New Mac OS won't amaze, but worth the price

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There’s a new cat on the block. Apple released Mountain Lion, the latest version of the operating system that powers its Macintosh line of personal computers, late last month.

Mountain Lion is a lot like Snow Leopard before it: many of the features remain under the hood. Many times, I’ve forgotten I even updated my operating system, because Apple’s integration of the new features in Mountain Lion is incredibly slick.

But make no mistake: Mountain Lion still comes filled with new features that you would expect from a new OS update.

In this case, it’s clear that many of the changes under Mountain Lion, much like Lion before it, draw significant inspiration from the iPhone and iPad.

Most notable among them are the new notifications, which work in much the same way that notifications work on any of your iOS devices. Many Apple-native apps have now been revised to take advantage of the ability to throw notifications up in a corner of your screen whenever something noteworthy happens, like the arrival of a new e-mail in Mail or a reminder from Calendar (formerly known as iCal). As a long-time user of Growl (which does much the same thing), it’s nice to see Apple finally bring this sort of technology into the OS proper.

In the event you miss a notification when it shows up, it will be saved in a drawer that can be accessed by clicking the Notification Center icon, which now sits in the upper right-hand corner of the menu bar. (For those with a trackpad, it should be theoretically possible to open Notification Center with a two-finger swipe from the right to the left, but I’ve found that to be finicky at best.)

Also new is the addition of greater iCloud integration across the entire OS. When you first boot up Mountain Lion, you’ll be prompted to enter your Apple ID so that your computer can sync your data to iCloud. You get five gigs of storage for free, which I’ve found to be plenty, but if you need more space, Apple offers monthly payment plans.

New in Mountain Lion is the ability to store documents in the cloud. Apple’s iWork suite of apps has been updated to take advantage of the new functionality. That, along with the pre-existing features like contact and calendar syncing, work like a charm. I was able to type out a chunk of this review in Pages, save it to iCloud, and fiddle around with it on my iPhone with no problems.

Mountain Lion’s dictation feature leaves something to be desired. Much like Siri on iOS, this new dictation relies on sending voice data to and from Apple’s servers for processing. It works alright, but waiting for text to show up on the screen until after you’ve shipped off your voice data feels tedious. It’s more accurate than previous iterations of built-in speech recognition, but it’s a long way away from replacing dedicated dictation software for those who really need it. If you need a quick memo or reminder written out hands-free, it’s definitely a useful feature.

The biggest potential problem I see with Mountain Lion is Apple’s method of delivery. If you don’t have access to high-speed Internet, downloading the 4 gigabyte installer will take an incredibly long time. While Apple went on to release Lion on a specially-branded USB drive, it hasn’t announced any plans to do so for Mountain Lion.

Also, much of the key new features, like iCloud integration and sending notifications to Notification Center is restricted to only Mac App Store apps. With the current restrictions on the privileges given to App Store apps, I worry that this will hamstring the abilities of some of the great developers working on OS X today.

Hopefully, Apple will find a way to open either the App Store or the new technologies in Mountain Lion up to more of the developer community.

If you authorize Mountain Lion to connect to your Twitter account, you’ll be able to tweet directly from Notification Center, and you’ll receive notifications whenever someone new starts following you. For those who haven’t joined the Twitterati, Apple promises that integration with Facebook will come sometime this fall.

In a previous age, when OS updates cost hundreds of dollars, Mountain Lion would be underwhelming. At $20, Mountain Lion seems like an easy purchase to me. It’s a solid release that’s worth the money, but don’t expect miracles from it.

Blair Hanley Frank can be reached at blairfrank@wwub.com or 526-8363.

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