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Apple OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion) Review
Date: Aug 02, 2012
Author: Ray Willington
Introduction to Mountain Lion
Apple's Mountain Lion operating system has been a long time coming. Apple first teased the "200 new features" represented in OS X 10.8 back in June, and here we are in August with well over three million copies already downloaded. According to Apple, the launch of Mountain Lion is its most successful OS X launch ever. It's also interesting for another reason: it's the first Mac desktop OS ever to not ship on a disc or USB flash drive from the start. It's only available as a ~4.34GB download, which you could argue alienates OS X users who don't have access to a reliable broadband connection, but that's a discussion for another day.

Of course, you could always head to an Apple Store, a Starbucks or some other locale with free Wi-Fi, but it's another step that hasn't been a part of the equation. Apple has never shied away from pushing the envelope, be it the removal of the optical drive in the Mac mini, the introduction of the Retina display, or the decision to force users to download Mountain Lion. It's a digital world, and the idea of download-only isn't as far-fetched as it once may have been. SSD-based Macs have a much easier time with the installation too; HDD-based Macs need to allow around an hour after download to completely install OS X 10.8.

What is Mountain Lion -

So, let's talk about what OS X 10.8 is. OS X is a significant step forward for Apple and it has reached a very mature stage. Obviously, we've only got another point release before we roll to OS 11, or whatever Apple ends up naming it. Speaking of names, OS X 10.8's "Mountain Lion" moniker is somewhat revealing as well. OS X 10.5 was named Leopard, followed by 10.6 also known as Snow Leopard. Apple said that Snow Leopard was primarily a refreshing and refining of Leopard. Now, we're in a similar position. OS X 10.7 was Lion and today, we have Mountain Lion. To best understand what makes this edition worthwhile though, let's look at what's new.

The actual desktop space of OS X 10.8 isn't dramatically different than what you'll find in 10.7. At a glance, it may be tough to see what's actually different in Mountain Lion. But it's just a reminder that most point updates are subtle, and many of the changes are under the hood. It's worth mentioning that Mountain Lion requires a fairly new Mac. You'll need an iMac (Mid 2007 or newer), MacBook Air (Late 2008 or newer), MacBook (Late 2008 Aluminum, or Early 2009 or newer), Mac mini (Early 2009 or newer), MacBook Pro (Mid/Late 2007 or newer), Mac Pro (Early 2008 or newer) or an Xserve (Early 2009). AirPlay Mirroring requires an even newer subset of computers, and of course, Photo Booth and FaceTime require a Mac with a built-in camera / webcam. Why the need for all the fresh hardware? We'll take a look at that on the next page.
What's New In OS X 10.8

Apple AirPlay -

For starters, there's AirPlay Mirroring. In talking about this, you'll realize a common thread throughout the review: pieces of iOS placed in OS X. Apple is quite clearly relying on iOS tidbits in order to make OS X more of a consumer product, and to make new Mac owners feel at home if they first used an iPhone or iPad. AirPlay Mirroring was first embellished on the iPad, and it was certainly one of its best features. Now, it's formally on the desktop and laptop. And in typical Apple fashion, it's drop-dead simple to use. You will need one of the newer Apple TV units (the small black box variant), but otherwise, you're set. Just connect that to your HDTV, monitor, projector or other display, and hit the AirPlay icon on your Mac.

Within seconds, everything on your Mac is now on that panel. There's only a slight amount of lag, and in constant streaming (like watching YouTube videos) that won't be an issue. For gaming, however, it may not be ideal. AirPlay Mirroring also scales the contents of your Mac desktop to fit on your HDTV, and you can also use the audio streaming feature independent of AirPlay Mirroring by selecting your Apple TV in the Sound pane of System Preferences.


