OS X Mountain Lion First Thoughts

I was a bit surprised today to find out that Apple had announced another new OS only 7 months after they launched Lion. As you would expect though, Mountain Lion is more of the same in terms of new additions being heavily inspired by their incredibly successful mobile operating system, iOS.Probably the most useful new additions are notifications, notes and airplay mirroring. There’s no real reason to explain what any of these apps do as it’ll be very clear to any iOS  and Mac users what is being done with them, but there are still some things to mention.

While it’s hardly revolutionary, Notification Centre has its place in Mountain Lion. It should prove to be pretty useful and it’s just nice that Apple have finally got an official notification app, as in the past, a lot of OS X users have turned to an app called Growl for this functionality. It would be unfortunate if this rendered that software obsolete, but it definitely makes OS X a more complete operating system right out of the box for the general consumer.

Notes was already a part of Mac OS for a number of years, but until now it’s been nestled away as part of the Mail app. It still synced with iCloud, (mobile me originally) but it wasn’t the most simple of experiences which Apple have clearly picked up on and wanted to rectify now. If you weren’t a fan of the Mail app, or just prefered Gmail or another web based service as I do, you probably would go elsewhere for your note taking service. As a standalone app, Notes is far more appealing due to its simplicity, desktop pinning options and stylish layout as well as the clear benefit of iCloud syncing to your other devices. Like most of the other Mountain Lion features, it’s an obvious addition, but a good one.

AirPlay Mirroring is something that we’ve all wanted in the past. Connecting your laptop to a TV with a cable in order to watch a streaming service of some kind has never been as easy as it should have been. AirPlay mirroring on iPhone 4S and iPad 2 went some way towards that goal but with a mobile OS you’re always hampered from doing certain things due to the limitation of the browser or apps not letting you stream content. With AirPlay Mirroring on Mac OS you’ll have the most freedom in connecting a computer to a TV ever. A cable-free experience that is extremely simple to set up, all the while being unrestricted as to what content you can display on the biggest screen in your house.

It also just goes to further enhance the viability and usefulness of the Apple TV. I love what I can do with mine. I stream NBA games from the iPod app to the TV with Airplay, watch movies with Netflix, stream music and so many other things. It’s a fantastic little box if you understand how to use it to its full potential.

And if Apple overhaul the software at some point and add an app store, the potential is practically limitless for what you could do with it. It could even be used for gaming if you had a bluetooth controller to pair it with. Having said that, we’ve already seen real racing 2 adopt AirPlay to stream the picture to the TV and play the game using the tilt function of the iPod, iPad or iPhone. This concept could be taken so much further in future.

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WWDC 2011 – Part 3: iOS5

The main new features of iOS5 are the new notification centre, wi-fi syncing and the ability to be PC free and iMessage among others.

Notification centre is definitely the biggest and most significant update. I got my first smartphone a while back, a Sony Ericsson Android phone. It doesn’t run the most up to date version of Android but you can immediately see the difference in notifications between it and the iPhone. You swipe down from the top of the screen and see all of your notifications. Apple have clearly neglected this important area of the device for some time now but thankfully they look to have done a great job in updating it.

Now, instead of being greeted by one notification at a time, each in a big blue bubble, now you see a sleek list of individual notifications. Each of which you can swipe to go straight to the corresponding app. It’s so much more functional now especially if you get a lot of notifications that you don’t want to miss. Like android, you can access the list when the device is awake by sliding your finger down from the top of the screen. It’s far from revolutionary, but to be fair, they do implement it well even if they did copy from Google.

PC free and wi-fi syncing is also a great addition. It, combined with all of the iCloud features will finally stop the critics who say that the iPad is not a true tablet computer but an oversized iPod Touch. It can now plainly go head to head with any traditional tablet in terms of functionality. This also is available on iPhone and iPod Touch, where it’s welcome but not as necessary as it is for iPad.

The wi-fi syncing is also welcome. If you can plug it in to charge using any device or better yet unplugged, then this could be very useful for me, but regardless, it’s nice to see something people have been requesting for a long time now being added.

iMessage is an interesting one. On one hand, surely we already have enough methods of communcation. Texting, email, twitter, facebook etc. You would be forgiven for thinking “why do we need another one?” I’m struggling with this question myself. It would be nice to have a method of communication between iDevices, but how confusing will it be for iPhone users who already have an identical looking texting app? It takes away the simplicity and speed of texting, as you’re relying on 3G or wi-fi, both battery draining. The jury is out on this app I think. We’ll just have to see how it pans out when we get to use it.

