10 things to know about OS X Mountain Lion

Apple OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, which was unleashed this week, doesn't feature the massive under-the-hood changes Apple implemented with Lion, also known as Apple OS X 10.7. There's no equivalent in Mountain Lion to the switch to 64-bit computing, for example. But that's not to say OS X 10.8 isn't a substantial upgrade.

In fact, many users may see Mountain Lion as a bigger deal than Lion was, because the changes to Apple's desktop operating system are things average users will be able to appreciate from the minute they start using the OS. Especially users who also have iPads or iPhones.

Why? Because out of the 10 biggest OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion improvements touted by Apple, about half are changes that bring OS X more closely in line with iOS. In some cases, it's a pretty big deal: Messages replace iChat, for example. In the case of others, such as pulling Notes out of email and giving it the iOS treatment, it's more about consistency.

Apple iOS users will be pleased, too, at the degree to which Mountain Lion meshes with iOS, given the new OS X integration with iCloud. All sorts of apps and services can be synced across your iOS and OS X devices. There are even options built in at the menu level, where you have the choice to save a doc not only to your local machine but also directly to iCloud, for example; a paradigm shift that Microsoft looks set to follow with Windows 8 and SkyDrive, it's worth noting. Both companies, it seems, are firm cloud believers.

For all the convergence with iOS, Mountain Lion still looks and feels like a desktop operating system. It's still OS X, not iOS. With the imminent release of Windows 8, which takes more drastic Metro measures to tablet-ify Microsoft's OS, it will be interesting to see which approach wins the day.

For now, however, it's Mountain Lion's day in the sun. And a great day it is, too, because, as our review notes: “Windows 8 feels (so far) like a 1.0 release – big ideas, paradigm shifts, and a lot of work still to be done,” whereas Mountain Lion “feels like the fine-tuned product of years of careful thinking about how an operating system should combine innovation and consistency.”

Here's a list of ten of the biggest changes in the OS which snagged a Best Buy award in our review yesterday.

1. iCloud

Apple's first real foray into the world of cloud computing (unless you count the ill-fated and soon-departed MobileMe) was iCloud, and it wasn't released until October 2011, well after the launch of OS X 10.7 Lion. Mountain Lion makes it much easier for iCloud users to sync documents between Macs and iOS devices. Mountain Lion-aware apps let you save documents to iCloud or your local system directly from the file system.

If you save a doc to iCloud, any revisions that you make on one device are instantly available on all your other Apple devices. There's a Documents Library for easy access to your iCloud documents, with the most recently used docs sorted to the top. Mail, Contacts, Calendars, Messages, Notes, and many more Apple apps and services work with iCloud in Mountain Lion, and there's an API that will allow developers to create iCloud-enabled apps, too.

2. iChat is dead, long live Messages

The extremely popular iMessage service has displaced the venerable iChat on Mountain Lion. The result is a cross-platform service that lets users on Macs, iPhones and iPads chat with each other. It allows for unlimited messaging, including the sending of high-quality photos, HD video, and attachments as large as 100MB. Mac users will want to restrain themselves when chatting with friends on metered mobile data plans, although the iOS version of the app is smart enough to route messages through Wi-Fi when it's available. Messages shows delivery receipts by default, and there's also an option to turn on read receipts. Messages are encrypted end to end, and there's a button to escalate your chat to a FaceTime video call. Messages works with other instant messaging services including AIM, Google Talk, Jabber and Yahoo.

3. Game Centre now on Mac

Game Centre has made the move from iOS to the Mac. If you don't know it from iOS, Game Centre is a social gaming platform. Looking for a new game or someone to play against online? This is where you'll do it on your Mac. You'll be able to play against anyone with a connected iPad, iPhone, or Mac, too. Game Centre enables multiplayer games, in-game voice chat, and notifications of friend requests and game invitations. There will be an API for Game Centre that lets developers leverage in-game chat, leaderboards and more.

