OS X Mountain Lion review: Our in-depth impressions

What’s not fixed?


Mountain Lion adds hordes of new features and improvements to OS X, but…well, let’s face it, there’s always room for improvement. Almost every experienced Macintosh user has pet peeves: mine mostly revolve around Spaces, Mission Control, and the utterly inexplicable LaunchPad. (Yes, I know LaunchPad is for new and non-technical users, and Apple has been trying to do the plateful-of-buttons for apps for over 20 years: I’m just grateful it can be completely ignored.) But there are still some common gripes that haven’t been addressed in Mountain Lion.

Scrolling: Mountain Lion scrolling is still “backwards” by default, where scrolling or gesturing up brings in more content from the bottom of the window, and scrolling or gesturing down brings in more content from the top. It emulates the behavior of touch devices like the iPhone and iPad, and maybe the behavior makes sense for folks with a giant MacBook trackpad or one of Apple’s desktop Magic Trackpads. But many people just seem to find it confusing. The setting can be changed in System Preferences under Mouse or Trackpad: look for the Scrolling Direction checkbox. Apple characterizes the new way as “natural.”

Full Screen & Multiple Monitors: Part of Back to the Mac introduced Full Screen apps in Mac OS X Lion. These never behaved well on systems with multiple monitors, spreading an app to fill one screen and plastering over the second screen with useless grey linen. Guess what? Mountain Lion is exactly the same. Wouldn’t it be neat to run apps full screen in one display and have the second display handle a Web browser or email or something? Apple doesn’t seem to think so.

App Termination: Mountain Lion also preserves automatic app termination: leave a program running with no open windows, Mountain Lion will quietly kill it when it goes into the background in an effort to free up system resources. On a mobile platform like iOS this makes total sense, and plenty of inexperienced Macintosh users close an app’s window, thinking that is the same as quitting, when in reality the program is still running and sucking CPU cycles, memory, and (potentially) battery power. But for folks who know what they’re doing, having to constantly relaunch apps they’re going to be coming back to in a few minutes is very irritating.

There’s no user-accessible setting to enable or disable automatic app termination, but entering the following command in Terminal’s command line will do the trick:

defaults write -g NSDisableAutomaticTermination -bool yes

Change “yes” to “no” to re-enable app termination at a later time, if you like.

iCloud Saves: Not all Mountain Lion’s annoyances are holdovers from Lion. If you enable Documents in the Cloud, you’ll suddenly find that saving anything to your local Mac becomes awkward using apps like Preview and TextEdit that handle iCloud. By default, the apps will want to save every new document to iCloud. If you truly want to save them to your local Mac, you need to choose a local folder from a shortcuts menu in the Save dialog, then toggle open the view of the File system, then navigate around to where you want to save the file (assuming, of course, you don’t have a shortcut there). It might be nice if apps that supported Documents in the Cloud remembered that you needed the full file system Save dialog next time you create a new document…but no. You’ll have to jump through all the hoops every time.

But I wanted Lion!: As soon as Mountain Lion became available, Mac OS X 10.7 Lion disappeared from Mac App Store, and various reports indicate Apple has even pulled the USB-stick versions of Lion from its retail stores. If you’re running Mac OS X 10.6 or earlier and were thinking maybe Lion made more sense for you — perhaps because you have a machine supported by Lion but not Mountain Lion — then you may be out of luck.

A worthy upgrade?

apple store line fanboy

Is Mountain Lion worth your time and money? Yes.

If you use an iOS device (or two…or three) the answer is an emphatic yes — and an even more emphatic yes if you plan to use iOS 6. Mountain Lion brings your Mac closer to your mobile world, and starts interacting well with more of the things you do with your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. The same is true if you use Apple’s iCloud services: where iCloud was kind of an afterthought for Mac OS X Lion, Mountain Lion takes Apple’s first real steps towards putting iCloud at the center of the ecosystem. I’d be gentle and say there’s still considerable room for improvement with iCloud and the rest of Apple’s cloud-based services like Game Center, Messages, and even Notifications — but what I really mean is that there’s so much room for enhancement. Apple’s typical course of action is to get the fundamentals down, then work on gradually evolving a service. Mountain Lion gets iCloud’s fundamentals in place; from here, Apple can hopefully focus on enhancing the service across both OS X and iOS.

In terms of performance — well, it’s unusual to say, but in my non-scientific hands-on experience with Mountain Lion, it sometimes significantly outperforms Lion. Application switches are faster, wake and sleep are quicker, Apple’s own apps and even several third-party apps just seem more sprightly. Perhaps most importantly, although upgrading to Mountain Lion is certainly a bit of a time sink (with all that downloading and installing), it wasn’t a procedural sink: after making a few configuration changes, I was up and running right away.

And it’s hard to argue with Mountain Lion’s price. At $20, Mountain Lion seems likely to become Apple’s most quickly-adopted desktop operating system. That would be something of an achievement, considering that the desktop computer market is historically very fragmented. (After all, the 11-year-old Windows XP still accounts for about 40 percent of the worldwide desktop OS market.) If Apple can make the OS X world more like the iOS world, where legacy operating systems quickly fade away, they’ll be in an position to out-innovate their competition and keep their already notoriously loyal customers that much happier.

So, if possible, I’d recommend getting with Mountain Lion sooner than later. Sometimes the future comes sooner than you think.

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