• Mountain Lion Review - The next big cat arrives

    Mountain Lion was released today although without the fanfare associated with a typical iPhone and iPad release. As is usually the case with OS updates, most of what you see is or has been available to developers and online screen shots have dictated what is coming for some time already.

    Today I'll be looking at OSX (10.8), named Mountain Lion. I've been running Mountain Lion since the DP4 release. I tend to take on OS updates late in the development cycle because I use my laptop for non-Apple related work and I tend to be careful about the software compatibility issues.

    There are some who may argue that OSX is getting a little long in the tooth. After 8 sub-releases I tend to agree and I'm hoping this is the last version of OSX that we'll see. The way I look at it, Microsoft is now making bigger changes than Apple (of course we don't know what work Apple is doing on OSXi) but if they carry on like this, Apple might find themselves playing catch-up.

    Now that we've got that over with, let's get on the review.

    Updating your software

    If you are planning on installing Mountain Lion, you might as well buy it now and start the download. This article will give you some time to kill while you are waiting for the download. As was this case with Lion, Mountain Lion is available via the app store for purchase and download. If you have issues downloading due to bandwidth constraints, you can go to an Apple store, buy online and grab an electronic download from them so you don't need the box set. If you need the box set (I.e. you live in a small town where fast Internet is dial up and they still have rotary phones), they should be available for purchase from the Apple store on the release date but you will obviously have to wait for shipping. If you purchased your laptop recently you may qualify for a free copy. You can check whether you qualify here.

    To check whether your machine is supported, you can go directly to Apple's website here.

    Speaking of updates, you'll be happy to know that Apple has now incorporated the software updates for the OS in the app store as well so don't be surprised when you see software updates appearing in your app store in future. When you go to the normal location and initiate the software update, you'll see the app store open to the software updates area.



    Backup your machine - Important note:

    As is the case with any software update, it's important to backup your data prior to updating. I've had flawless software updates but upon installing Mountain Lion Gold Master I encountered an issue that turned out to be a hard drive failure. The problem with OS updates is they can potentially bring these hard disk failures to the surface so backing up your data is critical, both before the upgrade and after.

    It may seem strange to bring up backups in a review but a lot of people may be viewing this with the prospect to upgrading. If you don't have a backup drive, get one.



    The review

    Now, finally after a bit of preparation, lets get into the review

    I'm going to knock the first nail on the head and kill any speculation on look at feel just so no one gets their hopes up. This looks and feels like Lion in many respects. There is a new dock colour but other than that you're going to see small things here and there and mostly hidden away in menu paths or in settings. Its a little like iOS upgrades. You have to really look to find the new features.

    I'm not going to repeat every possible feature from Lion, that would be a lot of repetition of whatís available on the Apple Mountain Lion site but I'll try to cover some of the key features and what I do and don't like.

    Notification centre & Social Networking Integration

    I'm combining these two because in some respects they are actually integrated. Notification centre is one of the nice things to arrive in Mountain Lion. If you have an iPhone or iPad, you'll be pretty familiar with it and effectively itís exactly the same thing for OSX. The number of apps that support notification centre are obviously limited at this point, but I guess not all really have the requirement for ongoing notifications.



    Obviously notifications can be provided in a number of ways including banners and alerts. Banners go away automatically while alerts will wait for you to acknowledge them before disappearing.



    I haven't found a default shortcut for notification centre but there is a standard gesture that can be enabled from the trackpad so if you want to use it, enable it in the preferences.



    The one thing you will notice in the notification centre is the addition of the Facebook and Twitter options so you can tweet or update your Facebook status directly from the notification centre although my only annoyance to date is that clicking on the notification for Twitter opens the twitter website instead of the application.



    Facebook and twitter are not limited to the notification centre. You can also send URL's to Facebook or Twitter directly from Safari. Unfortunately Facebook integration won't be available at the time of Mountain Lion release and you'll have to wait for a future release for that.



    Messages

    iMessage has been available as a beta for some time. If you used the beta this won't come as a big surprise, its simply imbedded in the OS now. You can send and receive messages on your laptop. I won't bother to explain this in much detail because most people here are probably already familiar with iMessage and this is just the desktop client. It does however allow you to Facetime directly from the application, which is a great addition.

    Other little niceties include the ability to drag pictures directly to Messages if you want to send pictures on to friends and this is available directly through applications like Aperture or iPhoto. I.e. you can drag a picture from Aperture to an open message window in Messages

    Reminders

    Again, this is something you'll already be familiar with from your iPhone or iPad and it was really just a matter of time before it arrived on OSX, and lets me honest here, its surprising it wasn't released when it appeared on iOS.

    It has everything you'd expect. Caters for multiple accounts (icloud, exchange etc), synchronises flawlessly between devices (or at least that was my experience) and even allows you to set location reminders so it has all the functionality of the iOS devices. I don't think the locations option is designed for OSX although I suspect there are some that may use it, I think its designed as an easier input area for your phone. I.e. if you want to set a reminder and your laptops on, its probably easier to type there.



