Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion full review

Notification Center

The most visual new feature is almost certainly the Notification Center, which has also made its way from iOS over to Mac OS X. This is a list of notifications from installed apps that appears on the right side of the desktop. It’s accessed either by clicking a new icon in the menu bar, or by dragging two fingers in from the right of a trackpad (you can also set a keyboard shortcut).

Notification Center

There are two types of on-desktop notification: Banners and Alerts. Both appear in the top-right of the screen just below Spotlight: Alerts remain onscreen until they are dismissed (you can either Close or Open the program, and apps some have a Snooze option); Banners disappear on their own after five seconds.

By default you get Calendar events, Reminders, FaceTime calls, Safari and Game Center Mail messages and Tweets (both direct messages and mentions). The settings for each app are located in System Preferences, where you can select the type of alerts and how many items want to appear in the Notification Centre. Developers will be able to integrate Mac OS X apps with Notification Center as they move forward and you may have to manage down notifications when a number of programs support it.

Notification Center

Twitter also enables you to enable and disable direct messages or mentions. Annoyingly though, the settings are universal for all Twitter accounts, so you can’t just have direct messages to one personal account.

At the top of Notification Center is a Click To Tweet button that enables you to share whatever is on your mind at that moment; we assume that this will be joined by a Facebook button when Facebook integration comes in the autumn.

Whether or not you like Notification Center will have much to do with your personal level of intrusion. The onscreen alerts are remarkably similar to Growl (£1.49), which is loved and loathed by OS X users in equal measure. It didn’t take us long to remove the onscreen Mail alerts, and Twitter mentions shortly followed.

You can scroll up in Notification Center to reveal a switch that turns off Alerts and Banners, but they turn on automatically the next day. The only way to permanently switch everything off is to go through each app individually in System Preferences.

Power Nap

Power Nap is a really neat, if small feature. Essentially OS X still fetches emails, notifications and photos when in sleep mode. This persistent gathering of information ensures Mac OS X works a little more like iOS. It makes less sense when the Mac can’t switch itself on to deliver a notification, but it does mean everything is ready to go when you wake Mac OS X up.

Mac OS X 10.8: Further Sharing integration

Twitter has been integrated further throughout OS X and you can Tweet web pages from Safari using the Share button. You can also highlight text in any part of the operating system and choose Tweet from the contextual menu to share it. This is great although as time has gone on we’ve found Facebook and Twitter integration a little limited, it’d be good to expand this to include other services like Google+, LinkedIn and Pinterest although Apple has shown little sign of moving towards wider social networking sharing integration.

Safari Share

The Share button also works its way into many different parts of Mac OS X including Finder, Address Book, Notes and Preview, and enables you to share items with Mail, Messages or AirDrop, and even upload images straight to Flickr. 

The integrated Share button in Safari has increased our Twitter output, we like being able to quickly create tweets from various places within Mac OS X.

Twitter in Mac OS X

Reminders and Notes

Two other big inclusions are OS X versions of Reminders and Notes, both of which integrate directly with iCloud, so items you create on the desktop appear on other Macs or iOS devices.

Both are great: Reminders is a particularly well implemented, allowing you to create and organise lists of things to do and tick them off. While ‘to do’ list program is by no means revolutionary (it was already handled by Calendar prior to Reminders appearing), it’s the implementation here that’s pretty special.

In particular you can associate Location Services with a ‘to do’ so you get an alert when leaving or arriving at specific areas. So you can add a new item at work, say pick up cat food, and then have it when you leave your current location. You don’t even have to set locations manually, just type in a postcode or Address Book entry and you’ll get the alert when you’re in that area.  Because it push syncs to iOS devices the alert will ping up on your iPhone when you’re out and about: it’s really good.

Reminders

Notes is also useful, if perhaps less forwardly impressive. You can create and add lists of notes, and again the seamless integration between Mac OS X and iOS is what really makes it useful. It’s worth noting that this feature is actually integrated with your email accounts, so you can have separate notes accounts for each Mail account. The separate Notes app replaces the notes function in Mail, so you have different settings for each account (controlled through System Preferences). We found it easiest to turn off Notes for all accounts other than iCloud, but you might have instances where you want notes in separate accounts. 

Individual notes can be dragged out of the Notes app and dropped onto the desktop, where they resemble individual Post-it notes. Old fans of Mac classic Stickies will be please to hear that it’s still around. We would, however, suggest moving to Notes from now on, as it serves largely the same purpose but in a better way.

Another nice touch of Notes is that you can drag web URLs and links to webpages into them, as well as images and links to documents (which open in the original document). Although you should note that these images and document links don’t appear on iOS devices.

Notes in Mac OS X

Mac OS X 10.8: Messages

The other big change is the introduction of Messages, which replaces iChat. Messages has been up and running for a while now, so we’ve had a good chance to get acquainted with it. This feature integrates with iMessage, allowing you to send text messages to other iOS users. So you can send a message via the internet to anybody running another Mac, iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. It hooks up to Address Book, and you can start an iMessage conversation using any phone number or email linked to a person running OS X or iOS.

The good news is that Messages is indispensable on Mac OS X when you start using it. The wider user base from ‘people who use iChat’ to ‘anybody who uses iOS’ has given Messages a shot in the arm. We use it on a daily basis and wouldn’t want to be without it.

The bad news is that after a year of use it still fails on a daily basis. Messages are flagged with “Message not delivered”, conversations often disappear from our message list, and messages are often displayed out of order. It’s so unreliable that many people we know are switching it off on iOS devices and reverting to SMS texting instead.

Like other iCloud services, the real joy of Messages is the way you can start a conversation on your Mac, and then continue it on an iPhone when you’re out and about. Also, because you no longer have to worry about the SMS limit, you can treat text messages more like a traditional iChat, bouncing messages back and forth in rapid succession. The flow is much more like having a text-based conversation than SMS.

You can still use Google Talk, Jabber, AIM and Yahoo chat accounts in Messages, but there’s still no support for Windows Live, which is disappointing because without it Messages can never be a universal chat solution (so many people still use Windows Live). One key advantage of Messages over other chat services is that you no longer require the other person to approve you before you can send them an iMessage. It’s also possible to start FaceTime conversations from Messages, although this fires up the separate FaceTime app, which works as before.

We hope Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks improves Messages, but we think it’s more likely to be gremlins in Apple’s server rather than the software implementation. Hopefully Apple can iron out the problems over time.

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