Then, there's Auto Save. Finally. It's a feature that has been added to the occasional program, but Apple's finally making a concerted effort to make it more of a rule than the exception. With all first party apps -- things like TextEdit, Pages, Numbers, etc. -- you'll see that your documents and changes are automatically saved, and moreover, the versions are kept for easy access to prior deltas. You can also rename a document without leaving the app, easily revert to the last saved version of a document to instantly undo all changes you made since you last saved the document, instantly move iCloud-supported documents to iCloud from the document menu and quickly duplicate a document using the Command-Shift-S keyboard shortcut. It's also notable that saving to iCloud is now the default save location, instead of on the local hard drive. That's a sign of the times for sure. The only issue here? You won't want to get complacent; some third-party apps you use will still require the occasional save in order to keep your changes safe in the event of a random lock-up, which we have yet to see actually.

Share and Share Alike -

Next, it's onto Built-in Sharing. No shock here: Apple's making it easy for you to share just about everything on your favorite social network. Given that Apple doesn't truly have a dog in that fight (Ping was its only social network, and that was recently shut down), it's a feature that enables spreading of content to Facebook [coming this fall], Flickr, Twitter, and Vimeo. Most Mountain Lion apps have a small Share button; just tap that, and you're on your way to sharing without ever having to reach for TweetDeck or a web browser. (AirDrop is still here from Lion for Mac-to-Mac sharing.) In use, we found it to work well, but there are a few complaints. For one, you can't add services. What if you wanted to share to MySpace or one of the older / lesser-known networks? What if you use a service that's only popular in Brazil? The options are pretty limited. Furthermore, we're so used to using our own social network clients, that it's difficult to think about using something like this. Half of the fun is sharing, but the other half is watching news streams from your network; that's still not possible using Apple's Share function. It's pretty much a one-way street, until you take Notifications into account (an updated feature we'll address on the next page).

Take a Memo -

Siri for Mac? Not so fast. There's no Siri built into OS X 10.8, but there is (arguably) the next best thing: Dictation. It's a built-in service that rivals the kind of app offered by Nuance (Dragon Dictate comes to mind), but there are indeed limitations. You'll need to be online, for starters, in order to use it. It works a lot like the voice search on the iPhone 4S and iPad; just hit the microphone button in Mountain Lion apps (in other words, Chrome is out), speak deliberately, and wait for the translation. Those who haven't used voice dictation apps before have some learning to do. You need to say "period" for a period to be inserted, for example. You'll need to say "line break" for one of those. You'll even need to say "comma" for one of those. You'll definitely not be able to use this in Starbucks; you'll need a quiet office where your voice won't bother those around you.

In practice, the recognition was the same as we've seen in the iPad. It's fairly good, but not perfect. As with Dragon Dictate, you'll likely need to clean up what eventually comes out, but you'll see the results improve as you use it more. You'll learn how you need to enunciate; you'll learn how to speak certain things so that it understands you better. It may be frustrating at first, but it's worth using if you routinely type up long paragraphs or documents. Here's a tip: press the Function key twice to start Dictation; press it twice again when you’re done speaking. Dictation supports English (U.S., UK, and Australia), French, German, and Japanese. When your system is set to one of these languages, it automatically enters the right text.

Security and Privacy -

Gatekeeper may be the most hotly debated feature of Mountain Lion in the developer community. Average consumers aren't going to notice a difference, but devs are already up in arms about the decision from Apple to lock things down to an even greater degree. Gatekeeper gives you three security options for downloading and installing apps for your Mac. You can download and install apps from anywhere, but you'll now get a notice if apps aren't "signed" and verified via Gatekeeper. It seems that Apple's subtly coercing users to download apps specifically from the Mac App Store. Not that it's a bad thing, but you can see why indie developers may not want to take another verification step. Mountain Lion alerts you if you download and try to install an application from a developer who does not have a Developer ID, and some are worried that this may freak consumers out to the point of turning their eye to some other option.

