OS X Mountain Lion review: Our in-depth impressions

Sharing and social integration

Mountain Lion has been widely heralded as the first version of OS X that seriously attempts to integrate social networking. However, this isn’t really true. Mountain Lion tries to integrate social sharing — which is not the same thing. It tries to make it easy to share things on your devices or things you find on the Internet with your social networks. If you’re looking for a full-blown Twitter, Flickr, or Facebook client in Mountain Lion, you’re in for a disappointment.

OS X Mountain Lion Finder Share (Twitter)

Mountain Lion’s social sharing primarily manifests as a Sharing button that, at first, almost escapes notice but then seems to be everywhere: the Finder, Safari, iTunes, Notification Center, Mail, Quick View — heck, even Preview lets users to share things with reckless abandon. And, of course, applications like iPhoto and iMovie have purpose-specific sharing capabilities. The Share button is a popup menu that provides access to contextually-appropriate “Share panes.” For instance, if you have an image selected, Share options might include Flickr and Twitter as well as OS X features like Mail, Message, and AirDrop. Not all sharing options are appropriate for all types of data, so Share panes available for an audio recording of a meeting or lecture won’t include things like Twitter.

Account information for sharing services is confusingly in System Preferences > Mail, Contacts & Calendars — the same place one configure credentials like Gmail, Yahoo, and AOL services, and not necessarily a title that makes one think of things like Flickr or Vimeo. More than a few people might look in the better-named Sharing preferences. Guess what: that’s file sharing, screen sharing, printer sharing, and similar services.

Right now, Mountain Lion’s sharing with third party services is limited to Twitter, Flickr, and Vimeo. Where the heck is the Facebook integration that Apple promised with Mountain Lion? <Crickets> Apple included Facebook integration in the Mountain Lion beta, but didn’t make the cut for the release version of Mountain Lion. Apple says Facebook features will be added “this fall,” but don’t expect a full-blown Facebook app built into OS X: sure, you’ll be able to send status updates and share photos, and messages will probably even appear in the Notification Center. If you try to do more than that, you’re going to be back in your Web browser pretty quickly. It’s the same with Twitter: direct messages and replies may appear in Notification Center, but they just direct users to the Twitter Web site — if you’re a serious Twitter user with something like Tweetbot installed, Mountain Lion isn’t going to paw at it.

OS X Mountain Lion Dictation

Dictation: The most common question I’ve personally received about Mountain Lion is “It’ll have Siri, right?” Wrong. Although Macs have more processing power than Apple’s portable devices which theoretically makes them more able to do the heavy lifting of speech recognition, Siri remains limited to the new iPad and the iPhone 4S. However, Mountain Lion does include Dictation, a service that lets you speak text input to virtually any application, from lightweights like TextEdit all the way up to heavyweights like Word, Pages, and even my personal favorite editor BBEdit. Users can activate Dictation by pressing the “fn” key twice — that’s configurable in System Preferences > Dictation & Speech — or you can choose Start Dictation from way at the bottom of the Edit menu in almost any app. Dictation recognizes spoken punctuation items like commas, and a few formatting commands like “new line.”

Dictation’s speech recognition leaves something to be desired — and anyone hoping it’s an adaptive technology boon will probably be disappointed. For instance, while you can change the key command to start Dictation, you can’t change the one to turn it off. And you will have to turn it off regularly (like after every sentence) because Dictation does not perform continuous speech recognition: it processes spoken text only when it is deactivated. That makes Dictation kind of a neat technology demonstration, but a far cry from a useful tool.

Behind the scenes, Dictation uses the same Apple-run speech recognition service as Siri. That means OS X users can’t use Dictation without a reasonably fast Internet connection — and being willing to share things like their Contact names and (presumably) everything they say with Apple. That may displease enterprises and corporations (already uncomfortable with Siri); however, Diction can be disabled in Mountain Lion’s Parental Controls. Note that Dictation is not the same as OS X’s Speakable Items: those commands are still available independently from Dictation.

Apple MacBook Air 11 6 inch 2012 review lid angle side ports usb 3.0 os x

Power Nap: A more directly useful feature of Mountain Lion — at least for notebook users — is Power Nap. Power Nap is a simple idea: basically, if the notebook is asleep and connected to a power source, it’ll keep up with messages and iCloud updates and even perform Time Machine backups (if a backup volume is available) while it’s snoozing, so it’s totally ready to go when you next pick it up. But don’t worry about being bothered: the system won’t make any alert sounds or other annoyances from updates and notifications while asleep. And if the notebook is not connected to a power adapter, it doesn’t do anything at all, so there’s no fear of Power Nap eating away your battery life.

There are some technical caveats: right now, Power Nap is only available on MacBook Airs from 2011 (with updated firmware released with Mountain Lion) and (soon) the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. The feature should migrate to more of Apple’s notebook line over time, but don’t expect support in older MacBooks with SSDs, even if they came from Apple. It’s not a cheesy move on Apple’s part to force people to buy new computers: the limited availability has to do with power requirements of standard SSD drives and some graphics controllers.

Gatekeeper: In the wake of this year’s Flashback malware scare, one of the most talked-about feature of OS X Mountain Lion has been Gatekeeper, a new technology that can restrict a Mac to only running apps from the Mac App Store or from the App Store and “identified” developers. (Macs can also be set the way to work they always have: running any app a user likes: now, that’s the least secure option.) Apple is essentially vouching for any program available from the Mac App Store: Apple reviews the programs and, if they comply with Apple’s policies and no security problems are found, they’re available for sale. Apps from identified developers aren’t reviewed by Apple, but those programmers or companies have registered with Apple, and Apple can reach out and revoke their apps’ ability to run under OS X if a problem turns up.

