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OS X Mountain Lion review: OS X Mountain Lion

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Mountain Lion -- the latest edition of Apple's operating system for Macs -- arrives within days of Lion's first birthday. What a party pooper. Like an obnoxious neighbour, it's turned up with smarter clothes and better toys, and robbed the birthday boy of his guests' attention.

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9.3

OS X Mountain Lion

The Good

Inexpensive; Notification Center removes pop-up clutter; Built-in social networking; Integrated Dictation tool.

The Bad

Loss of native RSS functions from Safari and Mail.

The Bottom Line

When you see what you get for your money, Mountain Lion surely qualifies as the best value upgrade ever. The built-in social networking tools and the greater organisation afforded by Notification Center are worth the money on their own. The fact you also get native dictation tools, iCloud Document Library and more glosses an already compelling proposition.

Also known as OS X 10.8, it's neat, it's fast and it's packed with new features.

The last time Apple shipped a new operating system with a similar name to its predecessor (Snow Leopard followed on from Leopard), it acknowledged the fact that little had changed -- not on the surface, at least. Under the lid, Snow Leopard was a considerably compressed and more efficient version of its predecessor though. It was a housekeeping update for Apple to throw out a lot of the legacy code required to support ageing machines. To encourage mass adoption, it slashed the price to just £25.

Mountain Lion is no such tweaking exercise. It may sport a similar name to its predecessor, and it's keenly priced at just £13.99, but the visual and functional changes are far more obvious.

What no Mac?

Mountain Lion is OS X 10.8 -- not Mac OS X. The loss of the 'Mac' from its name is telling. It's the next step in what appears to be a speculative integration of Apple's two operating systems -- OS X and iOS, the latter of which powers the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch -- following the appearance of Launch Pad in Mac OS X 10.7. That's not to suggest one will replace the other, or that Apple will completely merge the two codebases over time, but from this point on, we're clearly going to see them share more and more common features.

Mountain Lion - OS X 10.8
Mountain Lion is the ninth major iteration of Apple's current operating system for the Mac.

It's not surprising then to see several core iOS features popping up in OS X. Chief among them is a new Notification Center, AirPlay Mirroring, automatic App Store updates (including updates to OS X itself), dedicated Notes and Reminder apps, Game Center and deeper iCloud integration.

Messages finally makes it out of beta in Mountain Lion, Twitter is built in at the OS level and a new layer -- Gatekeeper -- will optionally prevent unauthorised installation of non-signed applications, which will simultaneously protect our Macs from malware and encourage us to line Apple's pockets by buying even more of our software through the App Store.

Notification Center

Since its first appearance in iOS, Notification Center has given us a single place to check for notifications from each of our installed applications. It makes it possible to suppress notifications on an app-by-app basis (so you can silence your Twitter client if you followed particularly chatty tweeters), and decide whether each one pops up as an alert or a banner at the top of the screen. Dragging down from the top opens a list of notifications organised into app-based groups, and you can specify whether your app icons should be overlaid with numeric badges to indicate unread items and action points.

Mountain Lion - OS X 10.8
Notification Center organises all your notifications into a single channel that runs down the right-hand edge of the screen (click image to enlarge).

Mountain Lion's Notification Center works in a similar fashion and sits to the right of your active display. Clicking the menu bar's list icon or sliding two fingers onto the trackpad from the right-hand wrist rest slides the active desktop and applications to the left to reveal the channel of updates.

Clicking a notification here swaps you out to the relevant application, and you can clear out whole sections by clicking the 'x' on the application divider. It's very well implemented and makes for a far more efficient way of working than checking through each of your applications in turn to see which of them need your attention.

Notification Center may well mark the start of the end of the highly respected Growl notification manager. This third-party add-on is used by many leading-name applications on the Mac to present subtle notifications in the corner of the display (or as an overlay or email, if you choose). Notification Center's own pop-up notifications can be set to display in a similar manner, and with this now being a core feature of the OS, developers may be less likely to feel inclined to use a third-party alternative in future.

Mountain Lion - OS X 10.8
Notification preferences let you specify how each application should inform you of changes and action points.

Notes and Reminders

Notes have never been well handled by OS X -- until now. They've previously sat somewhat uncomfortably in the Mail sidebar, but they've now been blessed with a dedicated app.

Mountain Lion - OS X 10.8
Notes now have their own dedicated application and they synchronise with the notes app on iOS (click image to enlarge).