Nothing like a good Power Nap -

Power Nap is a cool new feature that should make lives easier for those who prefer to put their Mac to Sleep instead of shut it down completely. With Power Nap, your Mac sleeps but your applications stay up to date, as Time Machine backups and OS X software updates are downloaded in the background. Yes, even while the Mac is asleep. No fans or lights come on, and it has such a minor impact on battery life that it'll work even if your Mac is running on battery. In practice, we saw negligible impacts on battery even with backups ongoing, but you might want to disable this if you're traveling overseas or using a pricey data access plan where software updates can wait.

Wondering about the "improved" in "new and improved?" We'll take a look at what has been improved upon in Mountain Lion next.
What's Improved Over Lion?
Not everything in Mountain Lion is "new," per se. But sometimes, revised can be just as valuable. Here, we'll discuss what's improved or tweaked in OS X 10.8 compared to prior editions.

Find and Share -

When looking at the Finder -- not something you typically spend a lot of time thinking about -- there are some minor improvements that suggest that Apple is looking at the minute details. There's an inline progress bar for downloads and file copies, and security junkies will appreciate that you can now encrypt a drive from the Finder. You'll be able to customize the sidebar by dragging categories to the desired location, and instantly preview files with a three-finger tap on the trackpad. Heck, even the Finder in Mountain Lion includes a Share button, so you can share files using Messages, AirDrop, or Mail. However, this speaks to the limitations of the Share button; if you want to use some other mail application, you can't program Share to play nice with it.

Productivity -

Calendar is still a pretty basic app. You can't just have it in the top menu bar and click to add a new event, but it's getting a bit of a facelift with Mountain Lion. You're now able to keep a list of all your calendars accessible in a sidebar, and when you’re searching for an event, Calendar offers suggestions. We'll touch on Notifications on the next page, but for now, just know that the new Calendar notifies you with an alert when an event is about to occur. Also, you'll notice that it's called Calendar, not iCal, to align with the name in iOS.

While we're on the subject of productivity, Contacts is also refreshed. The new build of Contacts brings information about your contacts together and displays it on one card — even across multiple services. So if you have a friend’s phone number in Yahoo! and his email address in iCloud, Contacts creates one entry.

We don't use Dashboard very frequently, but those that do will find a couple of new things here. There's a new widget browser that makes it even easier to find a widget, and you're now able to organize your widgets into folders in the widget browser.

Tools and Utilities -

With China becoming an increasingly important market for Apple, it's no surprise to see a huge amount of focus placed on Chinese language tools in Mountain Lion. You can now type English words in a Pinyin sentence without switching keyboards, and Sina Weibo, the popular Chinese microblogging service, is built into the Share menu. Baidu, the leading Chinese search provider, is a built-in option for searching in Safari, and Mountain Lion makes it easy to set up Mail with the popular services QQ Mail, 126, and 163. Suffice it to say, this is the most Chinese-friendly version of OS X yet, and it's proof that Apple is paying attention to buying trends and reacting accordingly to new market opportunities.

Preview. Know what that is? It's the program that shows PDFs and all of your photos from last year's vacation. And in Mountain Lion, it's getting an update. Preview in Mountain Lion supports Documents in the Cloud so you can access your PDF documents and images from anywhere, and using image analysis, Preview detects areas that are intended for text entry, such as underlining and boxes. You can even add inline notes in a PDF document -- no longer will you need Acrobat Pro. Spiffy!

Surfing Safari -

Safari is going to get even tougher to overlook in Mountain Lion. The new version is just as fast as Chrome in many cases, and it works seamlessly with all of the OS' bells and whistles. Dictation works best in Safari, there's a Share button, it supports an Offline Reading List, and support for swiping between tabs. Moreover, any tabs you have open will automatically be there on your iOS devices thanks to iCloud syncing. It works exactly as you'd expect, and honestly, the add-on list for Safari is making it easier and easier to consider over Firefox or Chrome.
Meshing With iOS
Apple's forging ahead with plans to make OS X look a lot like iOS in as many ways as possible. That's something that can be looked at a couple of ways. One person might say that integrating the two as closely as possible will make life easier for those sucked up in the ecosystems; others may ask why OS X is catering more to average users instead of loyal power users that have supported the brand through less appealing years. We'll break down some of the most notable iOS / OS X meeting points below.

