OS X Mountain Lion: What you need to know

Any time there's a new operating system, there's bound to be lots of questions about new features and capabilities. And when that operating system's unveiling is as surprising as this week's Mountain Lion announcement was, those questions take on a newfound urgency.

Not to worry: We've had a chance to spend some quality time with the next version of the Mac operating system, and we're prepared to answer any questions you might have about its availability, new features, and enhancements to existing applications. And don't worry if you've still got lingering questions--we have a few months before Mountain Lion arrives to sort everything out.

Availability

When will Mountain Lion be available?

Well, there's a developer preview of Mountain Lion available now, so that software makers can update their apps to take advantage of OS X's new features. As for end users like the rest of us, when it announced the developer preview via press release, Apple specifically said "late summer 2012." That's not a precise date, so Mountain Lion could leap into action any time before the Autumnal Equinox on September 22. For your historical reference, Lion arrived on July 20 last year, while Snow Leopard shipped on August 28, 2009--both those OS X updates were given initial release dates of "summer" as well.

How will I get my hands on Mountain Lion?

The same way you got a hold of Lion--via the Mac App Store. Apple plans to make the new version of OS X available only as a download from its online retail store.

Apple first started making its OS X update a Mac App Store-only affair with last year's Lion release. While the company hasn't released official details about Mountain Lion's rollout, it wouldn't be crazy to assume that many of the same details for that update's release will hold true this time around. Namely, Apple let you pay for and download one copy of Lion that you could install to multiple Macs--a welcome feature for multi-Mac households. Apple also invited upgraders to take advantage of the Wi-Fi in its retail stores to download and install the update--ideal if you've got a slow broadband connection or need help with the installation. Again, Apple hasn't confirmed that it's planning on reviving these aspects of the Lion upgrade process for Mountain Lion, but it certainly seems within the realm of possibility.

Apple later made Lion available on a USB stick. A report at Pocket-Lint.com indicates that the company doesn't intend to repeat this experiment, and Apple told Macworld the same thing. (Of course, prior to Lion's launch, Apple was insisting that the Mac App Store would be the only source for that update, too, so we'll have to wait and see if anything changes.)

Will I need to be running Lion to upgrade to Mountain Lion, or can I upgrade straight from Snow Leopard?

According to the information Apple has provided with the developer preview, you need to be running at least the latest version of Snow Leopard (OS X 10.6.8) to install Mountain Lion.

What version of Mac OS X is Mountain Lion?

10.8. (And it's "OS X" now. With Lion, Apple's marketing material began referring to "OS X" rather than "Mac OS X," but with Mountain Lion all traces have been eradicated. Even the About this Mac box says "OS X.")

Which Macs will be able to run Mountain Lion?

Apple hasn't made an official announcement about which Macs will be able to run the new OS. However, the following models are supported by the initial developer preview version:

  • iMac: 2007 and later
  • Mac mini: 2009 and later
  • Mac Pro: 2008 and later
  • MacBook: Late 2008 and later
  • MacBook Air: Late 2008 and later
  • MacBook Pro: 2007 and later
  • Xserve: 2009

You may notice that some models supported by Lion aren't in that list--just because your Mac can run Lion doesn't mean it will be able to run Mountain Lion. Specifically, the following models can run Lion, but aren't compatible with the initial developer preview of Mountain Lion:

  • 2006 iMacs
  • Mid 2007 Mac mini
  • 2006 and 2007 Mac Pro
  • 2008 (original) MacBook Air
  • Early 2008 and earlier MacBook
  • 2006 (15-inch and 17-inch) MacBook Pro
  • 2006 and 2008 Xserve

Features

How many new features and enhancements will Mountain Lion deliver?

That Apple press release we mentioned above boasts that the developer preview contains more than 100 new features, though we haven't gone and counted each ourselves. With Lion, Apple released a detailed list of all new features; we probably can expect to see something similar in the months to come.

However, Apple did provide us with a few new Mountain Lion features without going into greater detail. These include: Backup to multiple disks, new graphics infrastructure for OpenGL/OpenCL, improved privacy in Safari, a Dashboard Widget browser, form input in Preview, inline find in Mail, virtual memory performance optimizations, OS X updates in the Mac App Store, improved smart card support, search suggestions in calendar, drag and drop files in screen sharing, launchpad search, swipe between pages in Mac App Store, encrypted backups, kernel ASLR, improved gesture APIs, and backup to multiple drives.

There are many more improvements in Mountain Lion, as you'll see below.

Lion drew heavily on iOS for its feature set. Will that continue in Mountain Lion?

Yes. Like Lion, Mountain Lion offers numerous additions that will be familiar to iOS users. This OS X release continues Apple's philosophy of bringing iOS features "back to the Mac," and includes iMessage, Reminders, Notes, Notification Center, Twitter integration, Game Center, and AirPlay Mirroring.

Are there any Lion features that Apple is dropping in Mountain Lion?

Largely, any features introduced with Lion are here to stay--though those of you who haven't yet switched to Lion's "natural" scrolling can rest easy: It's still optional in Mountain Lion. iCal and Address Book will receive name changes to Calendar and Contacts, and feature new layouts similar to their iOS counterparts. Certain apps, like Preview, have had their interfaces simplified. And RSS organization is being phased out of Safari, with Reader taking charge.

What--if any--features in Mountain Lion will be available to Lion or Snow Leopard users?

Apple hasn't announced yet whether it plans to make any of these new apps or features available for Lion or Snow Leopard users, but if we had to hazard a guess, we'd say it's not very likely that users of previous operating systems will see them. Faster, cheaper OS updates from the company means less time to integrate newer apps with older operating systems; if you're still holding back on upgrading, you'll have to forgo the newest features.

