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Originally published Friday, August 3, 2012 at 6:27 PM

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Practical Mac: Hidden gem found in Mac OS X 10.8

With Apple's Mountain Lion some options will be more or less important to you, depending on how you use a Mac.

Special to The Seattle Times

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What's the matter, Lulz? Can't afford the $20 it costs to buy Mountain Lion? MORE
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Apple's Mountain Lion (Mac OS X 10.8) comes with a list of marquee features you likely already have read about, such as iOS-style notifications, integration of Twitter with Facebook accounts coming this fall, and Siri-like Dictation (but not voice recognition for queries).

Over time, if and when you upgrade, some options will be more or less important to you, depending on how you use a Mac.

Many people may hate notifications and disable them, preferring to never be disturbed with brief or persistent updates. Or they find frustration in the Dictation requirement of a live Internet feed and needing to complete the full spoken text before it's turned into text. In my early use, I've found one capability more powerful than I would have expected, one bit of confusion about installing new software, and a hidden gem.

AirPlay Mirroring is a direct borrow from iOS, and a glorious one for anyone who wants to share a screen within a home or office, or even when traveling and giving presentations. When your Mac with Mountain Lion is on a local network, whether Ethernet or Wi-Fi, that has an Apple TV present, the mirroring menu appears in the system menu bar.

Select the destination from the menu, and the display (with a single-screen Mac) or main display (the one with the menu bar) starts streaming to an Apple TV's video output. You can also select just to stream audio to an Apple TV or an AirPort Express's audio output (2008 and 2012 models) either by option-clicking the Volume icon in the system menu bar or via the Sound pane in System Preferences.

In a home, you may want to share a video or a picture just as you can in iOS. In a business, pushing a Mac's screen to a shared video monitor for demonstrations could be useful. For road warriors, carrying the compact $99 Apple TV, an HDMI cable, an HDMI-to-VGA adapter, and a Mac with Mountain Lion could let you quite easily push your own video to a projector, too.

An area of some friction is the new Gatekeeper feature in Mountain Lion that is supposed to help prevent the spread of malware on Macintoshes. Apple has done a fairly solid job of making it hard to spread malware, but in the last year, we have seen actual, credible attacks affecting hundreds of thousands of Mac users. Gatekeeper thus seems well-timed. (The feature isn't labeled as such in Mountain Lion. Instead, open the Security & Privacy preference pane, click the General button, and then click the lock icon and enter an administrative password.)

Gatekeeper splits the application world into three pieces: apps sold from the Mac App Store, apps sold by "identified developers," and "Anywhere," which represents all other sources. The Mac App Store became available first in Snow Leopard, and Apple uses relatively severe limits and testing before allowing developers to sell software through it. Many developers choose to sell outside the store.

Mac OS X software developers must register with Apple to get access to all the necessary tools and support, which cost $99 per year. (The tools can be had elsewhere, but that violates Apple's licenses.) Any developer who pays the fee can obtain a security certificate from Apple that it can apply against software it releases outside of the App Store. Thus an "identified developer" has this certificate, which shows at least a bit more of a relationship with Apple than the "Anywhere" designation. Should a developer go rogue or have its certificate hijacked, Apple can revoke it and prevent the software from being opened in the future with that setting.

With Mountain Lion, the trouble for users comes when they run software that lacks this certificate for the first time. While much software has been updated to add the Apple "signature," many open-source, small, and out-of-date but still functional packages remain outside of that process.

Mountain Lion ships with Gatekeeper set by default to "Mac App Store and identified developers." Try to open an "unsigned" app, and Mac OS X says you can't. I've seen many frustrated users wonder what Apple is up to, but it's easy to bypass. You can set the security setting to "Anywhere," but there's an option to launch new apps on a case-by-case basis. Select the app and Control-click or right-click to get the contextual menu. Choose Open. Now you're prompted whether you really want to open the app (click Open), and you're all set while still protected from unsigned malware.

Finally, a gem. Hidden in the Internet Sharing service of System Preferences, Apple has upgraded security when you share a network connection in Mac OS X, say from an Ethernet adapter, over Wi-Fi. Since the feature's inception, the Wi-Fi sharing option only allowed you to use an ancient method of encryption that anyone with the tiniest bit of savvy can crack. If you're sharing a connection in public, you may want a bit more security than that.

Mountain Lion now sets WPA2 Personal, a perfectly secure, effective, and widely supported Wi-Fi encryption scheme, as the default option. Older options are revealed only when you hold down Option and click the Security menu. The support of WPA2 Personal also fixes a related problem: a Mac with the fast 802.11n protocol built in could only share a connection at a slower rate of speed (using the 802.11g standard from 2003) when using the old, broken form of encryption.

With WPA2 support, a Mac can correctly create a work-group local network and share a network connection all with strong security throughout.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/practicalmac.

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