Apple OS X Mountain Lion full review

Big updates to Apple's big cats are typically gifted with a wholly new feline name. Mountain Lion—otherwise known as Apple OS X 10.8—is more an incremental upgrade to last year's Lion, OS X 10.7. Yet it's one that introduces some fundamental changes to this most popular and accessible of all UNIX operating systems. Read more reviews of desktop operating systems.

Apple has announced that more than 200 innovative new features are present, although many of these will be small enough to be missed by most users. There are some real headline changes though, along with minor but significant changes. We will list these major and minor additions and changed through this review. Read reviews of MacBook laptops.

Amongst the stand-outs are iOSification additions that echo features that will be familiar to iPhone and iPad users.

Notifications, like the dropdown menu on the iPhone, provides instant updates on Calendar events, FaceTime, Mail, Messages, Safari – and two of the other new additions to Apple Mountain Lion, namely Reminders and Game Center.

Instead of dropping from the top, Notifications appear in a bubble in the screen's top-right corner. To see all Notifications to date, you can swipe with two fingers from the right of the trackpad on a MacBook, which has the effect of sliding the entire desktop a few inches to the left. It proves itself as a handy way to quickly keep track of incoming information.

Reminders is a handy way to set yourself prompts for upcoming events, and will sync through iCloud with those set on your iOS devices too.

Apple Mountain Lion: Mirror mirror

A literally more far-reaching feature borrowed from iOS is AirPlay Mirroring. This originally allowed certain media content, such as video or music, to be beamed from a mobile device to an Apple TV. In effect, it makes it easy to put onto your larger TV screen what was once confined to the small one.

In Mountain Lion, Apple has now upped the ante to allow a Mac's entire screen to be pushed across to the TV screen. When a Mountain Lion Mac is on the same network as Apple TV, the AirPlay icon appears in the Finder top menu. Selecting this pushes the entire display to the Apple TV. It's a system that works effortlessly to share what you're seeing on the big screen, with audio too.

Just like in iOS, Game Center lets you log into a shared network of other game players, where you can play against complete strangers. Or even people you do know. With the introduction of Game Center to OS X, the Mac can now battle against iPad and iPhone users on the same turf. 

Apple Mountain Lion: Safari

Apple's default web browser across its products is Safari, whose open-source core is so respected it's used by other developers – notably, Google with its Chrome offering. 

Many of the new tweaks to Safari 6 are copied from other popular browsers. The URL you see in the address bar has the top-level domain in bold for clarity, with remaining sub-domain name in grey. And the leading 'http://' is now omitted. For example, instead of seeing...

'''ll now get a clearer...


A unified URL and search bar takes the place of separate address and search windows, as seen with Firefox's Awesome bar – aka, Omnibar – a few years ago. Google is still the default search, with Bing and Yahoo also available by switching from the app's preferences.

Downloading files through Safari gives a crazy swoop animation as your download heads to the Downloads icon in the Dock. 

A sharing button in the toolbar lets you add the current page to your Reading List, Add Bookmark, Email this page, or share through Messages or Twitter. The cloud button next to it lets you synchronise open tabs with those on other Apple devices. 

A useful trick we've not seen elsewhere though is new Tab view. Selecting this from the View menu puts all your open tabs into smaller windows that can be quickly scrolled through, left to right, within one window.

It's a cool and useful feature, even more so from the keyboard shortcut of Shift-Cmd-\ or better yet pinch-to-zoom gesture from the trackpad. This is one of our favourite new additions.

Apple Mountain Lion: Security through GateKeeper

There are several signs that Apple is taking security even more seriously these days, spurred no doubt by vulnerabilities in third-party software that hit the headlines this year and nevertheless reflected poorly on the platform. 

While OS X and its UNIX foundation is relatively secure compared to the popular alternative,  there will always be the problem of the user unwittingly approving the installation of malware. Apple introduces GateKeeper as a good way to mitigate against the modern computer's most exploited weakness, the user with administrator privileges. 

Mountain Lion takes the iOS model for security as an option, namely to not allow the installation of unscreened programs.

There are three options listed: the default when you install Mountain Lion is the middle ground, to only allow apps downloaded from the Mac App Store or identified developers that are party to Apple's new code-signing process. 

Code signing means that an app must be authorised by a developer's security certificate, or else it will refuse to run. This is probably the biggest tightening of security the platform has seen since the introduction of a UNIX-based operationg system with Mac OS X 10.0 in 2001.

You can restrict this further to just App Store sources. Or to return your Mac to pre-Mountain Lion level of insecurity, opt to allow apps to be installed from Anywhere.

We see this move alone as a serious speedbump against the type of Trojans that masquerade as popular plug-in updates such as malware disguised as Adobe Flash updates. It's perhaps the most notable and visible tightening of security the platform has seen since Apple adopted a UNIX-based operating system with Mac OS X 10.0 in 2001.

Also under the Security tab is more control over which apps can access your personal data – specifically, your Contacts address book. When an app that asks for such access is first installed, a pop-up dialogue checks for your approval. You can change your mind about its access level at any time from the Privacy tab within the Security pane.

Apple Mountain Lion: Other tweaks

Inevitably, iCloud is more becoming prominent in Mountain Lion. One place we keep seeing the silver cloud icon when saving documents in TextEdit – the default behaviour is now to save direct to iCloud. And when opening that app, you're offered a small window to browse save documents, in either iCloud or On My Mac.

But what happens if you did decide to save to iCloud but are currently offline when you want to open your file? In our experience on a MacBook, we found the same documents were offered even with Wi-Fi switched off, suggesting that a local cache exists on the Mac as well. This should make the save-to-cloud option slightly less daunting for anyone concerned about losing access to important documents just because they've lost internet connection. 

Power Nap leverages new tricks in Intel processors that allow a certain amount of access to a computer even when it's asleep in standby mode. So Power Nap means that updates pushed from iCloud servers, such as new mail and calendar events, are run while the Mac is asleep, so when it's first awoken it'll already be up-to-date.

Further, if a MacBook is connected to a power source, it will also be updated with new software updates, if that option for 'Install system data files and security updates' is selected within System Preferences. 

Less important to most western users but as a sign of Apple's courting of eastern users, new Chinese support includes a new dictionary, eight new fonts, and Mail compatibility with popular China email providers QQ, 163 and 126, while Baidu search engine is offered in Safari.

In use we have found the release version of Mountain Lion to be without issue so far. Even long-standing niggles that appeared in Lion, such as apps reopening their windows when specifically told not to on next launch, have been fixed. In the latter case, if you want everything to reopen when restarting your Mac, you must deliberately opt in to do so.

We may yet find more issues, but for now our biggest niggle is the removal of the function that let you double-click a windows top to minimise it to the Dock. Or it would have been, if we hadn't found the option now craftily relocated to the Dock preference pane. 

NEXT PAGE: Original Macworld US first-look >>