OS X Mountain Lion Security & Privacy

Gatekeeper is basically an extension of the extra file flags Apple has been using in the last few versions of Mac OS X — the ones that warn such-and-such is an application downloaded from the Internet at a particular time, are you sure you want to run it? By default, Gatekeeper will only allow users to launch apps from the App Store or that are from identified developers, although users are free to change the setting in System Preferences > Privacy & Security.

There are some exceptions to Gatekeeper’s rules: if you downloaded and launched an app from some random developer before installing OS X Mountain Lion, Gatekeeper still considers it safe: since you’d previously indicated you trusted the app, Gatekeeper will honor that choice you made under an earlier version of Mac OS X.

If you want to launch an app that’s not from the Mac App Store or a registered developer (say, a compiled AppleScript program from the next cube over), you don’t have to go all the way into System Preferences, toggle the Gatekeeper setting, launch the app, then set up Gatekeeper again: if you choose “Open” from that app’s contextual menu (control-click or right-click) the Finder will ask if you’re sure you want to open it; if you approve, you can override Gatekeeper’s setting for just that app, and Gatekeeper won’t bother you about it again.

With Gatekeeper, Apple is trying to lock down OS X so users are less likely to fall victim to malware, trojans, and scams by positioning the Mac App Store as the safe, secure, and first-choice source of Mac software — and where Apple conveniently gets a 30 percent cut of every sale. And Gatekeeper isn’t the only pressure Apple is putting on developers to get their programs into the Mac App Store: for instance, only Mac App Store apps will be able to use Documents in the Cloud, and (from what I can gather) only Mac App Store apps will be able to issue push Notifications that could appear on users’ other devices. These restrictions make sense from a security point of view, but being approved for the Mac App Store also means complying with Apple’s sandboxing requirements to stay away from particular system resources and files. Certain types of apps — for instance, automation apps that simulate keystrokes — will never qualify for the Mac App Store. As Apple integrates iCloud more deeply into OS X — and the pressure to be in the Mac App Store increases — whole classes of software may simply disappear from the Mac universe.

Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion overview

What else ya got?

Apple touts Mountain Lion as having more than 200 new features, and we’re only covering major points here. However, a few other items bear mention:

Safari 6: Although it’s also available for Lion, the latest version of Apple’s own Web browser is a significant upgrade, integrating support for Do Not Track headers, doing away with the separate Web search bar in favor of a Chrome-style unified search-and-address bar, and an offline reading list that stashes away Web pages so you can read them later even if you don’t have Internet access. There’s also a new Passwords pane in Safari’s preferences that enables users to individually manage (and retrieve) Web site passwords, and Baidu has been offered as a built-in search option for Chinese users. But guess what? Safari 6 no longer handles RSS feeds.

AirPlay mirroring: Mountain Lion can stream a feed of your entire Mac screen to a second- or third-generation Apple TV set-top boxes (basically, the tiny ones), making it possible to view onscreen video content — like Flash or (gasp!) Silverlight video — that couldn’t previously be streamed to a big screen. (This can also be a handy way to show a Web site, video chat, presentation, productivity app or other content on a big-screen TV without having to use a specifically AirPlay-enabled app: educators and presenters should love this.) Users can also stream their Mac’s system audio to available AirPlay devices.

Preview: It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to call Apple’s Preview App “humble” — in fact, in recent versions of Mac OS X it’s gotten more than a bit jumbled. In Mountain Lion, Apple has made Preview’s interface less cluttered and more cohesive without sacrificing any functionality. Did you know that, for many people, Preview is all the image editing you might need? You can cut, crop, rotate, color correct, add lines and arrows and even thought bubbles to images. Spend a lot of time in PDFs? Preview can annotate and edit them.

Mail: Love it or merely tolerate it, Apple’s Mail dominates Macintosh email because it ships with every Mac…and so has destroyed most of its competition. In Mountain Lion, Mail loses both Notes and the ability to handle RSS feeds — Notes moved to a separate application, but RSS is gone for good. Unsurprisingly, when new Mail arrives, alerts can appear in Notification Center, but if you receive any volume of email, that’ll quickly drive you insane. As a way of limiting those notifications, you can designate particular contacts as “VIPs” — just click a little star next to their name in a message you received from them. Mail effectively creates a Smart Folder just for messages from VIPS, and in Mail’s preferences you can configure it to issue Notifications from from VIPs. Is there a massive argument over symbolism in Xena: Warrior Princess happening on a mailing list? You won’t see notifications about it. But that message from your boss saying a meeting has been moved from 3 p.m. to 1 p.m.? You’ll see that.

China: Mountain Lion also includes several additions aimed exclusively at Chinese users — not too surprising since the iPhone is very hot in China and the country is the world’s largest Internet market. Mountain Lion offers direct support for Chinese-language search engines, calendaring services, weibos (microblogging services like Twitter), email, and video sharing. Mountain Lion also allows users to more easily mix English and Pinyin text. These features are invisible in Mountain Lion until users select Chinese language preferences or keyboard layouts — although I have one report they may activate if a Mac has location services enabled and determines it is in China or Hong Kong.

Save As: One of the most infuriating things about Mac OS X 10.7 Lion is that it did away with the long-standing workflow of a “Save As…” command in favor of a Duplicate and Export model. I can’t begin to explain or justify Apple’s thinking on that one. However, I am very pleased to note Save As has made a return in Mountain Lion: just hold down the Option key when viewing the File menu. Save As will replace Duplicate.

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