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OS X Mountain Lion in-depth preview

Apple is a company that consistently manages to surprise; not only when it comes to their products, but in terms of how the company itself operates. It seems like just when you thought you had them figured out, Apple goes and does something new and exciting and entirely unexpected, leaving you completely blind sighted. This is what happened just a few weeks ago with the announcement of the next version of Apple’s Mac operating system: Mountain Lion.

It was only a few days earlier that I found myself ruminating about the future of OS X, and what the next version of the operating system would bring. Windows 8 and Windows Phone 7 had recently caught my eye, and I began to wonder how Apple would go about further blurring the line between iOS and OS X. Would the next version of OS X even feature a desktop? Would it look anything like the OS we know now? It was an exciting thing to think about, though I knew it shouldn’t be expected for quite a while.

Like every version of Mac OS X before it, I expected 10.8 to be announced at a lavish June press event during Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference. The company only just released 10.7 Lion last summer, so I assumed there would be quite a wait before 10.8 would show itself, most likely at the June 2013 WWDC. Oh boy, was I wrong.

Apple announced OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion out of the blue on a Thursday morning. Publications went live with their “Mountain Lion hands-on” articles in the early hours of the morning, and I – like many others – was stunned. Did Apple really just announce the next version of Mac OS X without a press event? Yes, they did.

Two weeks later, I’ve spent a significant amount of time testing Mountain Lion and all of the new features it will bring when it arrives sometime this summer. In short, Mountain Lion is already fantastic. It’s fast and smooth, and brings with it a bunch of awesome features Mac users have been waiting for.

THE BASICS

Like the upgrade from Leopard to Snow Leopard, Mountain Lion looks and feels very similar to Lion. While there are a ton of new and useful features in Mountain Lion, don’t expect a monumental shift in the user experience akin to what Windows 8 is aiming for. Instead you’ll find what feels like a highly polished version of Lion, that already runs tremendously fast and smooth despite being in its first Developer Release.

Though I have Mountain Lion installed on an external drive (just to be safe) I could easily see myself running it as my primary OS and getting by fine. It appears that having Lion as a launching pad has allowed Apple to craft an almost bug-free and extremely smooth first beta that runs great – even on my relatively old 2008 Core 2 Duo MacBook.

However, unlike Snow Leopard (which was essentially a polished and stabilized version of Leopard), Mountain Lion introduces a plethora of new features and apps to the Mac. Apple has focused on bringing even more great features from iOS to the Mac, including Notification Center, Notes, Reminders, and Documents in the Cloud. So let’s take a look at the new features you can expect when OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion is unleashed later this year.

NOTIFICATION CENTER

One of the major new features in Mountain Lion is Notification Center, continuing the trend that began with Lion of bringing the best and most popular iOS features “back to the Mac”. Just like in iOS 5, Notifications for apps like Messages, Mail, Safari, and Calendar will appear in semi-transparent white boxes in the top right corner of your screen just below the clock on the menu bar. So far, there is no way to change the placement (or otherwise customize) these notification banners, though I suspect Apple will change that in the final release.

Notification Center can be accessed with a two-finger swipe from the right of the trackpad to the left. Your desktop will slide to the left and out of the way, as Notification Center appears – linen texture and all – underneath. Apple wasn’t kidding when they said that multi-touch would be the future of computing, and with Mountain Lion there is definitely an increased pressure for desktop users to abandon their mouse and switch to Apple’s Magic Trackpad (in fact, I can see Apple discontinuing the Magic Mouse entirely this year). For those who really dislike the trackpad gestures, Apple has included a new Notification Center icon right next to Spotlight on the menu bar. It lights up blue when you’ve got a new notification, and clicking on the icon, as you would expect, opens Notification Center.

Notification Center on Mountain Lion looks and works just like in iOS. Clicking on a notification will take you directly into that app, and you can clear notifications by clicking on the “X” button next to the app name, though there is still no way to delete individual notifications. Notification Center opens without so much as a stutter, and animations are smooth.

What else can I say? It’s Notification Center. Seamlessly integrated with OS X’s built-in apps, users don’t even have to think about it, yet they will wonder how they ever made do without it.

LAUNCHPAD

Apple has made a few minor changes to Launchpad, which was first introduced in OS X Lion. The app icons appear significantly smaller, a welcome change, as I always felt they looked too big and awkward in Lion. Apple has also included a Spotlight-eqsue Search bar in Launchpad, allowing you to quickly search for and locate any application on your machine. Launchpad also feels a bit faster and more responsive in Mountain Lion.

