First Look: OS X Mountain Lion

One short year ago, I reviewed the Mac OS X Lion Developer Preview.And now, it’s time to review the Mac OS X Mountain Lion Developer Preview OS X Mountain Lion Developer Preview (Apple has dropped the “Mac” prefix from the name, as seen below).

The About This Mac screen

This morning, Apple completely unexpectedly announced OS X Mountain Lion. The announcement was odd for two reasons. 1. Apple usually holds an event for these announcements. 2. Major versions of (Mac) OS X are usually released every three years. Lion was released to the public last summer.

As for the name? You heard it here first. Five whole months ago, I predicted that the next major version of OS X would be named Mountain Lion. And what better day to find out I was right than today  yesterday (my birthday)?

Edit: I began writing this review on the 16th; my birthday, and the date of the announcement. However, I published the post a little under an hour late – on the 17th. Most of the post is intended to be read in the context of the announcement date as opposed to that of the publishing date.

Finally, my apologies for the nearly three-month hiatus I’ve taken from blogging. I’ve been busy playing Glitch. It’s fun. You should try it. Furthermore, there really just hasn’t been much to discuss lately. However, I have much additional content planned for the [very] near future, so I think I’ll more than make up for it.

Now, on to the actual review. For this review, I’ve upgraded my MacBook Air from 10.7.3 to the Developer Preview (I haven’t tested it thoroughly yet, but some apps indeed don’t work, and I wouldn’t recommend using it outside a test environment simply because it’s pre-release software; besides, I’m testing its suitability for day-to-day use so you don’t have to ).

The testing system: my trusty MacBook Air!

On first glance, Mountain Lion isn’t all that different from its predecessor. In fact, take a look at the desktop (click for a full-size view).

A 10.8 Desktop: Look familiar?

As a matter of fact, the only obvious difference from Snow Leopard is that little target icon in the upper-right corner, where the Spotlight icon (which is now immediately to its left) used to be.

Before we get into what the little target icon actually is, let’s summarize some of Mountain Lion’s major features: Messages, Notification Center, Game Center, Reminders, Safari 5.2, and Gatekeeper, just to name a few.

The target icon is for Notification Center, which, much like its iOS counterpart, and the name itself, suggest, is intended as a central place to view notifications.

When clicked, the target icon will display Notification Center, which is currently limited to Apple’s own apps. Third-party apps will most likely need to be updated using the new SDK in order to support new notifications. As iOS already had notifications, that just underwent a style change in iOS 5, no developer intervention was required. However, since OS X never had an official notification system, apps will require modification (and will hopefully move away from Growl, which has since become yet another example of Sonyfication, a topic I plan to revisit [again] in the near future).

Notification Center in Mountain Lion can be configured using options extremely similar to those available in iOS.

As in iOS, notifications have two styles, Banners, and Alerts. However, while these notifications look completely different in iOS, the two look fairly similar in OS X, with the only major difference being in their behavior: banners slip out of view on their own; alerts require confirmation.

This is a Banner (if the text of the message that caused the notification didn’t make it clear enough)

Above is an example of a Banner, triggered by the Messages app (which will be another main point of my review – covered shortly).

And this is an Alert

Next up: Messages.

Apple’s new Messages app apparently serves as a replacement of sorts for the old iChat app. It now supports Apple’s own iMessage service, as well as a couple of other instant messaging services.

However, this review will focus solely on the iMessage functionality of the app. For the purposes of this review, I’ll be sending messages to myself, on the same Apple ID, using my Air on one end, and my iPad on the other. As a result, all messages will seem to echo. Note that under usual circumstances, this would not happen.

An iMessage conversation. With myself.

You can also add media to iMessages (to do so, drag an image into the message text box). And as expected with iMessage, read receipts, as well as delivery and typing notifications are also present.

Interestingly enough, the emoji didn’t show up on my iPad. They showed up as the text “:-)”

I’ve been wanting iMessage on the Mac since it’s been introduced to iOS. But it does have one rather annoying and major flaw: its behavior when the app is closed.

