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

Most of the promise of Game Center on the Mac OS is under the hood: with Game Kit APIs, developers will be able to create multiplayer games across multiple devices, so for example you can play a game on your Mac against a friend on an iPhone or iPad -- a multiplatform approach that mimics what we're seeing in the Windows 8 preview, Windows phones, and the Xbox 360.

Even though its underpowered and lacking in features, making it available for Mountain Lion could be Apple's move to improve gaming on Mac desktops and MacBooks. Giving developers added incentive to port games from iOS could re-energize gaming on the Mac, but we'll have to wait and see how third-party developers respond.

Another feature that comes to Mac from the iOS is Notifications, letting you sync up notifications across all devices so you have the latest information from everywhere. With the new Notification center in Mountain Lion, notifications show up as banners or alerts in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen. An Alert for an app update that requires your attention will remain until you decide to update or hit snooze to update later (9-minute snooze time; why is it always 9 minutes?), while updates like a newly received e-mail or Message will show for a few moments, then slide off the screen. To look at all your recent activity, you can click the notification icon in the upper right or you can perform a two-finger swipe, dragging your fingers from right to left starting with the right edge of the trackpad.

Notification Center
The new Notification Center opens with a two-finger swipe from the right edge of your Trackpad, and you can customize how things show up there in the System Preferences. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

The Notification Center also offers a really cool feature for posting to Facebook (not available until this fall) or Twitter. Now, with the simple swipe from right to left mentioned above, at the very top of the Notification Center, you'll have buttons to Click to Tweet or Click to Post (on Facebook). Without ever leaving the desktop, opening a Web browser, or launching an app, you can now enter a quick Tweet or Status and send it off to its respective social network.

More social connectivity
In Mountain Lion, sharing what you're looking at with people on popular social networks is easier than earlier versions. Along with e-mail, Messages, and Air Drop, you'll now have the option from of all the core apps to share with social networks including Twitter, Flickr, and Vimeo (depending on the content being shared). Unfortunately, as mentioned above, though I've seen the Facebook integration in action in my review copy of Mountain Lion, the feature won't be available at the time of release. Apple says that full Facebook integration will come in a later update to Mountain Lion this fall, but it's a shame Facebook features couldn't make it in for launch.

The Reminders app will be recognizable to any iOS user, and not much has changed in the new app for Mac. You can create and manage tasks, make to-do lists, and set alerts, and iCloud automatically syncs them up with your other devices. You can set up separate lists of reminders based on categories such as groceries, or a trip you might be taking, and you can manage alerts for each by adding due dates or even location-based reminders. Being able to set the Reminders app to send you an alert as you leave or arrive at a location is very useful, and its absence was something we brought up in our preview coverage, so it's nice to see that Apple has added it in for the final release.

The Reminders app keeps all your reminders in one place and syncs with your iOS devices so you can manage important alerts from anywhere. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Reminders works with multiple accounts, so those with CalDAV services like Yahoo Calendar and Google Calendar can create separate accounts or you can just create lists of reminders that are only on your Mac. All of your reminders will show up in the Notification Center when they are approaching their due dates.

The Notes app is sort of the catch-all on my iPhone for quick lists, jotting an address down, and any other random information I want recorded somewhere quickly. On the Mac it syncs with Notes on your iOS devices through iCloud and it behaves just as it does on your iPhone, but adds a few useful extras.

Instead of just a place to jot down information, you'll now be able to create formatted notes with different fonts, rich text, and numbered lists, and all can be viewed with the same formatting on your iOS devices. You can add photos, attachments, and links just by dragging them onto a note. You also create a sort of sticky note by double clicking it to open it in a new window, then pin the note to your desktop so you'll have the info handy. Notes has a sharing button as well that allows you to share via e-mail or Messages.

With Notes on your Mac, you'll now have all your quick notes and information synced between all your devices. But on a Mac in Mountain Lion, you also can create formatted numbered lists, use rich text, and add images. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

AirPlay Mirroring
AirPlay Mirroring works mostly well in Mountain Lion only showing minor delays in my testing, but some delay is to be expected. In Mountain Lion, it automatically detects when an AirPlay-supported device is present by displaying a little icon in the menu bar. Provided you are on the same network, you can click the icon, enter the Displays system preference, and then choose AirPlay Mirroring from a drop-down window.

