Last year’s Lion doesn’t feel very old, but Apple has sped up its desktop release cycle and released Mountain Lion, the followup that promises a more robust and useful desktop platform, further adoption of concepts from iOS, and a stronger focus on iCloud and third-party online services to tie your digital universe together. If you’re the kind of user who feels extremely restricted on an iPad as opposed to a computer, you might not like what this latest update brings. Mountain Lion is built for the kind of user who doesn’t care where files are saved as long as they exist, and who loves how iPad apps disappear into the background when not needed and magically remember exactly what you were doing when you bring them back. Read on to see if Mountain Lion works for you, or click here to jump directly to our conclusion.
A fresh new Mountain Lion installation. Note the opaque dock and cluttered menu bar.
Apple’s latest financial reports show that the iPhone and iPad lines now make up 72 percent of the company’s business, with Mac sales accounting for only 14 percent. These figures are even more impressive when you consider that the Mac and iOS families were roughly even just four years ago. It therefore shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Apple wants to apply as much of the iOS formula as possible to the Mac line. If iPhone and iPad users are so happy with their experiences, then it makes sense to adopt those conventions and ideas that make those devices so attractive, and provide new ways to bridge the two device classes. Some of these changes do seem logical, but others will aggravate longtime Mac users and those resistant to a general “dumbing down” of personal computers.
OS X v10.8, better known as Mountain Lion, comes almost exactly a year after Lion and marks a transition to a cheaper yearly release cycle, much like what iOS users are accustomed to. Notably, the “Mac” in “Mac OS” has been dropped, and the “X” signifying version 10 has become part of a new name, “OS X”. Previous releases were spaced up to two years apart and cost US$ 129 (Rs. 7,170) each.
Mountain Lion costs only $19.99 (Rs. 1,110) and includes a number of new features that users will see in addition to loads of background improvements. Only specific models of Macs are eligible to run Mountain Lion, with the oldest being the mid-2007 iMac refresh, and other relatively recent models excluded, such as Mac Minis launched before mid-2009.
If you didn’t get it preinstalled on a new Mac, your only option is to download Mountain Lion from the Mac App Store (Macs purchased after June 11, 2012 qualify for a free upgrade). The 4.7 GB download appears as a shortcut in the dock and Launchpad screen, and you can install it whenever you like. The process took us about 40 minutes on a 2008 MacBook and just under 20 minutes on a 2011 MacBook Air, during which time the machines were unusable.
Mountain Lion: Not just an incremental update
There are only two subtle things you’ll notice when Mountain Lion first boots up: the dock now has an almost-opaque frosted glass finish, and a new icon displaces Spotlight from the top-right corner of the menu bar. Nothing about the dock is functionally different, except that the little dot that indicates when a program is running has deliberately been reduced to a barely noticeable bar on the dock’s edge. The icon, which looks like a bulleted list, brings up your notifications.
Before you even get to the desktop, you're prompted to sign in to iCloud.
Apple has refrained from making arbitrary visual tweaks this time, so the flat monotone window title bars and menus remain as they were in Lion. You’ll see new icons for the new Notes and Reminders programs in the dock, but you won’t immediately notice the new iOS-derived names for Calendar, Contacts and Messages. Preferences related to what is and isn’t visible are carried over from your previous OS version.
Mac OS has always differed from Windows in that a program can be “running” even without being open—an icon would stay in the dock and stay ready until it was manually quit. Lion introduced iOS-style “backgrounding”, in which programs would quit on their own when the OS decided the RAM it consumed could be put to better use elsewhere. Mountain Lion seems a lot more aggressive, and we noticed programs terminating as soon as documents were closed, in a very Windows-like fashion. However if you pin an app to the dock and don’t disable the default behaviour of resuming exactly where you left off, the distinction between running and not running becomes somewhat unimportant.
Notification Center is one of Mountain Lion’s headlining features. Apps that are designed to support it—including, of course, the new iOS-inspired ones—can place their alerts and reminders in this unified space. Notifications work pretty much exactly as they do in iOS, except that they appear in the top-right corner of the desktop instead of the center. Some stay till you click a button, while others disappear after a few seconds. The most recent five of each type live on in the Notification Center till you dismiss them. At launch, Notification Center can show alerts from Mail, Calendar, Reminders, Twitter, App Store, Game Center and Messages/FaceTime. This is infinitely better than the variety of dialogue boxes and popups we’re used to seeing from different programs. Deeper social integration is coming via a promised update that will add Facebook in a few months, and third-party developers are already making their programs compatible. Thankfully, there’s a Do Not Disturb mode for when you don’t want to be bothered, and notifications are automatically suppressed when you’re using a projector or AirPlay Mirroring, to prevent embarrassment during a presentation.
