That was fast. Just seven months after rolling out Mac OS X Lion, Apple is releasing the ninth version of its OS, dubbed Mountain Lion. Designed to deliver more iPad goodness to Macs — without blurring the distinction between tablets and full-fledged PCs — Mountain Lion (10.8) is available as a developer preview today and will be released to consumers this summer. Pricing will be announced later.
The software brings several new features to Macs that will make iOS users feel right at home, from the iCloud-powered Notes and Reminders apps to a new Notification Center and Twitter integration. Other features weren’t yet available for testing, such as AirPlay Mirroring and Game Center. But Apple showed us how these features would work, which should make Apple’s devices work better together.
Here’s what we like about Mountain Lion so far and what improvements we’d like to see.
With Mac OS X Lion, iCloud was integrated but largely invisible. You could do things like sync iWork documents and view any photos taken with an iOS device in iPhoto ’11. But now iCloud is more visible and deeply woven into the Mountain Lion. And with more than 100 million iCloud accounts out there, this service has a lot of potential to tempt iPhone and iPad owners into picking up a Mac.
For example, when you use Mountain Lion for the first time, you can automatically set up multiple apps just by logging in with your Apple ID. These apps include Mail, Contacts, Calendars, Messages, FaceTime, Notes, Reminders, Game Center, Mac App Store, Documents & Data and Bookmarks.
Note that iCloud doesn’t automatically set up accounts you’ve already established on iOS devices, such as Exchange or Gmail. You’ll need to manually add them under Mail, Contacts & Calendars in System Preferences.
To make documents easier to manage and sync between devices, Mountain Lion includes a new feature called Documents in the Cloud. When you launch an app like Pages, you’ll see a Document Library view that lets you toggle between what’s stored in iCloud and what’s on your Mac. When you select a document, you’ll see that the Share button at the bottom of the box lights up, making it easy to send off that file via email, Messages or AirDrop.
In addition, you can instantly create folders by dragging and dropping one file on top of another, just like creating app folders on iOS. It was a cinch to make and name a folder using the TextEdit app on our 13-inch MacBook Air.
Documents in the Cloud will be coming to iWork apps shortly. When you make a change on a presentation using your Mac, for example, it will automatically show up on your iPad seconds later.
iCloud isn’t limited to Apple’s own apps, either. The developer API enables developers to create document apps for OS X and iOS that can talk with each other.
However, Apple noted that the application would need to be available in the Mac App Store. We’re not sure we’d be willing to give up Dropbox for Documents in the Cloud because of its cross-platform capabilities, but if you’re comfortable with an all-Apple setup it should do the trick.
Bye, bye, iChat. Messages has now taken over in MacOS X Mountain Lion, combining iMessage with instant messaging (AIM, Yahoo, Google Talk and Jabber). Messages will be available for Lion as a separate beta download starting Feb.16.
The coolest part of Messages is that you can send a message to anyone who owns an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch running iOS 5. I found it convenient to send off a quick message to my wife’s iPhone from my MacBook while on the bus without having to pull out my own iPhone. When she replied, the message automatically showed up both on my laptop and iPhone (it buzzed in my pocket).
Another neat feature is that you can drag and drop photos and videos right into the Messages window and send it off as a multimedia message. Just keep in mind that you can’t send messages to people who don’t use iMessage. That means your Android-toting friends are off-limits.
Although Facetime continues to be a separate app in Mountain Lion, Messages integrates with the service. That means you can jump on a video call just by pressing the video camera icon in the top right corner of the screen.
The Messages app present your latest conversation in the right window and other conversations in the left pane, making it easy to pick up a chat where you left off.
One of the most asked-for features in iOS has landed on OS X Mountain Lion. Notification Center delivers banner-style alerts for incoming messages, calendar entries, reminders, Mac App Store updates, Twitter updates and even Game Center invitations to games. The banners disappear after five seconds, but at any time you can two-finger swipe left from the right side of your touchpad to see all of you notifications in one place. You can also launch this view by clicking the little circle in the top right corner of the screen, which turns blue when you have new alerts.
Although you can’t dismiss individual notifications within the Center, you can click the X next to the name of an app (like calendar) to clear all notifications from that app. Clicking on a notification will open the application. We’re glad that Notification Center works on the Launch Pad screen and in any full-screen app but wish it also opened in the Mission Control view.
So you don’t get overloaded with alerts, OS X Mountain Lion lets you choose which apps deliver notifications and whether they’re presented as banners or slightly larger alerts. But the best way to minimize noise on your desktop is to choose some email VIPs. This new feature allows you to select VIPs in the Mail app just by clicking the star next to a person’s name within a message. From there you’ll have the option to have only email notifications show up from the people you deem most important.
We’re glad to hear that Apple is letting developers leverage its Notifications API, because otherwise our alerts from Tweetdeck and other third-party apps would get downright dizzying. We hope to see a lot of compatible programs at launch.
The new Reminders and Notes apps ported from the iPad for OS X Mountain almost feel like oversize widgets. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because we suspect that users will appreciate the simplicity of these apps. Their true utility comes in the seamless synchronization between iOS devices and the Mac.
Just as with the iPad version, Reminders lets you create to-do lists and assign due dates as well as the priority level. Just hover over the “i” icon on the right side of the screen to see your options. If you have multiple to-do’s, the search field at the top left part of the screen will come in handy.
Although iCloud is supposed to push these reminders to your iPhone and iPad, the syncing was sporadic in our early testing. On a few occasions when we added a Reminder on our iPhone 4S or iPad 2 it automatically showed up on our MacBook Air, but other times they simply wouldn’t sync. (Closing the app on our iOS device sometimes helped.)
