Barely a year after the release of Lion, this new OS nevertheless boasts an impressive list of new features. The overriding theme is unchanged from the release of OS X 10.7 before it: "Back to the Mac." In other words, a selective migration of the best bits of iOS to its big brother.
I am not going to attempt to exhaustively work my way through all two hundred plus features and write in detail about each and every one. The plan is to hit the highlights, tell you what's changed, and let you know why that's a good thing -- unless it isn't. In which case, I'll tell you why not. Think of this as the amuse-bouche to Ars Technica and John Siracusa's no-expense-spared tasting menu.
- Mountain Lion costs $20, but is free if you bought a Mac after June 11, 2012.
- It's available through the Mac App Store.
- You don't need to have installed Lion -- you can upgrade from Snow Leopard (but only the very last 10.6.8 sub-version) to Mountain Lion directly.
First up: the bottom line
There's some ways in which Mountain Lion is undeserving of big excitement -- or a full-on review. Since OS X 10.5 Leopard, Apple has changed its process for OS X upgrades; we're now getting vaguely-annual upgrades with healthy numbers of extra features for relatively modest $20-30 costs, rather than the near-biennial major upgrades of the past that cost more than $100.
As such, there's barely a decision matrix for the upgrade; if even a small number of the significant new features will be useful to you, Mountain Lion is a no-brainer. Similarly, the second some hot app you want ships that won't work on Lion, that's a no brainer too (for me, that'll be Tweetbot for Mac, which will be 10.8-only once it leaves public alpha).
So if your question is "is Mountain Lion worth the twenty bucks?" then the answer is "yup." You likely all guessed that, which is why I thought I'd put it up here and not leave you in suspense.
If your question is "what should I expect from Mountain Lion?" then keep reading. Hopefully I'll show you a few things to get excited about. It's a great update.
If your question is "should I install it right now?!" then read the next section very carefully.
Apple's routine updates to OS X might have lulled you into a false sense of security. Don't let that happen. This isn't iOS; Macs aren't backed up to an always-on iCloud safety net and Macs can be customised in a hundred thousand ways (yay!), which means there's a hundred thousand ways for an OS upgrade to go wrong (boo!).
I have two pieces of counsel, from someone who's had to recover a lot of data from broken computers over the decades. [If you don't want to take it from Rich, take it from Steve and Erica who have been prepping our readers for Mountain Lion since April. -Ed.]
First, consider waiting, for a few days if not longer. Some nasty problems have been known to slip past Apple's testers and into the wilds, and something you rely on -- some small utility or a printer driver or somesuch -- may not yet be updated to work with the new OS. 10.8 isn't that different from 10.7, so you're unlikely to have significant problems; nevertheless it might be worth looking through the Roaring Apps Wiki to check your apps will still work.
If you make any part of your living with your Mac, upgrade this advice from "consider" to "I strongly urge you to consider."
Second, backup, backup, backup. You should be doing this anyway, but I like to take a second backup before installing major operating system upgrades. On the Mac, my process is:
- Using Carbon Copy Cloner or a similar app, take a snapshop of my Mac's drive to a USB device.
- Reboot the Mac, holding down the Option key to make the "select boot device" menu appear.
- Select the USB device to boot the freshly backed up copy of OS X.
- Make sure it's all fully working.
- Reboot back to my normal OS X disk.
- Disconnect the USB drive, and maybe even your Time Machine drive too.
- Proceed with the upgrade.
If you follow this process, you can have peace of mind that the upgrade can't permanently damage any of your data.
Not every Mac can have Mountain Lion. As with all of Apple's upgrades, some older hardware has fallen by the wayside and will never advance past OS X 10.7 -- unless some enterprising hackers come up with workarounds, that is.
Specifically, the oldest supported model, by family, is:
- iMac: Mid 2007 (first aluminum-bodied model)
- MacBook (Polycarbonate): Early 2009 (the one with the Nvidia 9400M graphics card)
- MacBook (Aluminum unibody): Late 2008 (the only model there was)
- MacBook Pro: Mid 2007 (the first ones with Nvidia graphics)
- Xserve: Early 2009
- MacBook Air: Late 2008 (again, the first model with Nvidia graphics)
- Mac mini: Early 2009 (and again!)
- Mac Pro: Early 2008 (the second ever model, the first to offer quad core processors; for the first model, you can investigate this workaround)
There's some weird non-linear stuff at work here, with iMacs as old as 2007 working while Mac minis as recent as 2009 don't. Ars Technica suggests this is down to graphics cards that have 64-bit compatible drivers. This theory aligns with the most common distinguishing characteristic of the Mountain Lion-capable models; they are the first of their range to use Nvidia graphics, with the model immediately that came before them using ATI or Intel graphics.
Your Mac will also need a minimum of 2 GB of RAM, although we'd suggest that 4 GB is a more workable amount these days. Apple's spec sheet says Mountain Lion needs 8 GB of disk space, but again it's wise to have some extra headroom. You're also going to be downloading the 4.4 GB Mountain Lion installer from the Mac App Store so you'll need still more disk space to put it in, and hopefully a fast Internet connection too.
There's also a few features that are reliant on specific hardware. AirDrop, which is also in Lion, doesn't work on a few of the older Macs that appear on the above list; it requires a modern Wi-Fi chipset. There is a workaround for Lion machines with nominally incompatible networking, but it's not clear yet if it continues to work on Mountain Lion.
More annoyingly for most people, AirPlay Mirroring has much tighter requirements, because it requires a beefy graphics chipset for reliable realtime encoding, and to create the encrypted video stream that's sent to the Apple TV. It won't work on MacBook Pros before the Early 2011 model or other Macs from before Mid 2011. Our own Erica Sadun has some tips on working around these limitations.
i(can see clearly now the)Cloud is here