Mountain Lion: Does it Roar, or Slip in on Quiet Cat’s Feet?

Blog Date: 
Sunday, July 1, 2012

By Amy Mason

Apple’s Mac OSX 10.8 has arrived in the app store and several major news outlets claim that it “Roars”. It arrives on the scene at a ridiculously reasonable $19.99 for an operating system.  Unless your OS of choice is Linux, it’s probably been a long time, (if ever,) since you have gotten an OS upgrade for so little cash. 
This of course begs the question, do you want it?  That depends on a few things.  First, will your Mac support it? Do the programs you use the most support it? Do you care about any of the new features that Mountain Lion brings to the table? To be honest, for most of us, there will be enough compelling reasons to upgrade that it will be worth the work, hassle and $20 price tag, but you be the judge. 

Support

When it comes to support, Mountain Lion definitely is not going to run on every machine.  But it will run well on most late model hardware.  Here in the office I’ve been running the preview on a late 2009 model Mac Mini with 4 GB of Ram and a 2.53 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, and it’s felt just a touch more responsive than Lion on the same hardware.  It’s certainly been working at respectable speeds, if not quite zippy.  According to Apple’s System Requirements (http://www.apple.com/osx/specs/) for the software, these are the minimum system specs:
•    OS X v10.6.8 or later
•    2GB of memory
•    8GB of available space
And these are the models it will work with:
•    Mac (Mid 2007 or newer)
•    MacBook (Late 2008 Aluminum, or Early 2009 or newer)
•    MacBook Pro (Mid/Late 2007 or newer)
•    Xserve (Early 2009)
•    MacBook Air (Late 2008 or newer)
•    Mac mini (Early 2009 or newer)
•    Mac Pro (Early 2008 or newer)
If you meet the minimum system requirements you may want to take a look at whether or not the applications you use are going to be compatible with Mountain Lion.  Unfortunately, this is probably going to involve spending a bit of time researching your personal favorites, because although www.roaringapps.com has a fairly inclusive list of applications, it’s kind of a mess to navigate with screen access software.  You can do it, but it will take some work.  (You will want to hit the link for each application, because the full compatibility page does read the program’s status properly, unlike the table.)  It will very likely be easier to visit the program’s website in most circumstances to be honest, but these guys are there in a pinch. 

Features

In this latest incarnation of OSX Apple has been working to standardize their product line, and to bring a unified experience to users.  As iOS devices are by far, the most popular and profitable Apple products in existence, ever, it only makes sense to make OSX more like iOS. 
Apple has claimed that Mountain Lion has more than 200 new features. We will not be discussing all 200, (I’d be writing this until OSX 10.9 came out) but here are some of the highlights: 

Accessibility and VoiceOver

In keeping with the shift towards iOS-like appearance and functionality, the first major change we see in the “Accessibility” settings are the change of the name of the Former “Universal Access” panel to “Accessibility”.  This preference panel has also been redesigned, and all in all, works as well as it ever did, if not better.  As an added bonus, it can now be accessed via its own universal hotkey “(Option-Command-F5”) to allow the user to bring up Accessibility preferences from anywhere.  “Speakable Items” has moved here from the former “Speech” preference pane (now “Dictation and Speech”), and a number of preference screens have been redesigned.  One of these is the VoiceOver screen which now allows the user to begin the Quick-Start Tutorial. 
Apple has announced support for 14 more Braille displays which brings their list of supported Braille displays up to 54. (Good luck finding out which are the new one’s though, because Apple doesn’t say.) 
The “Menu Extras” and “Search” behave a little differently in VoiceOver than they did previously.  Now, to activate one of the “Menu Extras” a user must use VO + Space, as VO + down arrow no longer functions.  The search is also different as users no longer press VO+MMM, but instead VO+MM and move across to it like other menu items in this section. 
Sadly, not all is roses in the update.  Table support, or lack thereof, in Pages appears to be largely unchanged, at least prior to the as of yet untested version 9.2 upgrade of iWork. Furthermore, PDF viewing still falls rather short of really functional, but that’s what the accessibility@apple.com e-mail address is for.  (Keep those cards and letters coming!)  If you happen to have AppleCare on your Mac, it may not hurt to call the Accessibility help-line either.  The number is 1-877-204-3930. 

Notification Center

Once again, Apple has brought over another iOS staple.  It sits in the right-hand corner of your “Menu Extras” on the top of the screen, and allows the user to pull it out to see what’s been happening in their world.  New e-mail messages, tweets (only mentions and direct messages), and system messages of all types can be viewed from the notification center, and in some cases, new tasks (such as sending tweets) can actually be initiated from the same list.  Settings are fairly granular and allow for a fair amount of control, so tweak it to your liking, or turn off the notifications and ignore it if you aren’t a fan. 