4. AirPlay Mirroring

If you've got an Apple TV device on the same network as your Mac (with a second-generation Intel Core processor), Mountain Lion makes it simple to mirror your screen on your HDTV (at 720p resolution). AirPlay Mirroring pops up to let you know when it detects an Apple TV, and it handles all the resolution matching. Combined with Game Center, AirPlay Mirroring can more or less turn your Mac into a game console.

5. New Notification Centre

Mountain Lion unifies system and app messaging, giving all messages a consistent look and bringing them into one place. The Notification Centre slides in and out from the right-hand side of the screen when you use a new trackpad gesture (a two-finger swipe from the right edge). Or you can click the Notification Centre button in the upper right corner of the screen. (It turns blue when there are new notifications.) Apps can pop up banners, which hover for five seconds on your screen's upper right corner before moving into the Notification Centre. Alerts, on the other hand, pop up and persist until dismissed. There's an API for developers, too, so that their apps can appear in the Notification Centre and conform to the Mountain Lion style.

6. Share Sheets

Mountain Lion-enabled apps get Share Sheets. Press the share button from within the app and you get a menu (a "sheet") of services for sharing links, pictures, videos, etc. At the preview stage, we saw links for AirDrop (to share directly to Macs on your network), email, Flickr, Message, Twitter, and Vimeo. (Facebook isn't available in the initial release of Mountain Lion, but word is that it's coming soon.) The share button is baked in throughout the system: Safari is a no-brainer, but it's a little cooler to find out that anything you can preview or QuickLook can pop up a Share Sheet. There's a developer API for Share Sheets, too, so third-party apps can also get in on the sharing action. Twitter gets special mention. Click Twitter on a Share Sheet and you get a "Tweet Sheet" that contains whatever it is you're tweeting about: A link, picture, and so forth, with the usual character countdown. Once you've got Twitter set up, it gets added to the Notification Centre by default.

7. Reminders reach the Mac

The Reminders app you may be familiar with from iOS – the same one that works with Siri on iPhone 4S and has geo-location reminder abilities – is now available for your Apple desktop. This simple organisational app keeps you on track with lists, due dates, and sorting by date. Apple iCloud can keep it synced across all your devices, and it also works with CalDAV services, such as Google Calendar and Yahoo Calendar (though you can keep local-only reminder lists, too).

8. Take note of Notes

Mountain Lion borrows another page from iOS and pulls Notes out of email, promoting it to its own app. Notes can be fairly rich, content-wise; you can drag and drop photos and attachments to Notes and format them with bullets, fonts, numbered lists, and so on. You can pin Notes to your desktop with a double click, and the Share button makes it easy to send them to collaborators. Finally, with iCloud, all your Notes are synced across all your Macs and iOS devices.

9. Gatekeeper keeps Mountain Lion safe

Mountain Lion beefs up security with Gatekeeper, a powerful line of defence against future threats. Gatekeeper prevents malware by only running apps it deems safe because (at Gatekeeper's most restrictive setting) you downloaded them from the Mac App Store, or (by default) because they were downloaded from the App Store or written by licensed Apple developers, and contain digital signatures that are destroyed if hackers modify the code. There is a third setting you can choose, too, that will let you run apps downloaded from anywhere.

10. One more thing: China

Apple has a chance to get some positive China-related coverage for a change with its Mountain Lion “one more thing”: A big push for improved Chinese localisation. And why not? It's a huge market, and earlier this year Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed that Mac adoption in China doubled last year when compared to 2010. New features include improved text input, for example, with better suggestions for Chinese characters, and typing for English and Chinese characters without toggling between the two for more convenient input of names or words without Chinese equivalents.

Apple also promises to more than double the number of Chinese characters supported in handwriting recognition, auto-correction, and improved text input for those who type Pinyin with regional pronunciations. Furthermore, Apple gives a nod to local services: Users will also be able to set up Mail, Contacts, and Calendar with services like QQ, 126, and 163. Also planned is Baidu search in Safari, as well as access to Chinese social network site Sina Weibo, and video sites Youku and Tudou via Share Sheets.