    Gatekeeper

    Given the amount of publicity thatís been hitting Apple about viruses (and the lack of journalists understanding of what constitutes a virus), this is probably a welcome addition to Apple. It allows you to select where apps can be installed. That means, if a user gets a popup in a browser, selects the download option, this is not enough to allow for the installation and even if they are dumb enough to install the software, they should get a notification that its not a signed application from Apple. Turning this off requires going into the security centre and deactivating this limitation. I've left it enabled to be on the safe side but it can be annoying switching it off when you need to.



    Airplay Mirroring

    If you have an Apple TV (2 or 3), you now have AirPlay available from your Mac, but you'll need to update your Apple TV software prior to having this functionality. At this point itís only available on beta so hopefully Apple release the final additional shortly after the Mountain Lion update.



    Software compatibility

    One of the first things that surprised me was a popup on the screen that notified me which software I had which was not compatible. I'm not sure if this will be in the final release (or Gold Master as I installed DP4 as a starting point). I've had surprisingly few software compatibility issues since installing Mountain Lion and I've had it since DP4. My initial start up encountered an issue with Little Snitch that cause me to force shutdown the app and uninstall it and even the beta provided gave me headaches and resulting in me leaving it uninstalled. I'll probably install it again post the final release and I can't blame a company for not having a fully tested and compatible release prior to the final release of the product to the market so I'm not inclined to hold it against them. Other than that, I had some minor issues with Merlin (resolved recently with an update) and TotalFinder (also resolved recently). Probably the only major issue I had related to Parallels and I could get around that by booting in 32bit mode but recent updates resolved that as well. So, to put it into perspective (and I run a lot of software on my machine), out of all the major business and personal apps I had 4 apps with issues and all 4 were updated prior to the final release. That speaks wonders for the Mac developers out there and their commitment to the products.

    Finder

    Finder has seen some minor tweaks although I cover this in the what I don't like section as well. Its not that I don't like the changes, I just don't believe that Apple has done enough to improve a relatively mediocre app.

    Some of the changes you'll notice offhand is that you can now right click and share the file to a number of applications including email, airdrop, twitter, etc. You can also share files directly from Quick Look which is a welcome bit of functionality.



    Performance

    Itís been difficult to gauge performance. One of the issues I have is I only had a handful of days of use before my SSD failed and I needed to replace it. With a brand new SSD, it obviously flies but the question is whether the performance improvement is as a result of the updated OS or the new SSD. It feels snappier so I'll let people judge themselves but be weary with initial performance. Often the initial install dumps a bit of information off your machine (logs etc) and ongoing running may see the machine slow down so the only real way to compare these two is to do it on the same spec machine with a new install side by side (which I don't have).

    What I don't like

    Probably the thing I find sorely missing is a decent finder. I believe Apple's been pretty lazy on this front. The current finder doesn't quite make the grade and I've had to make do with a number of additions and replacements to get full functionality. I miss Windows Explorer (one of the only times) and I wish Apple would simply fix it. One of the key ones I've used is TotalFinder and the other is Pathfinder. Unfortunately if you're using these two, you'll still be using them with Mountain Lion, as it doesn't address any of the key shortcomings of the current finder. TotalFinder had some initial compatibility issues with the Gold Master but its been updated and I haven't received any issues since the last update.

    The look and feel is really getting dated now. I said what I needed to at the start so I won't repeat this but I'm hoping this is the last release of OSX to grace our laptops before the next major release hits our shores.

    The last issue I encountered relates to the resolution on the high res MBP 15" (not the retina). For some odd reason they've only allowed for 1440x852 for the second highest resolution so part of the screen real estate isn't used.



    Conclusion

    Itís always difficult to conclude an review for a software update like this without letting your emotions get the better of you. In some respects, I'm incredibly disappointed that itís still OSX, in other respects I'm happy to see the stability combined with all the new features. I think the key here is the stability part and Mountain Lion is all about stability. Its about Apple consolidating, getting rid of redundant code and cleaning everything up.

    In some respects its a smart move. At a time when Windows 8 is being released, they're trying to gain market share from those users who see Windows 8, don't like it or have stability issues. They walk into an Apple store, try out OSX and it just works.

    I'm also guessing that Apple provided this as an interim step to try wind down some of the older equipment and prepare people for the prospect of a new OS. The reason I say this is that the "64 bit only" operating system is probably the first push for people to upgrade. If Apple released the next major OS now (I'm codenaming it Bears), I'm guessing there would be massive amount of really annoyed users with a lot of resentment that their Mac products are not supported by the latest release. With Mountain Lion, they have a stop gap to let people know that their machines are starting to age and the lack of support for these machines means that the next release is almost guaranteed to not support these Macs leaving Apple with less compatibility issues to worry about. At some point, people have to let go and I think this is the let go release. Its Apple's way of saying you're not missing out on much but you really should consider upgrading soon.

    That said, without taking anything away from Apple, there is nothing wrong with Mountain Lion. Its stable and fast and thats always important. It just lacks the kind of excitement we've become acustomed to with Apple and perhaps thats where we spoilt. We've become so accustomed to Apple setting the bar for innovation that we get bored easily when something isn't ground breaking.

    Mountain Lion is $20.99 on the Mac App Store.
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