Apple OS X Mountain Lion review: iOS-like features help unify your digital world

The new desktop OS benefits from new features adopted from iOS

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When iCloud is selected, the navigation view becomes about as simple as it gets: A pictorial representation of your documents ordered by recent edits on the gray linen background that first appeared in iOS. As a matter of fact, the entire view is lifted wholesale from iOS, down to the ability to drag documents on top of one another to create folders.

Unlike in iOS, however, Open/Save's appearance can be changed from an icon view to a standard list view. If you want to add documents to iCloud, you can drag them directly to this window. Doing so makes that document available to every device you own that's connected to iCloud.

How is using iCloud in practice? I like it. I composed the notes for this review in the Notes app, writing parts of it on my Mac, iPhone and iPad over several days. It's clear that Apple is giving iCloud a serious push, and with more than 125 million users already, the service has strong brand recognition and an established base.

Yes, iCloud simplifies the traditional file system, something that can be maddening for more technical users; but I think the simplicity and ease of use far outweigh arguments for a direct file-system access, especially for casual users. Having my documents available on all my devices (as long as I have an Internet connection) is great, to say nothing of the fact that files remain safe even if a computer is lost or stolen.

This isn't really new territory these days, though the sheer scale and ambition behind it may be unprecedented. Similar cloud services like Dropbox already exist, but Apple's iCloud has the advantage of being built into OS X and iOS. As third-party app developers tie into the system, it can only become more valuable.

Easy presentations

One of my favorite features of iOS is its ability to beam video and audio directly from an iPhone or an iPad to a high-def TV with a connected AppleTV. With the arrival of AirPlay mirroring in OS X, any videos, games, music, pictures, presentations, podcasts and apps -- literally, anything that's on your computer -- can be broadcast wirelessly to an AppleTV, in HD and 5.1 surround sound at the push of a button and with no configuration needed.

In Mountain Lion, AirPlay mirroring is built in as a system service. Frankly, it's about time. Previously, the feature was limited to iTunes, which has been able to push video and audio to AppleTV for a while.

AirPlay is set up in the Display preferences panel.

When in range of a Wi-Fi network with a connected AppleTV, you can configure the Display preferences to automatically show the familiar AirPlay menu in the menu bar. Within a few seconds of activating, the Mac will automatically push all audio and video to your HDTV.

Full-screen apps are displayed gorgeously on a 1080p television, as is video and even some games I tested, though there is a slight lag between the time you move the cursor on your computer screen and when the movement shows up on your TV. Although mouse/trackpad movements, scrolling and animations are smooth, you'll notice about a quarter-second delay, something that gamers might care about.

With AirPlay, videos and audio tracks play smoothly within their app windows, such as within Safari or QuickTime. Pressing the full screen button maximizes the video so it takes over the TV, as it should. iTunes behaves differently, however. When I attempted to play a video within the iTunes window, it transmitted the video and audio to the AppleTV, but unlike other apps, the controls remained onscreen on the Mac, even though AirPlay was set to mirror everything.

Basically, if you try to use iTunes to play content, iTunes slips into Presentation Mode behavior rather than exactly mirroring what's on your Mac display. (Apple's own presentation app, Keynote, mirrors the screen like all other non-iTunes apps.)

Why is AirPlay sharing a big deal? First, it's a boon for presenters: Setup is a snap, and the mirroring works as billed. Much has been written about Apple's efforts to work out deals with TV programming providers to get their content into the iTunes store. With AirPlay mirroring, that's no longer necessary. If a TV show is available online and can be played on a Mac, AirPlay allows you to also watch it on your TV, content deals be damned. AirPlay has the potential to be a huge deal.

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