Notifications in the upper right corner. Some disappear in a few seconds, while others require an action.
You can check Notification Center at any time by swiping inwards from the right edge of your trackpad with two fingers. Mouse-confined users can click the bullet-list icon, but either way the entire desktop slides to the left revealing a dark textured underlay with a vertical list of notifications. This slightly breaks the visual metaphor of sliding horizontally between multiple desktops and zooming out to the desktop-spanning Mission Control view, but it should prove useful enough for that not to matter.
For some reason, Notification Center is also where you go to compose new Tweets (and soon, Facebook status updates). If this was designed as a full-fledged Twitter client it might make some sort of sense, but the functionality is limited to just reading incoming mentions and direct messages. You can’t manage a list or reply to messages, for example.
You can drag the items in the left panel to reorder your notifications.
iCloud and the new file storage model
Even before you get to the desktop, OS X now prompts you to sign in to iCloud. As a feature without a face, not many people know what iCloud actually is. You can skip the step, but this is the first sign you’ll see of the most fundamental changes to how you’re expected to use your computer. Apple’s catch-all online service allows you to synchronize apps and settings between your Macs and iOS devices, gives you access to your personal information from any web browser, and provides a limited amount of space for file storage. If you’re an existing iCloud user, you’ll immediately notice your contacts, email accounts, photos, calendars, reminders, notes and documents synced and available in their associated apps. If you’re going to be sharing your computer or have any privacy concerns, you’ll be able to turn each of these functions off in the System Preferences dialogue. iCloud also lets an application’s state persist between devices, which is how changes being made to documents on your laptop can reflect near-instantly on an iPad, and browser tabs open in Safari on your iPhone can be retrieved on your iMac if you want them.
When launching a program for the first time, you'll see this screen.
iCloud is now the default location where all files will be saved. Upon opening programs such as TextEdit and Preview for the first time (third-party apps will need to be updated), you’re presented with a brand new dialogue box asking you to drag and drop files already on your hard drive to iCloud. Even if you just want to type into a blank text document, it will be created in your iCloud space first. Then, as you go along, changes are saved on the fly and will be reflected in other instances of the file open anywhere else.
This makes the ‘Save’ dialogue box unnecessary. Since documents are saved and named from the outset, discarding changes actually means deleting the current version and reverting to an older one. An option in the ‘General’ System Preferences category will force programs to ask whether you want to save changes to documents, but the behaviour is to do so by default without any prompt to the user. A new ‘Duplicate’ command in the File menu gives you the option of manually saving different versions of a file, but OS X does retain older versions in the background, which you can pull up through the easy-to-miss ‘Revert To’ command in the File menu. This pops up a Time-Machine-inspired view of all previous versions for you to restore at any point. It’s pretty seamless, but you lose the security of being able to dabble with a file after saving a good version, for example changing formatting and rewriting sentences. Everything you do is saved, even accidental deletions, so the better way to work now is to explicitly create a duplicate. In this new universe, you also don’t see a “confirm changes” dialogue if you quit an application without explicitly closing the file you’re working on, which is typical Windows behaviour. OS X doesn’t consider the document closed, simply because it will pop up exactly as it was when you next open that application.
iCloud storage might seem convenient, but Apple has made some odd choices when it comes to making files accessible and it should be no surprise that this is inspired by iOS. First of all, you can’t browse through your iCloud space like you would a hard drive or other online services. The only way to see files is through the Open dialogue box of the program that created them. In a further twist, you can see only that app’s supported files. There just isn’t any way to see all your files at once, and there’s no way to create folders for a specific project or time period which can hold all the files of various types that you might create for that time or purpose. You get the feeling that files are stored within apps, which is how iOS likes to present things, but is completely at odds with the habits and conventions that millions of users have formed over the past few decades.
The iOS-inspired dialogue box becomes difficult to use when you're dealing with hundreds of documents.
In fact even the iCloud dialogue boxes look like an iOS home screen with large thumbnail icons on the standard textured black background. It quickly becomes difficult to identify, which file you need in a sea of similar icons. You can create folders only by dragging one icon over another, and these can be only one level deep. You can sort icons only by name or date, but there is at least a list view, which is slightly more informative.
