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Operating Systems

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OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion review

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OS X Mountain Lion - Apple

One year and one week since the release of OS X Lion, Apple is back with Mountain Lion, also known as OS X 10.8.

Like Lion, Mountain Lion offers numerous feature additions that will be familiar to iOS users. This OS X release continues Apples philosophy of bringing iOS features back to the Mac, and includes iMessage, Reminders, Notes, Notification Center, Twitter integration, Game Center, and AirPlay Mirroring. There are even a few features that are making their debut with Mountain Lion, and will find their way back into iOS 6 this fall.

As the first OS X release post-iCloud, Mountain Lion offers a much more thorough integration with Apple's data-syncing service than Lion offered. Mountain Lion also brings options to limit which kinds of apps users can install, offers systemwide integration with social networking and media-sharing services, and gives some recent MacBook models the power to keep working even when they appear to be asleep. And although there are no actual mountain lions in China, OS X Mountain Lion does add a raft of features to speak to users in the country thats Apples biggest growth opportunity.

At £13.99, Mountain Lion is Apple's cheapest OS X upgrade since version 10.1 was free 11 years ago; like Lion, Mountain Lion is available only via a Mac App Store download. The combination of the low price and the easy download will likely make Mountain Lion the most quickly adopted OS X upgrade of all time. Given how solid a release I found Mountain Lion to be, thats a good thing.

Video review

In 2011, in his last public event as Apple CEO, Steve Jobs introduced iCloud - Apple's Internet-based system of data storage and synchronisation. At the time it was clearly a major strategic move for the company, and users of iOS 5 have benefited from several nice features, including cloud backup and preference syncing across devices.

On the Mac, iCloud integration has been limited. OS X Lion was finished before iCloud arrived, which prevent Apple from deeply integrating the two. But Mountain Lion and the forthcoming iOS 6 (due this fall) make much better use of iCloud andmost impressively for users of both Macs and iOS devicesuse iCloud to work together.

It starts at setup: In Setup Assistant, the system asks for your iCloud ID and will sync a bunch of core preferencesessentially the information stored in the Mail, Contacts & Calendars pane in the System Preferences app. With this single log-in to iCloud, all your email accounts, contacts, calendars, notes, reminders, and the like, will be available on the Mac youre using.

These features wont bring over all your files from an old Mac (youll need to use Migration Assistant for that), but imagine a future where most users apps are purchased on the Mac App Store, and most apps store their documents in iCloud. In that world, logging into iCloud from a new Mac will be almost as seamless as restoring from iCloud on an iOS device. This is definitely the direction Apple is headed in, even if Mountain Lion doesnt take users all the way there.

Since last fall, Apples iWork apps for iOS (Keynote, Numbers, and Pages) have supported iClouds Documents in the Cloud feature, which lets you store documents on Apples Internet servers and access them from any iOS device. But the Mac versions of those apps havent been updated to support that featureuntil now. In a set of app updates timed with the release of Mountain Lion, Apple has updated the Mac iWork apps to support Documents in the Cloud. And TextEdit and Preview, two apps included with Mountain Lion, also support Documents in the Cloud. (Apps from other developers are also free to support this feature, so long as theyre sold through the Mac App Store.)

Heres how it works: Instead of the traditional Open dialog box, theres a new box with two options: iCloud and On My Mac. On My Mac is the traditional Mac file picker, pretty much the same concept as the one introduced back in 1984. But the iCloud option reveals something quite different: a view of all that apps documents that are stored in iCloud. By default, this icon-based view shows icons sorted with the recently modified files at the top, though you can also switch to a list view and sort by name, date, or size.

In either view, you can drag one file on top of another in order to make a new folder. If you want to move a file from the Finder into iCloud, you can simply drag it into the window and itll be moved. If you want to move a file from iCloud to your Mac, you just drag it out. (Holding down the Option key while dragging does what youd expect, tooit copies the file instead of moving it.)

When I first opened Pages on my Mountain Lion-powered Mac, I was greeted with a collection of documents I didnt expect to seethey were all items I had created over the past year on my iPad using Pages. I was able to open them and edit them, and the edits showed up almost immediately on my iPad, too. When the process works, its nothing short of magical.