This is all you’re getting

If the Messages app is closed, the only indication you’re given is the little red bubble on the app icon; assuming, of course, you have it in your Dock. Is that really expected to get my attention? Obviously, some push service is running in the background to activate that little red bubble, so why not give me a notification, like the ones I’m presented when the app is open? If notifications are to be truly useful, as they are on iOS, they need to be able to notify you even when an app isn’t open. Now I do realize something here: Messages is a chat/IM client, and most software of that type does have to be open in order to notify you of new messages. However, Messages and Notification Center take cues from iOS, and the expected iOS behavior is to provide notifications, even if the app is not running. Besides, the infrastructure already exists. Just make the push service trigger something a little more… substantial.

Moving on to Gatekeeper. Gatekeeper is a new security feature in Mountain Lion intended to protect the user from malicious software. It allows the user to allow only software from the Mac App Store to run (similar to how iOS devices work), software from the Mac App Store and Apple’s new developer identification program, and then the option that represents the way things have always worked: the option that allows the user to run everything.

If the option is changed to one of the other options, software that has not been signed with an Apple-provided certificate will not run (unless the application has always been run before, in which case it is “grandfathered in” and will run anyway).

If one attempts to run such software, they are greeted with this somewhat intimidating message:

I will personally keep this feature disabled.

Also in OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion is Safari 5.2, which brings with it a few interesting features.

Perhaps the most obvious is that it ditches separate address and search bars in favor of a combined bar in the spirit of Chrome’s Omnibar.

Justin Bieber, in my search bar? Gross…

Also among Safari 5.2’s new features is Twitter integration, once again, much in the style of its mobile counterpart (Tweet Sheets, as they are called, are also available in a few other apps, and will most likely be accessible to third-party apps via the SDK).

Also worthy of mention are the following changes:

1. The address bar will now highlight the domain of the URL, and lighten the remaining parts.

2. The Reader button is ever-present, even when not available for use.

3. Rather annoyingly, tabs will span the width of the window… even if there are only one or two. Looks a little tacky if you ask me.

Features I have not covered in this review include AirPlay mirroring (which is once again something I’ve always thought the Mac should have; and pushes me ever so slightly closer to considering an Apple TV, although I think I’ll still hold out for apps), Reminders, Notes, and Game Center. As I do not have an Apple TV, I won’t cover AirPlay mirroring. As Reminders, Notes, and Game Center are almost painfully identical to their iOS counterparts (furthermore, all but Game Center are painfully simple and borderline useless; and Game Center doesn’t do much thus far, for lack of compatible games), I’ll mention them briefly in passing; however, they do not really merit much attention.

Reminders: It’s that built-in to-do list app you may or may not have always wanted

Reminders in Mountain Lion is basically the same as its iOS version, sans the really cool geofence feature. And without that, it’s generally a really basic to-do list app. I’ll most likely never use it, but I do give it props for looking cool.

Notes: Noteworthy, or not?

Snazzy-looking? Yep. Useful? Debatable. On iOS, Notes is a useful app. The user generally doesn’t want to mess around with files and their organization on a handheld device, so a note-taking app with its own internal database works there. But on the Mac, there already exists TextEdit. Do we really need this? Apple’s site mentions a feature that allows you to “pin notes to the desktop.” Not exactly. You still have to have the app running for them to show up, and they still retain the basic appearance of app windows, complete with the stoplight buttons.

Finally, of what are the three most seemingly direct iOS ports, the most significant: Game Center.

Just like Reminders and Notes, Game Center looks like a blown-up version of its small-screen sibling. And for now, serves the exclusive purpose of displaying games and achievements from those small-screened siblings. While Game Center’s cross-platform nature is its greatest strength, until it’s improved upon, in both its iOS and Mac forms, I don’t really see it altering my Mac/iOS gaming experience. Its use is somewhat limited as compared to something like Xbox Live. However, it would most likely be best to wait to pass full judgment on the OS X version of Game Center until games that support it are available (which most likely will be after Mountain Lion’s release this summer).

In conclusion, Mountain Lion is a minor release mostly similar to its predecessor. Notifications and Messages will most certainly be the most significant attractions, if Apple can work out the kinks. With the summer deadline they’ve given, they’ve got more than enough time to do so. The question is, can they polish these features enough to make their new “minor-ish major release every year” release schedule attractive to users and developers? Only time will tell.

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