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OS X Mountain Lion Review

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A year ago Lion came out to us all after we had two years out of a new Mac Operating System. It has to be said, on the surface it was good but as I started to use it more intensively, it lacked some of the handling Snow Leopard had which is why I wasn’t too much of a fan when using it. I expect Mountain Lion to fix most of my problems, whilst they’re largely small I like to think Apple care more about those types of issues when updating OS X than the need to put in new features. For Mountain Lion, they did just that. The little nit picks no longer exist, and the unified experience is even better than ever.

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Installation

For the most part, installation was the same as Lion. It took me around an hour to actually start the download of the launcher after the servers got hammered, then it surprisingly took a hour to download – If I recall Lion took two hours to download. Once it downloaded, it set about setting up my Mac for the half hour installation process. But once it was installed, gosh it was fast. Think of that clean install whenever you’d get a new computer, it was like that. Boot-up is considerably faster along with the application load times; normally it would be three bounces dead for me now, one bounce.

The installation process was boring but fast. I was surprised at how fast I was able to connect to Apple’s servers given the amount of hammering it was getting from people across the globe. The actual installation part was the same as Lion’s which I thought Apple would’ve fixed given that there wasn’t any space given back and it was only 4GB in total. Then again, I probably need an SSD.

Whats New?

The whole purpose of Mac OS X Mountain Lion is to make the experience of iOS and Mac cross platform. This allows for an easy transition between my computer and iOS device; ergo I don’t have to change my user habits in order to work it. Its certainly a bold but intuitive take on what the user wants.

Notification Center

One of the biggest additions to Mac OS X Mountain Lion is the Notification Center. Taken from the not-so used iOS feature, Notification Center allows you to see events, tweets, reminders, emails, iMessages and more - if you have it enabled - with a rather unusual swipe of the left side with two fingers on your trackpad, or with the click of a button. You can also update your Twitter from it out of the box along with your Facebook which will be added this fall, as well as toggle Notifications on or off till midnight the next day by scrolling up in the window. They will also turn off if you’re doing a presentation in Keynote or mirroring your display so the execs or friends won’t be able to see your next appointment with your dentist at 8:30 the following day. You can also change the order these notifications are displayed in from a time based order to the order you want them to be displayed in. Notifications can be used on nearly every app that wants to utilise them. Rather interestingly, Safari can send notifications to when it needs to, even if that notification is from a 3rd party API with your permission.

Notification Center is not somthing I use largely on my iOS devices simply because I didn’t need it. Sure we needed a new way of displaying Notifications but that was all, not a Center dedicated to catching up on all our missed ones. I never really used Growl on my Mac either because all the stuff I need to see, is open and even if it isn’t I still check the dock to see if there is anything new I need to look at. Granted this isn’t periodically, but its not somthing I need notifications to see and remind me of. I’m guessing I’ll get as much use out of this as I do on my iOS devices. Whilst it will be good for when I’m away from my computer [which admittedly isn't a lot of the time] I see no point in having it active whilst I’m at my computer.

Really, I just want a way to switch it on/off that I will somehow remember to switch back on when I will be away from my computer for more than four hours. Maybe the Notification Center should step into play when my screensaver kicks in, collecting all the important stuff from my most used apps first then all my secondary apps second. That way when I get back, instead of having to go though each app one-by-one seeing what I’ve missed and need to see I can just go to Notification Center and its all there for me to get on with my work.

Messaging

I have to say, this is one of the more complicated things in Mountain Lion. What was once called iChat has now been renamed to Messages and supports the cross device messaging Apple introduced to iMessages for Mac not so long back this year. You can initiate FaceTime calls from it too along with pick up conversations you have had on your iPhone or iPad that use iMessage.

Unfortunately, thats all this app is good for. Whilst you can still use your Yahoo Messenger, AIM and Google Talk accounts to talk to people on, using Apple’s actual solution that looks like the most economical option turns out to be the most fragmented. For instance, Messages allows me to commence a chat on my Mac then pick it back up on my iPad or iPhone and continue it there. This also works if I want to go from Mac to Mac. But if my iPhone or iPad are asleep the entire time sending these messages, because they don’t update whilst they’re asleep I’ve often woken them up to a slew of unread-marked messages I’ve already read on my desktop.