Similarly, when you create a document in one of these apps and try to save it, by default the Save dialog box is set to iCloud. You can switch over to your Macs hard drive if you want, but Id wager that average users will just save their file to iCloud and not worry about navigating their hard drives file hierarchy.

Many expert users will blanch at the concept of not using the traditional file system, but Apple believes that most computer users struggle with finding files and traversing file systems. Between Launchpad and Documents in the Cloud, many novice Mac users will increasingly find little reason to use the Finder. Having seen plenty of friends and relatives struggle with file management, Im inclined to agree with the company. The good news for power users is, Apple doesnt seem committed to ruining the experience for people who want to save files on their hard drives. Its easy to move files back and forth between iCloud and your Mac hard drive, the Finder hasnt gone away, and Launchpad is utterly ignorable.

Even as an experienced power user, I see the appeal of Documents in the Cloud. Its certainly easier to find a file you were working on recently in a view that shows only one apps files with the most recent stuff sorted to the top. Its not that different from what I tend to do these days when Im trying to open a file: Launch the app, go to the File Menu, and look in the Open Recent submenu to see if the file I want is still there.

The menu that appears when you click on a documents title at the top of its window is much more useful now. Unsaved documents still appear in iCloud even if you never press Save. There are a lot of really useful touches that will appeal to everyone.

But Documents in the Cloud is not all silver lining. Some file typestext files, for examplecan be opened by all sorts of different apps, yet Documents in the Cloud doesnt share files between apps. For example, theres no way to insert an image into a Pages or Keynote document via iCloud short of opening Preview, grabbing the file from its iCloud window, and dragging into a page or slide. That seems less than ideal.

And while iCloud is free, thats only for the first 5GB of data. My iPhone and iPad backups already nudge me close to the limit; adding a bunch of giant Keynote presentations will probably push me over the edge. If Apple wants people to embrace Documents in the Cloud, it might want to give users a bit more iCloud space without charging them for the privilege.

But still: With Mountain Lion, its a lot clearer to see how iCloud will benefit everyone who uses Apple products by tying those products more closely together and eliminating a lot of fussing and fiddling with files.

iOS apps come to the Mac

With Mountain Lion, Apple is continuing the approach begun in Lion to sync up the look, feel, and even nomenclature used by OS X and iOS. The Address Book app is now Contacts, as on iOS. iCal is now Calendar. More notably, there are a handful of new apps that have been built specifically to match up with iOS counterpartsand to sync data across devices.

The new Reminders app, which looks more or less identical to the iOS version introduced with iOS 5, syncs your reminders via iCloud. It supports the same basic to-do list functionality as its iOS counterpart, and you can set location-based reminders that will (for example) trigger alerts on your iPhone when you enter or exit a particular place. Its hardly going to give complicated task-management apps a run for their money, but thats not always Apples goal when it builds an app into its operating systems. This is an app for people who want a basic set of checklists synced across all their devices.

With its yellow college-ruled interface, the Notes app will be instantly familiar to iPhone and iPad users. Its also a suitable replacement for Stickies, the venerable utility for jotting down a few notes to yourself. But Notes on the Mac has a few extra tricks up its sleeve: It supports rich text with different fonts, hyperlinks, bulleted lists, images, and even file attachments. The Notes app on iOS and Mac sync together, of course, so instead of having various separate notepads on all your devices, all your notes are with you at all times. It really works, and its been useful enough to prompt me to start using Notes on my iPhone.

Notes doesnt use the iCloud syncing, though, which is kind of an odd choice. This is a legacy of the previous way you saw Notes in Mac OSas a special mailbox in the Mail app. That always felt like a bizarre feature, and its good that Apple has finally broken Notes out into its own app. But behind the scenes, Notes still uses the IMAP email standard to sync, which means you have to have a valid IMAP email account entered in the Mail, Contacts & Calendars system preference pane in order to use the syncing feature. Its something Apple should probably just migrate to iCloud for simplicitys sake.

Theres also a new Game Center app, which finally brings Apples buddy system for games across from iOS. Yes, you can log in, add buddies, and see what games your friends are playing from the app. But the app isnt as important as the fact that Game Center is now available to Mac game developers. By taking advantage of Game Center, developers get access to buddy lists, a ranking system, in-app voice chat, head-to-head gameplay, and gameplay across Apple platforms. Expect a flood of Mac games that are versions of games previously seen on iOS.



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