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Apple OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion Expert Review

OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion

Rating: ★★★★☆

The ninth major version of Apple‘s OS X adds more than 200 new features. A few major additions stand out from the crowd, but there are many more small tweaks tucked in for good measure.

Just like its predecessor, OS X Mountain Lion draws much inspiration from iOS, the operating system that powers the iPhone and the iPad.

The only place to get it is the Mac App Store. Unlike OS X 10.7 Lion, Apple won’t be selling this version on a pricey USB flash drive, so you’ll need access to a fairly good internet connection to download the installer.

Getting it is a cinch. Open the Mac App Store and you’re sure to see Mountain Lion listed prominently on the front page, just a couple of clicks away from purchase. It installs right over the top of your current version. It’s wise to make a complete backup of your system before you go ahead with the upgrade. If you do that with Time Machine, it’s easy to roll back to your previous operating system if something goes wrong.

» Download OS X Mountain Lion from the Mac Apps Store here

You can upgrade straight to Mountain Lion from Lion or Snow Leopard. If you’re still running Snow Leopard, make sure it’s updated to 10.6.8. You don’t have to upgrade to Lion first; save some money and skip it entirely.

Some Macs that shipped with Leopard (10.5) are able to run Lion, too. You’ll need at least 2GB of RAM installed, but the ride will be smoother with 4GB. Most Macs provide easy access to their memory sockets, so you can upgrade much less expensively by purchasing third-party RAM and fitting it yourself, instead of paying Apple to do it.

To get from Leopard to Mountain Lion, you’ll first have to install Snow Leopard, because it’s the earliest version of OS X with access to the Mac App Store. Snow Leopard is still available on DVD from the Apple Online Store for £26/$29.

The maximum cost of upgrading your OS is £40, but check that any applications you depend upon have no known issues with Mountain Lion. OS X no longer includes Rosetta, the technology that enabled PowerPC apps to run on Intel Macs. If you’re upgrading from Leopard or Snow Leopard, you’ll need to ensure that your applications have been rewritten to support Intel processors.

Mountain Lion abandons support for some old models, some of which aren’t really very old at all. Apple lists compatible models by the time and year they were introduced. Check out our list of OS X Mountain Lion-compatible Macs.

It’s easy to confirm your Mac’s age in Lion. Click the Apple icon in the menu bar, choose About This Mac, then press More Info. The next window lists your model’s era.

Older versions of OS X don’t reveal the age of hardware so easily. Open System Profiler, copy your Mac’s serial number from the Hardware Overview to the clipboard, then paste it into this form to find it out.

Finder and interface changes

There are many small changes in Mountain Lion that might sway your decision to upgrade. Among them are several concessions from Apple to a few mistakes it made with Lion.

The way Mission Control groups windows by application is divisive. Some people find it more organised than the scattergun presentation of Snow Leopard’s Exposé, while others find it gets in the way of finding what they want. Apple has added an option to Mission Control’s preferences that spreads out all of your windows.

OS X Mountain Lion Mission Control   Launchpad

Launchpad is now a serious contender as an application launcher. That’s entirely down to the addition of a search bar, which is immediately ready to receive keyboard input when you open Launchpad. Type something and matching apps are displayed. Choose the correct one with the arrow keys, then press Return to open it.

The Finder in Lion sported a reorganised sidebar. Depending on the window size and the number of items lsited, this meant scrolling down the list in order to access USB flash drives and external hard drives. Mountain Lion enables you to reorder the groups in the sidebar and bring removable devices back to the top of the list for quicker access.

When you copy files in the Finder, it still displays a window with an estimate of how long it will take. It also now displays individual progress bars on each of the items that are being created in the destination. So, if you start copying a lot of files, but decide you really need a portion of them because you have to head out very soon, you can see precisely when the right point has been reached, then cancel the remainder of the operation.

Finder  Rename

There’s no need to open a Finder window just to rename a file that you’re working on – at least in the built-in apps. Click its name in the title bar and you’ll find a Rename option in the menu. It also appears in the File menu.

