Mountain Lion: The Next Big Cat From Apple 

Intro

The new version of OS X from Apple — dubbed Mountain Lion — is now ready for download from the Mac App Store for $19.99.

Lion, the OS it replaces, was in many ways a new chapter when it comes to OS X versions. Lion was the first version to be available as a digital download. Requiring 10.6 Snow Leopard to be installed, Lion was a $29 download from the Mac App Store.

(Apple did offer Lion on a USB key in-stores for $69, but I digress.)

Notably, Lion brought many iOS features “back to the Mac,” as Apple claimed. Features such as Launchpad, the App Store, full-screen mode, gestures and more made the Mac feel more like home to the legions of iOS users considering Apple’s desktop platform for the first time.

(For kicks, check out my Lion review from last year over on Macgasm.)

So, does 10.8 carry that theme forward? Or does Mountain Lion back away from the “iOS-ification” of OS X?

Requirements & Setup

With Mountain Lion, Apple has continued to shed support for older Intel Macs. These are the machines that are supported by Mountain Lion:

  • iMac (Mid 2007 or newer)
  • MacBook (Late 2008 Aluminum, or Early 2009 or newer)
  • MacBook Pro (Mid/Late 2007 or newer)
  • Xserve (Early 2009)
  • MacBook Air (Late 2008 or newer)
  • Mac mini (Early 2009 or newer)
  • Mac Pro (Early 2008 or newer)

No white plastic iMacs or pre-unibody MacBooks make the cut. Likewise, the original MacBook Air and first two models of Mac Pro aren’t supported by 10.8. Only the last generation of non-unibody MacBook Pros will support Mountain Lion.

In short, if your machine is 4 years old or older, you are probably stuck with Lion. EveryMac has a great page up outlining more details on supported machines and possible workarounds.

Some have speculated that Apple’s left models behind that include GPUs without 64-bit drivers. From what I’ve experienced on numerous test systems, I can say that Mountain Lion does seem a bit more heavy-handed than its predecessor in this regard.

RAM-wise, Mountain Lion requires only 2 GB, but I’ve found that the more RAM you can cram in your Mac (or pre-order it with, these days), the better off you’ll be. I wouldn’t want to run Mountain Lion on just 2 GB.

The official technical requirements from Apple are:

  • OS X v10.6.8 or later
  • 2GB of memory
  • 8GB of available space

If you attempt to download 10.8 on a machine that is not supported or doesn’t meet the minimum requirements, the Mac App Store will alert you prior to downloading.

Installing Mountain Lion is very similar to installing Lion. After downloading it from the Mac App Store, the app will auto-launch and install the OS. Long gone are the days of chucking in a CD and rebooting with the C key held down.

As with Lion, it is easy to create a DVD or USB key for installing Mountain Lion. If you want to re-install the OS without having to download it again, I fully recommend having a jump drive handy. If you wish to make such a tool, do so before installing the new version of OS X, as the Installer application is deleted upon booting post-install.

During the installation, Mountain Lion will update the “Recovery” partition put in place by Lion to include a compressed version of the 10.8 installer, as well as updated versions of Disk Utility, etc. The following options are presented to users after booting to the Recovery partition:

  • Restore from a Time Machine backup
  • Reinstall OS X
  • Get help online
  • Open Disk Utility

Additionally, these utilities are present:

  • Firmware Password Utility
  • Network Utility
  • Terminal

When Apple added this functionality to OS X with Lion, some worried that having such utilities available on the machine itself would become a security issue. With Mountain Lion, Apple hasn’t changed the way the Recovery Partition works, so the company doesn’t seem to think its an issue.

If you are concerned about the Recovery Partition becoming a security weak spot, it’s important to remember two things:

  1. Setting a firmware password will keep people from booting the system from other partitions and drives without said password being entered.
  2. Once someone has physical access to a computer, most security measures are easily bypassed anyways.

With Mountain Lion, Apple has made X11 an optional install.

iCloud

Starting with 10.7.2, OS X has been asking users to sign in to iCloud for the syncing of Contacts, Calendars, Bookmarks, Notes and more. With Mountain Lion, Apple has moved this into the pre-launch setup, making signing into iCloud appear to be a requirement to run the OS, which it isn’t.

