OS X Mountain Lion review: Our in-depth impressions

Back to the Mac

Apple Back to the Mac event Oct 20 2010

Mountain Lion — dare we say? — embraces and extends services Apple originally developed for iOS and brings them “back to the Mac.” For long-time Mac users, this may be a bit shocking, since familiar ways of doing things might be changing or going away entirely. For iOS users — and let’s remember Apple sells millions of more iPhones and iPads every quarter than it does Macs — the changes mean OS X is more immediately familiar. There’s less to learn (or relearn), and more stuff just works. Some of these changes are straightforward — Address Book is now called Contacts in Mountain Lion — while others are deeper. Apple’s strategy doesn’t mean the Mac is exactly a second-class citizen in the Apple universe, but it does mean that Apple looks at new features and technologies in terms of how they might fit into both the iOS and OS X universes.

OS X Mountain Lion Messages

Messages: OS X Mountain Lion does away with iChat in favor of Messages, a new desktop app the enables users to send instant messages (via AIM, Google Talk, Yahoo IM, and Jabber), as well as to anyone with iMessage on an iOS 5 device like an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. But Messages is more than IM or texting: users can send photos, chat with groups, switch to FaceTime video chat, and even exchange contacts and documents. Messages send between OS X and iOS systems are encrypted end-to-end for security (the same isn’t true of old-school IM like AIM), and Messages supports delivery receipts so you can be sure your message got through. Or at least got to their device.

OS X Mountain Lion Notification Center

Notification Center: The Mac has been struggling with ways of letting programs get users’ attentions for decades, from blinking icons to yellow alert boxes to bouncing dock icons. Notification Center is borrowed from iOS, and is Apple’s latest attempt to give users a simple way to keep tabs on what’s happening on their Mac, whether that’s new tweets, email messages, chats, software updates, or an appointment. Alerts can appear as Growl-like “banners” that fade away after a few seconds, windowed alerts that stick around until manually dismissed, or not appear onscreen at all. However, all notification items appear in the Notification Center, accessible by swiping from right to left on a trackpad (or clicking a new menu bar icon, for folks without trackpads. Notification center then appears as a column at the right side of the screen (if you have multiple displays, it’s whichever one has the menu bar) and lists all notification items.

OS X Mountain Lion Notification preferences

Users can configure notification-savvy apps and services in System Preferences: basically, users can control how many recent items appear in Notification Center, whether badge icons display a number of unseen notifications, and whether the system plays a sound when a notification arrives. (Some items may have options: for instance, Twitter can be configured to display notifications only for direct messages.) But control is limited. When I first installed Mountain Lion, my Mac turned into a loud beeping machine of rage: every few seconds a whirl of sounds and Notifications flooded in. There’s no global setting to turn off alert sounds: you have go into each individual item and turn them off individually. And individual apps can control their own notification settings: instead of making options available in the Notifications preferences pane, Apple Mail tucks a Notification setting in its own app preferences. (Look in Mail > Preferences > General.) Similarly, Calendar and other Apple apps tuck away settings for Notification Center .

Calendar & Reminders: iCal is gone, replaced with a very similar Calendar app. Some people loved iCal, others put up with it, but I always found it awkward and unusable. Nothing has changed in Mountain Lion. Calendar even has fewer features than iCal: the to-do list has been migrated out into a separate app called Reminders — just like iOS. Apple has managed to take almost everything that was awkward about iCal and split it between two applications. But there’s a new calendar-based date picker in both the Info and Inspector windows. It’s very 1988, but it is an improvement.

Notes: The venerable Stickies app is still around, but Mountain Lion also picks up Notes from iOS — and it’s a surprisingly mature app. Users can organize notes into folders, sync them across all devices with iCloud, search through notes, pin important ones to the desktop while you’re working, and there’s a built-in sharing feature so you can push notes to others via Mail or Messages. Notes even handles formatting, images, and attachments — basically, if you use Notes on an iOS device, continuing to use Notes in Mountain Lion is a no-brainer. Notes will pick up any notes you may have made in Apple Mail in previous version of Mac OS X (I was a surprised to see a test note I made to myself come back from the grave).

Game Center: Mountain Lion also features a Game Center app, which for now is mostly a way to peer into any Game Center network you may have set up on your iOS devices. Eventually, Mac OS games will start to offer direct support for Game Center so achievements, leader boards, opponent-discovery, and other features will all become more meaningful: Apple promises gamers will be able to engage in multiplayer games across Macs and iOS devices seamlessly. As with so much borrowed from iOS, Game Center is tied to users’ AppleIDs. Looking for a Game Center-savvy OS X game? You’ve already got one: check out the Mountain Lion version of Chess.

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