Another problem is that iMessage on the iPhone is tied to your phone number by default rather than using your email address like your iPad or Mac would. That means messages sent to your phone number won’t show up on your computer or iPad because they’re not connected to the carrier network. Switching your iPhone to use your email address for caller ID solves the problem in a roundabout way — anyone replying to you will send iMessages to your email address, but new iMessages sent to your phone number will still only arrive on your phone.

It will be fixed in the latest version of iOS due out this fall where all your messages will unify your phone number and email address messages together. But for the time being its a rather complex procedure to what is supposed to be a solution to cross device messaging.

Safari 6

Safari 6 is definitely an upgrade from more Safari 4 than Safari 5 which had fairly minimal changes to it. Now the address bar is unified allowing you to both search and enter in a website address like in Chrome. The tabs bar has also had an overhaul, now you can view all of your tabs in screenshot views [above] to determine whether you need it or not. Safari also adds iCloud tabs, which is basically the same as Chrome sync; any webpage you have open on your Mac will - if allowed - sync with your other Macs, iPad and iPhone.

Backend changes include a new scrolling engine, 2D GPU acceleration, and improved JavaScript performance that Apple claims is the fastest around. The loading bar is also a little more smooth, adding a very premium feel to it. Safari 6 is one of the best browsers I’ve used to date, I’m actually happy with using Safari over Chrome – and thats not somthing I usually say. Well done Apple.

Reminders and Notes

Both apps are from iOS and do basically the same thing. Reminders allows you to set reminders and sync them across your iCloud devices, as well as set reminders for specific dates, locations and times. The reminders also show up in Notification Center as well as a banner thats gives you an optional “Snooze” button so it will remind you fifteen minutes minutes later. I personally didn’t use Reminders a lot on my iPhone or iPad because usually I’m not out and around that much to set reminders, I already know when to do somthing and when to do it for. But for the desktop, I’m certainly starting to use it as a good way to work through stuff I want to get done for a specific time like my pre weekend F1 content and scheduled posts for Volt etc….

Notes is somthing I use a lot on my iPad. In fact its what I use to write up my F1 race reports at f1weekends.com [sorry about the plugs, its ends here....] because it syncs instantly with my Mac so I can just copy and paste it into the Tumblr editor ready to add all of the other elements like pictures and the previsional race result itself. For the most part its the same as it is on the iPad; I can sync Notes across my iOS devices using iCloud which should prove handy when I want to go out and have notes from my Mac that I may bring up in interviews or for when I’m watching F1 races and I have notes to take into consideration when watching or writing my race review. The only thing that separates it from its iOS cousin is the ability to sync notes with Gmail, Yahoo, and other services that support it.

For all intents and purposes, both are apps I’m more likely to use on my desktop now than on my iOS devices – which I think says a lot about me. I don’t get out a lot.

Calendar

They’ve renamed iCal to Calendar in the latest version of OS X. Even though it still sports is hideous leather design, the calendar app isn’t all that new. In this newer version, it allows us to turn off different calendars like “Work” or “Home” and change the way it reminds us of an event; normally you can ask it to give you an on screen message with sound, now you can ask it to email you. Apart from those two changes, not a lot going on in the Calendar app.

Game Center

By far the worst looking app since iTunes, Game Center has now made its way over to the Mac. Whilst I can’t say much about the social aspect of Game Center and how it works cross platform, I can say it is the same as it is on the iPad allowing you to find multiplayer opponents, leaderboards, achievements, and now chat in-game with voice chat on OS X. Apple have just started to roll out their Game Kit API, which lets devs quickly make use of all those features, as well as support cross-device multiplayer for both live and asynchronous games. Whilst I don’t think the Mac will ever match the PC when it comes to gaming, I do think tying it into the hugely popular iOS ecosystem is a great way to make the experience more unified. For the time being, Game Center is incomplete.

