Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion review: Updated

OS X Mountain Lion - Apple

It’s been just over a year since Apple released OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, in that time we’ve managed to become intimately familiar with the features it introduced. With its successor, OS X 10.9 Mavericks, coming this autumn we’ve updated our Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion review with up-to-date information.

10.8 Mountain Lion is a direct upgrade from OX 10.7 Lion that includes many new features that are pleasant to use, and offer great functional integration (especially if you own multiple Apple devices such as a MacBook Pro, iPhone, and iPad).

Since its release Microsoft has launched its Windows 8 operating system. For a while it felt like Microsoft Windows releases followed Apple Mac OS X with similar features, but not this time: Microsoft has become radical with Windows 8 and taken it completely different path.

There’s now a really different ethos between Apple and Microsoft about how operating systems should work in the face of increasing popularity of mobile devices (smartphones and tablets). Apple has concentrated on providing a distinctly different interface for Mac OS X and iOS but bringing together data in the form of iCloud services; whereas Microsoft has created a Windows 8 Interface that aims to be identical on desktop computers as well as its Surface tablets.

Unlike Microsoft Apple also follows a path of a new version every year, which it releases for a lower price: much lower these days, Apple is now charging £13.99 to update from Mac OS X 10.7 to Mac OS X 10.8. Indeed the price is so low that cost is rarely a concern for users considering upgrading, instead the reasons for not upgrading are often concerns about stability and compatibility with old software.

We’re currently version Mac OS X 10.8.4 and Apple has ironed out many problems and issues users had with the initial release.

See: Mountain Lion: Everything you need to know in one place

Mac OS X 10.8 New Features

Much of this brings some of the best from iOS to Mac OS X: notably Notification Center, persistent connection (called Power Nap), improved iCloud functionality and the ability to save documents in a cloud space, Siri-like Voice Dictation, plus key iOS apps like Messages, Reminders, Notes and Game Center, and vastly improved AirPlay sharing.

Mac OS X Mountain Lion

Those of us who worry about the almost-inevitable convergence of iOS and Mac OS X will be pleased to hear that Apple seems keen on integrating core functionality, rather than interface design (which remains very much geared towards touchscreen on iOS devices and keyboard and mouse on OS X). When we think of the difficulty many users have encountered with the new Windows 8 interface we firmly believe that Apple made the right decision here.

What hasn’t changed much is the overall interface, there are no major new interface elements (certainly nothing along the lines of Launchpad or Mission Control). Although Notification Center and the iOS-style alerts adjust the way you interact with the operating system.

See: Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion now available on App Store

The major new feature in Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion is the expansion and further integration of iCloud, which is now deeply integrated throughout the system.

Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks features

If you haven’t updated from Lion to Mountain Lion it’s worth noting that the new Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks upgrade will introduce you to all of the features from Mountain Lion plus quite a few new ones:

  • iBooks: brings books from the iTunes Store and iBooks in iCloud to your Mac
  • Maps: A new Apple Maps app. You can plan trips and send the results to iOS
  • New-look Calendar: streamlined interface and now has Facebook events integration
  • Safari: a new sidebar will make it easier to visit bookmarks and access Reading List.
  • iCloud Keychain. All your passwords will be stored securely in iCloud and shared across machines.
  • Multiple Displays: Each display has its own Menu bar and Dock. This makes full-screen working much easier.
  • Notifications: These are now interactive enabling you to reply to messages with a notification, for example.
  • Finder tabs: Finder now has Tabs like Safari
  • Tags: You will be able to quickly add tags to files.
  • Advanced technologies: New technologies like Timer Coalescing, App Nap, Safari Power Save, and Compressed Memory will make Mavericks run even faster on lower spec machines.

So it’s worth bearing in mind that if you haven’t already upgraded then Mac OS X Mavericks will give you all your current features, plus a whole bunch of interesting new ones.