Rather than just appearing when you roll over a sweet spot to the right of a document’s name, the menu that provides access to previous versions of a document now has a broader clickable area that encompasses the whole name. The menu’s items are now replicated in the File menu, so you can assign keyboard shortcuts to them.

After you start scrolling in a window, roll the pointer over the bar and it widens, making it easier to click and drag to another part of a document.

Sadly, full-screen mode in Mountain Lion isn’t much of an improvement. When you switch an application on a secondary display to full-screen mode, it stays on that display instead of moving to the main one. But your other screens continue to pointlessly display a linen texture, instead of enabling you to pin another full-screen app to them.

iCloud integration

iCloud is more deeply integrated into Mountain Lion in a way that has profound implications for the way you work. Apps such as TextEdit and Preview are able to save documents directly to iCloud. Those documents are then pushed to your other devices, as long as they’re online, so you can pick up your work anywhere.

Online documents are organised in the iCloud Document Library, a new dialog that appears when an app first opens, and when you choose File > Open. Options at the top-left switch between browsing online documents and your Mac’s local storage. Documents in iCloud can be grouped in folders, which use the same visual styling as Launchpad and the iOS home screen. Folders can’t be nested.

iCloud document library  Icloud move

Files already stored on your Mac are easily moved to the cloud. Drag them from the Finder into a document library, or open them, choose File > Move To… and pick iCloud as the destination.

Awkwardly, there’s no universal document library to view files irrespective of the app that created them. When you need to share, say, a PDF and a TextEdit document, you must begin sharing the former from Preview’s library, then open TextEdit’s library and drag the desired file onto the other app’s Share sheet. Documents are grouped in an almost entirely artificial way – by application.

It’s a cumbersome way to work, and it doesn’t fit with human ways of organising work by project. In moving away from complex folder hierarchies, you soon realise that Apple’s simplification is a step too far.

Notification Center

Notification Center is Mountain Lion’s headline feature. Like the one in iOS 5, it keeps you informed with alerts about incoming iMessages, emails and other happenings. If you don’t click an alert to deal with it, the notification is moved to an out-of-view list for you to respond to later on.

The list is accessed by swiping left with two fingers from the right edge of a trackpad, or by clicking the icon at the far right of the menu bar. The desktop slides left to reveal a tray where the notifications await your attention. Click one and you’re taken to the app to respond.

Notification Center   Notification Center preferences

When you don’t want to be disturbed, scrolling upwards on the list reveals a switch that can be toggled to turn off alerts. It remains active until the next day, when it resets to showing alerts, in case you just forgot to switch it back.

Notification Center optionally displays a button to send out a tweet, provided you’ve signed in to Twitter in the somewhat inappropriately-named Mail, Contacts & Calendars pane in System Preferences. From autumn, you’ll be able to add a button to update your Facebook status, too.

There are also app-specific preferences in Notifcation Center

The button at the bottom-right of Notification Center takes you to its preferences. You can choose whether notifications disappear after a few seconds or stick around so you don’t forget to do something until it’s too late. Each app can store up to 20 alerts in the list.

Third-party apps are able to plug into Notification Center, too, but don’t just look here for settings. Some apps have additional settings in their own Preferences window. For instance, Mail provides an option of only alerting you to messages from a specific account or folder. Setting it to Mail’s new VIPs mailbox might be a good choice.

Dictation and Messages

There’s a dictation feature built right into Mountain Lion. It works with English access from the UK, US and Australia, plus French, German and Japanese. The only other setting is the shortcut that triggers it. The default is to press the Fn key twice, which pops up a small microphone graphic at the text insertion point – wherever you can type, you can talk. That’s the idea, anyway.

Although you’re not required to jump through hoops with a training session to get it accustomed to your voice, it took us several attempts of saying few lines, enunciating more carefully each time, before the results were spot on. The slightest slur throws it off. We also found that it stopped listening after just a couple of sentences, which is awkward for reading long passages.

