Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion review: Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion

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The Good Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion's new iCloud integration and syncing features give you the same experience on all your devices. Upgrades to several core apps bring new and useful features for sharing and social connectivity.

The Bad Game Center, while finally available for Mac, still only has basic features. Dictation sends your voice to be translated at Apple servers, so you can't use it while offline. Gatekeeper keeps you from downloading unsafe programs, but it seems mostly unnecessary.

The Bottom Line Though it's not a complete system or interface overhaul, Mountain Lion's improved core apps and new features make it well worth the $19.99 price.

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8.2 Overall
  • Setup 7
  • Features 8
  • Interface 8
  • Performance 9

In the tale of two operating systems, Apple's Mountain Lion is a less ambitious endeavor. Rather than completely rewriting the book as Microsoft is attempting with Windows 8, Apple's latest operating system simply cleans house, clearing clutter, while bringing more cloud and sharing features into the fold -- specifically to make the desktop play nice with iOS devices. Some of the new features come directly from iOS, and many are welcome, but some seem unnecessary. Ultimately, what you get is the familiar layout of Apple's operating system and much less of a learning curve than with what we've seen so far of Windows 8's completely new touch-screen-focused interface.

The Mountain Lion release marks the second time Apple has offered an incremental upgrade, rather than releasing a new cat entirely (previously Leopard upgraded to Snow Leopard, for example). But don't let the modest feature or name upgrades deter you from seriously considering Mountain Lion: Apple doesn't change the game with the update, but improves everything from Safari to Messaging and adds new iCloud and sharing capabilities that make moving between devices easier.

Where Windows 8 dives head first into the touch-screen tablet market with a completely revamped user interface, Apple has improved upon what was already available, and -- in my opinion, based on using both Mountain Lion and early versions of Windows 8 -- Apple has made the wiser decision. By keeping the mobile and desktop operating systems separate, Apple can still deliver the best experience on each of its devices.

Installation for Mac OS X Mountain Lion requires a couple of steps. Start by running Software Update and check for Mac App Store updates -- this is always a good practice before a major upgrade, to make sure you have the latest versions of Apple's core apps.

From there, simply navigate to the Mac App Store, purchase the upgrade, and begin downloading. You'll need to have an account with Apple via the Mac or iTunes Store in order to purchase Mountain Lion. The OS is about 4GB (approximately the size of a full-length film download), so depending on your connection, you may want to start the download before going to bed or leaving for work. When the download is finished, the Mountain Lion installer appears in the Dock and launches automatically.

Mac OS X Mountain Lion installs in place, so you won't need to create a separate disk or run the installation off an external drive. All of your photos, documents, applications, and other saved files will be there when you're finished with the upgrade. Once the installation is complete, your Mac will automatically restart and you'll be ready to start exploring.

iCloud integration makes getting started easy
As the first major operating system release since iCloud, Mountain Lion was built with several new cloud features integrated into many of the apps.

One great new feature for those with a brand-new Mac is the ability to sign in through the Setup Assistant with your Apple ID and sync all your settings along with your apps. Your e-mail, contacts, calendars, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and more will automatically be synced up with other devices and made ready for use on your Mac by entering your Apple ID. This will be a welcome feature for iOS users setting up a new Mac for the first time because right off the bat you'll immediately be able to take advantage of all the new sharing features in Mountain Lion. One important thing to note, however, is that Apple says that Facebook integration will come in a later free update this fall.

Documents in the Cloud
With Apple's latest version of Mac OS X, upon launch of any app that lets you create documents, you'll now have all of your cloud-synced projects available whether you created them on your Mac or on an iOS device. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Documents in the Cloud should make it easier for those who work on multiple Macs and iOS devices. Now, when you launch a program that produces documents (such as Pages, for example), you'll be presented with what Apple calls the Open Panel. Here you'll see that specific app's iCloud Document Library with all of the documents you have saved to iCloud with the most recent at the top. Using a button at the top, you can also choose to launch documents currently on your Mac. The window supports document folders, letting you drag one document on top of another to create a folder, just as you would arrange apps into folders on an iOS device. As I talk about more of the new features in Mountain Lion, you'll see many that are clearly ideas brought over from iOS devices.

As I mentioned, Documents in the Cloud will work with any Apple app that produces documents currently (like TextEdit and Preview) along with all three iWork apps. Apple is also making it available as an API for third-party developers, so expect other apps that produce documents to come out with an update soon after Mountain Lion is released.

Messages on the Mac
Those with iPhones or iPads running iOS 5 or later will appreciate the update for Messages (and iMessage) in Mountain Lion. Now, whether on a Mac or iOS device, you'll be able to take advantage of Apple's no-cost texting features with iMessage, and the ability to send a text to an iPhone from your Mac is certainly convenient. Messages (as opposed to iMessage) will also let you communicate with the same services you did with iChat, including AIM, Yahoo, Google Talk, and Jabber. The way Apple differentiates between the services is by making iMessage chats blue and chats with other services green (similar to iOS devices).

