Changes in Mail  

Mail

When Apple released Mac OS X Lion, Mail received its biggest overhaul ever, gaining many new and noteworthy features. The changes in Mountain Lion are more subtle, though there are some nice improvements – along with one significant omission.

Inline find

Mail has always let you find text within the body of an email message, but in the current version, you use a separate Find dialog that highlights only a single result at a time; to find subsequent instances of your search string, you repeatedly click the Next button (or press C-G). Mail in Mountain Lion gains a Safari-like inline find feature – Press Cmd-F and type your search string and the body of the message is dimmed, with every occurrence of your search string displayed. You can use the arrow buttons next to the search field, or their keyboard-shortcut equivalents, to cycle through occurrences.

You don’t lose the capability to use Find & Replace, however. Whenever you do an inline find while composing a message, a Replace checkbox appears; check that box, and you can enter your replacement text, with options to replace just the current instance or all instances of the search string. The location of the find/replace fields within the current message window is more convenient than – and reduces the screen clutter due to – a separate Find window. It’s also less confusing, as you’ll never see a Replace option for an incoming message. On the other hand, you lose the Lion option to perform case-sensitive searches, but we suspect this won’t be an issue for most users.

Mail’s Notifications options

One of the marquee features of Mountain Lion is an iOS-inspired Notification Center that centralises alerts and notifications from all your Notification Center-enabled applications.

Mail takes advantage of Notification Center to alert you to new messages, but instead of displaying a notification for every new message, as with iOS, OS X Mail lets you choose which new messages should trigger notification alerts: messages in any mailboxes, those that land in your Inbox, messages from your contacts, or from people you’ve designated as VIPs (see the next item).

In addition, you can also use notifications in Mail rules, as Send Notification is a new option for rule actions. So, for example, you could configure a rule to display a notification whenever you receive a message sent to your work email address, but not your personal one.

VIPs

We all have particular people  whose messages are more important than others. While Mail in Lion let you use combinations of rules, labels and mailboxes to make a particular person’s messages easier to identify or view, Mail in Mountain Lion adds a new feature that’s custom-made for such purposes – VIPs

A VIP is any person you designate as being important enough to have their messages treated differently by Mail. You designate a VIP by clicking the star icon to the left of the person’s name in any incoming or sent message. You’ll immediately notice that every message to or from that person now displays a star in message lists, making it easier to find those messages.

In addition, whenever you designate a sender as a VIP, that person gets their own entry in a new VIPs section of Mail’s Mailboxes sidebar. Click a VIP’s name, and you get a list of all messages, across all mailboxes, to or from that person.

You can also take advantage of VIP status in mail rules: Mail includes a new condition called Sender Is VIP. Combine this with the new Send Notification action mentioned above, and you can configure Mail to notify you whenever email arrives from one of your VIPs. Of course, you can also use any other available mail action on messages from a VIP.

No more RSS

One thing you won’t find in Mountain Lion’s Mail app  is the RSS feature. Whereas in Lion you can subscribe to an RSS feed in Mail so as to be alerted to, and to read, newly published articles from your favourite websites, that option appears to be missing from Mail in Mountain Lion. The app’s preferences window has been stripped of the RSS pane, and there’s no longer an Add RSS Feeds command in Mail’s File menu.

What makes this omission especially curious is that RSS functionality also seems to be missing from Safari in Mountain Lion. It appears that if you want to read RSS feeds, you’ll have to turn to a third-party program – at least, if nothing changes between now and the arrival of the final version of this OS X update in late summer.

The web and sharing

A new look

Safari is another application that has been improved. Those who favour the ‘one big search bar’ approach to surfing will be pleased to see that Apple has followed that route. The browser has a single lengthy field that can be used to type in a URL; pull up the top result in your selected search engine from a keyword; or search the web, your bookmarks and history, or within the page itself. If you type “fourth doctor” into that box, for example, you’ll see links about Tom Baker instead of an error message telling you that Safari can’t find the website “http://fourth%20doctor/”.