Dictation listening   Messages

Messages is essentially iChat with a lick of paint, and support for sending and receiving iMessages to other Macs and to iOS devices. It still works with AIM and some other instant messaging networks, but iMessage conversations are front and foremost. Conversations are listed down the left of the window, and they’re searchable using the bar above them.

On the right, conversations are represented as a series of speech bubbles. Several people can be copied into the conversation, and files, images and videos up to 100MB can be shared just by dragging and dropping them into the conversation.

Apple hasn’t been particularly smart when it comes to cross-platform conversations with iOS devices. When we dropped in an iWork document, Messages didn’t warn us that the recipient, using an iOS device, wouldn’t be able to read it.

Yes, even with Pages installed on the device, the other person didn’t see anything in the speech bubble to tell them there should be an attachment – only the words we’d typed. Messages needs a bit more polish to make it a more robust way to share files.

Reminders and Notes

Reminders and Notes used to be buried away in iCal and Mail, respectively, but they’ve been stripped out into their own apps, and given some new capabilities in the process, to match their iOS counterparts. It’s a smart move if you use both of Apple’s operating systems, because it’s immediately obvious from the icons what the apps are meant to be.

Reminders is a rather simple to-do list, but with one impressive feature: you can set alerts to appear when you leave or arrive at a location. Type in ‘Work’ or ‘Home’ and it looks up the location from your personal details in the Contacts app, then ring-fences it.

Street names and postcodes can be set, too, but Apple has neglected to provide a means to look up someone else’s address from the Contacts app. Nor can you create a shortlist of bookmarked places that you visit often.

Reminders  Notes is a great example of how Share works brilliantly

The Notes app defaults to the hard-to-read Noteworthy typeface. The similarly ugly Marker Felt, and tried and trusted Helvetica, are also available.

Notes is just one example of how the Share button, adopted from iOS and used extensively in Mountain Lion, is a genuine time saver. Where it would normally take several steps to share something – copying text to the clipboard, switching to another app, creating a message and pasting the text – it now takes just a couple of clicks. It isn’t that the old way is at all difficult, but it certainly is inefficient.

Splitting Reminders and Notes into their own apps means a little more room is taken up in the Dock, but that’s easy to live with when it means not having to think about where they are stored when you sit down at a Mac. Consistency with iOS runs deeper than the Reminders and Notes apps. iCal and Address Book have been renamed Calendar and Contacts, to match.


Safari 6.0 arrives with the usual round of chest-beating about improved JavaScript performance, and how hardware acceleration makes reading long pages better because they scroll more smoothly. But Apple has improved some of the features you see and interact with, too.

We were disappointed with Reading List, introduced in Safari version five, because its only real advantage over regular bookmarks was its ability to keep track of which pages had been read. It’s far more useful now that Safari automatically downloads a copy of the page. It doesn’t matter if you’re offline when you find time to read.

Reading List tries to recognise when the content of a page is actually spread across several of them. It pulls it all together in the offline copy, so you don’t end up with only a portion of an article. Third-party services such as Instapaper remain useful for their additional features, such as folders, but Safari’s built-in version stands stronger than it did in Lion.

Safari offline Reading List  Safari Tab View

The iCloud button in Safari’s toolbar reveals a list of tabs that you had open on all of your Macs. If you hadn’t finished reading a page, but forgot to add it to Reading List, clicking this button on another Mac enables you to pick it up. iCloud Tabs will really come into their own when iOS 6 plugs Apple’s portable devices into the feature.

Tab View is a mystifyingly impractical addition. The basic idea is sound: show a graphical preview of the tabs that are open, so you can more quickly find the one you want. It just doesn’t work very well, purely because the previews are arranged in a row, and you can only see the current tab and part of the two adjacent to it at any time.

You can swipe along the row on a trackpad, but it feels like more effort than it should be. It works OK with a handful of tabs, but a grid view would be far more appropriate when there are more than half a dozen. The flaw is so apparent that it left us wondering whether this was quickly added to help bump up Mountain Lion’s feature count.