Dictation

Let’s have a little fun with this feature.  Below, please find my initial thoughts on the dictation feature, as dictated on the Mac into the Notes application.  (I have a fairly plain, unaccented voice, so recognition may be better for me than for others.  That being said, I do not often dictate my thoughts, so the following paragraph will be somewhat less cogent than the rest of this post.  (Where the dictation introduced errors, I will be leaving my intended thoughts in parenthesis.)
“This is a test of the dictation feature on iOS. I wonder how well it will recognize my voice. Excuse me, I misspoke, this is not the dictation feature on iOS this is the dictation feature on OS X.  (T)his is a fairly impressive feat, however, some people are concerned with the fact that this speech is sent to Apple servers and believes that it may constitute a privacy concern. This is extremely powerful recognition, however, you can only type short sentences with your voice. Because everything is being sent to the web, if you speak too long Apple forgets what you've said and you no longer have the sentence that you spoke(.) (O)thers tested this feature, and found that the maximum suggested dictation time is approximately 30 seconds.  There were a few minor errors which would have to be corrected in this paragraph, however, it is useful to be able to type short sentences with your voice in some situations.  Interestingly, most possible errors and (in) recognition, offer a AutoCorrect option so that the user can easily correct any errors made in the recognition process. Please forgive any floating us (floatiness) in my dictation. I am used to typing my thoughts and therefore find it difficult to speak them to a computer. As you can see this works well for those who would find it helpful for short sentences and cleans up most text errors very well. I will be returning here (you) now to your regularly scheduled, type written, article about Mac OSx (OS X) 10.8 Mountain lion.”
Dictation can be enabled by pressing “Fn” twice quickly. This can be changed in system preferences if your Mac doesn’t have and Fn key. It can be told to convert the spoken text via the same keystroke.  All in all, it’s a pretty neat feature.  I don’t know how much I will use it, as I stated above, I am not all that comfortable with dictation, but it’s well-implemented and sure to be a boon to many users. 

Messages

iChat is gone, and replaced, surprise, surprise, by Messages.  If a user signs in with their Apple ID and password, they can have Messages sent to any of their iOS devices as well as their Mac.  It also offers support for Jabber, Google Talk, Yahoo, and AIM.  Personally, I am a bit miffed that MSN isn’t in the list, but I expect that I am not in the majority with that one.  Otherwise, it’s a perfectly serviceable chat client with a number of useful protocols, and an almost creepy ability to find a user anywhere they may want to be found (or lost). 

Notes and Reminders

Ripped straight from the pages of the iOS design book, (again,) these programs look and largely function just like their iOS counterparts right down to iCloud integration.  Write it on the iPhone, edit on the iPad, and read on the Mac.  Admittedly, Notes is a bit more robust on the Mac as it allows a user to change fonts, and text colors, paste in pictures and some other content, and save on the Mac, to an e-mail address or to the iCloud, but largely, it’s the notes app that we’ve all come to know on iOS with a little extra oomph. 

Power Nap

One of the most interesting (and least iOS-like) features of Mountain Lion is Power Nap.  (Unfortunately, this only works on the 2011 and newer MacBook Airs and the “Retina” MacBooks)  It allows the computer to do its “chores" while it’s asleep.  The types of projects that get in the way while the system is being used, like downloading system updates, and file indexing all work in the background while the user is away, and for all intents and purposes the computer appears to be asleep.  It’s a neat trick which is largely enabled by the solid state drives in these newer machines.  I have to admit I am pretty excited that I have one, though I can’t help but wonder how it will affect battery and other functions.  This brings us around to my –

Conclusion

I like it over all.  I think that it’s going to take a little getting used to, but largely, Mountain Lion is merely meant to act as a polish job on a number of Lion’s roughest edges, and to continue the cross-branding of Mac and iOS.  Yes, as noted above, there are a number of new features, but most are not going to fundamentally change the way your Mac functions on a day to day basis. 
I will admit that I haven’t upgraded my MacBook Air yet.  I’m waiting until I can go through the compatibility checklist for myself; I’d rather not break my fairly fragile and time-intensive Fusion install of Windows.  That being said, I think it’s a solid update, and I plan to upgrade once it’s had time to shake out, and I’ve had time to prepare.  It treads lightly and gracefully as a cat (couldn’t help myself) around the tricky business of integrating new features without confusing or annoying long-time users with unnecessary tweaks to the Interface, and adds some pretty neat new functionality.  So, does it “Roar?” No, but I do think it might make you purr with satisfaction.
Finally, for those of you who feel this wasn’t an in-depth enough review for you, check out this 28-page behemoth from Ars Technica. Apparently it’s a tradition over there.