OS X Mountain Lion review: Our in-depth impressions

OS X Mountain Lion

As promised, Apple has set OS X Mountain Lion loose on the world — and it’s now emphatically “OS X,” no “Mac” in the name. Mountain Lion represents Apple’s latest attempt to innovate its desktop platform while bringing features it pioneered in its iOS mobile operating system “back to the Mac” — and this time, OS X is actually a little ahead of the curve, premiering some things that won’t make it to Apple’s portable devices until iOS 6. With Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, Apple’s desktop and mobile worlds were an uneasy blend. Does Mountain Lion successfully bridge the two worlds? And what else does Apple’s latest “big cat” bring to the table? Find out in our in-depth first impressions.

Getting Mountain Lion

Right now, OS X Mountain Lion is only available through Apple’s Mac App Store for $20. Customers have to have an Apple ID and either credit (such as iTunes gift cards) or payment information on file with Apple to purchase a license to the new operating system. There’s no walking into an Apple Store to pick up a copy, and you can’t have a handsome delivery guy turn up with one overnight. With Lion, Apple offered a version on a USB stick for recovering machines that had crashed or suffered drive failure — presumably they’ll do the same with Mountain Lion, but for now, it’s download-only.

Before buying, make sure your Mac is eligible: that generally means any Mac with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor or newer — but not all machines qualify. Check our OS X Mountain Lion installation guide for full details, as well as other things folks should consider (like making a bootable backup!) before jumping on Mountain Lion.

OS X Mountain Lion Installer

Mountain Lion weighs in at 4.3GB. Even if you have a high-bandwidth Internet connection, simply downloading Mountain Lion from the App Store is going to take a while. And that’s just the beginning of the process. Once the download is complete a Mac will zip through some reassuringly fast tasks, report the installation is complete and that the Mac needs to be restarted. Anyone familiar with Apple’s update-in-place process for system updates knows that’s just the beginning.

The Mountain Lion installer truly kicks in after the restart. In our experience, the installer typically reports it needs anywhere from 25 to 60 minutes to complete the installation. We’ve never found it to take less than double the amount of time the installer estimates, and that usually includes some stalls midway through that can look suspiciously like a crash or hung machine. However, we’ve also never seen the Mountain Lion installer fail. There are bound to be exceptions, but our experience is to give it plenty of time and have faith.

There are no custom installation options with the Mountain Lion: users must accept the license agreement (or not). You’d think with 4.3GB, Apple could pack pretty much everything into the Mountain Lion installer, but that’s not really true: users may still find they’ll be selectively connecting to the Internet to download components, including things like third-party printer drivers and online help guides. Be ready for occasional delays as you get started with Mountain Lion if the default components don’t include everything your particular Mac needs.

iCloud

Mac OS X 10.7 Lion was mostly complete when Apple introduced iCloud, so integration was limited. Mountain Lion, however, is truly the first version of OS X designed with iCloud in mind, and nothing makes this clearer than when Mountain Lion (finally) starts up: it immediately requires users to sign in to iCloud. If folks don’t already have an AppleID, they can create one on the spot. No pressure, right?

OS X Mountain Lion iCloud sign in

Users can choose to synchronize contacts, calendars, notes, reminders, and email via iCloud, as well as bookmarks and (with Safari 6) even Web browser tabs. This has obvious advantages for folks juggling multiple Macs, or a Mac and one (or more!) of Apple’s portable iDevices: change or add a calendar item in once place, it’s immediately synchronized to all a users’ devices. Email, messages, photos, and documents can be immediately synchronized: no more sending multiple versions of things to yourself via email, futzing with USB drives, or trying to find your phone because the message you want to reply to isn’t on your Mac. iCloud doesn’t put an end to services like DropBox, nor third-party email services like Gmail, but iCloud’s transparency and near zero-configuration makes it tremendously easy to use for folks willing to embrace the Apple ecosystem — and there are millions upon millions of those every week.