We had better luck with the Notes app, with most of our notes syncing within a minute. We expect sync times to improve as Mountain Lion gets closer to launch.
Plus, Notes on OS X Mountain Lion is more robust than the iPad version. For example, you’re supposed to be able to drag a photo or attachment to your note, as well as format notes with fonts and bulleted items (good for recipes). At a later date Notes will also support Web links, perhaps giving users fewer reasons to use a service like Evernote. Dragging photos into our Notes didn’t work when we tried it, but we assume it’s a bug Apple needs to fix.
As with the iPad version, you can share notes via email, but you can also add them to outgoing messages by using the built-in share button. If you want to treat that note like a Sticky, just double click it so that it stays on your desktop.
Macs are getting more social with Mountain Lion’s Share Sheets. This feature makes it easy to share items directly from the app you’re using, whether it’s a website in Safari, Notes, iPhoto or Preview. Once you press the Share button, you’ll see an interface that lets you enter a message to the recipient.
The method of sharing varies based on the application, but Email, Message and Twitter are available in most cases. Flickr and Vimeo are also on board. Here’s a quick breakdown of the available services for specific apps:
With Twitter you’ll see a thumbnail image of the page you’re sharing along with a Tweet box for adding your message. Twitter functionality in Mountain Lion goes even deeper. You should see Twitter profile pictures in the contacts app, and soon you’ll be able to tweet links to apps in the Mac App Store and receive Twitter notifications.
Unfortunately, Share Sheets doesn’t work with Facebook, which is a pretty big omission in our book. The lack of Facebook integration isn’t a surprise given that it’s not available in iOS, either. However, because Mountain Lion invites more sharing, right now it feels like a missed opportunity.
The more popular Macs become, the larger a target they could become for malware, and Apple hopes to head off that threat with Gatekeeper. This new feature in Mountain Lion essentially creates a whitelist of apps based on whether they’re available in the App Store or–if you’re making your app available on the web–signed with a Developer ID. (Apple says it’s a simple process to obtain an ID, which costs $99 per year.)
Mountain Lion ships with three options under Security & Privacy that users can choose for dealing with downloaded applications. The default mode in the developer preview is “Anywhere” because there aren’t any applications yet that have been digitally signed with a Mac Developer ID. But when Mountain Lion launches for consumers this summer the default selection will change to “Mac App Store and identified developers.” Those looking for maximum security can select “Mac App Store” for downloading apps only from Apple’s storefront. At this level you’ll benefit from Apple’s own review process as well as the fact that Mac App Store apps have user reviews.
When we attempted to open an unidentified app after installing it from the Web with the Mac App Store and identified developers setting turned on, a message popped up saying that the program “is not from an identified developer. You should move it to the Trash.” Apple will be changing the language of this dialog. If you choose to you can manually override Gatekeeper by pressing Ctrl and clicking on the name of the app within Finder.
Overall, we like that Apple is giving users more choice when it comes to deciding how stringent they want their systems to be in downloading software. It will be up to developers to ensure that they get a Developer ID so that their apps aren’t mistakenly labeled as malware.
Imagine you’re just surfing the Web and all of a sudden you get an invite from a buddy who wants to challenge you in a game from his iPad. Game Center for OS X Lion makes this scenario possible. Just as with the iOS version, this gaming social network helps you discover new diversions and friends to enjoy them with, as well as see how you stack up against the competition.
Since Game Center already has a huge user base of 100 million registered users and counting and because Games is the most popular category in the Mac App Store, we see a lot of potential for Mountain Lion to help make the Mac chip away at Windows’ lead in PC gaming.
Game Center wasn’t available on our preview build of OS X Mountain Lion, but we did have a chance to see it in action and it seems to work well.
Apple is definitely playing catch-up when it comes to streaming content from your laptop to a TV. Intel has been doing this with its WiDi technology for a couple of years. However, AirPlay is easier to use and promises smoother performance. Provided you have an Apple TV, you can stream whatever is on your desktop — a presentation, a photo gallery, an iMovie or even a game — directly to your big screen. It works just like the iPad 2 or iPhone 4S.
The developer build of Mountain Lion we tested didn’t have AirPlay, but Apple did give us a demo of the feature working on another MacBook Air. Once you’re connected to the same network as your Apple TV, your Mac should just recognize it and present a menu option toward the top of the screen to connect.
During our hands-on preview, we streamed a racing game from across the room with little to no lag. However, video output is limited to only 720p, compared with1080p for WiDi and competing technologies such as the WHDI found on laptops like the Alienware M17x and M18x.
Nevertheless, should Apple roll out a full-fledged iTV as expected, AirPlay Mirroring on Lion could be one more reason to choose a Mac over a Windows PC.
Given that Mac sales continue to grow while the rest of the PC industry is totally flat, it’s easy to understand why Apple is taking a more conservative approach with OS X Mountain Lion than Microsoft’s bolder Windows 8. The software is less of a “major release” but more of an update that builds on the success of the original Lion by adding more iPad features to the mix. The raised profile of iCloud in Mountain Lion serves as a bridge between tablet and desktop computing. It’s a smart approach, and it works.
While we encountered a few app freezes and would like to see Reminders and Notes syncing between Macs and iOS devices speed up, we can say that OS X 10.8 feels more mature and feature-complete. We especially like Notification Center for seeing your alerts at a glance. The biggest drawback right now is the lack of Facebook integration for sharing. And given the seemingly frosty relationship between Apple and the leading social network, there’s no guarantee that this feature will become available.
The one thing Apple needs to be wary of moving forward is tacking so much of the iPad onto the Mac that users feel as though they’re using two different operating systems. Right now, though, the balance feels just about right.