OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion Review

Our giveaway is now closed, and we’ve randomly selected our 3 lucky winners from the many entries we had. Congrats to Chris, Crazyhunk, and Lucas, who just won a free copy of Mountain Lion! We hope everyone gets to try out Mountain Lion sometime soon; it really is a great OS (though we might be biased…)

Today, Apple has finally released their latest addition to the OS X family with version 10.8, also known as “Mountain Lion“. This new version brings with it a whole host of improvements, most of which focus on bringing features such as the Notification Center and iCloud from iOS to the Mac. In addition to those new features, 10.8 also includes systemwide refinements, which make the OS feel like what Lion should have been. And, at only $19.99, it’s the most affordable version of OS X yet.

Read on for our in-depth review of Apple’s latest big cat, and a chance to win a free copy of Mountain Lion!

The Default Desktop of OS X Mountain Lion

Notes, Reminders, and Game Center

From left to right: Notes, Game Center, and Reminders

One of the first things you’ll notice about Mountain Lion is the inclusion of some new apps which started their lives on iOS. If you’ve used iOS before, these “new” apps shouldn’t really feel all that “new”. Notes, Reminders, and, Game Center are all nearly identical clones of their iOS counterparts, with a more grown up feel on the Mac desktop.

Notes has received a small feature bump over its iOS counterpart, with the added ability to drag images into a note. You can store the notes you create either locally or sync them with iCloud. Reminders works just like you’d expect, and is even is able to tap into your location (presumably based on your WiFi and IP address) and deliver reminders either when arriving at or leaving a location. Similar to the iOS version of the app, Reminders also lets you set reminders for a specific date and time. Thanks to the addition of the Notification Center, reminders will be pushed to you regardless of whether or not you have the app open.

Since I’ve been testing a pre-release version of Mountain Lion I haven’t been able to test the functionality of Game Center, although it promises to be feature-complete with the iOS version of the service. One notable feature of Game Center is the ability to play against friends on iOS devices. It remains to be seen how well that feature will work, but it seems promising, nonetheless. Unfortunately, these three apps all share a common thread: their ridiculously skeuomorphic design. The Notes app emulates a legal pad, Game Center, a game table, and Reminders is just covered in “leather”. While it’s certainly a step up from some of their more basic skeuomorphic design of the past; these apps would look more at home on a Leapfrog device than my thousand-dollar Macbook.

Notification Center

Viewing an unread notification in Notification Center

The addition of the Notification Center to Mountain Lion is definitely a welcome one addition. Previously, apps would either have to build their own notification system from the ground up or rely upon the assistance of a third party solution such as Growl. Now, end users now have a notification system that is both integrated and easy to use, and developers have one consistent way for their apps to send notifications.

Apps push individual notifications which are display on the screen either for a set time or until the user performs some action such as snoozing or dismissing a reminder. When a timed notification goes away, as with iOS, it can be found within the Notification Center, which is a simple rollup of all notifications that the user has not acted upon. Accessing the Notification Center can be done on a trackpad through a right-to-left swipe with two fingers, or by clicking on it’s icon in the menu bar at the rightmost edge of the screen.  As with most new tools, it will likely take developers some time to integrate the Notification Center API into their apps, but luckily many have already started, and all Apple’s built in apps support the service out of the box. Best of all, with the upcoming Growl 2.0 for Mac, you’ll be able to set your Growl notifications to come into your Notification Center if you’d like.

AirPlay Mirroring

AirPlay Mirroring

Users of the AppleTV have reason to rejoice with the release of Mountain Lion, as it includes the ability to mirror your Mac’s screen to an AppleTV or any other AirPlay receiver. In my testing and in my personal use I found mirroring to be both fast easy to use. Videos from websites such as Hulu and YouTube, as well as those stored locally played without a hitch, with no noticeable sync issues between audio and video. Due to the inherent nature of mirroring technology, there is a slight lag between your mouse movements/ typing and what’s displayed on the AppleTV. That unfortunate problem making anything but the most casual games mostly unplayable.

Users with an AppleTV on the same WiFi network as their Mac will notice an AirPlay icon appear in the menubar; simply click the icon and select your AppleTV to get started. Within seconds, you should see your Mac’s desktop on the big screen. In your Mac’s display settings you can set your screen to match the resolution of your computer’s display or that of the AppleTV. In addition to mirroring your Mac’s display, Apple has also built in the somewhat hidden ability to mirror audio-only. For those who have their AppleTV connected to their home theaters, such as myself, this is an invaluable feature.  The audio-only option can be accessed by Option+clicking on the volume button in the menu bar and selecting “AirPlay” as the output device.

So in case I haven’t been clear: if you’ve got an AppleTV or AirPlay enabled home theater system, the Mountain Lion upgrade is a no-brainer just for AirPlay Mirroring!

Messages

Messages lets you send and receive iMessages on your Mac

Much like the other additions to Mountain Lion, Messages is an addition to the OS that just makes sense. Messages isn’t actually a whole new app; instead, it’s little more than a new skin on iChat, which isn’t a bad thing. Since the release of iMessage in iOS 5, there has been no way send or receive iMessages on the Mac (except for the beta version of Messages for Mac that’s been out for a couple months), and that’s where Messages comes in.