(The prompt still appears at login for users created after the system is configured.)

With 10.8, the System Preference for iCloud hasn’t changed:

Additionally, in Mountain Lion, you can manage the storage used by an iCloud account, like on iOS:

An iCloud account (or any AppleID, actually) can be used to reset a local account password, which is handy for forgetful users:

Back to my Mac and Find my Mac work the same as before. The former allows remote access to a Mac when its connected to the Internet, and the latter allows for locating, locking and even wiping a lost or stolen Mac.

With such a heavy-handed approach, Apple’s being pretty transparent with its desire for OS X users to become iCloud users. However, I still think the company could do a better job at explaining what iCloud has to offer to novice or average users.

Let’s look at parts of iCloud with a little more detail.

iCloud: Documents in the Cloud

Mountain Lion brings “Documents in the Cloud” to the Mac for the first time.

The most well-known example of an application suite with “Documents in the Cloud” support is iWork. With iOS 5 and iCloud, users can sync (automagically) Pages, Keynote and Numbers documents between iOS devices. These files can be downloaded from icloud.com. Additionally, documents created with the Mac versions of the iWork applications can be uploaded via the iCloud website.

While (as of this writing) the Mac versions of Pages, Keynote and Numbers have not been updated to support iCloud directly, apps that do support the feature have gained new “Open” dialogue boxes.

The new windows has a section for files on “iCloud” and “On My Mac:”

(Note that as of this writing, TextEdit (pictured here) doesn’t have an iCloud feature anywhere except the Mac. These files aren’t accessible online or on iOS, as iWork documents are.)

Here’s the windows for Keynote, as of this writing, just for comparison:

These new windows have also gained some sharing features:

…but more on Sharing in a bit.

iCloud: Synced Mail Preferences

Like MobileMe used to do, iCloud in Mountain Lion now syncs mail rules, signatures, smart mailboxes and more between Macs.

iCloud: Contact & Calendar Sync

While Mountain Lion doesn’t bring any new tricks to syncing this data between Macs and devices, the speed at which it works seems to have improved. As soon as I finish typing on my Mac and pick up my iPhone, the change is normally there, ready to go. It really works amazingly well.

Support for Google syncing is still around in 10.8, however.

In the “Mail, Contacts and Calendars” System Preference pane, calendars can be enabled for any Gmail or Google Apps account:

In Calendar.app, editing an account bounces you back out to this System Preference.

To sync contact data with Google, iCloud syncing of Contacts must be disabled. iCloud stores contact data not unlike information in Calendar.app — that is to say, the data isn’t really “on” your Mac. (Google Calendars work the same way.)

Anyways, to sync with Google, enable the little checkbox that says “Synchronize with Google.” Doing so brings up a window with this text:

By clicking “Agree” below, you will enable this application to access your Google contacts for the purpose of synchronizing. You acknowledge and agree that the synchronization process may read from, change, delete or overwrite data in Google contacts. Google strongly recommends that you make a backup copy of your data before your first synchronization attempt. Google assumes no responsibility, makes no representations or warranties, and shall not be liable for any damages whatsoever for lost or duplicated data. If you change your Google login information, you may be required to give permission again.

I’ve had mixed luck with this setup, however. Mileage may vary, and given the growing chasm between the two companies, I wouldn’t count on this feature always working smoothly.

New Features

Mountain Lion is about refining OS X, and as such, comes with several new features besides iCloud support.

New Feature: Messages

Since its advent with Mac OS X 10.3 Panther, iChat’s UI has revolved around the Buddy List (or lists, before Apple unified with Contacts window.)

With Messages, however, Apple has changed this. While the Contact list still exists, the Messages window has learned some new tricks:

Typing a person’s name will bring up every way Messages can contact that person, with the old-school green jewel icons showing if the person can be reached via "legacy networks" like AIM or Google Talk.

While Messages continues to support such networks, Apple would have everyone be using iMessage to talk with each other.

