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Practical Mac: Pros and cons of pouncing on Apple's Mountain Lion upgrade
Apple's latest operating system, called Mountain Lion and due to arrive later this month, doesn't deliver entirely new features users might expect with an operating-system upgrade. But its appeal could increase when it comes to synchronizing existing Apple services across devices.
Special to The Seattle Times
Apple's latest Mac operating system, OS X Mountain Lion, is due to arrive sometime this month — as I write this, the company has yet to set a date, but July 25 is a likely candidate — and so the question comes up: Should I upgrade?
You may be assembling a checklist of features in your head, because we've been conditioned that any new product or software can only be described in lists, preferably in a table that compares Product A favorably against Products B and C.
But as I think about Mountain Lion, I'm finding that specific features don't immediately stand out. In the past, you'd look at an operating system's new features and judge whether they added to your computing experience. Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger added systemwide search with Spotlight, and Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard introduced the built-in backup utility Time Machine.
But I think a significant shift is under way: With Mountain Lion, the operating system itself has become the most important feature.
(Before I explain, I want to point out that although I've been running development versions of Mountain Lion for several weeks while writing a book about the topic, this isn't a review and I'm not revealing anything that isn't already public.)
Here's an example of what I'm talking about. Mountain Lion includes a new Reminders app for keeping track of things to do. iCal (renamed Calendar in Mountain Lion) has offered a to-do list for quite some time, so it's not like Reminders adds some long-missing capability. Including the Reminders app in OS X is not really a big feature. But Reminders uses iCloud to synchronize its lists with the iOS devices you may already own.
In the last quarter alone, Apple sold 35.1 million iPhones and 11.8 million iPads. That's a lot of people now in the Apple ecosystem, and it's a good bet that many of them will consider a Mac as their next computer purchase.
(One of the most interesting statistics during Apple's quarterly earnings calls is that about half of all people who purchase computers from Apple retail stores and other retail channels are new to the Mac. That ratio has remained consistent every quarter since Apple opened its first store in 2001.)
No one is going to buy a new Mac because it has a Reminders application. But they are likely to consider a Mac knowing that it will sync the reminders they've already created on their iPhone or iPad. Wherever they are, their data is up to date.
The same applies to most of the improvements in Lion and Mountain Lion. Multitouch gestures echo the way we interact with everything in iOS. Full screen mode aims to move away from the complexity of a screen full of application windows.
Voice dictation lets you compose text by speaking to the computer. Messages gives you the ability to send text messages (and photos and video) to your friends who are using iMessage on their iPhones and iPads. AirPlay Mirroring can display your Mac's screen (or output from video applications, games, and the like) on an HDTV with an Apple TV attached.
This transition isn't easy, and it's very much tilted to favor Apple. To take advantage of Mountain Lion, you need a fairly recent Mac, at least a mid-2007 iMac running Snow Leopard or Lion. (For more details, see www.apple.com/osx/how-to-upgrade/.)
Even if your Mac can't run Mountain Lion, it won't somehow stop working. Apple will continue to update Lion for crucial bugs and security updates, and will likely release Snow Leopard security updates for a while, too. But you may not be able to take advantage of the bigger picture, using iCloud to tie together your devices.
So, should you upgrade to Mountain Lion? The answer depends less on whether there are one or two features you want and more on whether you want to stay current with the Apple ecosystem and the benefits it offers. Fortunately, price isn't a serious impediment: Apple is selling Mountain Lion for $19.99, and it can be installed on all the Macs you own.
If your Mac supports Mountain Lion, I recommend (as always) to make a thorough backup before upgrading. And unless you want to tackle the cat on Day One, you may want to wait a few weeks to see which initial bugs appear, as they always do with a major operating-system release.
Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. More Practical Mac columns at seattletimes.com/practicalmac.