Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion full review

Game Center

Keen gamers will be pleased to see the presence of Game Center in OS X. You can sign in with your Apple ID and it works in a fairly similar way to iOS, you can join online games and take part in turn-based games (the built-in Chess app is Game Center enabled to get you started). One really interesting feature is that Game Center can offer cross compatibility between iOS and OS X games. So you’ll be able to take part in games on the Mac platform and carry on in a mobile platform.

Between Game Center and the Mac App Store, the Mac platform is becoming an increasingly viable modern gaming platform, who would have thought it? Although the games tend to be the smaller, modern releases such as Angry Birds rather than the old-fashioned triple-A hits like Modern Warfare. As with most things, Game Center in Mac OS X depends on developer support. We presume most developers will want to integrate Game Center support as soon as possible after launch. 

Game Center

Mac OS X 10.8: Voice Dictation

Siri hasn’t quite made the leap from iOS to Mac OS X (and won’t in Mac OS X Mavericks either), but the Dictation feature has, and you can now speak text into any part of the new operating system where you can see the cursor. So it doesn’t just work in Apple apps, but also in other programs such as Microsoft Word.

To activate Dictation, you simply tap the Function key twice and a microphone icon appears underneath the cursor. Speak away and tap Function again when you’re done. It’s a shame that it’s not always content aware, for example if you’re in Safari and activate the feature, it doesn’t automatically enter what you say into the search box (you have to click it first to bring up the cursor), which seems an oversight. Contacts works though, as the cursor is automatically placed into the Spotlight search box. You can also use Dictation with Spotlight itself to search for anything you want.

How much mileage you get from the feature largely depends on your pronunciation ability versus your patience for speaking rather than typing. As writers charged with typing hundreds of words per day, we’re perhaps not the best judge of this, as we can typically all type faster than we can talk on Macworld. Consequently we tend to find voice dictation services incredibly frustrating.

But there’s no denying that voice control has really coming along in leaps and bounds in recent years. The technical challenges involved in accurately deciphering vocal instructions can’t be underestimated, and Apple is doing a great job in iOS, and now here on Mac OS X. And you can use English (US, UK and Australian dialect), French, German and Japanese. That’s not to say there isn’t a way to go yet, and Apple is clearly coy about bringing Siri itself out of beta on the iPhone (and now iPad) and all the way to the Mac. But if you’re into talking to your computer then Voice Dictation is the way to go.

Safari and Mail

Safari has taken a leaf from Google Chrome and unified both the URL text field and the search field. So if you type in a URL you go directly to that, if you type in anything else it performs a Search (Google by default, although Yahoo and Bing are also available).

Cloud Tabs is a new feature that enables you to quickly access pages that are open on different devices – so in Mac OS X it shows you what web pages are open on your iPhone and iPad. It’s a pretty neat feature (like Messages and Documents In The Cloud) that enables you to move smoothly between an iOS device and Mac OS X.  You can also pinch to zoom out all the open tabs (or click the Show All Tabs button) and the flick left and right between them. It’s like having Mission Control for all open tabs.

VIP List

The reading list now works offline, so if you add an item to your reading list in Safari you can access it when you’re away from a network connection. Which is pretty handy when you’re out and about.

You can now access a list of stored passwords associated with websites, and view and edit them. We still set a lot of store by programs like 1Password (£34.99), but if you use a lot of different passwords this is a good way to manage them.

Do Not Track is another new feature that’s found it’s way into Safari’s preferences. This is a new standard that tells websites not to track you when you’re on their site. It’s an emerging and voluntary scheme and not everybody supports the standard (it’s doubtful whether dubious websites ever will), but it’s one more tool for your privacy toolset.

Apple is also claiming marginally faster Java Performance (six per cent). We’ll await the results of Macworld labs testing, but we don’t think you’ll be able to notice any real difference (although Safari remains our favourite browser mainly for speed reasons).

A new feature in Mail is the presence of a VIP inbox that enables you to view inbox messages from specific people (or groups). You can add people to the VIP list in Mail and Address Book on either Mac OS X and in iOS 6; the VIP list is synced across all machines. VIP Inbox is a really handy feature that enables you to focus on important emails when in a hurry (which is usually all the time for most people). Again there’s one slight niggle in that we’d like to be able to get Notifications for just VIP mail messages, but we’re sure this sort of thing will come.

Mac OS X: AirPlay

In what seems a minor feature, but will come as a real boon to Apple TV owners, OS X now features AirPlay support, and can mirror the display and stream individual QuickTime files straight from your computer. This is great as you can now play just about any kind of video on your television without having to faff about converting it to a format Apple TV understands (and syncing it with iTunes). It's worth noting that AirPlay only works on the more recent Apple Mac computers (those released since 2012) and isn't backwards compatible with older machines.

It’s also going to be great for giving presentations, displaying photos, or just about anything that you have on your Mac and what to view on a large television screen.

AirPlay seems to be one of those features that’s quietly getting better and better, bridging the gap between computers and television displays.

Security upkeep

Apple seems to be taking several concrete steps to increase security in Mac OS X (both in visible terms and under the hood tweaks). The most high profile new feature is Gatekeeper, which only allows you to install apps from developers that have signed up with Apple. It’s not quite like the App Store, where Apple checks each app, but it does enable the company to create a list of approved developers and can blacklist anyone that includes malware or any other malicious type of coding.

This seems a good compromise between having the security of authorised developers that you have via the App Store, without having the restriction of Apple approving individual apps.  You can turn Gatekeeper off, or allow individual apps to be installed even if they haven’t been approved by Apple.

Mac OS X also now asks you to approve any app that wants to access your contacts. With increasing amounts of business revolving around hoovering up contacts, rather than outright payment, this seems like a sensible security feature.

Security Access Contacts

Under the hood OS X 10.8 now has kernel ASLR (Address Space Layout Randomisation), which means every time it launches it randomly allocates parts of the operating system to different parts of memory, which makes it much more secure to certain types of security attacks. Your Time Machine backup is now encrypted, which can be a good or bad thing (we’ve hacked into Time Machine backups to extract certain items in the past).

Finally, Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion now checks for updates daily, so Apple can roll out security updates more quickly.

Mac OS X 10.8: Other new features

There are a few other slight enhancements, so here’s a few things to look out for:

  • The Calendar has had a slight refresh and the sidebar showing groups has returned. This will be completely revamped in the next edition of Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks.
  • You can now search for apps in Launchpad with a Spotlight text box.
  • Dashboard now also has a new Widget browser based on Launchpad.
  • The Finder now has inline progress bars (that look like the App installation bars in iOS).
  • QuickLook with three-finger tap (still easier to just press the space bar).
  • There’s a selection of new Braille languages for the blind.
  • VoiceOver now supports drag and drop with modifier keys, press and hold, and drag items to hotspots
  • Preview now offers PDF entry field, so you can tick checkboxes and fill out text fields.

Next: Looking at the interface and design

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