News Stand is an interesting idea, and looks to be the fourth separate store Apple are starting, this time dedicated to all newspaper and magazine subscriptions. I like the idea of integrating it directly into the home screen. It makes you wonder why they didn’t do that with iBooks but are here. It’s a bit inconsistent. If it is built into the OS by default as opposed to a download like iBooks then it would be further adding to that inconsistency.

Other improvements of note include Safari, which now has an instapaper clone built in that syncs with iCloud, the reader feature that the desktop version has had for a while and tabbed browsing on iPad, all nice improvements but not earth shattering.

Reminders is pretty self explanatory and looks nice, although I’m so used to Google tasks by this point. You can now use the volume up key to take photos and it’s quicker to jump into the camera app which is a nice touch. The photos app allows simple editing such as cropping, red-eye removal and auto-enhance. Again, all welcome additions.

There are other new features, but most are not really worth talking about, especially Twitter, which seems a bit pointless from where I’m sitting, since you can do all of the things they advertise, albeit slightly less well integrated, by using the official Twitter app which many have already.

Overall though, I think iOS5 is a pretty impressive update and a step forward in many ways. WWDC in general was a triumph. I love iCloud and iOS5 especially and I don’t think they could have done much better with anything they showed on that day.

I’m keenly looking forward to the next Apple event to hear about new iPods, that new iPhone everyone’s speculating about and of course some new computers.

WWDC 2011 – Part 2: iCloud

I think iCloud is fantastic. When it was first announced, we assumed generally that it would be the name for a new iTunes streaming service but it ended up being so much more, and all of it great.

I’ve been saying for such a long time now that I thought Apple should compete with Google in cloud services. Mobile me simply did not make sense when compared to Google’s free services like Gmail, Google calendar and documents among others. Sure, they were good but they cost money they probably weren’t worth.

iCloud takes everything good that Mobile Me did, makes it free and adds more besides. Whether me.com email addresses can challenge the traditional heavyweights in email like hotmail, yahoo, aol and gmail is another question, but I suppose just the fact that the domain is only two characters should help its cause somewhat. Whether they actually gain substantial market share in all of these cloud services is beside the point, just the fact that it’s free is great and it makes them competitive at least.

iCloud also expands on Mobile Me’s original syncing concept and takes things a lot further and really puts them far ahead of anyone else in terms of mainstream cloud syncing services. Not only does in sync the usual things, contacts, calendars and mail, but also practically everything else you could think of. Your photos, videos, iWork documents, a complete backup of all of your device settings and data from your apps.

These things are all fantastic, but the real star of the show here is the automatic syncing and backup of your purchases from all three of Apple’s stores. All of your music, apps and books will automatically download to all of your devices. No more syncing and homesharing across numerous devices and computers, and no worrying about backing up your precious music. If in future you somehow lose your music on all of your devices, you can just download it again for no extra charge. Apple say that there’s no limit to how many times you can re-download purchases but I assume they’ll be fairly lenient as long as you don’t abuse the function.

For me, this will completely change my purchasing of music in the future. Recently, I’ve been going exclusively to Amazon MP3 for my music, as it’s generally quite a bit cheaper than iTunes for almost everything, and sometimes by a very significant amount. However, the extra value you get from not having to worry about syncing anything and keeping a library in perfect order, as well as the peace of mind of not having to back up purchases make it worth the extra money in my opinion.

At first, I was a bit surprised that Apple didn’t do something more elaborate with iTunes in the cloud in the same vein as Spotify or possibly a locker type arrangement like Amazon cloud player or Google Music. When I thought about it more, I understood why they went in the direction they did.