In my experience, the feature works well for mirroring just about anything on your desktop, any of the included apps, HD movies, supported games, and even Flash videos. The only lag I noticed in my testing was on higher-resolution videos where it became slightly jerky at times, but it wasn't enough to pull me out of my viewing experience unless I was actively trying to see it.

In Mountain Lion, in any app or window where you would normally type, you'll now be able to dictate. After turning the feature on in the System Preferences, Mountain Lion only requires you to hit the Function key twice (or a hot-key combination you specify), then it will immediately start recording. In my testing the Dictation feature did an admirable job, but it was (obviously) important to enunciate clearly and project my voice for the most accuracy.

There is one big problem with Dictation: the feature sends your voice to Apple's servers to be translated to text. Aside from the big brother implications of sending your correspondence through Apple, this also means that when you're not online you cannot use the feature. I'm not sure if the issue is processing power, memory, or storage issues, but it's disappointing that it doesn't work unless connected. Why wouldn't Apple simply include the voice-to-text software in the OS? I can't imagine, but it doesn't seem like the best way to implement the feature.

In keeping with bringing more iOS features to the Mac, Gatekeeper acts as an optional "walled garden" to keep your Mac safe by only allowing programs to launch that are from trusted sources. Your options here are to only download from the Mac App Store (most safe), allow both Mac App Store downloads and files from sites that have been identified by Apple (likely safe), or from anywhere (least safe).

With iOS devices, you can only download apps from the iTunes App Store, so Apple has some control over the security of what gets accepted in its library. On a Mac, however, you still have the ability to download apps and files from third-party sites (which may or may not be trustworthy), so the Gatekeeper acts as a last line of defense against potentially harmful software. For an example of how it works, if you set up Gatekeeper to only allow apps from the Mac App Store, you'll still be able to download a file from a third-party site, but you'll get a warning dialog box and won't be able to launch the program. The precaution makes sense for new Mac users, I suppose, but more-experienced users will probably set the option to Anywhere and use good judgment when choosing downloads. In other words, while Gatekeeper is mostly effective (some bad programs slip through the Mac App store's approval process), I wonder how necessary it really is.

With Gatekeeper you can set up what level of security you want for downloads. Choosing the Mac App Store only option is the safest, while choosing Anywhere will mean you'll have to be especially careful. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Do you use Launchpad?
While not a new feature in Mountain Lion, the Launchpad, which started with Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, remains as an optional way to launch apps on your Mac. Taking a page from the app layout on iOS devices, you get crisp colorful icons for launching your apps, and in Mountain Lion, a new quick search to help you narrow it down to the app you're looking for. But is it really necessary? I don't mind the feature for finding and launching apps, but most Mac users still launch apps the old-fashioned way: straight out of the Finder. It's not that Launchpad is a bad way of launching apps, but it seems like Apple should pick a method and stick to it.

Mac OS X Mountain Lion has more than 200 new features, many of them small, but all seemingly with the idea of making current common processes easier while adding more sharing and cloud features across all your devices. The strong focus on iCloud integration and sharing indicates Apple wants to be ahead of the curve as our information becomes available everywhere, whether on a desktop computer or a mobile device.

Some features left over from Lion still seem gimmicky, such as Launchpad for launching apps like on an iOS device, even though I understand that carrying over the design aesthetic will probably help new users (whose only experience with Apple is through the iPhone).

Nevertheless, the features in Mountain Lion make for a worthy upgrade for the lowered price of $19.99 (Lion cost $29.99), whether for a Mac desktop or MacBook of any variety. The automatic syncing of all your devices through iCloud, new sharing capabilities, and upgrades to several of the core apps make spending 20 bucks for the price of entry seem very affordable.

The question is whether Mountain Lion is enough of an upgrade compared with the striking visual and interface changes in Windows 8. Windows is offering more-compelling reasons than ever to try something new, but in the end, most people will likely stick with the operating system they already know.

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