Mountain Lion

27 July 2012

Unlike iOS, I never ran a beta of Mountain Lion. My first experience with the new OS was yesterday, when it was released. About an hour of Error 100 frustration later, installation began.

Installation is App-Store only, which is 80% great, 20% annoyance … particularly when your internet isn’t very good. If your internet isn’t fast enough to download at least 10% in a couple of minutes, it seems like the process has failed, as the progress bar doesn’t move a single pixel until about 10% of the total 4GB has transferred. Once the download step had finished, however, installation was streamlined and flawless. Click, agree to terms and conditions, and wait.1

The Mac proceeded to reboot into Mountain Lion. Immediately, the App Store prompted to me to download even more updates. The first indicator that this was a new OS was that I found the issue I described above has been fixed in Mountain Lion. Launchpad will give you fine-grained download progress if you hover over the Dock icon.

These first patches also highlighted the death of Software Update, which is now amalgamated into the App Store Updates tab. Theoretically, this makes a lot of sense: all your updates in one place. In their implementation, though, Apple haven’t quite hit the spot. Software Update isn’t really integrated into the App Store; it just kinda sits next to your app updates. For instance, iPhoto updates are segregated into a different section than Pixelmator or ScreenFlow. “Update All” applies to everything, so in practice it doesn’t really make a practical difference, but it still agitates. A layer of unnecessary complexity. Better than Lion, but not perfect.

What did I notice next? The glass Dock. If you have been clinging to open application indicator lights in Lion, then get ready to change. The lights in Mountain Lion are so small, really thin blue strips, you have to literally squint to see them. If you are switching apps using the Dock, you literally won’t see these lights, even in peripheral vision. Regarding the main Dock aesthetic change, from a gloss varnish to frosted solid glass, I like it. Whilst it is reflective, it isn’t translucent like the old Dock’s. I just think it looks better, and this is from someone who likes the transparent menubar.

Safari 6 is fantastic. I don’t know how to describe it. It is just better.2 There is definitely a different scrolling architecture. It’s snappier. Webpages flow. You can tell the GPU is involved.3 I can’t test whether JavaScript performance is better, as the Sunspider test refuses to complete, but it feels better. Facebook’s homepage is near-instantaneous to render. Talking of social sites, I love the tweeting in Safari just as much as I do in iOS. It is so convenient, and the UI is really pretty to boot. With a lot of tabs open, “Tab View” is surprisingly useful, too. I thought it was just some visual sugar, which it kinda is, but I have used it for utility a couple of times already.

Safari’s Reader hasn’t changed in functionality, but it is presented differently in the UI. When applicable, it highlights to a very piercing blue. One one side, the obviousness is distracting. My eye flits to the button almost every page load it turns blue. I’ve found, though, I have actually used the feature because of it — the distraction reminds me to click it.

The UI for Safari’s progress bar has completely changed. I’m still undecided whether it was for the better. Rather than stepping through different percentiles of progress, the Mountain Lion progress bar has a propensity to keep moving. Whether it is being more granular in displaying completion progress or whether it is purely an optical illusion, I don’t know. Up to this point, everything is fine. It gets obnoxious a few milliseconds later, when Safari decides to tell you the page has finished loading (even if it actually hasn’t), and the loading bar literally zooms off to the right4. The rapid increase in acceleration of the animation is what puts you off. I’d assume that over a longer period of time my brain will get used to the lightning-flash-toolbar, but for now I despise it. It isn’t enough of an agitation to overcome my otherwise universal love of the browser.

The most striking change to Safari has to be the omnibox5. It has integrated so well into the workflow I nearly forgot to write about it. If you want to know what it is like, open any browser that has existed since about 2006. Personally, I think it should prioritise history results over search suggestions6 but the mere fact it exists at all is a god send, honestly. There was a reason every other browser had moved to this UI paradigm: because it’s good.

In regard to Documents in the Cloud, I have turned it off. It isn’t for me. It isn’t really meant for me. A good test to see if you will like this new feature is to ask yourself if you could live with only one subdirectory to organise files?

