In February, Apple surprised users by unveiling OS X Mountain Lion, the 10th iteration of the Mac operating system since the first public beta appeared in September 2000. Mountain Lion picks up right where last year's Lion update left off, delivering some 200 new features -- many minor, some significant -- and incorporating lessons learned from iOS, the mobile operating system that's used on the iPad and the iPhone.
Some notable features that were until now limited to iOS are offered to desktop and laptop users, including push notifications, Messages, Reminders and the Notification Center. Not surprisingly, OS X also includes support for some new gestures that are used systemwide and built into applications. The full lineup of changes is available on Apple's site.
The public has known about many of these features for months, since Apple unveiled the developers preview in February. But at its Worldwide Developers Conference last month, the company offered details about pricing ($19.99) and availability (July), and Apple execs had a chance to talk up a few previously unannounced aspects of the new operating system, including system requirements.
I've had some time to try out the new operating system, which should be an easy upgrade for most users. Here's what I found out about it.
Getting Mountain Lion
Mountain Lion generally runs on most Macs sold since 2007, though there are some fairly recent Macs that have been left out in the cold. The easiest way to find out if your hardware is compatible is by clicking on the Apple menu while holding down the Option key and selecting System Information or System Profiler. (After making the selection, you can release the Option key.) Scroll down the list in the sidebar on the left and select Software. Under the System Software Overview, look for "64-bit Kernel and Extensions: No." If you find that entry, it means you can't upgrade to Mountain Lion, since it is strictly 64-bit.
As for cost, the downward trend of recent years continues. After several years of selling Mac OS X upgrades for $129, Apple broke tradition in 2009 when it lowered the price of Snow Leopard to $29.99 -- and then charged the same thing for Lion in 2011. This year's upgrade costs just $19.99, and you can upgrade all of your personal Macs for that one price. That deal doesn't apply to businesses. (Information about enterprise volume licensing is available on Apple's site.)
This wouldn't be an Apple product without a bit of a twist: Mountain Lion is a digital download and can only be purchased through the Mac App Store, which can be found under the Apple menu. The upgrade is not available on disc or on a USB stick. So if you don't have broadband, you're going to have to find a Wi-Fi hotspot to download the 4.3GB update.
If you're strapped for bandwidth and you have multiple Macs, make sure to keep a copy of the installer before you install Mountain Lion. The installer deletes itself from your Applications folder once it's done, though you can download it again later through the App Store if you need to. Once you make a copy, you can transfer it wirelessly to other Macs in your household and install away.
If bandwidth isn't an issue, use your Apple ID to log in to the Mac App Store on your other computers and the new OS will show up under the Purchased menu, allowing you to download it there.
As a precaution, it's always best to back up your files before installation, just in case there's a problem. It's also a good idea to delay updating any critical production machines for a little while -- not because Mountain Lion isn't stable, but because bugs can sometimes rear their heads over time. It's definitely a best practice to let others find the faults first. (That being said, I'm a hypocrite: I've upgraded all of my production machines, with zero issues.)
One last tip before installation: Run Disk Utility (in the Utilities folder) to catch any potential disk or permissions problems before you install Mountain Lion. Installing major software like an operating system update can sometimes trigger underlying issues. Better yet, if you really want to play it safe, run Alsoft's DiskWarrior; it's one of the best tools a Mac owner can have.
It took about 35 minutes to install Mountain Lion on my MacBook Pro (which has an SSD drive) after I had downloaded the installer. The entire installation was as easy as can be; once you agree to the necessary terms and select your destination disk, the entire process is automatic.