Apple OS X Mountain Lion review: iOS-like features help unify your digital world

The new desktop OS benefits from new features adopted from iOS

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Like Growl alerts, notifications show up on the upper right part of your screen. As in iOS, these notifications can be customized to appear as banners -- which slide from the menu bar and hang around for a few seconds before slinking off to screen right -- or alerts, which must be manually dismissed.

Notifications preferences panel
The Notifications preferences panel is where users select which apps use the feature and decide how alerts should be displayed on-screen.

To the absolute right of the menu bar, in the spot previously occupied by Spotlight, is the icon representing the new Notification Area. Pressing this button, or swiping on a trackpad from right to left with two fingers, reveals an area hidden "under" the desktop where recent notifications are stored.

From here, you can view all system and application notifications, and even compose tweets -- as long as the Share button has been enabled in the Notifications preferences panel. (Facebook integration is coming this fall, no doubt in tandem with iOS 6, which will also get this feature.)

In the lower right of the Notifications area is a small icon that launches the Notifications preferences panel, so you can customize how individual app notifications behave. As in iOS, you have a few options: You decide whether notifications should show up as banners, alerts or not at all; you pick the number of recent items you want to see displayed; you decide whether alerts should also display badges on an app icon; and you determine whether sounds should play when notifications arrive. And there may be app-specific options as well.

One of the most embarrassing aspects of giving presentations is the fact that your life can unexpectedly pop up on-screen for all to see if you're not careful. Thankfully, notifications can be turned off right from the Notification Center: Scroll up and you'll see the option to toggle it on/off. Or you can hold down the Option key while clicking the Notifications icon in the menu bar. Even better: When you connect your Mac to a projector, Notification Center turns off automatically.

The Notification Center in Mountain Lion works better than it does in iOS, simply because the onscreen elements are perfectly sized for mouse clicks. It sometimes takes a lot of taps to hit the X to close in the iOS version. But the Notification Center in OS X doesn't display widgets like weather and stocks as it does in iOS. (They're still limited to the Dashboard.) Apple could make the Notification Center even more robust in the future by adding information from widgets and perhaps consolidating download and file transfer progress information.


Apple's Mail app gets a few notable improvements, including notification support, inline search for words and phrases, and the optional escalation of selected contacts to "VIP status." Visually, things looks pretty much the same as before, save for a few tweaks. The threaded view now automatically displays replies, something that was hidden in Lion, though it was an option. And clicking the top of the email list scrolls the list to the top, similar to the tap-to-scroll behavior in iOS.

Behind the scenes, though, Mail now syncs a variety of settings -- such as favorites, account information, recent senders, mail rules and preferences, and smart mailboxes -- to iCloud. If you have more than one Mac, that means if you set up Mail on one, all the information is synced with the others when logged into iCloud. Nice and easy.

If there are special people in your life, you can now make them VIPs; their emails will go into a smart mailbox aptly named VIP. And you can adjust Mail notifications to only alert you when you get emails from your VIPs. How do you make someone a VIP? Hover the cursor near his name in Mail and a star will appear: Click that star. Or you can right-click the name and select VIP.

Mail, while nice, still has its share of flaws, many of which have been part of the app for years. Emails that have been read sometimes still show up as unread, and only quitting and relaunching Mail remedies that; sometimes the names listed in the To: field appear jumbled; and Apple's Junk Mail filter doesn't work anywhere near as well as it did when introduced years ago. One would think these issues would have been eliminated by now. One would be wrong.

Safari and Web browsing

Safari, Apple's Web browser, gets its share of improvements with Version 6 in Mountain Lion. The search and address bars have been consolidated into a single bar that does the job of both. Once you start typing in the new bar, Safari tries to help out by listing suggestions from your bookmarks, browsing history and Google searches.

To the right of this unified address/search bar sits the always-present Reader button. This feature reformats the Web content for easier reading by removing ads and superfluous images and by consolidating multipage stories into one -- it isn't new, but it gains a bit more prominence by being integrated with the address/search bar as a bright blue button.

To the left of the address bar, Safari gets a new Share button that allows you to add a Web page to the Reading List for later viewing, add a bookmark, email a Web page, send a URL via Messages or tweet a link.

Next to the Share button is a feature Apple calls iCloud Tabs. It consolidates all of the browsing sessions on all of your devices using one button and allows on-the-fly access to whatever you were reading on your current device. For instance, if you were reading a Web page on your laptop at home, you could pick up where you left off on your iMac at work. Eventually, when iOS 6 rolls out, this functionality will be expanded to the iPhone and the iPad.

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