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OS X Mountain Lion: The best features (and everything else you need to know)

Mountain Lion — the latest version of Apple's OS X — is now available in the Mac App Store for $19.99. And it's definitely a worthwhile operating system upgrade.

Here's why.

Hello, Mac! Hello, mobile!
Mountain Lion is basically a way for Apple to bring its mobile and desktop operating systems closer together. Now your iPad, iPhone and Mac will get along better than ever. Your documents, notes, calendars, messages, reminders, Safari tabs and more will sync across devices smoothly thanks to Mountain Lion. (And things will get even cozier when iOS 6 arrives in the fall, of course).

  • Messages: Thanks to the new Messages app — which replaces iChat — you can sync your iMessage conversations across devices. Start a conversation on your MacBook Air, continue it on your iPhone, and then wrap it up from your iPad. All the great features you might have loved about iMessage on iOS — such as delivery receipts, read receipts, typing indicators, encrypted messaging and more — will be available on the desktop. (You can also the desktop app with AIM and other traditional IM services.)
  • Notes: Oh, yes. All your quickly tapped notes will sync now.
  • Reminders: The new Reminders app will bring a fantastic iOS feature to the desktop. You'll be able to create and manage tasks and have them automatically update across devices.
  • iCloud Tabs: Thanks to iCloud Tabs, you can start a browsing session on one device and continue it on another. Whatever tabs are open on one will appear on the other.
  • Documents in the Cloud: Several apps — such as those Keynote, Pages, Numbers, TextEdit and more — have iCloud support built right in. This means that you can create, edit and view documents created by those apps in the cloud — from any of your OS X or iOS devices.

Everything in its place ... and a place for everything
A brand new Notification Center will help keep you organized in Mountain Lion. It's a pane that slides out from the right-hand side of your screen, displaying a selection of alerts and banners which allow you to track activities easily.

Alerts (meeting notices, for instance) are little pop-ups which will linger in the top-right corner of your screen until you dismiss them while banners (announcing incoming emails, etc.) will disappear after five seconds. 

If you want to see anything you've missed, just slide open the Notification Center with a two-fingered swipe and look at a list of up to 20 recent notifications per app. These can include activity from Calendar, Mail, Messages, FaceTime, Reminders, GameCenter, Twitter and many third-party apps. In the fall, there will be support for Facebook as well.

You can configure the type of notifications — alerts or banners — that'll appear for each app as well as associated sounds and the like in your settings. Everything can be tweaked on a per-app basis. And if things get too overwhelming, there's a little toggle that'll silence all pop-up notifications until the next day.

Safety first
Mountain Lion has a security feature called Gatekeeper intended to keep your computer safe from the dangers of the wild wild Web. Gatekeeper basically prevents you from inadvertently installing malicious software. The security feature checks every app to see if it came from the Mac App Store or a developer who has been issued a unique Developer ID by Apple. This way there's some assurance that the apps you're installing are coming from a known entity with a decent track record.

Sharing is caring
Mountain Lion encourages sharing more than any prior version of Apple's desktop operating system. There's even a "Share" button built into most Mountain Lion apps, allowing you to easily share links, photos, videos, and more using Mail, Messages, AirDrop, Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo or Flickr. (How an item can be shared depends on the file type and app, mind you.)

Thanks to the way sharing is baked right into Mountain Lion, you'll rarely ever have to leave an app in order to share an item. It's one less step or distraction to deal with.

Be more social
Considering how much emphasis there is on sharing and communication within Mountain Lion, it should be no surprise that there is also built-in support for the two most predominant social networking services. The Facebook integration won't be available until the fall — when it will arrive in the form of a software update — but you can already enjoy some great Twitter-related features in Mountain Lion.

You only have to sign into the services once, within the "Mail, Contacts & Calendar"section of your settings, and you'll be all set to go. You'll be able to tweet or post to Facebook using the Share menu found in many Mountain Lion apps as well — and even from a special box at the top of the Notification Center.

