Last month Apple released the eighth major update to its operating system, OS X Mountain Lion. By this time, most people must have read various reviews. This review is not intended to detail every single change in the OS, but rather things that I think are quite important and is not talked about enough in other reviews. As usual, John Siracusa released his usual massive review, which you should read if you want a more comprehensive review. In addition to Siracusa’s big review, I also like Ask Different’s collection of little nice things in Mountain Lion. They are worth a read if you don’t have that much time to read mine or Siracusa’s review.
In Lion, Apple made a bold move in the scroll bar by making it look and work like iOS. Not only it looks like iOS, but as we have now been using for a year, it also scrolls like an iOS device. In Mountain Lion, this behaviour is still the same, but now when you mouse over the scroll bar, it gets bigger and it is now easier to drag. Maybe this is just me, but I don’t drag the scroll thumb1 that often when I use a trackpad or a Magic Mouse. It just seems to me that dragging the scroll thumb is very clunky to me. It just takes such a lot of steps when I want to drag the scroll thumb. Unless the document is very very long, I will usually just scroll. What I do though, is to clik on the scroll bar itself to make the thumb goes to where I click. By default you need to do option click to do this, but I made this behaviour the default in my machine. I also think that Magic Mouse and the trackpads are designed to scroll instead of to drag.
The other enhancement is that the scroll thumb now appears every time you put two fingers on a trackpad. This is pretty neat, because in Lion I see some people scroll just the tiniest amount just to see where they are in the page, because the scroll bar is hidden when you’re not scrolling. They don’t have to do that anymore, but people who uses Magic Mouse will still have to do this. Why don’t Apple make it visible for the Magic Mouse users? My guess is that the mouse users, who only needs one finger to scroll, place at least one finger on their mouse almost all the time; whereas the trackpad users, who needs two fingers to scroll the page, do not put two fingers on their trackpad unless they have intention to scroll. This will save the mouse users from seeing the scroll bar all the time, and Apple doesn’t want the scroll bar to hide the content. I applaud Apple’s effort in enhancing the scroll bar, but I do think that they’re trying to drive people away from the mouse to trackpads. This hurts people who uses mouse full time. They are being treated as a second class citizen in Mountain Lion. For the record I think Apple trackpads are the best in the market right now, but some people still likes using mouse.
One of my most favourite iCloud features is Photo Stream. Last year after Lion was released, I complained about not being able to buy more storage for Photo Stream. A year later with the release of Mountain Lion, there is still no way to buy more storage for Photo Stream. This once again bewildered me. How can Apple be offering up to 50 GB more storage for my iCloud documents, but not Photo Stream? I think most Apple customers, including me, really likes being able to store photos in Photo Stream, because it appears everywhere. There have been so many occasions where I pull out my iPad and seeing pictures from my iPhone and my Canon camera magically appears in the Photo Stream. It is such a pleasant experience.
I do have a theory on why Apple is not allowing this the users to have bigger storage in Photo Stream. I think if they let us buy more storage in Photo Stream, people with DSLR cameras who’ve just imported pictures to iPhoto will suddenly lost a lot of space in their iOS devices. While Macs can hold many gigabytes of photos, many iOS devices can only hold 16GB of storage. Maybe this is why Apple isn’t allowing people to buy more Photo Stream storage up until now.
I’m not sure if Notification Centre counts as an iCloud feature, but it seems that they are trying to market it as such. Really great implementation. I’ve been a Growl user since Leopard and lots of other apps that I was using weren’t in Growl.2
Once again, a knock to the mouse users – there isn’t any mouse gesture shortcuts to get to Notification Centre. Again, this bewildered me. The Notification Centre icon is on the top right corner, where spotlight used to be, and yet there isn’t any gesture to trigger it from a Magic Mouse. I think this and the lack of a keyboard shortcut for Notification Centre makes it less discoverable and discourages people who don’t have a trackpad from using it.
Another gesture that Magic Mouse users still don’t get is a shortcut to Launchpad. This is more forgiveable as the F4 button on the new Apple keyboard is mapped to Launchpad, and the default dock from a fresh Mountain Lion install also contains a Launchpad icon.
One of the boldest change that Apple have been trying to do since Lion is to introduce a new document model. Apple thinks that users shouldn’t need to understand how file systems work in order to use a Mac. In Mountain Lion, Apple made even more changes to the document model to make this happen. As an example, users will see an their iCloud files instead of an empty document when opening TextEdit. TextEdit will try to open the last closed files, but if there isn’t any then it will show you your iCloud files.
In just over a year, Apple has enabled people to use Macs without having to understand file systems at all. But what about those people who have been using file system? There are a lot of us. I’ve basically been using the same file system paradigm for my whole life. Is this going to hurt people who understand file systems? I don’t think it will be. Mountain Lion does not force you to leave the old paradigm, you can still do whatever you want to the file system like you always have done.
So if you don’t have to understand file systems, how are you supposed to share your file across other apps? Like iOS, Apple decided to put share buttons. Share buttons are everywhere in Mountain Lion. It’s in Finder, Quick Look, Safari, Preview, Contacts, and lots of other bundled apps. In this new file-system-less world, when you want to email a photo you would open the photo via Preview, click the share button, then click Email. This may sound very weird to people who have been using the old file systems paradigm for a long time, but let’s think about it for a moment. How many times have you got a document open that you want to email to someone, and you’d have to go back to Finder and find that document and then attach it to your email. Share buttons will let you email that document without going to Finder. For people who don’t understand file systems, this is a really great solution.