Here’s how the company describes the network:

Messages appear on your Mac and any device you use, which means you can say hi from your Mac and keep chatting on your iPhone or iPad, no matter where you are.

In practice, that’s not exactly true. While Apple has said that it will be connecting AppleID emails and phone numbers, it hasn’t happened as of yet.

Since Messages on the Mac, iPad and iPod touch cannot be setup with a phone number, messages sent to a phone number only show up on that iPhone. This can lead to multiple conversations with the same person, depending on how things are set up.

To fix this, you should set the “Caller ID” on your iPhone to the same email address used on the Mac and other devices.

Hopefully Apple gets this fixed sooner rather than later.

New Feature: Notification Center

It doesn’t take too much writing to explain Notification Center, as it’s basically ripped out of iOS 5.

Living to the left (and under) the Desktop, Notification Center is the central repository of all messages from installed applications.

It can be accessed by swiping to the left from the right edge of the trackpad, or clicking the new Notification Center, which lives to the right of Spotlight now:

The settings for Notification Center closely mirror the options available on iOS:

Notification Center isn’t just about incoming information, though. You can tweet, right from the linen:

In using Mountain Lion for several months, I have not found Notification Center to be that helpful. In fact, I have most of the options turned off. I’d like to turn it off entirely.

New Feature: AirPlay Mirroring

This feature does pretty much what you think it would: it mirrors your Mac’s display to a television via the AppleTV.

In testing with a Mid 2011 MacBook Air, I found the mirroring to work as smoothly as it does from my iPad 3. Setup is as simple as it is on iOS. When Mountain Lion sees an AppleTV on the network, the AirPlay icon appears in the menu bar.

Streaming works very well. I never saw any video stutter or lag, even at 1080p.

To stream audio to an AppleTV, simply select it in the Sound section of System Preferences. iTunes also supports sending audio and video to an AppleTV in Mountain Lion.

I think this will lead to the purchase of AppleTVs by people who have never really considered the $99 box before. I know I’ve used to it show keynotes on our in-office TV, and it’s something I can’t imagine living without.

However, AirPlay Mirroring isn’t coming to all Mountain Lion machines. It supports the following Mac models:

  • iMac (Mid 2011 or newer)
  • Mac mini (Mid 2011 or newer)
  • MacBook Air (Mid 2011 or newer)
  • MacBook Pro (Early 2011 or newer)

AirPlay Mirroring requires a second-generation Apple TV or later.

New Feature: Power Nap

Power Nap was one of two new Mountain Lion features Apple showed off at WWDC in June, and is by far the most restricted feature, as it will only run on “Mac notebooks with built-in flash storage.” Apple also notes that a firmware update might be required for the feature to run.

(In the WWDC keynote, Apple said this wouldn’t run on the first-generation, SSD-based MacBook Air, but the company’s website doesn’t get that specific.)

In short, Power Nap allows machines to update certain information while asleep, including:

  • Mail
  • Contacts
  • Calendar
  • Reminders
  • Notes
  • Photo Stream
  • Find My Mac
  • Documents in the Cloud

Time will tell if users even notice this feature. All in all, I think it’ll be one of those things that’s more felt than seen.

New Feature: Dictation

Dictation on Mountain Lion was the second feature unveiled on-stage at WWDC 2012. Working just like its iOS cousin, when enabled, Dictation will allow spoken words to be inserted anywhere text can be.

The newly-renamed “Dictation & Speech” system preference pane allows users to toggle Dictation on and off, set their shortcut and language. I (for one) like the default of hitting the Function key twice.

Apple’s privacy policy covers the information sent and received to make Dictation work:

When you use the keyboard dictation feature on your computer, the things you dictate will be recorded and sent to Apple to convert what you say into text. Your computer will also send Apple other information, such as your first name and nickname; and the names, nicknames, and relationship with you (for example, “my dad”) of your address book contacts. All of this data is used to help the dictation feature understand you better and recognize what you say. Your User Data is not linked to other data that Apple may have from your use of other Apple services.

