Digging Deeper into Mountain Lion

Mountain Lion has brought its share of changes OS X, changes that bring many iOS features to the desktop. From the new Notes and Reminders apps to Notifications Center and Messages, it seems that the Mac looks more like a mobile device every day.

That’s not to say OS X isn’t a great desktop OS. Mountain Lion brings many small features that make your daily workflow nicer, as well as a number of little changes that might make you scratch your head. After nearly a week with Mountain Lion, here’s some of the biggest changes we’ve noticed throughout the OS.

iCloud is Everywhere

iCloud isn’t a brand new OS X feature, as it was already included in Lion and put to great use by a number of apps, especially writing apps like iA Writer and Byword. While iWork for iOS has had iCloud support for nearly a year, it was difficult to impossible to use iCloud synced iWork documents on the Mac.

That’s all changed in Mountain Lion. Now, iCloud files are the first thing you’ll see when you open iWork, or even standard bundled apps like TextEdit and Preview. Apple’s idea is for you to store all of your documents in iCloud, so they’ll seamlessly sync between your Macs and iOS devices. It really does work great, though for those of us used to apps opening with blank documents by default, the new iCloud file picker is quite frustrating to have to deal with. Still, since you can drag files into folders, and view them in a list, it’s not a half-bad way to keep files for an app together.

iCloud is omnipresent throughout Mountain Lion

Another potential problem with iCloud is that you only get 5Gb of storage for free. That’s not such a problem for syncing just your iPhone, but if you’re storing all new documents from your Mac in iCloud, odds are you’ll fill it up fast. If you know what’s going on, that’s not such a big deal, but for normal customers that might have chosen a MacBook with more storage so they could store more files without understanding the difference between their local storage and iCloud, they’ll likely feel cheated when they’re asked to pay for more iCloud storage.

That said, iCloud still feels somewhat magical. When setting up my new MacBook Air with a clean install of Mountain Lion, the setup asked me to enter my Apple ID and activate iCloud. By the time I’d logged in, Safari already had my bookmarks, Notes and Reminders already had my iOS notes and todos, and the All my Files view in Finder was already showing my iOS iWork documents. That’s a little glimpse of the future, where we’ll likely be able to sign into any computer and automatically have our whole workflow ready to use in seconds. It sure makes setting up a new computer easier, and that’s obviously one of the things Apple’s aiming for here.

iWork ’09 in 2012

As already mentioned, iWork has already been updated with iCloud support, and it works great. But there’s still a few oddities in iWork apps that show its age. First, with a clean install of iWork apps, you’ll still see the old Share button that lets you share files to iWork.com beta, which Apple recently discontinued. That shows one small problem with iCloud: there’s no way to access or share your documents online. It’d sure be nice to have an online dashboard for all your iCloud files, so you can access them from any computer or share them, but there’s simply no option for that now.

Then, another dated feature left over in iWork is iWeb sharing. Now, users with an older boxed copy of iWork might still have iWeb sitting on their Macs, but since its not currently supported and doesn’t come on new Macs, it seems very odd that Apple’s kept iWeb sharing in iWork.

iWork.com beta, a dead service still in iWork

That said, iWork apps are still great, and there’s no reason not to use them. It just seems odd that Apple hasn’t made a full new version, choosing instead to add new features and not cleanup old leftover stuff. Then, of course, we’re overdue for a new version of iLife, too…

Lauchpad Greatly Improved

Just your apps in Launchpad, and nothing else

If you’ve found Launchpad frustrating in Lion, you should definitely give it another try in Mountain Lion. It now has a built-in search box that you can start typing in as soon as you open it (which means F4, type app name, then enter to launch). It also adds new app icons on the first space along with Apple’s preinstalled apps, where Lion automatically put new apps on the 2nd page. Finally, it only shows actual applications, so installing Creative Suite won’t leave you with a dozen extra icons you’ve got to hide in a folder.

And so much more…

Then, there’s a lot of little extras our team has noticed as we’ve been using Mountain Lion, some good, some bad. Here’s the things that have stood out to us:

– Notification Centre is quite nice, but not perfect. It opens Twitter notifications online, instead of in the Twitter app, and doesn’t clear notifications unless you click them directly.
– Opening Notification Centre from the trackpad works best if you swipe from the outside of your trackpad into the right side. Takes a bit of practice to get right.
– The Share button is a nice addition, but we really wish 3rd party apps could add themselves to it. Seriously, CloudApp integration would be killer. Also, if you’re looking for the bookmark button in Safari, it’s now in the Share menu. Seems like this should really be called the Send menu, since you’re sending the data you’re viewing somewhere else: to bookmarks for storage, to an online service, or (in iOS) to another app.

The Bookmark option, hiding in plain sight.

– Preview has always been great for adding some small edits to PDFs, but it’s improved in Mountain Lion. There’s a quick highlight button always visible, and new markup features including better form support. Plus, password-protected PDFs now show their password screen in grey, instead of the eye-searing red used before. And if you’ve never tried signing a PDF using iSight in Preview, you should give it a try: it’s awesome.

– Dictation works great in Mountain Lion, and its smart enough to cut your fans and pause iTunes while you’re dictating text. Interesting, you can dictate during a Skype conversation, a somewhat awkward way to record some of what you say. Do note: you’ll need to be online for Dictation to work, as it uses Apple’s servers to translate your speech into text.

– There’s a ton of new photo screensavers in Mountain Lion, with great photos from National Geographic. If you browse to /System/Library/Frameworks/Screensaver.framework/Versions/A/Resources/Default Collections, you can even copy the pictures and use them as desktop backgrounds if you’d like.

Screensavers are suddenly cool again …maybe

– Save As returns in Mountain Lion, as well as an option to rename files in apps while you’re editing them. Check out this tutorial if you’d like to get the old Save As keyboard shortcut back, too.

– Mountain Lion has many little iOS style touches, like new popover selection panes. Unfortunately, sometimes they’re less functional than their older OS X counterparts. In the User Account settings, for example, there’s no obvious way to select a picture of your own. You can still drag-and-drop in any picture, so you’re not totally out of luck.

Wait: you took away my options!

– iCal and Address Book have been renamed Calendar and Contacts, respectively, apparently to match their iOS counterparts. One nice thing is that Spotlight search still shows the correct app if you type the older name. Launchpad search, however, doesn’t.

iCal still lives (at least in Spotlight…)

– To find a word definition, just 3-finger tap once over a word. In Lion, this require a 3-finger double-tap, which was somewhat awkward.

– 2-finger swipes to go back and forward now work in Dictionary, iTunes, and App Store, making going back and forth consistent in almost every app.

Anything Else?

That’s all the major things we’ve noticed so far that haven’t been as widely talked about, but we’d love to hear any new Mountain Lion features or changes you’ve noticed. Are there any changes you’re loving, or things you wish they’d left alone? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.