Mountain Lion, the latest upgrade to Apple's OS X operating system, may not add much in the way of performance enhancements to your Mac—but it offers an appealing lineup of new features that make the $20 investment worthwhile, especially if you have more than one Apple computer (for personal use only), have an iPad or iPhone in the family, or are a fan of social networking.
We installed Mountain Lion on both a MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. It's an easy download from the App Store; it took 30 to 40 minutes to download the 4GB file and install it on the MacBook Pro over an Ethernet connection, and 10 to 15 minutes longer over Wi-Fi on the Air. (Before upgrading, make sure you back up all your files, photos, music, and video.)
Once Mountain Lion was installed, we ran our benchmarks on both computers. Any differences in performance were barely noticeable from the prior OS version, though battery life was about 3 percent longer with Mountain Lion installed, on our video rundown test.
What we did find were a variety of notable new features. Of course, not all of the 200 additional features Apple lists for Mountain Lion are groundbreaking, but there are more than enough to make it a worthwhile upgrade. Here are a few we liked.
Integration across devices. If you have more than one Apple device or have friends and family with iPads, iPhones, iPod Touches, or Mac computers, you'll find more synergy among the various products now, and even more to come when iOS 6 (the next version of Apple's OS for mobile devices) comes out this fall. With Messages, you can send and receive text messages with iPhone users from your computer, for example. It may not seem like a big deal at first glance, but it's actually convenient to send a message to your iPhone friends and get answers back without needing to pick up another device.
Reminders also work across devices and can be set to open based on your location. Add a reminder on your MacBook from home, and if you're carrying your iPad to the office, the reminder will pop up when you get there.
GameCenter comes to Mac computers for the first time, providing a way for you to play games simultaneously against friends on their Apple devices.
Notes also works from one device to another: You can write a Note on your computer and bring it with you on your iPhone. But there's an additional step involved with using Notes: You have to set up an Apple @me.com e-mail address—which made us ask, "Who wants yet another e-mail address?"
The social experience. Apple's attempt to make sharing ever easier on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks shows up in a new Share menu item in certain applications: Using the current version of Safari within Mountain Lion, for example, you can share items on Twitter, e-mail, and Messages. (Facebook will become available with the iOS 6 update.) And from iPhoto, you can send pictures to Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, and other services.
You'll have to hunt a bit for the Share menu from one application to another. Within Safari, it's under File; within iPhoto, it's a top menu item.
A better Safari. Although more changes are slated when Apple updates iOS this fall, Safari gets a bit of a makeover within Mountain Lion. It's actually catching up in some ways to other browsers, such as Chrome and Firefox.
For example, Safari now shares your bookmarks on all your Apple devices. The same idea applies to open tabs—but only from one Mac computer to another, for now. After the iOS update, you'll be able to view, on your iPad, the tabs that are open on your laptop. Finally, Safari's address bar now also serves as a search box, so you can start typing in a topic, and search results will show up in the browser window. You can also set your default search engine to Google, Bing, or Yahoo.
A new feature called Reading List saves Web pages for offline reading, and also does so across devices.
And you can now use multi-touch gestures to view individual Web pages that you have open. To do so, use the pinching gesture on your device's trackpad, and your open tabs become a scrollable carousel similar to Cover Flow in iTunes.
Stream from your Mac to your TV. A feature called AirPlay Mirroring has been available on iPads and iPhones, but Mountain Lion brings it to your Mac computers. AirPlay Mirroring lets you show whatever is on your Mac on your TV, but you will need an Apple TV ($99) to do so. It's the only way we've found so far that lets you watch the free version of Hulu on your TV; no need to subscribe to the $8-a-month Hulu Plus.
iCloud in the OS. Since launching iCloud, Apple hadn't done an OS upgrade, until now. So this is the first time iCloud has been built into the operating system.
When you open an application such as Text Edit, you'll see a new menu option that lets you choose documents either on your Mac or from iCloud. When you make changes in a Pages document on one device, for example, those changes show up in the same document on your other devices—everything syncs automatically. When using Pages, make sure the setting "Use iCloud" is switched to On.
Take a look at our computer Ratings for details on how Apple computers fare in our tests.
—Rich Fisco and Donna Tapellini