In short, this works just like on iOS: the data is sent off to Apple, and as such, requires an Internet connection. With its Jelly Bean update to Android, Google has brought Dictation offline. It’d be nice to see Apple make this move as well, but I’d prefer the results be accurate over ubiquitous.

I used Dictation to get sections of this review done, and I have to say, I’m impressed. But then again, I use it all the time on my iPhone and iPad.

New Feature: Sharing

In Mountain Lion, Apple has tried to remove some of the common manual tasks people do each day by replacing them with some new UI-based shortcuts.

While Safari has had a menu item to send a webpage via email, with Mountain Lion, the browser has gained a dedicated Sharing button, just like in iOS:

The Finder has learned some new tricks, too:

Sharing to Twitter doesn’t launch the Twitter website or a client, but rather brings up an iOS-esque sharing card:

Notes, Photo Booth and iPhoto also have gained Sharing buttons, and I expect more apps will in the future. Here’s what QuickTime X can do:

Sharing is one of those Mountain Lion features that won’t be life-changing for power users, but for everyday users who copy and paste to share things, I can see this being a big deal. But at this point, I’m not super impressed.

Facebook sharing is “coming this fall,” according to Apple.

New Feature: Game Center

Apple’s doing everything it can to help developers bring iOS games to the Mac, which has historically sucked for games.

Game Center is Apple’s social network for gamers, and it’s the center for Mac gaming from now on. Looking like the iPad app, Game Center brings score sharing, friend requests and more to the desktop.

I don’t play games on my iPhone, and I’m sure I won’t play them on my Mac.

New — and Renamed — Apps

When Apple first took wraps off of Mountain Lion, the tag line used was “Inspired by iPad.”

Looking at the default apps that come with the new OS, its not hard to see how the marketing people came up with it.

New Apps: Calendar

Calendar (née iCal) is still bound in leather, but the old-style sidebar is back, making it easier to see the min-calendar and list of accounts:

Everything else pretty much looks and works the same as it has for the last year or so, with the exception of a new date picker that appears when editing an event:

New Apps: Contacts

Contacts (née Address Book) is pretty much the same as the Lion version, except that Groups are now ever-present on the far right of the fake little book UI.

I have one big complaint about Apple re-naming these apps — muscle memory and Spotlight. It’d be great if “iCal” still opened “Calendar.” I know such things can be done in LaunchBar, but with Alfred — my launcher of choice — it isn’t.

New Apps: Reminders

Reminders brings the Siri/iCloud powered to-do list Apple bundled with iOS 5 to the Mac. It looks like the iPad version, with an optional sidebar for list names and calendar:

Items can be assigned a due date and be set to repeat. Also, thanks to Mountain Lion’s location features, reminders can be triggered when leaving or arriving to a location. While this might not do much for desktop users, notebook users should enjoy this addition.

While I use OmniFocus for my task management, I do use Reminders on my iPhone for little things. Having this information on my Macs will be super helpful.

New Apps: Notes

In addition to Reminders, Mountain Lion brings iOS’ Notes app to the desktop.

Notes (again) looks just like the iOS version, complete with fake leather sticking and torn paper graphics:

With Mountain Lion, however, Notes has learned some new tricks.

Notes can be organized into folders, formatted with rich text and even be pinned to the Desktop. With iOS 6 due this fall, I think Notes will finally come in to its own.

Safari 6

Mountain Lion ships with Safari 6, the newest version of Apple’s built-in, Webkit-based browser.

The desktop browser now has an iOS-like tab switcher, which makes it easy to gesture between open sites:

Thanks to iCloud, Safari now syncs tabs between open devices. Right now, this features just works between Macs running Mountain Lion, but when iOS 6 ships (presumably) this fall, it will be easier than ever to share tabs between mobile devices and the desktop.

Safari’s Instapaper-like feature “Reading List” has gained the ability to save web content for off-line reading. Previously, Reading List just saved the URLs, meaning a device had to be online to access the page itself.

With version 6 of its browser, Apple has made discovering RSS feeds a much more manual process than before. While previous versions of the browser would auto-discover a site’s RSS feed and tie it a giant button labeled “RSS”, this feature is now gone. (In its place, Apple’s put a big “Reader” button, making launching in to Safari Reader easier.)

