Mountain Lion: Not just an incremental update
There are only two subtle things you’ll notice when Mountain Lion first boots up: the dock now has an almost-opaque frosted glass finish, and a new icon displaces Spotlight from the top-right corner of the menu bar. Nothing about the dock is functionally different, except that the little dot that indicates when a program is running has deliberately been reduced to a barely noticeable bar on the dock’s edge. The icon, which looks like a bulleted list, brings up your notifications.
Before you even get to the desktop, you're prompted to sign in to iCloud.
Apple has refrained from making arbitrary visual tweaks this time, so the flat monotone window title bars and menus remain as they were in Lion. You’ll see new icons for the new Notes and Reminders programs in the dock, but you won’t immediately notice the new iOS-derived names for Calendar, Contacts and Messages. Preferences related to what is and isn’t visible are carried over from your previous OS version.
Mac OS has always differed from Windows in that a program can be “running” even without being open—an icon would stay in the dock and stay ready until it was manually quit. Lion introduced iOS-style “backgrounding”, in which programs would quit on their own when the OS decided the RAM it consumed could be put to better use elsewhere. Mountain Lion seems a lot more aggressive, and we noticed programs terminating as soon as documents were closed, in a very Windows-like fashion. However if you pin an app to the dock and don’t disable the default behaviour of resuming exactly where you left off, the distinction between running and not running becomes somewhat unimportant.
Notification Center is one of Mountain Lion’s headlining features. Apps that are designed to support it—including, of course, the new iOS-inspired ones—can place their alerts and reminders in this unified space. Notifications work pretty much exactly as they do in iOS, except that they appear in the top-right corner of the desktop instead of the center. Some stay till you click a button, while others disappear after a few seconds. The most recent five of each type live on in the Notification Center till you dismiss them. At launch, Notification Center can show alerts from Mail, Calendar, Reminders, Twitter, App Store, Game Center and Messages/FaceTime. This is infinitely better than the variety of dialogue boxes and popups we’re used to seeing from different programs. Deeper social integration is coming via a promised update that will add Facebook in a few months, and third-party developers are already making their programs compatible. Thankfully, there’s a Do Not Disturb mode for when you don’t want to be bothered, and notifications are automatically suppressed when you’re using a projector or AirPlay Mirroring, to prevent embarrassment during a presentation.
Notifications in the upper right corner. Some disappear in a few seconds, while others require an action.
You can check Notification Center at any time by swiping inwards from the right edge of your trackpad with two fingers. Mouse-confined users can click the bullet-list icon, but either way the entire desktop slides to the left revealing a dark textured underlay with a vertical list of notifications. This slightly breaks the visual metaphor of sliding horizontally between multiple desktops and zooming out to the desktop-spanning Mission Control view, but it should prove useful enough for that not to matter.
For some reason, Notification Center is also where you go to compose new Tweets (and soon, Facebook status updates). If this was designed as a full-fledged Twitter client it might make some sort of sense, but the functionality is limited to just reading incoming mentions and direct messages. You can’t manage a list or reply to messages, for example.
You can drag the items in the left panel to reorder your notifications.
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