Versions is by far the most useful feature, but many people won't even know it's there.
iCloud files are not copies of files already on your hard drive—copies are cached locally, but not in a user-visible location. The base assumption here is that you will always have an Internet connection and will never be able to tell the difference between local and online storage. The main problem with this, especially in India, is that you’re quite likely to be caught without reliable Internet access when you desperately need a file that should by all means be right in front of you. The other big problem with iCloud’s document handling is that you get only 5 GB of space, most of which might already be occupied by iOS backups and various other things. Users are quickly going to run out of storage, and could easily be confused by “low space” error messages from something that has so far lived discreetly in the background, especially if those messages ask users to start paying for more storage.
The iCloud model feels simultaneously too advanced and too retrograde. If we could all take 100 Mbps always-on connections for granted, it would be easier to go with it. If, like us, you’re left with some misgivings about the iCloud way, you can click the “On my Mac” button in each Open or Save dialogue box’s title bar, which takes you back to the interface we all know and understand. However, we get the sinking feeling that this “mode” is only available for backwards compatibility, and Apple will eventually shepherd us into the cloud whether we like it or not.
Every Open and Save dialogue now also has a ‘Share’ button, an unlabelled rectangle with an arrow swooping out, which should also be familiar to iOS users. Since files feel confined to their apps, the Share button lets you send them as email attachments or to other Macs via AirDrop wireless filesharing. Depending on the type of file and the services you’ve signed in to, you’ll also see options to Tweet, upload to Flickr or Vimeo, attach to an iMessage, or post to Facebook. Selecting the email option brings up a new Compose window in Mail, but all the other options result in a small “Share Sheet” popup over whatever you’re doing. Just type in a message or caption and hit ‘Send’. You’ll see ‘Share’ functionality elsewhere as well: the button in Safari lets you add a page to your offline reading list and the ‘Add Bookmark’ command has moved here as well. Select any text in TextEdit and an option in the context menu will let you share via email, tweet or iMessage. All built-in programs (including Quick Look) have some level of sharing functionality, and third-party software can add it as well.
A typical Share Sheet. You can click a Share button or right-click most file types in a Finder window to share something.
Twitter and Facebook everywhere
Twitter is an option in pretty much every Share menu, and as detailed earlier, you can receive notifications in the OS itself. If your OS X/iCloud contacts match your Twitter subscribers, their profile photos and usernames will be added to their contact cards.
Apple hints that Facebook integration will be deeper than this, but it won’t materialize till an OS update is released much later this year. You’ll be able to choose privacy settings for anything posted using a Share Sheet, and you’ll be able to choose which album a photo should be added to. Information in your contacts will be updated as your friends change their profiles, and birthdays (and presumably, events you are attending) will show up in your Calendar.
There isn’t a way to upload a photo or post a status message to multiple services at once. It also doesn’t appear that users will be able to attach multiple images or files to a single Share Sheet, somewhat restricting the feature’s utility.
You can compose a blank Tweet from the Notification Center, which feels out of place.
Gatekeeper and Software Update
Gatekeeper caused us to raise our eyebrows for the simple reason that it tries to restrict all third-party software downloads to the App Store. In an ideal world, Apple would turn the entire history of computing on its head and lock its computers down the same way it has been able to lock iOS devices. Since that kind of strategy would be extremely unlikely to succeed, the company has settled for a middle ground. Gatekeeper is the name given to a system preference that gives you three choices: restrict programs to those from the App Store; allow outside downloads which have been pre-approved by Apple; or allow anything from anywhere. The default choice is the middle ground—Apple now provides signed certificates to members of its developer community, and can thus pin “signed” software to its source. With this setting, you won’t be able to install executables downloaded from unknown sources (note that this applies only to downloads, not files on USB media or preexisting on your Mac). This actually isn’t as restrictive as it might sound, since you can simply right-click on a file and click ‘Open’ to execute it anyway. Apple believes this will protect casual users while mitigating the annoyance power users might feel, and in truth, we never noticed that anything had been restricted.
Gatekeeper and Software Update are subtle features that emphasise the importance of the Mac App Store.
The first thing we noticed as soon as Mountain Lion booted up was that software updates now happen through the App Store. The standalone Software Update app is gone, and the new interface has a bit less detail than its predecessor. If you don’t want to update your OS, drivers or Apple software for any reason, you’ll have to manually select all the other updates rather than the more simple method of unchecking the ones you don’t want. Checks for security updates now happen every day.
Incidentally, only those programs downloaded through the App Store can hook into Notification Center, Game Center, iCloud document storage, and various other features. Software vendors are going to have to choose between giving users the consistent experience they’ll grow to expect, and maintaining their independence (and profit margins).