One of the biggest hole in this new paradigm is when a file can be opened with more than one app. For example, if you have a text file and you have more than one text editors. If those text editors uses iCloud document storage, they can’t share the same storage. If I saved a text file in TextEdit, I won’t be able to open it in other text editors unless I understand the file systems. Currently there isn’t a button that says “Open in TextMate” in TextEdit, there’s no way that a user can do this unless they understand the file systems. There’s no way they can do this unless they use Finder. Maybe Apple will come up with a clever way to do this in 10.9. This topic is discussed in great depth in Hypercritical episode 81, and I highly recommend that episode for readers who wants a depper discussion in this topic.
Just like how Snow Leopard felt after upgrading from Leopard, Mountain Lion also feels so much faster than Lion. So many of my colleagues and friends told me they experienced a great performance boost.
In addition to the general OS performance improvement, I also felt that Safari is very fast in Mountain Lion. I also really like the new loading indicator in the URL bar.
In Mountain Lion, pressing the fn key twice will bring up a Siri-like voice dictation popover. I know that my Asian accent is very funny and hard to understand, especially for computers. I found dictation to be very slow though. It could take more than 10 seconds for Apple’s server to finish parsing my sentence. I don’t know if it correlates to the length and complexity of the sentence, but I certainly could type faster with a keyboard. In iOS this works better because most people can’t type very fast on iOS devices. I have Dragon Dictate in my iPhone and it understand my english so good, it gets what I’m saying almost 100% of the time. Again, I have an Asian accent and I set it to English (Australian), but Dragon Dictate is very fast and accurate. I think Apple needs to do a lot of work to make this good so people will actually use it.
The other thing that was concerns me is iMessage. I tried to send messages to my brother’s Mac, while doing a FaceTime call with him, but it seems that he didn’t immidiately get my messages. I know there’s nothing wrong with mine or his interent connection, because we IM each other in Facebook and doing FaceTime without any lags. I’ve also heard a few people told me their iMessages can get minutes to be delivered. I suspect this, as with the dictation feature, is one of the limitation in Apple’s iCloud server. I hope that this will get better over time. I really like the idea of being able to message someone without worrying whether they’re on their computer or phone, or whether I’m on my computer or phone. But for now I will have to trust WhatsApp and Facebook more than iMessage.
Another interesting thing that I want to discuss is Gatekeeper. Lots of geeks throughout the internet were angry when Apple announced Gatekeeper. They said Apple is trying to stop users from installing third party apps that are not in the App Store. Of course this is not true. If you are techy enough to know Gatekeeper, you would have been able to find the setting to turn off Gatekeeper. But for the other people who don’t even know what Gatekeeper is, it’s much safer for them to keep in the default setting. Such a lot of computer mishaps are from third party software. If you don’t install any third party software in your computer, I bet it will still be working until the hardware gives up. It’s the third party software that can eat your RAM, put malicious files in places you don’t know, and do other stuff that you may not want.
The middle ground that Apple sets is pretty good. Out of the box your Mac will be able to run apps from the App Store and signed third party software. I think this is a perfect default setting. I kept it that way. Over the past few weeks I have seen a few dialog boxes that says this app is not signed by a certified Apple developer. I can get through this by right clicking on the app and press open. Apparently Apple think this shows my intention that I want to open this app even if the app is not from a certified Apple developer. If you’re installing a lot of unsigned apps though, then you’re probably better off turning Gatekeeper completely off.
For some people who runs a lot of third party apps, I can see a bit or reminisence of Windows Vista’s famous permission dialog. Those people should turn Gatekeeper off.
There are some other small nitpicks that I think are worth mentioning. Even though Mountain Lion is currently very stable, I find a few things that are worth mentioning:
- Some of the apps that’s bundled with Mountain Lion does not have full screen support. Example of this is Reminders, Contacts, and Dictionary. This makes me wonder where do they draw the line when providing full screen support to their apps. I can see that the Contacts app has a very customised borders, so it may not look good to add full screen support for Contacts; why does Messages got full screen support but not Reminders? I think it’s a strange omission.
- All software updates are now from the Mac App store. I am in this weird group who bought iLife ’11 DVD when it came out. So in the Mac App store I don’t have license to iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand. What will happen when an update to those apps comes out? Do I get them from Mac App store? This is still a bit of a mystery for me.
- In Mail you can see whether the person who sent you the email you’re reading is online in Messages. This is pretty neat.
So should you upgrade to Mountain Lion? If you’re from Lion, then the upgrade is definitely worth your $20. If you’re from Snow Leopard, you basically got a $30 discount by skipping Lion. I think it’s a worthy upgrade.
If you have any iOS devices, then Mountain Lion will fit into your workflow even more. If you use Apple’s iWork suite you will to be able to create and edit documents in iOS and Mac and keep them in sync with iCloud. Documents on the cloud was a big ommitment from Lion, and I think Mountain Lion fixed most of the holes that was left by Lion.
If you don’t have an iOS device or an iCloud account, I think you can still benefit a lot from Mountain Lion. I know a lot of people who hates Apple with passion, but they have Macs because Apple makes the best laptop and desktop. Even if you use Android and other devices in your life, Mountain Lion does not really force you to sign up and use iCloud to use the OS.