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

Build 12A269 is the official build of OS X Mountain Lion. 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.

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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.

Once Mountain Lion is downloaded from the App Store, the installation process is almost entirely automated.

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.

So fresh, so clean

Once Mountain Lion is installed and your computer reboots, you just need to set up iCloud and your App Store login information. If you've already been using iCloud and purchasing software from the Mac App Store, getting up and running is simple. After you log in with your iCloud username and password, your email, calendars, FaceTime info, contacts and Safari data, such as bookmarks and Reading List links, are automatically configured. And a visit to the App Store allows you to reinstall software you have already purchased.

If you have software that's not compatible with Mountain Lion, the installer creates a folder on your computer appropriately called "Incompatible Software." Look there to see whether you have any apps that won't run on the new operating system.

After you've logged in, the environment should look familiar, since there aren't any major UI changes. The desktop now sports another galaxy cluster background, and the Dock has a frosted glass appearance. If you look in the menu bar, you'll notice that the Spotlight search icon that was off to the right -- a staple since 2005's release of Mac OS X Tiger -- has been shifted to the left in favor of a new icon. That's for Notifications, one of the iOS features that's included in Mountain Lion.

If you have an AppleTV connected to your Wi-Fi network, you'll see that the menu bar sports the now familiar AirPlay icon found in Apple's iOS devices. This is another iOS feature Apple built into OS X.

The Finder window has gained a few new abilities. First, you can move around the Devices, Favorites and Shared categories in the sidebar by dragging and dropping. File transfers are now tracked with an inline progress bar in the Finder window, in addition to the traditional floating box. Also, you can now triple-tap an icon with three fingers to activate Quick Look, although the space key still works as before.

Finder windows now get a Share button allowing you to send a file via email, Messages or AirDrop.

You'll also note that the toolbar for Finder windows has a new button, one that should be familiar to anyone who has used an iPhone or an iPad: the Share button. It's a seemingly minor addition that's deceptively powerful.

Sharing and syncing

In Mountain Lion, Sharing has become a contextually aware systemwide service. The Share button is available throughout the Finder and in built-in applications like Safari, QuickTime and Quick Look, and it will no doubt be included in third-party apps once they're updated.

The seemingly ubiquitous Share button (shown in the Safari toolbar here) allows you to easily share Web content.

Want to save, email or tweet the link you're reading? Click the Share button in Safari. Want to send a document to a colleague? Click the Share button in Finder and send it by way of email, Messages or AirDrop. If you want to share a file with somebody, the Share button makes it easy.

What about sharing information between devices you yourself own? That's where iCloud comes in.

One of the most important advances of Mountain Lion is deeper integration with iCloud. A collection of services that automatically syncs your data across all of your devices, iCloud shifts the responsibility of keeping your data organized from you, the user, to the computer. In other words, living with multiple computing devices -- a Mac at the office, an iPad at home and an iPhone in your pocket -- becomes easier because iCloud makes sure every machine has the same up-to-date information.

The iCloud preferences panel allows users to select which apps can access iCloud.

Photostream is a good example of iCloud in action: If you take a picture with your iPhone, by the time you pick up your iPad or fire up your Apple laptop, the photo is already there. The same goes for much of your data, such as contacts and bookmarks: A single change on one device means all devices are updated.

In Mountain Lion, Apple engineers have taken this syncing a step further with Documents in the Cloud (for apps like TextEdit that have been updated to access the option). Open/Save dialog boxes now feature an iCloud/On My Mac option.

When On My Mac is selected, the dialog box shows the name of the application you're using, the current folder you're in and the Spotlight search field. View options for the file system are at the bottom of the dialog box along with a row of buttons that includes the following: New Document; the Share button, which allows you to share the document through email, AirDrop or Messages; and to the right, the standard Cancel and Open/Save buttons.

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