All this greatly increases the prominence of the App Store, but sadly points to a future in which people will stop looking beyond the small set of pre-approved choices put before them, and the very idea of installing any software you like will become outdated.
The last major OS-level feature is global speech-to-text. It’s not full-fledged Siri, so you don’t get voice commands, but you can type into pretty much any program or input field you would ordinarily type into. The default shortcut is to tap the [Fn] key twice, but you can change this if you like. The first time you try to use Dictation, you’ll be warned that your recordings will be transmitted to Apple’s servers for rapid processing. You’ll also need to allow Apple to take your Contact list, so that names can be processed to improve recognition accuracy. English (India) isn’t currently supported and isn’t likely to be a top priority for Apple either, but English (US) worked for us with about 90 percent accuracy even in an office with background noise.
You can use US English and still get fairly accurate results with Dictation
Dictation doesn’t happen on the fly, and you’ll have to pause at the end of every sentence or two and tap a key again to prompt the computer to start uploading and processing what you’ve said. This feels like it will be more of an occasional convenience than a daily tool, but it will be especially important to users with mobility impairments or even temporary injuries.
Applications: Hit and Miss
Notes, Reminders, Contacts, Calendar and Mail
The new Notes and Reminders programs seem to have been lifted right out of iOS. They look exactly like their iPad counterparts, but have slightly expanded functionality such as improved text formatting and roomier layouts. It should go without saying that iCloud can sync your notes and reminders between all your Macs and iOS portables, and alerts show up on the desktop and in Notification Center. All of this makes perfect sense, and while we don’t see these programs as essential for everyone, they’re nice to have.
Notes and Reminders look much like their iPad incarnations.
Contacts and Calendar ditch their former names (Address Book and iCal respectively) to better match their iOS counterparts. The slightly gaudy imitation of a real-world address book and desktop calendar remain, complete with faux leather textures and imaginary ripped pages. We deeply disliked this sort of design when we saw it in Lion, and we still do. Thankfully, it’s been toned down a bit, so you can see categories in a column on the left in both apps again.
Mail has always been more powerful than iOS’s mail app and thankfully hasn’t been dumbed down to match it. The only improvement worth mentioning is that you can now designate contacts as VIPs, so mail from them shows up in a new priority inbox no matter which account it comes to. This is a good way to stay on top of instructions from a manager or important client which might otherwise get lost in a flood of messages.
Contacts and Calendar have new names but the same faux-leather appearance
Apple has been stuck with multiple chat programs with overlapping features for a while, but this latest effort to solve that problem seems to have made everything worse. iChat, the hybrid multi-protocol instant messaging client, has been replaced by Messages, which does everything its predecessor did and adds iMessage, which iPhone users will be familiar with. There’s no contact list; you have to start typing a contact’s name and you’ll see entries from the Contacts program that match, and there will be multiple entries if a person can be reached via multiple protocols. For this reason, you often end up with multiple chat threads with the same person, and can’t always be sure they’re receiving your messages unless you annoy them by messaging on each service. You can start video chats with Yahoo and AIM contacts, but FaceTime lives on as a separate program which is called up when you try to video chat with an Apple ID user (who might or might not also be an iMessage user).
Messages is a user experience disaster, with multiple fractured threads for each contact.
iMessage introduces even more complications—iPhone users generally use iMessage tied to their phone numbers, so you won’t be able to chat with them unless they also associate an email address. This means that they will now have two iMessage addresses, which leads to further fracturing of conversation threads. Those who use only an email address to hook into iMessage cannot fall back to SMS when a contact is unreachable (except of course via yet another conversation thread, which won’t sync back to other iMessage devices). Even worse, if you’re signed in to iMessage on your Mac, it’s quite possible that someone trying to send you an SMS will have their message end up on your laptop instead of your phone, it could keep beeping all day and you wouldn’t know till you sat down at it again. If you share a computer, iPad or iPod touch with anyone else and ever forget to sign out, your private messages will be visible to them. iMessage is confusing enough when we sign in from multiple mobile devices, but mixing SMS and other IM protocols in ensures that we’ll never use it beyond our iPhones.
Safari has been tweaked with a faster rendering engine, unified URL and search bar, and visual improvements. You can now “zoom out” to see a swipable row of page thumbnails. It looks exactly like the tab switching mechanism on an iPhone, which is to say it doesn’t bother making adequate use of a much larger computer screen. Unsurprisingly, there’s also a Share button and iCloud integration in the form of iCloud Tabs, which let you see what’s running in Safari on other devices and bring individual over to pick up where you left off.