That said, Apple is allowing Lion users to download a preview of the Messages beta, so it's entirely possible that it may support 10.7 when officially released. (Remember, Apple first introduced FaceTime for Mac as a beta and charged $1 to install the final version on Snow Leopard; FaceTime comes included with Lion.) Some reports, however, suggest that Apple's current plan is to sunset the Lion beta after Mountain Lion's official release.

So which iOS features will appear in Mountain Lion?

From what we know, Mountain Lion will now share and sync Messages, Notes, and Reminders (sans the location-based reminders that iOS sports). It will also integrate Game Center, the gaming service Apple introduced to iPhone and iPad users with iOS 4.1. In addition, OS X will add its own versions of Notification Center, Share Sheets, syncing with iCloud documents and accounts, systemwide Twitter integration, and AirPlay Mirroring. Certain Mac apps have also taken design and functionality cues from iOS apps, like Preview's new iBooks-style annotations and iChat's transformation into Messages.

How will notifications work in Mountain Lion?

When you receive a notification, a small floating window appears in the upper right corner of the Mac's display, containing the notification. Notifications come in two forms: banners and alerts. If it's a banner, the message appears for a few seconds, then disappears from view; alerts require you to manually acknowledge them before they disappear. Clicking on a banner or alert will send you directly to the relevant application.

So who decides what's an alert and what's a banner?

You do. Using the new Notifications pane in the System Preferences app, you can set on a per-app basis whether you want your notifications to appear as five-second banners or alerts that remain visible until you click them.

That preferences pane is also where you can set which apps appear within Notification Center--think of it as the OS X version of the Notifications submenu in iOS's Settings app. By default, Calendar, Reminders, Game Center, Safari, Mail, and Messages are configured to send notifications. You can also choose how many reminders appear per application--1, 5, 10, or 20 Items--and you can choose to display a badge on each application's Dock icon when a notification from that app is received. You can additionally configure notifications so that a sound is played when a notification is received.

What if I don't see a banner notification before it disappears?

If a banner notification disappears before you can get to it, you can bring up Notification Center by clicking on the Notification Center icon in the menu bar (the double circle in the upper right corner of the menu bar), entering a keyboard shortcut, or using a two-finger swipe. The desktop will shift to the left, displaying all current notifications in a dark gray column, sorted by app along the right edge of your screen. When you click on a notification in this list, the corresponding application will open and display the related item. For example, if you click on a Mail subject heading, Mail will open and display that message.

What's the multitouch gesture to open Notification Center?

Starting at the far right edge of the trackpad, swipe with two fingers to the left (as if you were pulling something away from the right side of the screen). You can also assign a keyboard shortcut to show and hide Notification Center. You can do this within System Preferences -> Keyboard -> Keyboard Shortcuts.

Can you hide the Notification Center menu bar icon?

Not that we can tell. But we expect that might change.

What is Gatekeeper? How will it work?

Gatekeeper is a new security technology Apple has released with Mountain Lion, which allows you to download and install apps from developers registered with Apple, regardless of whether those apps are available for sale on the Mac App Store or on the Web. If an app that has been signed by a registered developer misbehaves, Apple can disable that app and ban the developer from creating new software registered with Apple. Read more about Gatekeeper in our hands-on with the new feature.

With Mountain Lion, will Gatekeeper prevent my current software collection from running? Will I only be able to run apps I download from the Mac App Store?

No; you'll be able to open any software you choose to, though you can restrict this to Mac App Store-only purchases if you wish. In System Preferences -> Security & Privacy -> General, you can choose whether to run software exclusively from the Mac App Store; from the store and from non-Mac App Store developers who have registered with Apple; or from any developer, anywhere.

How will Mountain Lion's sharing features work?

Like iOS, Mountain Lion has a new Share button that allows you to send just about anything--website, picture, video, file, text excerpt--using a variety of services. Those services vary depending on the app: For instance, in Safari, you can share websites to your Reading List as well as via email, iMessage, and Twitter, while videos can be shared via YouTube, Vimeo, or AirDrop. If you right-click any text, you'll be able to share that via email, iMessage, or Twitter, too.

In addition, the Mail, Contacts, and Calendars pane of System Preferences has been updated so that you can add systemwide integration with Twitter, Flickr, and Vimeo, along with three other China-based services.

How does Mountain Lion integrate with iCloud? What's different from Lion's iCloud integration?

Building off Lion's basic iCloud integration, Mountain Lion will support Accounts sync, allowing you to take your passwords and preferences from one machine to another, along with Documents and Data. You'll also be able to sync your notes, and--while we haven't been able to personally confirm it--possibly sync your open Safari tabs, too.

Will integration between iCloud and Mountain Lion replace any soon-to-be-dead MobileMe features?

You are referring, of course, to Apple's plans to discontinue iWeb publishing, MobileMe Gallery, and iDisk in June. Mountain Lion's Accounts sync will transfer passwords, but otherwise, there are no major MobileMe feature resurrections.

Does this foreshadow any changes in iLife or iWork? Does it break anything in iWeb?

Mountain Lion now has access to iCloud's Documents in the Cloud, and Apple showed us a version of Pages that worked with that feature. That's a stealth announcement of a new version of the iWork Mac apps that will support Documents in the Cloud on Mountain Lion. It would be nice to see such an update of the iLife apps too, allowing users to transfer projects to and from their devices without wires or iTunes File Sharing.

iWeb is still functional in Mountain Lion, but seeing as how MobileMe hosting for websites is being discontinued this June and Apple shows no interest in updating the app, it might be time to look at alternatives.

Apps

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