The Share button in Safari enables you to post a link to a page on Twitter or send it via iMessage. Sharing by email gives you additional options: instead of the page’s address, you can include the page’s HTML in your message, a PDF printout of the page, or, if it contains a large body of text, a rich-text rendering of the page based on how Safari’s Reader feature would display it.

The latter is very useful, because only the dominant – and presumably important – content from the page is shared. The text is formatted so that it will wrap better on the recipient’s device. It’s trivial to remove pictures to keep the size of the email down. The text automatically reflows to fit.

 Safari share page in Reader view

Share sheets

The Share button appears throughout Mountain Lion, and it quickly proves to be an invaluable shortcut. It owes a lot to the restraint Apple has shown in not turning it into a more general, context-sensitive action button, although the message is slightly polluted – with good reason – in Safari, whose Share menu includes two bookmarking options.

In the main, the Share menu appropriately contains shortcuts to quickly share whatever you are viewing or have selected. Each time you make use of it, you’re only saving a little effort in copying and pasting or dragging and dropping something from one place to another.

Sharing isn’t just about posting to social networks. In the Finder, you can quickly email the selected files, or, in Preview, the one you’re reading. Whatever and however you share something, Mountain Lion uses a consistent interface, a Share sheet, to which it attaches the item, enables you to review it and, in some instances, add an accompanying message.

Share sheets improve one of Lion’s most promising but awkward features: AirDrop. Previously, you had to drag a bunch of files onto AirDrop in the Finder’s sidebar, wait for it to display a list of nearby Macs with an AirDrop window open, then drop the items onto the correct recipient’s icon. The process is pretty much the same in Mountain Lion.

Share button AirDrop

You make a selection, click the Share button, click the recipient’s icon, hit Send and wait for them to accept the transfer. Although it sounds like no improvement at all, it’s a lot more comfortable than dragging and dropping via the sidebar, and so far we haven’t noticed Mountain Lion exhibiting its predecessor’s tendency to fail to display the list of nearby Macs.

Gatekeeper and Power Nap

Gatekeeper is a new security feature that intends to protect your Mac against apps that might be from a malicious source. It can be switched off altogether, or set to the extreme of only enabling apps from the Mac App Store to run. It’s the safest option due to the strict rules Apple imposes on what those apps can do to your Mac, but it’s also the most restrictive as a result.

A third option is provided as a compromise. It enables apps from other sources to run if they contain the signature of a developer known to Apple. This option is the default when you upgrade, but you don’t have to worry about the apps already on your system that haven’t been signed; they’re automatically green-lit.

Gatekeeper preferences  Power Nap

Even this choice isn’t as restrictive as it sounds, and with good reason. If the restriction was rigidly enforced, you’d probably turn off Gatekeeper altogether. When you want to run an app that isn’t signed, you browse to it in the Finder, Ctrl-click it and choose Open.

The extra, unusual effort of opening by this method tells Gatekeeper that you really want to run the app anyway. It asks you to confirm that intention, just in case, then enables the app to run. In future, you only have to click its icon. We can only wait to see how robust Gatekeeper and app signing are, now that they’re out in the wider world.

This feature only applies to MacBook Air models from Late 2010 onwards, and the new MacBook Pro with Retina display, all of which have shipped with flash storage onboard. Those models consume very little power when they’re put to sleep, which enables them to retain battery charge for weeks. They can also perform certain tasks while consuming little power, and that’s exactly what Power Nap does.

Though it looks and sounds like it’s doing nothing, your Mac can be busy backing up to a Time Capsule, keeping documents in iCloud up to date, and receiving emails and pictures via Photo Stream. It also makes good use of the downtime to download software updates. It’s a neat feature, and one that surprises when you lift a MacBook’s lid and find you’re able to read emails received overnight, even though you haven’t got an internet connection.