Socially Acceptable -

Touching back on social networking, there's innate Facebook integration coming this fall. Much like Twitter in iOS 5, Facebook is getting ultra-tight integration in iOS 6. So, too, is the integration in OS X 10.8. Once it's live, you'll sign in once and your Mac is all set up to share even easier to Facebook, right from your apps.It sets up Notification Center and Contacts to work with Facebook, and you can post to Facebook without signing in again. When you are signed in to Facebook, you can see your Facebook notifications in Notification Center, which is admittedly super convenient and it works great in practice. We'll once again yearn for even more services to be integrated like this, but perhaps that'll be the case in OS X 10.9.

Game on!

It's hard to believe that people now take Apple and gaming seriously. Back in the PowerPC years, practically no PC title was ported to Mac. The hardware was too weak, and the software just wasn't optimized for high frame rates. Look at where things stand today. Apple is crushing the likes of Sony and Nintendo on the handheld gaming market, with the iPod touch, iPad and iPhone all acting as fantastic gaming devices with an App Store teeming with brilliant (and affordable) gaming titles. Even AAA titles from legendary app producers are there. And interestingly enough, that trend is making its way to the Mac, too.

Game Center is now front and center on the Mac after making a name for itself on iOS. It's really the same UI, the same look and feel, and you can use the same Apple ID to bring a lot of the same iOS vibes to the Mac. If you've been looking for a great way to game on your laptop or desktop Mac, this is it. You'll be able to browser the Mac App Store's gaming section for loads of fantastic options -- and it's growing by the day. The fit and finish of using Game Center as a gaming hub is great, but again, some may object to the fact that Apple's pulling things together into a tight, neat little bundle as it has in iOS. We appreciate the neatness, but worry that OS X may be becoming a bit too much like iOS in some regards. A tablet isn't a desktop, as Apple would agree to, but the software cues sometimes paint a different picture.

Wait A Minute Mr. Postman -

As for Mail, Apple's built-in e-mailing tool, there are some pretty great updates here as well. Wondering why we're talking about them here? Because the lion's share of the changes come from iOS. The same VIPs that will impact iOS 6 are here now in OS X 10.8 -- you can sort your messages by importance based on who you deem a VIP. When new mail arrives, you receive notifications by default. You can also choose to be notified when VIPs send you messages, when messages arrive in a certain mailbox, or when you get a message from a particular person in Contacts. Better still, whatever VIPs you setup in Mountain Lion, they'll be pushed to the cloud and will impact your iOS 6 devices without any extra configuration. Again, we'll praise these changes, but bemoan the fact that the VIPs and such won't work with third-party mail apps. Not necessarily Apple's fault, by any means, but still.

Instant Messaging, Instant Gratification -

Speaking of iOS-related changes, there's Messages. While available for a short while as a beta for OS X 10.7, this app is now finely polished and ready to rock in Mountain Lion. Put simply, it's replacing iChat, and it allows you to send messages to anyone who has an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch with iOS 5 or later, or a Mac with Mountain Lion. Aside from just words (with no character limit), you can send high-quality photos, full HD video, or documents up to 100MB. Messages supports the traditional instant messaging services supported by iChat, including AIM, Yahoo!, Google Talk, and Jabber, too. If you're used to iMessage, one neat feature is the ability to iMessage an iPhone user even while on an Internet-equipped airplane. It's as if they're texting you, and you can receive the message since it'll come through via data on Messages. Pretty handy.