The Messages app lets you chat with both Mac users and people with iOS devices. You can add a picture by dragging and dropping one in, but I wish there were a button for uploading an image. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

The Messages window is set up with all your recent conversations on the left and the actual conversation window on the right. Just like iOS, you'll get typing indicators to show your friend is responding and delivery receipts that show your message has been delivered to the device. But in Mountain Lion, you'll also be notified when the recipient has read the message (only if the iOS user has allowed for it in settings) -- a feature that will be added to Apple's mobile devices in iOS 6.

Just like the iOS version of Messages, you'll be able to start a group chat simply by adding more names at the top. When you send your message it will be seen by all recipients and their replies will be shown to everyone as well. In the Mountain Lion version, you'll also have the ability to quickly switch to FaceTime video chats using a button in the upper right of the chat window.

One issue I noticed in the preview that remains in Mountain Lion is the absence of a camera button to quickly add a picture to a message (something that comes standard in iOS messages). Messages in Mountain Lion lets you drag and drop an image, but in the case when you don't have the image handy, it requires a few steps to go find one and drag it into the interface. This is a feature where we prefer the iOS method, so hopefully it will be added in a future update.

Apple's Web browser isn't the fastest Web browser overall, but improvements in Mountain Lion have added more reasons to stick with it on the Mac. With the Smart Search Field, Apple is taking a page from other popular Web browsers like Google Chrome, making the address bar serve double duty as your place to enter addresses and search the Web. When you enter a search term, Safari displays Top Hits right below the field based on your browsing history.

Safari sharing button
Across all the core apps, you now can click the Sharing Button to send items through e-mail, via Messages, to social sites, and other options based on the current app and content you are sharing. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

iCloud integration in Safari also adds more features, including a couple of new interface additions. With iCloud Tabs, Safari now has a new cloud-shaped button next to the forward and back buttons in the upper left. Once you sign in during initial setup with your Apple ID, you'll be able to view open tabs on all your Apple devices, making it possible to pick up where you left off on another device without missing a beat. Unfortunately, though I saw this feature in action in a demo at Apple, it will only work once your mobile devices are running iOS 6 (allegedly available sometime in September). Apple has added a sharing button to Safari as well, where you'll find the options to add a page to your Reading List or create a bookmark, but it also lists out ways to share a site via e-mail, Message, Twitter, or Facebook. If you pick Message, Twitter, or Facebook, Mountain Lion brings up a Share Sheet without ever leaving the Web page you're currently on; sending via e-mail populates the e-mail body with an image you're sharing, for example, and lets you fill in the rest.

One major new interface enhancement for Safari is a joy to use when running Mountain Lion with a trackpad. When you have a lot of browser tabs open, the new Tab View lets you use a pinch gesture, then use a two-finger swipe to browse your open tabs. A reverse-pinch returns you to normal browsing. While mostly a cosmetic upgrade, once I got used to pinching and swiping to browse tabs, it became second nature. In my years reviewing Apple products, this is yet another example of how Apple can make a small tweak to the interface that vastly improves the experience. It may not be totally necessary (you could easily click to look at each tab), but it's intuitive and saves time.

To round out the updates to Safari, a few added features will make your surfing smoother. Apple says it tested Safari (admittedly in-house) using the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark, and says that it's faster than Internet Explorer 9, Firefox 13, and Chrome 20 (in that order). Safari also uses your GPU for improved hardware acceleration for noticeably smoother scrolling and faster loading of pages. A new Offline Reading List lets you save Web pages for offline viewing -- great for when you're going to be on a plane or in a no-service area. The browser also supports Do Not Track (think of Google Chrome's Incognito mode) and Password AutoFill for sites you return to frequently.

Safari is arguably the most important software on your computer as your window to the Internet, and in Mountain Lion, Apple has succeeded in bringing it up to speed with competing browsers, and offers a few extras (like Tab View, Sharing, and Cloud Tabs) that make common tasks much easier.

Game Center now on Mac, but it's not perfect
Mountain Lion leans a lot on the up-to-the-instant, multidevice syncing capabilities of iCloud across several of the core apps, but you wouldn't know it from the Mac OS X debut of Game Center. The perennially underpowered social gaming hub of iOS has always been disappointing for iOS gamers, and its arrival on Mac desktops won't do much to change that.

Game Center
Game Center on the Mac gives you gaming info about what your friends are playing and leaderboards, and offers recommendations for new games based on what you already have. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Game Center on Mountain Lion offers all the features you know from the iOS version: leaderboards, friend info, game matching, and more, and it shows up in much the same way it does on the iPad. But the killer app of any gamer social-networking interface -- and arguably the lifeblood of the communal gaming experience on consoles -- is the ability to log in and see what you're friends are currently playing, so you can join in, suggest something else, or just see who's shirking work on a Friday afternoon. This type of capability seems like such an obvious fit for iCloud, even if it were lacking a strong invite component, and I'm disappointed to see this missed opportunity in Mountain Lion.