Sharing – Twitter and Facebook

Sharing is one of the biggest parts of iOS Apple introduced over a year ago. They realised their users wanted to tweet out stuff that are regularly found in their apps, so they decided to integrate it into the experience. Now they’ve done the same in Mountain Lion Facebook, email, AirDrop, Messages, Flickr and Vimeo. Once you pick your service you can pretty much share from everywhere in OS X – even Quicklook.

Apart from being in Notification Center, Facebook and Twitter are integrated across the Mac OS X experience. Most notably in Safari where an iOS style ‘share card’ pops up ready for you to type your message. You can also sync contacts and contact pictures from your Twitter and Facebook list. The problem with Facebook sync is that it will sync all your contacts, some that you don’t want in your address book which you can turn off but would be better if you could sync a particular list such as “Close Friends” or “Work.” I’m guessing with the fall launch date of Facebook integration Apple will have worked on it by then.

Gatekeeper

When I first saw the feature pictured above, I thought it was going to be a game changer in Mac app distribution. Apple could’ve turned off this feature in GM to stop people from downloading apps from online and only ones from the Mac App store, which would’ve caused a stir amongst us power users. Even though it ships out of the box with the option “Run Mac apps and signed apps only” you can turn on the global “All” setting by going into the security settings and selecting that option.

Gatekeeper is somthing that runs in the background, your machine will download a list of keys from Apple at least daily. The whole purpose of Gatekeeper is not to restrict app development for Macs to just the Mac App Store, but rather make sure the end user knows what he/she is getting into when downloading random apps from the internet. Its safe and secure. That comes at no cost to developers beyond the standard Mac developer program rate, which they could opt out for and still have their apps licensed.

We’ll have to see whether its somthing that ultimately cuts down malware and other infectious diseases spread across open software. But for the time being, Gatekeeper is doing a really good job at balancing open software distribution and the security of the App Store model.

Power Nap

One of the more hidden features in Mac OS X Mountain Lion, Power Nap lets your Macbook Pro or New Macbook Air [at this point] send and receive data whilst they’re asleep. Things like backup your…. I was going to say drive but flash memory is the word I should use, download software updates [thats a biggie!], sync your iCloud stream like notes, mail, calendar, register their location with Find my Mac and a lot more all whilst its asleep. No fans or anything like that come on, it just works ready for you when you next using it. Of corse your battery life won’t be the way you left it, but thats to be expected from this rather gaming-changing and unique feature.

Speech Dictation

Speech diction is another feature taken from iOS and merged within OS X. You can turn speech dictation on by double tapping the ‘Fn’ [Function] key on your keyboard, then once you do the icon to the right of us will pop up ready for you to dictate. I’m actually using it right now to write this sentence. What it will do is take my voice recording, then send it to the Apple servers where they will transcribe it and send it back to me as a sentence – all within three seconds. Ok, back to typing…. As you’d expect it runs just as good on a Mac as it does on an iPad or iPhone, it even briefly turns off the fans if you’re on a Macbook so it doesn’t interfere with your dictation. Whilst it can be slow when the servers are overloaded, it certainly makes for a good companion when you want to put somthing into perspective and not type it as that.

Graphics and Overall Performance

Mountain Lion packs a new version of OpenGL – the industry standard for high performance graphics. Its clearly noticeable in the most recent version of OS X on boot up, the screen just looks soo much more defined. Its as if Apple are extracting and distributing the GPU at its most optimum because everything just looks more colourful. Overall performance across the board is exemplarily. Normally it would take me three or four bounces to start an application with the amount I usually open, now with however many I have open its just one bounce. I will also say, Safari is much more stable with web elements no longer crashing and reloading every webpage all over again is such a luxury.

I’m also a fan of some of the incremental UI updates Apple have made to OS X in Mountain Lion as well. The dock [above] for example looks way more sexy than I ever did, Launchpad looks nicer with the addition of search and one less app icon. Also, loving the new Trash icon Apple.

Overall

For £13.99, this is the best piece of money I’ve spent. Mountain Lion has some amazing new stock apps as well as great new iterative features on already existing software. Its not just the price that sets this apart from other OS’, its the fundamental change in how the Operating System is made. OS X is now being conceived with mobile in mind and not in the comedy ‘mobile-on-desktop’ way we’re seeing other OS vendors unify their experiences. I like it.