My guess is that Apple sees RSS as either a dying technology, or one only used by pro users, who know how to look for an RSS link on websites and blogs. Either way, as a power user, I dislike the change. Then again, Chrome (my browser of choice) also lacks such functionality.

Gatekeeper

In OS X Mountain Lion, Apple has added a feature named “Gatekeeper.” To make something long and complicated short, Gatekeeper is designed to keep users safe by limiting the sources they can use for software.

By default, Mountain Lion will only allow apps to run if they are from the Mac App Store or are signed by a developer registered with Apple. In short, only apps that Apple can keep tabs on are allowed on a system with Gatekeeper enabled.

While the name doesn’t appear in System Preferences, it can be accessed via the “Security” pane:

While I believe the default setting is fine for the average user, nerds will quickly find the need to adjust the setting to allow un-signed apps to run:

Alternatively, un-signed apps can be allowed to run on a one-by-one basis.

Some have suggested that the inclusion of Gatekeeper in Mountain Lion points the way toward Apple moving the Mac to an App Store-only model, like iOS devices. While I don’t think that’s the case, it’s worth keeping an eye on. I think that Gatekeeper will stay just the way it is for the foreseeable future.

Agressive Security Updates

During the beta period, Apple pushed out an update that included a new mechancism that automatically receives and applies security updates, regardless of user intervention with the Software Update section of the Mac App Store.

While I think this might be a little agressive given the low number of security issues with Mac OS X, I think that most users will welcome the change, knowing that Apple has their back when it comes to security.

One possibe downside would be Apple’s habit of periodically sending out a bad update. Hopefully, the company’s software quality people will be working over night after 10.8 ships.

China

I don’t live in China, but apparently lots of people do. Here’s what Apple’s added to OS X in Mountain Lion for the Chinese market:

The new Chinese dictionary and improved text input make typing in Chinese easier, faster, and more accurate. With eight new fonts, your writing can appear formal, informal, or fun. Mail works with QQ, 163, and 126. Baidu, the leading Chinese search provider, is a built-in option in Safari. Now you can post to the web right from the app you’re in. Post videos with Youku and Tudou. Post to Sina Weibo, the popular microblogging service.

Little Touches

Mountain Lion’s gotten fresh paint in several locations. Here are some of the ones I’ve come to appreciate while in the beta period. Of course, I’ve missed things, as Apple claims that Mountain Lion brings 200 new features to OS X.

Little Touches: Inline Progress Bar for Finder Actions

Finder’s Copy/Cut/Paste UI has been updated. Borrowing from the UI that’s shown while downloading an iOS app, items appear in-place, with a progress bar shown superimposed on the icon:

Clever, right? I love it. It even works with downloading items:

Sadly, Finder hasn’t learned many other new tricks. Oh, and ~/Library is still hidden. Which is adorable freaking annoying.

Little Touches: Dock

The horizontal dock has gotten a make-over, appearing far less shiny then it did before:

(Since I use my Dock pinned to the bottom right of my screen like a responsible Mac user, I’m stuck with the same Dock I’ve seen forever.)

Speaking of the Dock, icons can no longer be drug off easily. To remove an icon, it must be drug off and held over the Desktop for a moment, at a distance further than previously required. Alternatively, the item can be right-clicked, then the option to “Keep in Dock” must be unselected.

Little Touches: Dashboard

Dashboard now includes a link to Apple’s Widget Browser, and widgets can be added from a Launchpad-like interface:

Little Touches: Screen Savers

The Screen Saver portion of System Preferences now shows thumbnails of the different options, while adding numerous options for slideshows:

Little Touches: Time Machine

Time Machine can now support multiple drives, meaning it’s easier to keep an off-site backup drive updated.

Little Touches: Auto Save Revamped

With 10.7 Lion, Apple introduced Auto Save. In apps that supported it, the decades-old “Save As” feature was lost.

Well, with Mountain Lion, things have changed again:

Use Command-Shift-Option-S to save a document using a different name and location.

“Duplicate” still takes over the Command-Shift-S, though.