Make a Note of It -

Avid iOS users probably know Notes quite well. Now, it's on your Mac, and even better, Notes are transferred seamlessly between iOS and Mac devices courtesy of iCloud. Start a note on your Mac, and finish it on your iPad. You can also arrange Notes in folders, add URLs, add photos / attachments, change the font and formatting, and even pin notes to your desktop for easy access. In use, we found this incredibly handy as a to-do list, particularly for users of iPad and iPhone. Having things synced all around was incredible. Think of something while on your Mac? Just jot it on a Note, and it'll be there on your phone when you leave the office.

Perhaps the best iOS feature brought onto the Mac is Notification Center. Folks who have used Growl, an excellent third-party notifier app, will find a ton of similarities. But Notification Center has tons of customization options, much like the edition found in iOS currently. Notification Center consolidates notifications from Messages, Calendar, Mail, Reminders, and third-party apps in one convenient place. Basically, it acts as a hub where real-time streams of information hit you. Thankfully, it's easy to disable, and it's easy to customize so the streams of notifications aren't entirely overwhelming. We're also guessing that having this so nearby will encourage people to update their Facebook statuses and tweet more. It's just so easy to get to, it'll make real-time sharing of brain waves that much easier.

Whereas Notification Center alerts you to things in the here and now, Reminders is there to keep you on the ball when it comes to appointments. Yes, this is the same Reminders you've come to know in iOS, and yes, you can bet Reminders sync between platforms via iCloud. You can create a reminder on your phone, and it'll alert you on your Mac (or vice-versa). You can also create Reminder lists, add due dates, arrange priorities, search Reminders, mark tasks as complete and even view your reminder alerts in Notification Center. In practice, it works just as it does on iOS, which is to say: "it works great." After a bit of use, we found ourselves using Dictation to verbally add Reminders to our Mac, just because we knew they'd be synced with our iPhone.
Summary and Conclusion
Now for the real question: is Mountain Lion worth the $19.99 asking price? That's a loaded question. If you have Snow Leopard or Lion, and you have a Mac new enough to support OS X 10.8, pinch whatever pennies are necessary to afford this update. $20 is a more than fair price for a major OS update that offers as many new features as Mountain Lion. Snow Leopard users can also upgrade straight to Mountain Lion for the same $20, so if you held off on updating to Lion, you can grab the update for a minimal investment. Some would argue that Apple is essentially charging users for a service pack, but that debate has been going on for years. The bottom line is, if you want the latest OS for your Mac and all that comes with it, Mountain Lion is not going to break the bank.

Mountain Lion is essentially a refined version of Lion, with a ton of useful additions that mostly tap into the iOS ecosystem. Those who use iPhones and iPads will greatly appreciate the extras; those who do not use an iOS device… Mountain Lion might give you pause to consider one. And that's the goal for Apple. The halo effect has great potential. Those who have experience with iOS products will feel more at home in Mountain Lion than in any OS X build before it.

It's tough to nitpick an OS that costs $20. There is no doubt that there is $20 worth of value here for Snow Leopard and Lion users. There are subtle performance improvements throughout, and the addition of Notification Center finally makes OS X as adept as iOS in the alerts department. For avid iCloud users, there's even more value with synced Contacts, Calendar inputs, Reminders and Notes. There's never been more synergy between an iPhone and a Mac, and it's certainly intentional. OS X 10.8 makes it even tougher for iPhone users to consider Android; moving forward, you'll miss out on tons of cross-platform iCloud synch capabilities and whatever else Apple thinks up.

We do wish that some of Apple's new inclusions worked with more third-party apps, and while we trust that Gatekeeper is a solid long-term move, it'll no doubt cause frustrations for many indie developers right now as they try to get their programs certified by Apple. We also wish things like Reminders and Notes could be added right from Notification Center.

If you're expecting a fresh face to OS X, you won't find it here. What you will find is $20 worth of refinements, additions, and updates. If you are considering the Mac platform as a whole for the first time, this is probably the best OS X yet. And if you're an avid iPad or iPhone user who is still on a Windows machine, you'll probably dig all of the iOS features woven into the fabric of Mountain Lion enough to consider making the crossover.

Apple OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion

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