MESSAGES

Apple introduced iMessage – their answer to RIM’s BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) – back in June 2011 at WWDC, as part of iOS 5 for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. One notable omission from the list of iMessage-capable platforms was the Mac, though many assumed it was merely a matter of time before iMessage made its way to OS X. That time is here.

Mountain Lion’s new Messages app replaces the old iChat application, and brings cross-platform iMessage support to the Mac. Users on a Mac can send iMessages to their family and friends no matter what device they are using – Mac or iOS. Conversations are synced across devices, so you can start a conversation on your Mac and resume it on your iPhone when you leave the house.

Messages is by far the buggiest app in the Mountain Lion Developer Preview. I find it sometimes deletes my conversations if I close the application window, and it doesn’t always sync all of my messages properly across devices. Messages I’ve received and read on my iPhone all pop up individually the next time I open Messages for Mac. Instead of silently syncing my messages and updating my conversations, it “receives” each message as new, quickly realizing a second later that I’ve already read them. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding… it gets annoying quickly. Hopefully this bug is addressed, as the app should simply download all of my new messages, realize I’ve already read them, and silently update my conversations.

Messages for Mac is currently available for Lion users as a beta, which you can download and try out right now.

SHARING AND TWITTER

Apple has also introduced a system-wide Share feature into Mountain Lion, allowing users to quickly share almost anything using Mail, Messages, AirDrop, Flickr, Vimeo, and Twitter. Users can share directly from Finder by using QuickLook on movies, music, and photos and then selecting the Share button. You can set up your accounts for Twitter, Flickr, Vimeo, and other sharing services in System Preferences.

Curiously, Facebook and YouTube are also included, but only in QuickTime Player, allowing users to share movies through these two popular social networks – but nothing else. A strange limitation, given that both services are currently integrated with iLife apps like iPhoto and iMovie. I’d like to see Facebook and YouTube extended to the system-wide Share Button, as having quick access to share a photo or URL on Facebook, or a video file on YouTube, would be nice.

Twitter is also integrated system-wide in Mountain Lion just like in iOS. You can Tweet a URL from Safari or a photo from Finder using the Share button and familiar “Tweet Sheet” seen across iOS 5 devices. Apple says that users will also receive notifications for DM’s and Replies directly in Notification Center, but this does not appear to be working in the Developer Preview.

Apple has promised an API for developers to integrate the Share Button into their applications. The API will only provide access the Share Button, and developers will not be able to integrate any new services into the sharing feature.

NOTES AND REMINDERS

Two more apps making the jump from iOS to OS X in Mountain Lion are Notes and Reminders. Though the functionality of these apps has (to some degree) always been present in OS X, they now exist as standalone apps.

Notes, which used to be integrated with Mail, looks much like it does on the iPad, just scaled up for the Mac. A list of your notes can be found in the left column, while clicking on one opens it in the yellow legal pad on the right. As you might expect, Notes syncs with iCloud, keeping all of your notes synced across Mac and iOS. The Share button is present here as well, allowing you to send a note via. Email or iMessage. Individual notes can also be torn out of the notebook by double-clicking on them in the list on the left. They pop up in their own window, and you can close the main Notes window while keeping an individual note (or notes) open (so long as you keep the app itself running). This all works great; Notes sync instantly if you change, add, or delete one, and like Mountain Lion itself, Notes feels like a very complete app. It will be very familiar to anyone who owns an iOS device.

Reminders has been pulled out of Calendar and is now its own app as well. Like Notes, Reminders looks like a scaled up iOS app, and includes all the same functionality; adding Reminders, creating new lists, marking Reminders as complete, and even a Calendar view. It also syncs with iCloud, so Reminders you create or complete on your iPhone or iPad will sync to your Mac as well, and vice versa. It is a simple app – so simple that it doesn’t even include a preferences pane – but it’s nice to have a dedicated app for quick reminders that syncs with your phone.

CALENDAR AND MAIL

iCal has been renamed to Calendar, bringing Apple’s built-in Mac app names in-line with iOS. While Calendar keeps the same faux-leather UI design Apple introduced in Lion, the company has made a few minor interface changes. The Calendars list, which appeared as a pop-over in Lion, now slides out from the left of the app, accompanied by a miniature Month view.

Mail has remained relatively the same, but there is one new feature that I am personally happy to see; clicking on the grey bar at the top of the inbox jumps to the top, just like in iOS. This is one of the major annoyances I have with Apple’s Mail app in Lion, and a big reason why I’m currently using Sparrow.