To make all of this a little less painful, Apple has added the ability to rename a document from the menubar:

Unsaved, untitled documents are automatically saved to iCloud, if the app supports iCloud storage. The days of losing a document by not saving it will soon be a thing of the past.

Little Touches: Launchpad Gains Search Window

I still don’t use Launchpad. Using an App Launcher with the keyboard is still much faster for me. I prefer Alfred, for what’s it worth.

Little Touches: Software Update is Dead

In Mountain Lion, selecting “Software Update…” doesn’t open the Software Update app like it has for a decade. Instead, the Mac App Store launches. Third-party apps, first-party apps and OS updates are all handled by the Store now. While this takes a little getting used to, it’s nice to have this all consolidated in one place again.

Performance & App Compatibility

During the course of testing Mountain Lion (I support numerous Macs at my day job) and working on this review, I installed the OS on several Macs, including:

Mid–2009 15" MacBook Pro:

  • 2.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor
  • NVIDIA GeForce 9400M and NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT graphics
  • 8 GB RAM
  • 750 GB HDD

Mid–2011 13" MacBook Air:

  • 1.7 Ghz i5 processor
  • Intel HD 3000 graphics
  • 4 GB RAM
  • 256 GB SSD

Late–2011 21.5" iMac:

  • 3.1 GHz Core i3 processor
  • AMD Radeon HD 6750M graphics
  • 12 GB RAM
  • 500 GB HDD

Like 10.7 before it, Mountain Lion really shines when running on a MacBook Air. The SSD makes everything fast, and features like full-screen apps make more sense on a small screen than a larger one.

My main work machine these days — the 2009-era MacBook Pro — runs Mountain Lion quite well, which is a relief. When in doubt with an older machine, add RAM. (And an SSD if you can swing it.)

In testing Mountain Lion, I’ve come across very few applications that don’t run well. While apps like Audio Hijack Pro or other heavy-handed, pro-oriented programs have required some tweaking, my everyday apps have all run smoothly since the first developer preview.

It’s clear that this release of OS X hasn’t had much changed under the hood when compared to past releases. While it is still wise to make sure any mission critical apps in your workflow are supported, I think most users won’t see many problems moving from 10.7 to Mountain Lion.

A Brief Note on the name ‘Mountain Lion’

Since the very beginning, Apple has given nicknames to the major versions of OS X. Here’s the full history:

  • 10.0: Cheetah
  • 10.1: Puma
  • 10.2: Jaguar
  • 10.3: Panther
  • 10.4: Tiger
  • 10.5: Leopard
  • 10.6: Snow Leopard
  • 10.7: Lion

With Mountain Lion, Apple’s reused a name, in a way. Here’s the opening line from the Wikipedia page for “Cougar”:

The cougar (Puma concolor), also known as puma, mountain lion, mountain cat, catamount or panther, depending on the region, is a mammal of the family Felidae, native to the Americas.

So, 10.1 and 10.3 and 10.8 are named after the same cat. This is just sloppy, Apple. Get it together. Geeze.

Wrap-Up

With the advent of Mountain Lion, Apple promises users less time between major OS X releases. With iOS already on (basically) a yearly release cycle, many — myself included — worry that Apple may be stretching itself too thin.

Mountain Lion isn’t first example of this, though, in my mind. Parts of Lion still feel half-baked, and even after several point updates, it can be less than stable at times.

Mountain Lion smoothes over most of the issues I’ve had with 10.7, but that isn’t enough to make me want to throw Mountain Lion a parade.

The truth of the matter is this: Mountain Lion is a feature release.

No matter how great or useful those features may be to the masses of iCloud users, it feels a little lazy. The new operating system is nice, but it’s not ground-breaking.

In short, the more I use Mountain Lion, the more I feel like 10.7 and 10.8 should have shipped as one operating system update, not two.

Is Mountain Lion worth upgrading to? Yes. It modernizes OS X in many areas, and makes working with iOS devices easier than ever. But at the end of the day, 10.8 is the realization of the goals Apple set with 10.7, and it shouldn’t take $19 to make Lion worthwhile.