Improvements to Contacts and Calendars

Contacts

Among the least-popular changes in Mac OS X Lion were those performed on iCal and Address Book. From their kitschy interfaces to their omission of features available in Snow Leopard, these two applications have, in many a user’s mind, earned the criticism they’ve received.

This is why many Mac users will welcome the updated versions of iCal and Address Book – now called Calendar and Contacts, respectively, for consistency across all of Apple’s computing devices – provided in Mountain Lion.

Contacts sports Mountain Lion’s new Share button at the bottom of each card; you can export that card as an email or iMessage attachment, or via AirDrop

While they don’t fix all issues present in their Lion counterparts, each offers a number of significant improvements.
While many iOS users will welcome Contacts based on the name change alone – especially if, like us, you often attempt to launch your address book in Spotlight by typing contacts – the biggest improvement to the application is the return of the three-column layout. Gone is the need to click a virtual bookmark to ever-so-slowly turn virtual pages. Instead, you can choose from three display modes: card (single column); card and contacts (two columns); or card, contacts, and groups (three columns). To retain the application’s book-like design, the three-pane view narrows your contacts list, allowing the Groups sidebar to sit on the far left of the page.

Calendar

Two of the changes to Calendar in Mountain Lion will be immediately obvious. On the aesthetics side, Apple has got rid of the gaudy faux stitching. The program’s interface still tries a bit too hard to look like a physical desk calendar, but the new look is a bit more subtle.

The bigger change – and the one that will likely be the most welcome by iCal’s critics – is that Calendars in Mountain Lion brings back the dedicated calendars sidebar. Instead of requiring you to click a button to view your list of calendars, the program provides that list, organised by calendar type, in a Snow Leopard-style sidebar on the left-hand side. Below the list is a mini calendar view that, by default, displays the current month and the upcoming month (though you can drag the calendar divider up or down to increase or decrease the number of visible months).

The Calendar shows a list that’s arranged in a Snow Leopard-style sidebar on the left side of the screen

One small but welcome change is the addition of Apple’s OS X search tokens (which debuted in the Finder and Mail with Lion) for Calendar’s events search. Instead of having to detail what kind of information you’re looking for off the bat, Calendar intelligently tries to suggest categories while you type. These can include organisers, event titles and notes associated with an event. Just like with Finder or Mail searches, you can stack categories. You could, for example, search for any events organised by “Macworld” with the name “meeting”. Search results have also been redesigned, appearing instead in an abbreviated form along the right-hand side of the application.

Mountain Lion brings contextual search and tokens to the Calendar app. To display those results it uses what used to be the Reminders sidebar to the right of the calendar. Now that Reminders is a separate app on the Mac, you are expected to manage tasks and reminders from within that program, rather than from inside the Calendar app. So if you want to create any sort of to-do list, you need to hop over to Reminders to do so.

The other major change in Calendars is that Apple has completely revamped alerts and event reminders. For each of your accounts, you can now customise your default alerts, individually, for timed events, all-day events, and even birthdays; each of these can be set to occur a chosen number of minutes, hours or days before the event.

You’ll also find a few minor interface changes. For example, the Calendar menu is gone, with its commands redistributed among the File, View and Edit menus. And you can now disable the “heat map” display for Year view.

China-specific features

China is a market that’s ripe for Apple

Apple has had huge success in China lately, most particularly with the iPhone, which has been a big hit. With Mountain Lion, the company is trying to improve support for those who write in Chinese, as well as recognising that most of the popular sites that Apple integrates with Mac OS X aren’t actually available within China.

On the text-input side, the operating system will offer better suggestions and corrections via a dynamically updated dictionary, something an Apple representative told us was because Chinese word usages are evolving rapidly. Apparently English words are often inserted in Chinese text, so Mountain Lion allows the mixing of Pinyin and English without switching between keyboard layouts. Apple says its new OS also doubles the number of characters recognised by trackpad-based handwriting recognition.

On the internet services side, Mountain Lion offers support for Chinese alternatives to several worldwide services. Search engine Baidu is now an option in Safari. Chinese microblogging service Sina weibo is supported in Share Sheets, just as Twitter is.