AirPlay Mirroring

AirPlay started out as a way to stream music from iTunes on a Mac to remote speakers. iOS devices later gained the ability to mirror their display to Apple TV. It comes full-circle in Mountain Lion, with the ability to send a Mac’s desktop to an Apple TV.

When an Apple TV is detected on the network, an AirPlay icon appears in the right side of the menu bar. From there, you can choose whether the image from your Mac is scaled – up or down – to fit the output resolution of Apple TV (720p for the second generation; 1080p for the third).

Another option sets the desktop resolution to match the Apple TV’s output, though with a 720p model, it might dramatically reduce your desktop workspace. If neither of those options looks right, you can pick a specific resolution from the Displays pane in System Preferences, so that elements such as the menu bar are scaled to whatever proportions you find most comfortable.

AirPlay Mirroring  Displays preferences   AirPlay Mirroring all system audio

Some iOS games, such as Real Racing 2 HD, can be played relatively lag-free on a television. The output from a Mac is slightly delayed, which is jarring when trying to move the pointer. It’s fine for mirroring movie rentals in iTunes, though, because the delay is intentional, and it keeps the audio in sync with the picture.

AirPlay also appears as a target in Mountain Lion’s Sound preferences. That enables you to stream audio from apps such as Spotify to your Apple TV, or speakers connected to an AirPort Express unit. All of your Mac’s audio is transmitted, so it’s important to ensure everything besides the intended app is muted.

It’s a little disappointing that Mountain Lion doesn’t enable a Mac to be used as an AirPlay receiver. Especially so for the Mac mini, which is well suited to a living room setting, and more capable than Apple TV with it.

Final thoughts

Set aside any consternation at the continued adaptation of features from iOS. The best thing that Mountain Lion borrows from its leaner, mobile sibling is undoubtedly Notification Center. When you’re swamped with meeting alerts and emails all day long, it’s a convenient way to filter out some noise, while remaining in touch with people who matter.

We liked

Sometimes the simple ideas are the ones that take you by surprise. That’s certainly our view of the Share button, which is an efficient way of getting things done without dragging things from the Finder. It’s a particularly good point if you use a trackpad.

Apple’s efforts to tidy up some of Lion’s messy attributes haven’t gone unnoticed. The restoration of Exposé-like organisation in Mission Control will appease some, as will the ability to once again show contact groups and a list of calendars on the left-hand side of the eponymous apps. But these are capabilities that should not have disappeared in the first place.

We disliked

Apple’s insistence on a minimal file system in iCloud is fine if you only author the occasional document, but the simplicity soon becomes awkward when you have to deal with many of them. In stark contrast to the Share button, it makes a long-winded job of doing things with different types of document. Apple’s determination to avoid a complex folder hierarchy would be laudable if search options worked better (folder names are excluded), and if there was a quicker way to gather related files of any type into a project.

We’re also disappointed that icons in the Finder’s sidebar are steadfastly monochromatic. Without a lack of colour as a guide, it inevitably slows you down. And iMessage needs improving to better handle file incompatibility when sending from a Mac to iOS device.

Here’s some more articles you might like:


  • Notifications
  • Low impact of Gatekeeper
  • Share sheets
  • Mission Control better
  • AirPlay mirroring


  • Awkward iCloud documents
  • iMessages needs work
  • Tab View too restricted
  • No custom Finder groups
  • Finder icons still mono


If there’s one feature that makes it worth upgrading, it’s Notification Center. At £13.99, Mountain Lion is a real bargain for that alone. The true cost might be higher if you have to upgrade from Leopard, or upgrade any of your applications to make them compatible.

The rearrangement of Notes and Reminders into their own apps is very welcome if you also use an iOS device. And the swathe of other minor tweaks around the system are positive as a whole.

Apple needs to rethink iCloud document libraries before we’re willing to start putting work online. Using iCloud to store documents is entirely optional, and it can be supplanted with alternatives such as Google Drive and Dropbox, which offer a more flexible file system.

Availability: Available now | Price: £13.99

Apple OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion Expert Review


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