However, Apple’s native Mail app is still quite buggy. I’ve always had an issue in Mail on Lion, wherein a new message will arrive but the “new mail” chime does not sound right away, sometimes ringing after I’ve already read the new email. This is another bug that caused me to switch to Sparrow, and one that hasn’t been remedied (as of yet) in Mountain Lion. I’ve also seen instances in Mail of a new message arriving, accompanied by the red icon badge, but no notification appears in Notification Center. As far as I’m concerned, Apple’s Mail app can join Messages in the “buggiest apps” category; these two need a lot of tweaking before the public release of Mountain Lion.

SAFARI

Safari has also seen some minor updates in Mountain Lion. For starters, Safari now features a combined Address and Search Bar – a feature I’ve been dying for! It makes browsing a lot faster and more convenient, and it just makes sense. Sure, this is a feature that has been available on other browsers for a while, but it’s a first for Safari (which is still my default browser thanks to Top Sites).

The other change to Safari in Mountain Lion is the inclusion of the Share button. Located to the left of the Address Bar, clicking on the Share button summons a drop down menu of sharing features. You can add a page to your Reading List, Bookmark a page, or share a page via. Mail, Messages, or Twitter.

DASHBOARD

Dashboard has seen a small change in Mountain Lion as well. Still occupying its own Space to the left of your desktop, adding and removing widgets has been revamped. Alongside the standard + button on the Dashboard is now a – button for, you guessed it, deleting widgets. Adding widgets now brings up a Launchpad-style interface that looks very similar to an iOS homescreen.

Apple has also added a “More widgets…” button that appears when you click the + button. This takes you to the Dashboard section of Apple’s website, where you can download more widgets for your Dashboard. I find it odd that Dashboard Widgets have not yet been moved to the Mac App Store, though I suspect we will see that change when Mountain Lion is released.

iCLOUD

Mountain Lion is Apple’s first OS X release since the launch of iCloud, and they’ve integrated the service directly into the OS. Upon first boot you will be asked to enter your Apple ID and set-up iCloud, which will automatically set-up iTunes, FaceTime, Messages, and the Mac App Store, as well as auto-sync all of your Calendars, Contacts, Bookmarks, Mail, and Documents. Imagine getting a new Mac and having all of this data on your machine and ready to go before you even reach your desktop. Astounding.

Apple has also integrated Documents in the Cloud into Mountain Lion, allowing apps to save and access files on iCloud. It syncs seamlessly across devices, so if you edit a document on your Mac and save it to iCloud, you can then open and edit it on your iPad or iPhone. Documents in the Cloud is built-in to the “Open” dialogue in many apps like TextEdit and Pages, presenting a new iPad-like user interface. Though there is currently no user-facing file system for iCloud, meaning you can not browse through your iCloud documents in Finder, only through specific applications.

WRAP-UP

Unlike Snow Leopard, Mountain Lion is not just an updated version of Lion. Sure, the Developer Preview already feels more stable and polished than Lion, but Mountain Lion introduces a heft of new features that users will enjoy. Seamless Notification Center, system-wide Sharing features, deep iCloud integration, quick and easy messaging, and a bunch of new and much needed apps will make Mountain Lion feel like a whole new ball game. Mountain Lion already feels like a huge step up from Lion, and I expect that we haven’t seen all there is to see in 10.8. I can only hope Apple pulls out the big guns and surprises us with more goodies at WWDC in June.

OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion will be released this summer. Apple has promised yearly OS X updates from now on, once again taking a cue from iOS, so we can expect OS X 10.9 to be released sometime next year.

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13 thoughts on “OS X Mountain Lion in-depth preview

  1. No mention of Gatekeeper? You seem to welcome the new features, which, I agree are nice, but it doesn’t feel like any innovation is being had here, simply more merging of iOS and OS X. Design-wise it seems like Apple keeps slipping with more and more of the use of “corinthian” leather, and misuse of space (see notification center) . Also Gatekeeper seems to signal the eventual process of signed only code; so we will eventually have to jailbrake OS X, much like iOS?

    I like your review/preview, but what are you thoughts? Can we get more of an editorial? There are enough previews out there! Thanks guys, keep up the good work!

  2. Im glad to see that they have returned some of the proper UI functionality to Calendar (nee iCal) – with the slide out list of calendars and the mini calendar view. BUT and its a BIG BUT, the galactically awful faux leather look is still there – Apple get a grip and get rid of it, faux leather has no place in what purports to be teh most advanced OS UI on the planet…. and what about Address Book, will we be seeing a return to the properly functional 3 pane view of Snow Leopard? The current Lion implementation is possibly teh most useless and retrograde upgrade of any app I have ever seen – enough to force me to “downgrade” back to SL after around 60 mins exploring my Lion “upgrade”…

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