In addition to Vimeo and Flickr, Mountain Lion will support sharing to Chinese video-sharing sites Youku and Tudou. And Mail, Contacts, and Calendar syncing will be supported to Chinese service providers QQ, 126, and 163.

Anything iPad can do, Mac can do better

Notification Center

Sometimes one of your apps needs to get your attention. For years, many Mac software developers have built their own (think reminder pop-ups in iCal or Microsoft Office).

With Mountain Lion, Mac OS X gains a system-level notification system that’s accessible to every developer, with features much like those already found in iOS. Alerts appear in the top-right corner of the screen in a small bubble. Notifications remain there for five seconds, and then slide off screen to the right. Alerts, on the other hand, remain onscreen until you click on the Show or Close buttons.

In iOS 5, you see all your recent notifications by pulling down from the top of the screen to reveal Notification Center. In Mountain Lion, the list is a narrow band that lives just off to the right side of your screen. You can reveal it either by clicking on the new Notification Center icon at the far right of the menu bar, or by swiping with two fingers starting at the far right edge of the trackpad. Either way, your Mac’s entire screen will slide to the left, revealing a list of what’s been trying to get your attention recently.

There’s also a new Notifications pane in the System Preferences app, similar to the Notifications submenu in iOS’s Settings app. From here you can choose which applications appear within Notification Center and how their alert bubbles behave.

You can select on a program-by-program basis, whether you want any notifications at all, and if you want them to be of the five-second or visible-until-you-click variety. You can also choose how many notifications for an application to display and choose whether to also play a sound as part of the alert.

Different applications will handle notifications in different ways. Apple has built notifications into several of its applications with Mountain Lion. Messages, for example, sends alerts whenever you receive a new message.

Reminders sends you reminders, FaceTime warns you about missed calls, while Game Center tells you about friend requests and game invitations. If you add your Twitter account to the system, you can receive notification of Twitter direct messages and mentions.

And Mail now has a new option in the General tab of its preferences – new Message notifications. You can set it to display these for all messages that appear in your Inbox, for all messages from people in your Contacts, for mail in a specific Smart Mailbox, for mail in all mailboxes, or for messages only from a VIP contact. The VIP is a new concept in Mail, which lets you tell the program that certain people are special. After you do that, you can set Mail to send notifications only when you receive a new message from someone you’ve marked as a VIP. You also should be able to use Mail Rules to specify exactly which messages merit a notification.

AirPlay mirroring

Mirroring a Mac screen to an HDTV is easy in Mountain Lion

iOS 5 introduced the concept of AirPlay mirroring, in which an iPad 2 or iPhone 4S can display the contents of its screen on any HDTV that’s connected to a second-generation Apple TV.

The Mac joins the party with Mountain Lion, which will send a 720p video stream of what’s on your Mac’s screen to the Apple TV. When a Mac running Mountain Lion senses the presence of an Apple TV on the local network, an AirPlay icon appears in the menu bar. Click and select an Apple TV, and you’re mirroring.

In other words, an Apple TV will soon also be a wireless display adaptor for the Mac, letting you display web pages, YouTube videos, iTunes rentals, Keynote presentations, or anything else you can think of onto an HDTV without any added wires. (Apple says that only Macs with second-generation Intel Core processors can use this feature.)

iCloud integration

Lion and iCloud were developed in parallel. As a result, while the current version of Mac OS X supports Apple’s suite of online services, it doesn’t truly embrace it. One of Apple’s goals in Mountain Lion is to integrate iCloud throughout the system.

It starts when you set up the operating system. The Setup Assistant will ask you for your Apple ID and will sync your existing accounts, settings and personal data. It might not be quite as thorough as restoring an iOS backup from iCloud, but the idea is that your iCloud account will unlock a selection of Mac data so you don’t have to keep re-entering it on every new system you use.

Mountain Lion also brings a new Documents in the Cloud view to the traditional Open and Save dialog boxes. Any apps that support Documents in the Cloud will open to an iCloud view that displays documents available via iCloud, with most recent items first. You can organise this view by dragging one document on top of another and creating a folder, iOS-style. (There’s also an On My Mac button that will display a more standard file-picking interface, if you want to open something that’s on your hard drive.)