Mac OS X 10.8: iCloud and Automatic Setup

As in Lion you enter your Apple ID when installing Mountain Lion, but now Automatic Setup kicks in during the installation process and sets up a variety of accounts in Mac OS X automatically. These include:

  • Mail
  • Contacts
  • Calendars & Reminders
  • Notes
  • Safari
  • Photo Stream
  • Documents and Data
  • Back to My Mac
  • Find My Mac

You can select the ones you want to apply in the System Preferences (which hasn’t been renamed Settings to match iOS, incidentally). The Automatic Setup process ensures that a Mac is much more ‘ready-to-go’ as soon as the installation is completed.

See: iOS 6 Preview

You can also now sign up for an iCloud account, which acts as your corresponding Apple ID, during the installation process. This will have an @icloud.com email address, though if you signed up for .Mac or MobileMe you can still use the @mac.com and @me.com addresses, as well as @icloud.com. Be aware that you cannot change your Apple ID, although you can create additional email addresses.

iCloud now syncs up Mail information between different Macs signed in to iCloud, such as signatures and account details, although annoyingly signatures aren’t synced with iOS.

Mac OS X 10.8.2: Documents In The Cloud

As well as improved iCloud setup and syncing, the other major new feature is the inclusion of Documents In The Cloud. Apps that support this will save the document to your iCloud account, rather than to the Finder. This makes them immediately available on other Mac OS X and iOS devices. It’s a fascinating new approach to the storage and sharing of document data that works very differently from Finder.

See: Apple updates iWork, iPhoto, Mountain Lion ready

The first thing to note is that Documents In The Cloud only works with supporting apps. Currently in OS X that’s TextEdit and Preview, and the recently updated versions of iWork: Pages, Keynote or Numbers, and iPhoto. We presume that support for the pro apps, such as Aperture and Final Cut may happen further down the line.

Documents In The Cloud

It's pretty neat to work on a Pages document on the iPad and see the changes appear directly in Mac OS X (typically just a few seconds later). By being baked right into the apps the changes appear in real time, rather than when you re-open the documents (as in a service like Dropbox). We're now starting to see how the cloud-based future is starting to pan out, and we would bet that this sort of functionality convinces many people to switch from programs like Microsoft Office to iWork.

There’s already some support coming from apps on the Mac App Store. We particularly like the integration of Byword on the Mac (£2.99) and Byword for iOS (£1.99) for creating and editing text documents. It’s a neat way to write something on the Mac and carry on with an iPad or iPhone, and a nice clean word processor to use.

The second thing to note is that documents saved to Documents In The Cloud are sandboxed to a specific app. So a text document created in Byword, for example, cannot be opened in TextEdit; while a PDF saved into Preview cannot be viewed in another app such as GoodReader (£2.99).

Documents In The Cloud on Mac and iOS

Users of Dropbox (free), or similar rival services that seamlessly sync a Finder folder across multiple devices may find Documents In The Cloud’s different approach rather puzzling, and if this is truly the plan moving forward, then it’s hard to imagine how professionally useful this feature can truly be. It’s useless for non-supporting apps, for instance. So that’s Microsoft Office, anything to do with Adobe; in fact most office your programs left out of the loop. So don’t remove Dropbox just yet.

Although we find Documents In The Cloud’s approach refreshingly different, it might just be a bit too different for your workflow at the moment. You still often need to move documents from one program to another. But when more and more apps start to support the feature, we might find it completely changes the way you go about working and sharing documents.

Which brings us to our third observation of Documents In The Cloud, the Finder interface. When you open a new document in TextEdit, Preview or any other supporting app, you are presented with a new type of Finder window that displays either icons or a list of files (icons at the bottom enable you to determine between the two). The documents are all placed in a flat folder structure, although you can drag two documents together to create a folder (as you can with apps in iOS or Launchpad). You can’t, however, create a folder hierarchy by dragging folders into folders.

iCloud Finder structure

It’s incredibly refreshing to see some of the complexity taken out of the Finder system. With its multiple layers of folders we’ve long wondered if there isn’t an easier way to organise documents: especially for non-computer buffs. Apple seems to be tackling this situation with iCloud

And if you don’t appreciate the simplicity of Documents In The Cloud, you can continue to use the Finder as normal in association with services such as Dropbox. For now we’re enjoying using both and seeing how Documents In The Cloud pans out when it supports a wider range of apps that we use on a regular basis.

Next: Notification Center

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