Today Apple unleashed OS X Mountain Lion, the latest iteration of the Mac computer operating system. Those who own a Mac which meets the required minimum specifications can head over to the Mac App Store and upgrade for just US$19.99. With improved iCloud integration, enhanced security and the inclusion of some iOS apps like Notes and Reminders, Mountain Lion sees OS X move further toward the so-called “iOS-ification” which Apple first introduced in Lion. The result is a much less disjointed user experience and a stronger operating system overall.
Those who own a recent model iOS device will feel at home when using Notes, Reminders, Messages and Game Center on Mountain Lion, as each app works much like its iOS counterpart. Though the iOS ports of Reminders and Notes may feel superfluous to those who only own one Apple product, their utility is apparent when one makes use of iCloud to sync content between multiple devices.
Messages replaces Lion's iChat and while it still sports the ability to instant-message various IM platforms, the main draw is, again, iOS-integration in the form of iMessage compatibility. On the whole, Messages seems improved from its days in Beta, though it'll take a few days of widespread usage before we can tell if the widely reported reliability and stability issues have been ironed out.
Safari has been given a nip and a tuck in Mountain Lion, and Apple's own web browser now sports a more Chrome-like unified search bar which begins seeking results the moment you begin to type them in. Performance feels very snappy and pages render quickly and correctly, as one expects from Safari.
With its speed and classic Apple styling, Safari still offers an excellent browser for Mac users but there's nothing particularly new here to attract Firefox and Chrome loyalists away from their browser of choice. Rather, Mountain Lion's Safari is a modest but welcome improvement on its predecessor which existing users of the browser will appreciate.
iCloud represents the latest chapter in Apple's quest to provide useful cloud tools to its Mac users - a quest which began with iTools over 12 years ago and became MobileMe before finally evolving into iCloud.
While iCloud represents the biggest commitment from Apple toward cloud-based integration thus far, it hasn't exactly set the computing world on fire. However, Mountain Lion ups the ante and finally delivers the kind of functionality which one would assume a cloud-based storage and sync solution would offer, such as saving documents directly to the cloud. Once Mountain Lion is duly signed-in to iCloud, options appear for saving and opening a document in iCloud. It's a big improvement compared to Lion's lack of integration.
iCloud's evolution still doesn't feel quite 100 percent complete, but iCloud in Mountain Lion is much better than Lion and feels more integrated into the Mac OS X experience as a whole.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about Notifications is that it doesn't really feel like a new feature for very long, but becomes a natural part of OS X very quickly. Notifications works with several apps but when dealing with emails for example, it flashes a preview of the message before disappearing into the notifications bar on the right. This can then be accessed with a click of the Notifications icon or a swipe of two fingers from the right to the left of the trackpad.
Of course, Notifications are not new in OS X and users have been using the popular open source app Growl for years, but Apple, as usual, has taken existing technology and made it more seamless.
Amid the current rise in Mac-targeted malware, Apple has rightly increased its focus on security, however the company has ruffled a few feathers by tackling such concerns in its own typically authoritarian way.
By default, Mountain Lion's Gatekeeper feature only allows applications which have been downloaded from the Mac App Store - or which originate from identified developers - to be installed. Though one could definitely make a good case that it'll help technophobes install software more safely, it feels invasive nonetheless. It should be noted though, that the Gatekeeper feature can be easily disabled by entering System Preferences.
In addition to Gatekeeper, there are also increased options for restricting the access of apps to Contacts, iCal and location services.
While Apple hasn't quite brought Siri to Mountain Lion, Dictation is a very workable voice-to-text feature. Once activated in System Preferences, a quick double-tap of the Function key will activate Dictation and best of all, it works system-wide, in any text box.
Dictation is not perfect and is prone to make some embarrassing gaffes, but it offers a more elegant experience when compared to popular third party solutions, such as Dragon Dictation. However, unlike Dragon Dictation, Apple's Dictation seems to falter with longer sentences and requires an internet connection present for it to work.
If you are currently running OS X Lion and have prepared for Mountain Lion by backing up and checking app compatibility, then upgrading is a no-brainer and well worth the asking price. Mountain Lion is a big improvement on Lion and is a more complete realization of what Lion hinted at, but failed to deliver in full.
However, those still running Snow Leopard face a more complex decision with regard to upgrading or not and the answer will depend on the hardware capabilities of the Mac in question, in addition to how the user feels about iCloud, iOS and Apple's vision for the future of computing.
One thing is clear though: Lion and Mountain Lion's evolution highlights Apple's intent to bring its mobile and desktop operating systems even closer together in the coming years, so the new way of doing things is here to stay.
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