For the most part using Messages with iMessage worked well, except when I’d switch from my iPad to my Mac or visa versa, in which case it would often drop a message or two. Still, I wouldn’t be overly concerned, as Apple is rolling out improvements to iMessage fairly frequently. While iMessages are the flagship addition to the Messages app, it still supports Google Talk, Jabber, Yahoo!, and AIM accounts from it’s previous life as iChat. Messages also sports a new “Conversations” view similar to what you’d see on the iPad, which pulls in conversations from any account you have set up with the app.  Apple also updated the old iChat icon, which was beginning to look a bit long in the tooth, to feature two chat bubbles instead of one. That’s not a big deal, per se, but the little things add up.

iCloud Files

The standard iCloud Files dialog

Calling the iCloud integration in Lion “half baked” would be putting it lightly, but thankfully Apple has completely overhauled the way the OS interfaces with its cloud offering. Still, this new iCloud integration leaves something to be desired. In order to understand why iCloud and the Mac still don’t work all that well together, it’s important to understand how each platform handles files. On the Mac, files are managed by the user into folders and they can be opened by whichever app the user wants. The user can organize the files how they wish. However, most users don’t want to organize their files.

In response, Apple has tried something new with iCloud by tying files into specific applications, essentially eliminating the file system as we know it. That approach works well enough on iOS since there never was a traditional file system visible to users, but on OS X where users are used to Finder, Apple forged a middle-ground, which has proven to be a clunky solution at best. The major improvement to iCloud in Mountain Lion comes in the form of a new dialog box, available only on apps which are designed to support iCloud, allowing the user to upload files to iCloud to use with the app, and to open iCloud documents associated with the app. It’s better than what was available with Lion, but if Apple is serious about iCloud and the way it handles files, Apple is going to need to scrap the finder as we know it. That might be the most scary thing for power users, but for now, you can at least have your favorite Finder features and iCloud’s file features.

Security and the App Store

While the Mac is still by all accounts the safest platform out there (perhaps tied with desktop Linux), Apple has decided to play a preventative game with would-be hackers with the introduction of a technology called Gate Keeper. Much like how iCloud integration in the OS is a compromise between traditional notions of the Mac and Apple’s vision for the future, so too is Gate Keeper. Users have three options to choose from: only allowing apps from the Mac App Store, allowing apps from the App Store as well as apps from identified developers, or apps from anywhere. Apple has made the second option the default, in a compromise between a complete lockdown and complete freedom.

In this humble reviewers opinion, this is a great solution for Apple: if you don’t know how to change the security setting, than you probably shouldn’t be messing around with it. Now some would suggest that this is the first step towards a compete iOS-style lockdown of OS X, but the reality is that neither I, nor anybody else outside of Apple knows what the next version of OS X will bring. All that matters, is that for now, power users only need check a box to regain full control. And, since developers can signup to with Apple for free to sign their apps to pass Gate Keeper, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem for most users for now.

Sharing

Adding a Flickr account through System Preferences

Another nice addition to OS X Mountain Lion is enhanced sharing capabilities. From the “Mail, Contacts & Calendars” screen in System Preferences, users can now set up Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and Vimeo accounts with the OS. These accounts can be accessed from any app designed to take advantage of the new sharing APIs. Twitter and Facebook accounts will also automatically sync with your contacts to link profiles as well as import contact pictures. Moreover, certain accounts such as Twitter and Facebook are integrated into the Notification Center, allowing you to view you latest notifications from the services as well as post updates to them. Clicking on a Twitter notification, for example, bounces you out to Safari and the web version of Twitter. That may be annoying, though, if you’d rather use a 3rd party app with the social network.

In addition to sharing from individual apps, right clicking on a file in Finder now also shows a menu that allows the user to share to any service the file type supports. The big issue with Sharing in Mountain Lion, though, is it’s walled-garden approach to sharing services. Developers can’t add their services to the sharing menu, making it only useful for those who use the services Apple has anointed. Bottom line: no 500px support just yet.

Note: Facebook support will be released to the public “this fall”, according to Apple.

Dictation

Dictation in OS X Mountain Lion

Although Mountain Lion doesn’t have full  Siri capabilities, Apple has decided to share it’s dictation technology with the Mac. Even though I still prefer typing, I have to hand it to Apple on this one: dictation was quick and accurate. This is a pretty major addition to OS X, especially considering its only competitor, Dragon Dictation, costs $200. Of course, it’s not as feature complete as Dragon, but for typing an email, essay, or blog post, you can’t really ask for much more. Since it’s integrated at a system level, any standard text box in any app can be dictated into. By default, dictation is triggered by pressing the “Fn” key twice, but the shortcut can be changed from System Preferences. As with any dictation technology, it does make some mistakes, and it works better in a quiet room with a good microphone. Overall, this is really a hidden gem in OS X.