Safari has a new tab manager view, but the neat iCloud Tabs will require iOS 6 on your iPhone or iPad.
Game Center looks and behaves exactly the same as its iPad incarnation. High scores and achievements should now sync across iOS and OS X versions of a game. Cross-platform multiplayer is also on the cards, but doesn’t seem to work with any title yet.
Owners of the new MacBook Pro with Retina display and most recent MacBook Airs can take advantage of Power Nap, which wakes the CPU, storage and Wi-Fi up from sleep without activating the display, sound or other components in order to keep your iCloud documents, backups, location, email and notifications current as well as download and apply updates. The default setting is for it to run only when you’re plugged into mains power, and it will never even cause the fans to spin up. Retina display owners will also notice improved graphics and scaling of older apps.
The System Preferences dialogues have received various tweaks and changes. Some options are worded differently and some are easier to understand. You need to sign in to Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo and Flickr through the Mail, Contacts and Calendars page for any of the Share Sheet features to work, even though they don’t quite belong there. Time Machine can now create encrypted backups and multiple backups in different locations.
Launchpad's search bar lets you start typing part of a program's name
You can now start typing to filter the apps in the Launchpad, which is easier than scanning multiple pages. Dashboard is nearly the same apart from an improved interface for adding new widgets.
AirPlay Mirroring, originated on the iPad but now lets you mirror your screen wirelessly on any TV or projector through an Apple TV set-top box. Your Mac’s screen will scale itself to 1080p so the output on the big screen looks crisp.
Performance and conclusion
Apple’s historical practice of tightly integrating hardware and software has paid off yet again. It might seem harsh to exclude Macs that are only four or five years old, but the decision does ensure that you can always expect certain level of performance. We noticed no stuttering or instability after upgrading the 2008 MacBook and 2011 MacBook air to Mountain Lion.
The price is low enough that we can recommend this upgrade to everyone, and the download and installation process couldn’t be simpler. A few years ago Mountain Lion might have been treated as an incremental OS update rather than a whole new version, but the world has changed and Apple is pushing everyone into a new era.
The awkward inclusion of social media accounts shows that there's a way to go before OS X and iOS merge completely
In that sense, Mountain Lion is just the face of the very earliest beginnings of a much, much larger shift. At every step of the way, you’re encouraged to put your files on iCloud, connect your apps to iCloud and sync your settings through iCloud. This is where everything is headed, and this is why Apple is so intent on unifying its points of entry, ie iOS and OS X, into a much more consistent experience. Microsoft is doing the same across Windows 8, Windows Phone, Office, and its various online services, so you’re probably going to have to choose one camp or the other at some point. Once all your data and devices are hooked into iCloud, it’s going to be very difficult to switch allegiances. Even now, if you’d rather just save files to your hard drive, you’re going to have to understand what iCloud is in order to bypass it. And what does all this mean for hardware? Will future devices evolve to support a completely cloud-based file storage model? Will Internet access infrastructure be able to keep up?
Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to describe or explain the multifaceted online service in a single sentence, and there’s no one app where users can, for instance, browse through all their stored files. We expect users to be a bit confused when they start seeing prompts about uploading files or running out of space—and considering that a single iPhone or iPad backup can occupy up to 3 GB (without app data), that free 5 GB quota will run out very quickly. We expect Apple to at least double the free quota and put a lot more effort into explaining what iCloud does for users in the near future. There are other constraints as well: those used to an always-on Internet connection will find themselves without the most recent versions of their files if they’re ever cut off. Our quick experiments with text files and JPEG images worked flawlessly, but we can hardly imagine storing a lifetime’s worth of photos or working on heavy files in professional video editing and animation software via iCloud. Those of us with 2 GB and 5 GB “fair usage caps” on our Internet service are shuddering at the thought.
Mountain Lion reminds us that the computer is in no danger of dying and that even Apple doesn’t imagine that everyone will be able to live happily with only an iPad despite the fact that millions of people have already moved over to one as their primary computer. The computer is, however, evolving to a new middle ground which will probably prove uncomfortable for anyone over 25 today who considers themselves a “power user”. On the other hand, this will be well received by anyone who has been frustrated by what they see as unintelligible instructions and illogical conventions.
Mountain Lion and Windows 8 are going to escalate the Mac vs PC argument to a whole new level, and it soon won’t be as easy to make a choice between the two as it is now. This is where computers are headed, and if you can’t get used to these seemingly “dumbed down” operating systems, now is the time to take a fresh look at Linux.
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