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5 handy tips for getting the most out of OS X Mountain Lion

Apple users who have just bought, or who may be thinking about purchasing a new iPhone complete with iOS 6, will do well to make sure their Macs are up to date.

Assuming you've already installed Apple OS X Mountain Lion, there are a few features and options you'll want to make sure you've enabled to fully take advantage of the operating system. The single biggest change from OS X Lion to Mountain Lion was just how much tighter the desktop operating system was tied in with the mobile operating system – and you'll most definitely get more out of your Mac when it's set up to interact with your iPhone, iPad, and other Apple devices.

Turn on iCloud

To take advantage of how Mountain Lion syncs and interacts with your iPhone, iPad, or other Apple devices, you have to turn on iCloud.

iCloud has many uses, including backup, but for the purpose of this article, let's look at using it for syncing.

Part of what makes Mountain Lion special is that you can start something on your mobile device and finish it on your Mac, practically seamlessly.

It's true that previous versions of OS X support iCloud, too, but with Mountain Lion, you'll see even more features that leverage iCloud in some neat ways.

You'll find iCloud on your Mac in Settings, the same place you can find it on your iPhone and iPad. The first step is to simply log in with your Apple ID. Make sure you turn on iCloud across all the devices you wish to use it on.

Turn on the various apps that you want to sync. If you use the Contacts apps on your iPhone or iPad, I definitely recommend turning it on in Mountain Lion, as some of the other apps and services will leverage your Contacts list. I also recommend most users sync Safari bookmarks, Calendar, Reminders, and Notes, too. Plenty more apps and services sync, of course, so turn on the ones you prefer. And with the freshly released iOS 6, photos can be shared with your contacts automatically, if you've set up iCloud's Photo Stream.

(Note: If you have Apple mobile devices but use a Windows computer, you can still use a lot of iCloud's services and features, but not all of them. For some features, Apple gives you a Windows alternative; for example, you can sync bookmarks between Internet Explorer and iOS devices.)

Set up iMessage

iMessage is by far one of my favourite features in Mountain Lion, and it replaces the old iChat. iMessage is Apple's messaging service that optimises texting by bypassing SMS when it can. On an iPhone or an iPad, it's part of the Messages app. Essentially, iMessage improves messaging between Apple devices. When you send messages between iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads running iOS 5 or later, iMessage prioritises sending and receiving the messages via Wi-Fi when it's available, and through 3G when it's not.

When you're on your laptop or Mac computer running Mountain Lion, you can pick up your text conversations right where you left them – except for messages from non-Apple users that came in as SMS texts on your phone, unfortunately. You can also see new messages come in on your computer, which is better for productivity than moving away from the keyboard and screen to view incoming messages on a phone or tablet. Another reason I love iMessage is because it supports AIM, Yahoo, Google Talk and Jabber, letting you merge Messages with systems you're already using.

To set up iMessage, go to the app and log in with your Apple ID.

To get the most out of iMessage, you'll want to use Contacts (Apple's address book) to store phone numbers, handles, and email addresses of the people with whom you will likely swap messages; iMessage integrates cleanly with that data. Type a few letters of a person's name, and within a few clicks, you can be text chatting. However, you don't have to use your Contacts list. You can also type the phone number of an iPhone into the "to" field and start a message. That's something you couldn't do with iChat, and it's central to the whole concept of renaming the app Messages.

Turn on FaceTime

FaceTime is Apple's video chat app. Once you have iCloud handling all your contacts, FaceTime becomes much more usable, so turn on iCloud and sync your contacts first to be sure you have everyone's email addresses on hand.

Setting up FaceTime is a snap. When you launch the app, it will prompt you to log in with your Apple ID (or another email address if you prefer). From there, it's just a matter of figuring out who else among your friends, family, and business associates uses the program. You can choose their names from the contact list that shows up in the app. It doesn't matter if your friends are using FaceTime to make or receive video calls from their Macs, iPads, iPhones, or iPod Touches, and iOS 6 has brought forth the useful ability to access FaceTime over cellular networks – not just via Wi-Fi as was previously the case.

Enable Twitter and Facebook

Across Apple products, we've seen Twitter become more tightly integrated with the operating system itself rather than just apps. Mountain Lion is no exception. The idea is that you should be able to share various goodies, such as URLs and photos, to Twitter in just a click or two.

To set up Twitter, you can either turn it on under Settings, or just log into Twitter from your machine, and Mountain Lion will suggest enabling it automatically.

While Facebook wasn't baked into the initial release of Mountain Lion, just a couple of weeks ago it was integrated in an update (to version 10.8.2 of the operating system – you'll need to update to utilise it).

To set up Facebook, go to System Preferences, select Mail, Contacts & Calendars, and click the Facebook icon in the right hand side pane – then enter your account name and password, click next, and click Sign In.

A number of Facebook-related options are available, including a Facebook option when sharing links and photos, the ability to see Facebook friends' contact information and profile pictures within Contacts, and Facebook alerts within Apple's Notification Centre.

And, of course, iOS 6 has Facebook sharing baked-in, too.

Customise alerts

Once you have iMessage turned on, you'll want to make sure the app notifies you of incoming messages in the manner you want. To customise alerts from iMessage, as well as from other apps, you'll need to visit the Notifications section of the Settings.

You can turn alerts on or off for a number of different apps and services, as well as change where they appear on the screen and what (if any) sound they include. The "alerts" option (shown in the image above) will put your notifications in a collapsible right pane on the screen.

In my testing, I've found that the most useful alerts come from iMessage and Calendar, but you can also turn them on for incoming Mail, Twitter or Facebook activity, Reminders app reminders, Game Centre activity, FaceTime calls, and more.