URLs themselves have taken on a slightly Chrome-esque look, removing the “http://” at the start of the link and greying everything in the web address following the root domain.

To the left of this bar is Mountain Lion’s new Share button, which you’ll see popping up just about everywhere in the operating system when it launches later this year. Share in Safari currently only offers adding to your Reading List, adding a bookmark, emailing the page, iMessaging the link, or sending a tweet about it; Apple may expand this list at some point in the future, but there’s currently no way we could see to customise it.

Look to the right, and you may notice Safari’s first major missing feature: RSS. It looks as though Really Simple Syndication was just not simple enough for Apple; the company has removed RSS entirely from Safari (as well as from Mail), leaving feed-parsing to external applications such as NetNewsWire or Reeder. If you have such a program installed and attempt to type in or click on a “feed://” address, Safari will automatically punt you to your respective program; otherwise, it displays an error.

In place of the RSS button and old search bar, Safari has added a giant button for Safari Reader, which highlights the text on a page for an easier browsing experience. When browsing a page where Reader can be used, the button will be blue; for all other pages, it’s greyed out.

And although we couldn’t find this feature in the version we tested, Apple says that Mountain Lion will bring the ability to sync Safari tabs to iCloud, so your open browser tabs can sync between Macs.

Preference tweaks

Unsurprisingly, several changes made in this version of Safari relate to user privacy. There’s now a “Tell websites not to track me” box under Privacy, along with a setting to “Allow search engine to provide suggestions”, which relates to Safari’s search capabilities. A new Passwords section lets users see each website they’ve saved information for, along with their usernames and obscured passwords. (Passwords can be revealed, but only after several rounds of user authorisation.) You can delete individual stored passwords, or remove every one, if you so choose.

There were two other things of note that we found during our preferences exploration. Safari no longer offers an option to set default fonts and sizes; as the web relies more on CSS styling, this makes a certain amount of sense, though we’re sure there’s a contingent who won’t be so happy about it.

The other discovery is somewhat intriguing: It appears that websites in Safari will soon be able to send Notifications to Notification Center – pending user approval, of course. Each site can either prompt you for authorisation, or you can deny them outright; there’s also a list of sites you’ve approved in the past, which you can prune like the Passwords section. As there’s no documentation from Apple at the moment for how one might incorporate notifications into a website, there’s no way to test this feature currently, but it’s an interesting addition, nonetheless. According to the preference pane, these alerts will also only pop up while Safari is open – close it, and websites will be unable to send notifications to you.

Share Sheets

Mountain Lion introduces an interface element inspired by iOS – Share Sheets. These are pop-up menus that appear when you click on the Share icon in an app. Apple has implemented them in several Mountain Lion apps, including Safari, Preview, and Notes, and developers can add them to their apps as well.

A Share Sheet provides a quick way to share whatever you’re working on – a photo in iPhoto, a web page in Safari, a document in Notes – with other services. If you share a web page from Safari, you can choose to insert it (or just its URL) in a new Mail message, or insert a link in a new message in Messages, or even compose a tweet containing the URL. From Preview, you can choose to email the document you’re viewing, send it via Messages, tweet it via Twitter, upload it to Flickr, or transfer it locally via AirDrop.

Most of these aren’t really new functions. What’s different is that Apple has centralised them and given developers access to this element, which presumably will lead to a more consistent sharing interface in future Mac apps. If that sounds familiar, it is. This is once again an example of the Mac taking a page from iOS, in this case from the Share button that’s found commonly throughout iOS.

In most contexts, Share Sheets will include a Twitter option. That’s because Mountain Lion is joining iOS 5 in adding system-level support for the popular communication service. You can add your Twitter account information in the Mail, Contacts & Calendars system preference. Once that’s done, it becomes easy to quickly share items from just about anywhere via a Share Sheet. Select Twitter and a small floating composition window appears, allowing you to write and send a tweet quickly, without leaving the app you’re working in. You can also use Twitter to populate the avatars of friends in your Contacts list with their Twitter profile pictures. Tweet notifications can also appear automatically in Notification Center.