The main Messages window shows a list of conversations to the left and the conversations themselves to the right.
The main Messages window shows a list of conversations to the left (displaying time stamp, last message sent, user avatar and the name for each person in the list).
Below this list is the online/offline status for each service you're logged into, plus the ability to set your Away or Available status. To the right is the main conversation window, where you'll see a little camera icon in the upper right-hand corner where you initiate FaceTime calls. It's all pretty straightforward.
I use Messages all the time, so believe me when I say this: Messages is not Apple at its finest. Even though the build number for Messages is Version 7.0, this program still acts like a beta app. The main Messages window is obnoxiously, unnecessarily large, even when made as small as possible.
More annoying: Messages you send don't always make it to all devices. That might be acceptable if you're using just AIM or Yahoo, but Messages also lists a contact's phone number and email addresses.
If you send a message to a phone number associated with iMessages, only the person's phone gets the text. A message sent to an Apple ID- or iCloud-associated email address, however, does go to every device. If you're not careful about how you're sending your messages, the recipient may not receive it on all devices, even though the information is correctly associated with iCloud and Messages.
Considering Apple's reputation for attention to detail -- and the fact that Messages has been a public beta since February -- these issues should have been sorted out by now.
For the first time, real speech-to-text dictation is built right into the Mac. Although the Mac OS has been capable of understanding voice commands via the customizable Speakable Items since the mid-1990s, the addition of Dictation now allows you to write with your voice. Best of all, it works!
Dictation can be activated anywhere text entry is used. By default, a double-tap of the function key brings up a sight familiar to iPhone 4S users: the Siri microphone. Simply wait for the tone, then begin speaking a sentence out loud; that's all there is to it. When you're finished dictating, just press the Done button or hit the function key again. In fact, this was dictated without any keyboard input. I'm starting to think I should do this more often.
If allowed access to Contacts, Dictation also recognizes names. The limitation? Dictation requires a network connection, just as Siri does on the iPhone 4S; attempting to activate it offline just causes the Dictation box to shake a sideways "no" at you. Also, Dictation is not at all the same thing as Siri. You may be able to write with your voice, as I'm doing now, but you can't use the service to answer questions.
The Dictation preferences panel is used to turn on the new feature and designate the keys that will be used to trigger it in various apps.
Changes to System Preferences
There are some new settings in the System Preferences area that are noteworthy. In the General preferences panel, you can now choose how apps act when they're re-opened. The option "Ask to keep changes when closing documents" brings back the traditional OS X behavior where you're prompted to save a document before closing an app. If you're annoyed by the Autosave feature introduced in Lion, this option will do the trick.
Below that, there's another option to reverse a behavior introduced in Lion. Selecting "Close windows when quitting an application" means that when you re-open an app, all of the windows that were open when you last used it won't be restored.
The Desktop & Screen Saver preferences panel includes several gorgeous new desktop wallpapers, and there are new slideshow themes in Screen Saver. The Security & Privacy preferences panel is where Gatekeeper options are located (under the General tab); the Privacy tab shows you which apps have access to some of your information, such as Location Services and Contacts.
The Desktop and Screen Saver preferences panel shows a variety of new desktop wallpapers. (A few non-Apple desktop images are included in the mix here.)
In yet another nod to iOS, there's now a consolidated Mail, Contacts & Calendars preferences panel. From this one location, you can sign in to services such as iCloud, Exchange, Yahoo, Gmail, AOL, Vimeo, Flickr and Twitter. You can also add IMAP and POP mail accounts, CalDAV accounts, CarDAV accounts and LDAP accounts, among others, and support for Chinese localizations. Once the account is created, you can then customize various options for it.
The Speech preferences panel is now known as Dictation & Speech. (Speakable Items has been relocated to the Accessibility preferences panel.) This is where you turn Dictation on and off, set the keyboard shortcut used to trigger the service and adjust which language Dictation uses.
Time Machine now allows backups to multiple locations. That means you can have a backup disk at home and a separate one at work, and perform backups to both.
The software update tool now allows OS X to install system data files and security updates automatically, a response to the recent uptick in malware aimed at Macs. And you can now tell OS X that apps bought through the Mac App Store should automatically be downloaded to other Macs that share your AppleID.
Software update now allows Mountain Lion to install system data files and security updates automatically.