Notes is one of the many tools that synchronises neatly between iOS 5 and OS X, with notes created on either platform synching through a free iCloud account to appear on every device logged in using the same credentials.

In general, Notes appear within a faux binder, as they do in iOS, but can be popped out to float on the desktop, at which point they replicate much of the functionality of Stickies. The latter persists in Mountain Lion but can't be expected to last much longer now that it's competing with this smooth port of a key iOS tool.

Reminders also makes the jump from iOS. Like Notes, it synchronises your data with the mobile edition. It too bears more than a passing resemblance to its iOS counterpart. Alerts carry over from one platform to the other, so you can set a reminder from your Mac and it'll pop up in your pocket if you're away from your desk when the time arrives.

You might expect the OS X edition to drop the iOS Reminders app's support for location-based pop-ups, but it doesn't. Mountain Lion is location aware, just like iOS, and so allows you to set an alarm to sound when you arrive at or leave a particular place. You need to enable Location Services through System Preferences for this to work, for which you need administrator rights. When enabled, it's smart enough to check for valid addressed before accepting an entered reminder.

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The new Reminders app synchronises with a matching app on iOS and lets you set geographically relevant alerts (click image to enlarge).

This latter feature is particularly useful as it means you can set non-time sensitive reminders that only prod you to do something if you happen to be passing a particular place. You might not urgently need cheese, for example, but you could set a reminder to pick some up next time you're close to the supermarket -- from your Mac -- and when you walk by Sainsbury's, your iPhone will prompt you to pop in.

Social networking and share sheets

OS X is geared for social networking, with Twitter built in right away and Facebook integration set to follow in autumn. Rather than logging in through separate applications, you enter your details through System Preferences and they're available to whichever applications have access to that part of the OS.

That means you can tweet a photo straight out of iPhoto, a web page from Safari or an address from Contacts -- the new name for Address Book (iCal has also been renamed Calendar, both of which match the equivalent iOS app names). Twitter updates appear in Notification Center, so you can read them even if you don't have a Twitter client running.

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With Twitter embedded as a native service in Mountain Lion, you can tweet directly from Notification Center without having a separate client running.

Much of this social sharing is done using share sheets -- pop-ups that reveal themselves when you click on a shortcut button on the relevant application's interface. They contain each of the various options for sharing the information to which they're attached, including social networks and email.

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Share sheets let you send the content of web pages, documents, photos, your address book and so on to your social contacts.

For social networking addicts, this will be welcome news, and it really does make it easier to post from a wider variety of applications, without having to manually copy and paste. Integration with Notification Center is a boon. It means you can keep an eye on mentions and direct messages, without having to give over screen space to a constantly active client. When Facebook joins the pack, it should be just about perfect.

Gatekeeper

Gatekeeper is a simple security tool that's most likely to appeal to parents and corporate users. It's a lock-down option controlled through System Preferences that allows Mac administrators to restrict the range of software authorised for installation on any particular machine. Personal users will likely set it to allow installations from any source. The alternatives are to allow only apps from the Mac App Store, and only Mac App Store applications that have also been signed by a developer with an Apple-issued ID.

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Gatekeeper lets you set the level of security but it pops up a warning if you choose not to restrict downloads to Apple's Mac App Store.

The theory is that this will make it even less likely that a machine will become infected with malware, particularly as the easiest route for rogue code onto a Mac is through the installation of pirated apps, into which the code has been inserted. The only other option is for the malware developer to fool their victim into entering their admin password.

Cynics might see Gatekeeper's arrival as a move designed to drive additional sales through Apple's own online store. The iOS App Store is already the only legitimate route through which you can buy apps for the iPhone and iPad, and it would be difficult to criticise any company in Apple's position not to do the same on the desktop version.

If Apple's seen to be protecting users, it would be very hard for big players like Adobe -- which is already selling Photoshop Elements through the App Store -- and Microsoft not to use Apple's route to market as one legitimate channel, if not the only choice. Both companies, after all, have a large installed base in corporate environments, so failing to offer signed App Store editions of their tools could see them locked out of a future Mac desktop.

That's not necessarily bad news for consumers as the tolerance for high prices on the App Store seems to be fairly low right now, thanks to a culture of competitive pricing engendered by the most successful developers. That's also come from Apple itself, which has slashed the price of most of its apps when it's switched then from boxed products to App Store downloads. Moving big-name suites to the App Store could act as a cap on future price hikes, but how it would work with subscription services like Creative Cloud and Office 365 remains to be seen.

