Mac OSX Mountain Lion: Exclusive first look

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Today, Apple releases its latest big cat. As Mountain Lion, the 2012 update to Mac OSX goes on sale, David Phelan has exclusive time with the newest beast

Why would anyone buy an Apple Mac? The iMac and MacBook computers have a reputation for being classy but highly priced. For sure, Apple has no interest in budget computers, disdaining affordable netbooks and recently even deleting the cheapest laptops from its range.

Apple has always said it wants to deliver the best experience, so won’t compromise by building machines with slow processors, cheap screens, low-end materials. Not cheap then, but arguably good value. And in fact if you compare the high-end computers Apple’s competitors make, they turn out to be at least as pricey as Macintosh machines.

So if you expected the software to be expensive, too, you’d be mistaken. Last year’s OSX, version 10.7 (it was called Lion, in a series of big cat-themed monikers) cost £21. The new edition, out today, is just £13.99. This means a pre-VAT cost of £11.65 which is less than the US price of $19.99. What’s more, once you’ve paid, you can download it to all the Macs in your household without paying again. And in fact, if you didn’t update to Lion last year, you can go straight to Mountain Lion from Snow Leopard. Oh, what a menagerie. Even so, is it worth it?

Apple is headlining 200 new features, though many are pretty obscure things you’ll come across by accident. But there are big-ticket updates, like Power Nap. This is a clever setting which wakes your computer during the night when it’s turned off so it can silently check for emails, messages and more. If it’s plugged in and you tell it to, it’ll even download software updates. Since downloading updates can be time-consuming, this is a real boon. Power Nap only works on Macs with flash-drive memory, rather than traditional hard drives. So if this is the feature for you, and it is pretty good, you’ll need the latest, swishest MacBook Pro with Retina Display or a recent MacBook Air. A regular MacBook Pro without Retina screen has a hard drive, so won’t boast this feature.

The overall feel of this new operating system is that it’s the next step in bringing together the iOS system of the iPad and iPhone with a traditional Mac. This began in Lion with the move to turn the direction of scrolling upside down, to match the more intimate movement an iPad offers. It was one of those changes which were so controversial that Apple had to explain it onscreen before you started using the system. Trying it for a few days, though, meant it soon became natural. This time around there’s nothing as viscerally discombobulating. But there are more iOS/OSX overlaps.

So apps that are stalwarts on iOS, like Notes and the Notification Center that tells mobile users they have new emails, text messages and more, are now on the Mac. Notifications are particularly sweet, sitting just out of view. Swipe the MacBook’s trackpad and the notifications appear. Individual updates like calendar appointments pop discreetly onto the edge of the screen before retiring offstage. Games Center keeps track of your gaming high scores on the iPhone and it’s here on the Mac now as well.

The latest iPhone and iPad have dictation capabilities for those I-just-can’t-be-bothered-to-type moments. Since those devices have glass keys, this is fair enough. So, do you really need the same facility when you have Apple’s super-responsive keyboard at your fingertips? Not really, but it’s pretty effective, and you can use it in any app where you need to type, in Word, Mail, Safari, everywhere. Its successful implementation makes it highly appealing, though it works best when you’re in a quiet environment.

And iMessages, the free text message service between iPhone and iPads now comes to the Mac as well. It’s been available in beta version but this is the real thing. You can type messages, add photos and video, and off they’ll fly to other Apple users. It’s very neat.

The dominance of iCloud continues with more programs, like Notes, being saved remotely so all your iGadgets are up to date. This even stretches as far as the web browser, Safari. So if you had a page open on the browser on your work iMac, it’s there on your MacBook when you get home. This is surprisingly enjoyable. The browser, by the way, has had a speed increase, so pages build more quickly, internet connection permitting.

Other applications used on the move, like Twitter, are now built into the Mac’s operating system more tightly, with greater integration with Facebook on its way in the autumn. Seamless is the word.

Not least when it comes to sharing. Your mother, you’ll remember, told you it was good to share, and Apple agrees. Open a picture in iPhoto and in a couple of clicks it’s in an email, or on its way to Flickr. Do you like a web page you’ve come across? Click the Sharing icon and you’ve saved the web page to an email, or sent it in an iMessage. It’s all suitably painless and instantly understandable.

The negatives: every operating system update, on any platform, means there will be teething problems as software manufacturers rush to update drivers and features to work properly. You should allow for some short-term annoyances.

And why is it that a company which translates its operating system software into multiple languages can't do the same for British English? I don’t care to read a menu that directs me to my Favorites or advises me to play Tiny Wings in something called Game Center.

I mean, that’s plain annoying, but a minor element. The overarching feeling you get with Mountain Lion is one of sublime ease of use, with every element in its perfect place and working like a team. Apple always says its advantage is software and hardware that is supremely compatible because it’s all made by the one company. And here it works so smoothly that it’s a deeply appealing combination.

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