If you said yes, iCloud Documents are going to be a great fit. It is obviously for people who find the Finder confusing; people who are relieved with the thought that they don’t have to click Finder. My mum, for instance, loves this new metaphor (“You mean, I don’t have to worry about where the files are?”). For people who use it, they have the added benefits of syncing, backup and simplicity. For people that don’t, you have the traditional benefits of an actual filesystem. It’s almost like Apple is telling “geeks” to stick to Dropbox.

In my opinion, the other main tentpole change is Notification Center. Growl fans will crow that this is a rip-off of it, but it really isn’t. Sure, you get toast notifications in the top-right hand corner but what sets it apart is the slide-out section. Growl never had anything like it. You can just let notifications fly off and review them at your leisure in the Center.

There is a profound importance to the fact it is first-party. Although Growl was relatively pervasive in Mac apps, I feel that Notification Center use is quickly going to explode. Something which Growl never had was first-party integration. As you might expect, Apple’s apps exploit Notification Center as much as people, even for software updates. Brilliant.

Coming from iOS, you will be right at home with Notification Center. The linen even makes sense on Mountain Lion, as the slide-out panel does sit conceptually at “layer zero”. I only really have one niggle with it; it forces upon you a menubar item that cannot be moved. It has to sit in the top-right corner. Why is this annoying? My brain is ingrained to think that the top-right of the screen is Spotlight. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve gone to do a search by clicking the top-right corner of the screen, out of habit, and then getting brutally reminded that it is no longer Spotlight. Even if Apple doesn’t want to let people remove the icon completely7, they should let you at least move it to a different position in the menubar lineup.

I said that Notification Center is the last major feature that I can recall, but that isn’t really true. There is an underlying feeling, throughout Mountain Lion, of polish and finesse. It feels finished. It feels stable, something Lion certainly didn’t at regular intervals. Things that are confused ideas in Lion are refined into really great features in Mountain Lion. Bouncy scrolling is everywhere and feels great to the touch. When you approach the scroll-bar, if you want to drag with the cursor, the skinny bar widens to accommodate easier scrolling. Due to push notification support, the App Store actually feels like a part of the OS, rather than a disparate app. “All My Files” doesn’t lag anymore. Reminders and Notes round of the synchronicity with iOS beautifully. The inclusion of Game Center cements the fact that your iPhone and Mac are actually part of the same company. You can finally search for apps inside Launchpad making it semi-usable8. Heck, Time Machine can backup to multiple volumes. It isn’t one feature in particular, it can only really be described as system-wide refinements that finish everything Lion started and make them make sense.

Mountain Lion is just great.

1 Even in 2012, computers still fail at approximating time remaining. My progress status fluctuated from 30 to 10 minutes, to an hour, over the course of the install. In reality, it took about 40 minutes to install.

2 I am writing this piece on Mountain Lion itself, without a 10.7 Mac to compare to side-by-side. I’m not being granular; I’m just mentioning stuff I cared enough about to remember. If you want a feature-by-feature, change-by-change, analysis of Mountain Lion I encourage you to read other people’s 20,000+ word reviews.

3 To compare, open the App Store on Mountain Lion and scroll around the main view. You feel the difference between this and Safari. Safari is much better.

4 Shawn Blanc points out that the animation looks like it is shooting off to the right to ‘fill up’ the Reader icon. I am undecided whether this makes me feel better about the change or not.

5 Unlike most of Mountain Lion’s user-facing features, this is not the result of a symbiotic relationship between OSX and iOS. In iOS 6 Mobile Safari, the dual text-boxes for search and URL’s remain.

6 The “Top Hit” takes precedence over everything else and as long as you have visited the page before, this tends to be what you want, so the reliance on search suggestions doesn’t affect normal use that much.

7 Some people might want to do this on their laptops, so that they rely on gestures alone to open Notification Center.

8 I say this in jest; people that use iCloud Documents are prime candidates for Launchpad. For everyone else, I recommend dragging the Applications folder to the Dock (next to Downloads), and using the “display as folder” and “view content as grid” options.