Dictation

This is another area where OS X takes a leaf out of iOS' proverbial ebook. On iPhone 4S and later, and the new iPad, iOS has an integrated dictation layer, which allows you to talk, rather than type, and have the results transcribed into written characters. In most cases it's much quicker than tapping them out manually.

Mountain Lion sees the same feature pop up in OS X, with support for British, American and Australian English, French, German and Japanese.

Mountain Lion - OS X 10.8
With dictation built in, Mountain Lion does a good job of transcribing your spoken words, although the results aren't always perfect.

So long as you're not using a Mac Pro or Mac mini, both of which lack an internal microphone, you don't need any additional hardware to use dictation. Although it doesn't have any app control features like Nuance's Dragon Dictate for Mac, it does provide a very effective means of transcribing lengthy tracts without having to type them by hand.

The results, in my tests, have been good but not perfect. Dictation has achieved a hit rate of around 95 per cent when I've been sitting back in my chair, away from the built-in mic on my MacBook Pro. That's close to what Dragon Dictate for Mac achieves with a dedicated USB headset and mic.

Game Center

Game Center first appeared in iOS 4.1, persists through iOS 5 and now appears on OS X. It's Apple's own multi-player gaming platform, which lets you find other players and track your achievements in a single, unified environment, supported by a wide range of compatible apps.

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Game Center tracks your games and achievements, and caters for cross-platform gaming with iOS.

Its appearance in OS X is significant, as it further extends the reach of iOS onto the desktop by allowing for cross-platform gaming. It would appear to be Apple's response to Xbox Live, which handles cross-platform gaming data across Windows Phone, Xbox 360 and Windows 8.

With any luck, it should encourage more developers to port their already successful iOS games to the Mac, which could mean we see the likes of Angry Birds, Words with Friends and Draw Something on the desktop.

iCloud Document Library

It's not a name that slips off your tongue, but iCloud Document Library is perhaps the most compelling reason for iOS users to upgrade to Mountain Lion.

If you already use Pages, Numbers and Keynote, and you have an iCloud account, then you'll be used to them automatically backing up your work to Apple's servers every time you close a file.

It works well on the iPad and iPhone, but on the Mac, it's a bit of a half-baked solution -- to retrieve your work, you need to manually download it through the browser.

With iCloud Document Library, Apple has finally made those iCloud-hosted documents available natively, but only in supported applications. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, the three iWork apps were still awaiting an update and are starting to look decidedly long in the tooth, having crossed the three-year threshold -- iWork 09 shipped in January 2009.

Mountain Lion - OS X 10.8
iCloud Document Library synchronises your work with iOS applications via your free iCloud account. Dragging icons on top of one another in the iCloud interface lets you organise them into sub-folders (click image to enlarge).

However, third-party tools are leading the way, with apps like Byword, and even Apple's own TextEdit already offering to create documents on iCloud rather than your Mac. It's a neat solution, and if you can guarantee that you'll have a reliable, constant network connection, it could be a better option than working locally. If not -- perhaps you're commuting -- then locally stored documents will still be your best bet.

Mountain Lion - OS X 10.8
You can save directly to iCloud through the regular file dialogs, with your online sub-folders listed alongside local directories (click image to enlarge).

Performance and compatibility

I've been running the various development builds of Mountain Lion for several months and have found them all to be stable and fast on a mid-2010 MacBook Pro, with 4GB of memory and a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor.

Boot time is short -- around 20 seconds, applications load quickly and there's no noticeable lag when switching between apps or using Spotlight.

It's too early to say how well the final build, on which this review was based, will perform on the full gamut of Apple systems. But on this basis, it's unlikely to be cause for complaint for anyone running a mid-spec machine. It's worth checking this list of supported models on the Apple site -- it should run fine on any modern Mac, but anything older than five years will likely be too old to upgrade.

Mountain Lion requires a minimum 8GB of free disk space on an 64-bit Intel-based Mac running Mac OS X 10.6.7 or later. It can only be downloaded from the Mac App Store. You'll need to account for a download of 4.34GB if you have a monthly broadband data cap, or head to an Apple Store and download it on their free Wi-Fi. To justify doing the same in your local coffee shop, you'd have to buy a lot of lattes.

Conclusion

Should you upgrade? Absolutely. £13.99 is extraordinary value for money. It's less than you'd pay for some utilities. On that basis, it's probably worth it for just one of Notification Center, iCloud Document Library or Notes and Reminders, never mind all of them together, and much more besides.