it.

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