Refinements

The new dock in OS X Mountain Lion

In addition to all the aforementioned features, OS X Mountain Lion includes system-wide refinements for just about every app. After installing the OS on my computer, everything just seemed to work a little bit better. Those who upgraded from Leopard to Snow Leopard will know what I’m talking about, here; the small changes across the board are what makes it nearly impossible for me to go back and use a computer without Mountain Lion. Below, I’ve listed some changes Apple has made to the OS which don’t warrant their own section, but are definitely worth noting.

  • Safari – The default browser on Mountain Lion has been upgraded to version 6. This new version includes support for the built-in Sharing feature, a unified search and URL bar, tab syncing via iCloud, as well as a new tab view.
  • Updates – Gone is the old “Software Update” application. It’s been replaced by the App Store, which now handles all software updates, including updates to the operating system itself.
  • Launchpad – There’s now a search bar for applications in Launchpad. It seems a bit unnecessary, as the Mac already has universal search via Spotlight, but I guess this has less of a learning curve for new users.
  • Displays – Instead of showing all display resolutions within the “Displays” section of System Preferences, OS X now shows two options “Best for display”, the native resolution, and “Scaled”, which shows all possible resolutions.
  • Appearance – The New OS also has a new dock, which is styled after frosted glass. It’s subtle, and less “in-your-face” with reflections than previous iteration of the dock. There are also a host of new desktop backgrounds for you to choose from.
  • App Store & iTunes – You can now navigate  through the App Store and iTunes Store using two finger swipes on the trackpad.
  • Power Nap - If you have a Macbook with flash storage, it can now sleep while updating Mail, Contacts, Calendars, Reminders, Notes, Photo Stream, Find My Mac, and Documents in the Cloud. When connected to a power source, it downloads software updates and backups with Time Machine, all while sleeping. No rest for weary lions.
  • China – OS X now supports a host of Chinese-centric services. As I can’t read or speak Chinese, I haven’t been able to test these features, but if you use Chinese on your Mac we’d love to hear your thoughts on the new Chinese integrations.
  • Contacts – The Address Book has been renamed to Contacts.
  • Calendar – iCal has been renamed to Calendar.
  • Mail – You can now mark senders as “VIPs” to prioritize their emails.

Upgrading

While Mountain Lion is the cheapest version of OS X yet, Apple has increased its minimum required hardware specs, so you’ll need a relatively new system to make the switch. If you’ve got an original Macbook Air, a pre-2007 iMac or Mac Mini or a pre-2008 Macbook, you’re out of luck. Similarly, users of a Mac with Intel GMA 950, Intel x3100, or ATI Radeon X1600 graphics will all be left behind.

If you’re unsure if your Mac meets those minimum requirements, be sure to check using the “System Information” (previously known as “System Profiler”) app installed on your computer. If you’ve got the proper hardware, and are ready to perform the upgrade, simply open up the App Store on your Mac and search for “Mountain Lion”, or just click this link to open it directly. As with any operating system upgrade, it’s always a good idea to back up your Mac before making the switch.

If you purchased a new Mac from Apple or an Apple Authorized Reseller on or after June 11, 2012, you’re eligible for a free upgrade to version 10.8. Visit Apple’s website for more information.

Conclusion

Mountain Lion is the latest and greatest version of OS X. With the looming competition from Windows 8, Apple has proven their readiness to compete by again, improving upon what was already a great product. While Microsoft is pushing their entire ecosystem towards a touch-centric interface, Apple brought elements of iOS from the iPad back to the Mac, made everything work great with their amazing touchpads, and kept OS X a powerful operating system for everyone, power users and newbies alike. And, at only $20, nearly everyone will find a reason or two to upgrade.

Mountain Lion is more than just another software update, though: it’s a clear indication that Apple is moving to the cloud. The future of OS X will be forged on the back of iCloud, and Mountain Lion is another step in that journey. Make no mistake; iCloud is far more than a simple syncing tool, and with the deep integration we’re seeing in Mountain Lion, it’s obvious that Apple considers iCloud a crucial part of its software strategy.

One More Thing…

Didn’t we say you could have a chance to get a free copy of OS X Mountain Lion? Of course we did! If you want the latest and greatest version of OS X, but want to get it for free, and don’t mind waiting to get it until the weekend, here’s your chance. We’re giving away 3 copies of Mountain Lion, and one could be running on your Mac this weekend.

As with most of our giveaways, all you have to do is click the link below and send out the resulting tweet (or just copy and paste), then leave a comment below with a link to your tweet and your thoughts about Mountain Lion or the features you’re most excited about.

 

We’ll announce the winners at 8AM CST Saturday, July 28th, so hurry and get your entry in today! Or, if you can’t wait, just head over to the App Store and upgrade, then tell us what you like best about the latest version of OS X!

Prize will be giving in the form of $20 App Store credit. We’d love to see a screenshot of your newly upgraded Mac if you win. Envato staff or people who have written more than two articles or tutorials for AppStorm, however, are ineligible to enter.


Summary

Despite a few quirks and poor UI decisions, Apple's latest operating system is both affordable and feature packed. If your Mac can handle it, it's a no-brainer upgrade.

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