The reason why they didn’t go with a locker type arrangement is because it’s complex, involves uploading an entire library to the cloud which is far from ideal and wastes storage space with potentially a huge number of copies of the same song being uploaded. I think the Spotify streaming model would make more sense but Ap[ple have traditionally stayed away from the renting model for music as they like people to feel that they own the music they download. The iTunes Match service is essentially the happy medium between these two options. It scans your library for music that wasn’t downloaded on iTunes. AKA: from another online service, ripped from CDs or obtained in less than legal ways and looks for matches in Apple’s catalogue. You pay a flat fee and any music you have that is available in iTunes match is either upgraded to 256kbps if it’s lower quality, or if the music is not on iTunes, those select songs will be uploaded. Everything will then be treated as if you bought it from iTunes originally, and will be synced to all of your devices automatically. This is a nice idea and I’m sure Apple will make it as easy to understand as possible, but it remains to be seen what will happen if you don’t renew your subscription. Hopefully you’ll get to keep any music that was upgraded in the new form, and perhaps even still be able to keep uploaded music synced, but that’s a long shot.

Either way, I can’t wait to check out iCloud when it launches in the autumn. Just the small taster we’ve been given in the UK of being able to sync Apps and books but not not music has got me excited to check out the whole package.

WWDC 2011 – Part 1: Lion

WWDC 1
Image via Wikipedia

Apple did something uncharacteristic this year in the lead up to WWDC, they announced what they were going to show at the conference. We knew they would be covering Mac OS Lion, iOS5 and iCloud at the event. Normally they have kept quiet even when the cover had all but been blown on an upcoming product.

Everything they announced was exciting in some way. I want to just go through each of them in turn now.

Mac OS Lion

In this era we’re in that people increasingly call the “post PC world”, you would think it would be tough to excite people with an update to a traditional desktop operating system.

If anyone could do it though, it’s Apple and they didn’t disappoint. The main new features in Lion which interest me are Launchpad, resume (includes auto save and versions) and full screen apps. All of these three new features are great additions for obvious reasons. Auto save is always going to be useful, and launchpad takes the best of iOS and brings it to the desktop.

In the past I’ve used several ways to launch my apps that weren’t in my dock. I’ve used quicksilver to type the first letter of an app to launch that way, by using a special launcher app I found, as well as what I do currently. This is to use the stacks feature of leopard to have an apps folder on the far right of my dock next to the downloads stack. Even though this works well, launchpad takes this further and really delivers the optimum app launching experience. It utilities the entire desktop and folders are a great way to organize desktop apps, just like I swear by them on my iPod Touch to keep me on top of my ridiculous number of apps.

If Launchpad becomes as successful as I think it could do, then we may see Apple make a change to the dock itself in future. They may make it restricted in how many icons can fit in it, just like on the iPhone, and then just give you a launchpad icon on the left to get to the rest of your apps. It would definitely tidy up the desktop and give it a more simplistic look, but I’m not sure if they would commit to this as it could upset some users who like their desktops to be a certain way.

Despite all of the great little changes that Apple have made in Lion, there are a few which I think may be overkill for most people. Most notably, mission control and the increased number of multi-touch gestures.

I’ve always loved the double finger scroll on my MacBook and I can certainly appreciate why gestures are useful for pinching, zooming and rotating for image manipulation. These are natural gestures and the work well. Where it gets to be overkill is with complex gestures involving up to three fingers. This isn’t really intuitive and I doubt many people will use these. I first realized this when Craig Federighi was demoing gestures at the back to the mac conference last year. He was struggling a bit with getting the gestures to work correctly. It may be true that he was doing it with a magic mouse, which isn’t so easy to manipulate as a track pad on a macbook, but I still don’t see it as a feature most people will make use of.

This brings me on to Mission Control. This feature seeks to combine expose, spaces, dashboard and full screen apps into one overview of your system. Personally, I really like expose so I hope they keep that as an option as well, as I don’t use spaces at all. With that said, it is still similar to that feature except that it groups windows of the same app together rather than spreading everything apart. You can spread open these groups but it’s not as easy as it used to be. I’ll have to reserve judgement until I can get to use it myself, but it definitely has potential for mainly power users I would assume.

It looks like Apple have done a good job here with Lion. It still looks a lot like Snow Leopard but looks can be deceiving. There’s definitely been a lot of good changes made. In the past, these upgrades have been on discs and cost around £80. This time, there are no discs, the price has been slashed by three quarters to just £20 and also gone are the family packs to enable the OS on all of your computers. Now, you just download it from the Mac App Store on every personal Mac you own.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to install it on my current MacBook as it’s 5 years old and isn’t fast enough to run it, which is a disappointment, but maybe sometime soon I’ll be able to upgrade to one of those new MacBook Airs that look great.

Come back for parts 2 and 3 where I’ll talk about iOS5 and iCloud.