Your Facebook friends and Twitter contacts can be imported directly into your contacts as well, so you can always have up-to-date info on your pals. Birthdays listed on Facebook profiles can also be automatically added to your Calendar.

You'll also be able to get alerts or banner notifications for status updates from either social network.

Mirror, mirror on the ... TV?
Thanks to AirPlay mirroring, you can wirelessly send whatever's on your Mac to an HDTV, via the $99 Apple TV box. There's support for 1080p video (if you have the latest Apple TV) and content will be scaled to best fit your TV, so everything should look as good as possible. Of course, everything's encrypted, so you can feel secure when you beam things to your TV.

Not all Macs support the AirPlay mirroring, but Apple says that the following models are compatible:

  • iMac - mid-2011 revision or newer
  • Mac Mini - mid-2011 revision or newer
  • MacBook Air - mid 2011 revision or newer
  • MacBook Pro - early 2011 revision or newer

If you are unsure of your model's age, call the Apple Store and ask them for help.

Nap time
Many of us leave our computers on, just snoozing through out the day. Power Nap is a feature which will help keep everything up to date when your computer is sleeping. It works silently — receiving email, syncing calendar invites, downloading software updates, keeping Find My Mac running, and more. Whenever you're ready to wake your computer up, you'll find that it's perfectly synced to your iOS and other OS X devices.

And don't worry about Power Nap draining your battery. It'll automatically shut itself off if your power level dips below 30 percent.

Surf's up!
Say what you will about Safari's past, in Mountain Lion it makes surfing the Web a pleasure.

There's one spot — dubbed the "smart search field" — in which you can enter searches as well as Web adresses. (You can pick your favorite search engine, of course.)

A quick pinching gesture will reveal a new tab view, which will allow you navigate between open (and live) tabs by swiping back and forth. This may not sound like much, but it is quite possibly one of our favorite little tweaks in Mountain Lion.

The big little things
There are a lot of features and changes within Mountain Lion which you won't even realize exist until you really need them for a task or stop to think about why something "just works." They're the big little things that make life simpler or more fun.

  • Game Center - Mountain Lion has a Game Center app now, meaning that you can track leaderboards, compete against friends, receive game notifications, and more. Just like in iOS.
  • Dictation - Wherever you'd normally type, you can now talk. Just select a text field and tap a keyboard shortcut to start the dictation feature. Mountain Lion will understand you fairly well and even get what you mean when you say "all caps," "new paragraph," or "comma."
  • VIPs - You can tell Mountain Lion which people are most important to you by marking them as "VIPs." This will make their messages rise to the top of Mail and allow you to set separate notifications for these important individuals.

Will this kitten scratch?
As with any operating system update, it's not all sunshine and snuggles when it comes to Mountain Lion. Some folks will feel as if all the little changes don't add up to a decent upgrade; others will be disappointed that Mountain Lion isn't a perfect mirror of iOS for the desktop, and so on.

But let's be realistic: You're paying $19.99 for an operating system upgrade which contains over 200 new features. Yes, some of them are minor, but there is some strength in numbers. And besides: You'll have an excuse to make purr-fectly silly cat-themed puns after updating. 

Getting your computer ready for Mountain Lion
Convinced that this is the update for you? Great! There are a few things you should do before rushing off and attempting to download Mountain Lion though:

  • Check if your computer can handle Mountain Lion. You should be running OS X 10.6.8 or higher, have 2GB of memory and 8GB of available space. (You should be using recent Mac model. Check this list to see if yours is supported.)
  • Update your third-party apps. Odds are that many of your favorite apps will get updates to make them compatible with Mountain Lion, so just go ahead and take care of those now.
  • Backup your files. We can't emphasize the importance of backing up your files enough. Plenty of things can go wrong on an ordinary day, but you're just asking for trouble if you're upgrading your operating system without a backup.

Got all those little things checked off? Wonderful! Head over to the Mac App Store and grab Mountain Lion. Use it for a while and then come back here and tell us what you think about it.

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