With Mountain Lion, Apple is exposing more of iCloud’s “Documents in the Cloud” feature, which enables users to store documents on Apple’s servers and access them from any iOS device or Mac. Built-in apps like Preview and TextEdit now support Documents in the Cloud, and Apple has also released new versions of its iWork apps (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) to support Documents in the Cloud.

Unlike the Internet-based storage Apple used to offer with iDisk (part of the now-defunct .Mac and MobileMe services) or similar offerings like DropBox, Mountain Lion users can’t just pop open a Finder window and peruse the contents of Documents in the Cloud. Instead, Documents in the Cloud manifests as a feature of Save dialog boxes and a new modeless Open window for opening documents — and users’ iCloud documents are managed on an app-by-app basis. For instance: say you use Apple’s Pages word processor on the iPad, and save documents to iCloud. If you use Pages for the Mac, all those documents will be immediately available in the Open dialog box using iCloud, with the most recently-used documents shown first. (There’s also a sortable list view.) However, the only way to see those iCloud documents will be through Pages’ Open dialog box. If you try to find those documents with another iCloud-savvy app — like, say, TextEdit — they won’t be listed because those documents weren’t created by TextEdit.

OS X Mountain Lion Preview iCloud Open

In some ways, this approach makes sense. Many folks think of documents as belonging to a particular app, and (perhaps more importantly) most everyday computer users — Mac, Windows, or otherwise — want nothing to do with the file system. That’s a mentality that’s been emphasized in recent years by mobile devices (like the iPhone and iPad) that totally divorce users from the file system, and it’s hard to argue that it’s a good idea when you see even seasoned computer users struggle to navigate and find things in a directory hierarchy. For everyday folks, simply showing a searchable list of documents created by a particular application is enough to meet most needs.

However, the Documents in the Cloud approach rapidly falls down with power users or savvier folks who routinely pass files between a variety of applications. Maybe you take screenshots, crop and and save them in Preview, but later want to open them in an iCloud-savvy image editor? That won’t work. Maybe you create a quick text document in TextEdit and later want to spruce it up in Pages? Pages will open text documents just fine — but it won’t be able to see anything you’ve stored in iCloud using TextEdit. So that’s off the table.

The old school isn’t dead yet, and Apple does know many folks will want to move documents stored in iCloud to different apps. The official method is moving (or copying) the documents from iCloud to your local Mac: documents stored in iCloud can be dragged (and option-dragged to copy) in and out of the new Open window to and from the Finder. Making that TextEdit document accessible to Pages via Documents in the Cloud means dragging or copying it out of the Open window to your Mac, then dragging (or copying) it into the Open window for Pages.

Managing documents via iCloud is certainly awkward…but it’s probably a glimpse into the future. The only way iCloud makes sense going forward is if users are eventually able to keep most of their information — contacts, mail, calendars, photos, media, and personal documents, and everything else — in iCloud, and simply access them from whatever device — a computer, a phone, a tablet, a television — that they happen to be using at the time. Apple is serious about putting iCloud at the center of its entire technology ecosystem — and Mountain Lion is the first time OS X makes it difficult to avoid. Everything comes full circle: this is kind of how mainframes and dumb terminals used to work, albeit on a much smaller scale.

So: is Documents in the Cloud workable? Right now, the answer will vary from person to person, but my sense is that it’s straightforward enough for folks with a relatively small number of items to manage — I can’t see the interface or current capabilities scaling well to dozens (let alone hundreds) of items per application or truly sizable items. Apple gives each iCloud user 5GB of storage for free; folks who need more need to pay $20 to $100 per year for 10 to 50GB additional storage. Apple says 5GB is plenty for most people — and for documents and app data (since purchased apps, books, music, and media — as well as Photo Stream — don’t count against the total) that’s probably true. But as the universe of iCloud-savvy applications expands, more users will find it tougher to squeeze into 5GB.

Third-party applications can also integrate direct support for Documents in the Cloud, but to do so they have to comply Apple’s new sandboxing and be sold through the Mac App store. (More on that below.) Other new Mountain Lion features are also limited to apps approved by (and sold through) the Mac App Store.

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.

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.

What’s not fixed?

Scrolling

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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