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Apple OS X Mountain Lion Review: Should You Upgrade?

Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesBy JOANNA STERN, ABC News Technology Editor

(NEW YORK) -- Let's be honest: updating your laptop or desktop with a new operating system isn't usually on your top list of priorities. It's a hassle. You have to pay for the upgrade, go through the process of downloading it and installing it, and then there's no saying the new software will be much better than what you've been using or if it will mess up your current settings.

Today, Apple is releasing the newest version of its OS X operating system -- Mountain Lion. And right off the bat two of those three issues have become, well, non-issues. (Mountain Lion will also come installed on all new Macs.) The operating system is beyond easy to install through the Mac App Store -- all you have to do is hit "install" and it will take care of moving over your files, programs, and settings to the new software. (It does take some time to download the 4GB of software over a stable home Internet connection and I still recommend backing up your stuff before going through the process.) And it only costs $19.99 to get the new OS. That's the same price as a dinner at some restaurants, a few cups of coffee at Starbucks, or a T-Shirt at the Gap.

Apple's taken the pain out of much of the process, but that leaves the third issue: how much better is the software than what you've had? Even if it isn't much of a hassle to upgrade, is it something you even want to do if your computer supports the new software? (Apple provides a list of requirements here; most systems purchased after 2008 are in the clear.) Mountain Lion is really an incremental update to Apple's existing Lion operating system -- meaning it isn't a total overhaul, just another step in Apple's strategy to bring some of the iPhone and iPad features to the Mac. But it adds some interesting components, which are in some ways more meaningful than giving the operating system a total makeover this time around. Here are some specifics:

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Safari:  It has become habit for me to install an extra browser as soon as I get a new Mac laptop, because Apple's Safari has fallen behind Google's Chrome. The new Safari, though, included with Mountain Lion, is a big improvement.

The new Safari feels faster than Google's Chrome, and it has a series of new features that make it really compelling. First on the list: the address bar (finally!) doubles as a search bar; you can just type search terms into the address bar and hit enter to search Google. There is also a share button integrated right into the browser so you can easily share a link via Twitter or e-mail by just clicking it. No copy-and-paste job needed.

Additionally, with iOS 6 coming to the iPhone and iPad, you will be able to sync all your tabs with iCloud. Then, when you view a site on your laptop's Safari, Apple says you will automatically send it to your phone or tablet. (I couldn't test this, as iOS 6 isn't yet out.)

You can also now save a site to your reading list and look at it later, even when you don't have an Internet connection. Finally, Apple has jazzed up the interface; I particularly like how you can view all the open tabs in a carousel.

Messages:  Until now, it's been a bit hard to keep track of all of Apple's messaging systems. There's iChat, iMessage, and then FaceTime. Messages finally solves the problem by putting everything in one central app. And it's really that simple. I logged into my Apple account in the app and I was able to see all my chats across all three of those services. Even better, it syncs with your iPhone and iPad, so you can respond to your iMessages right on your laptop without having to pick up your iPhone. The whole app is intuitive and clean. (Messages is available for separate download for those not using Mountain Lion.)

Notification Center:  It's hard to use Mountain Lion, or even Lion for that matter, and not see the influence that the iPad and Apple's iOS has had on its laptop and desktop operating system. And Notification Center is a prime example of mobile-like features hitting OS X. Swipe two fingers from right to left on the edge of the trackpad and Notification Center, a panel with a list of notifications, will pop in from the right side of the screen. Emails, missed instant messages, iMessages, Tweets, etc. all show up in the notification tray, and Apple is working with third-party developers so their notifications will show up there too.

iCloud:  Apple has said the cloud is integral to its products and services, and now its iCloud service is integrated into the heart and soul of OS X. As soon as you boot up the new operating system you are asked to log into your iCloud account. That will then sync everything on your iCloud account, including your emails, notes, reminders, iMessages, etc. across all your devices.

As soon as I logged into my iCloud account on a MacBook Pro with Retina Display running Mountain Lion, my notes from my iPad and iPhone popped right up in the Notes application. Of course, this is really only a useful feature if you own more than one Apple product. Unfortunately, Apple doesn't offer Android or Windows versions of its iCloud apps. (For those unsure of what this cloud thing even is, check out our cloud primer here.)

Speaking of apps, I didn't have any issues installing third-party apps on two laptops running Mountain Lion. If there are specific apps you rely on you will want to check that they are compatible with the new software to be safe.

Sharing:  Also integrated into the operating system is the ability to share, and while it sounds basic, it's oen of the features that makes this a must-have upgrade. Apple lets you sign into your Twitter, Flickr, or Vimeo accounts right in Mountain Lion's System Preferences. Then you can share automatically from apps like Safari, iPhoto, etc.

I was easily able to tweet photos through iPhoto (it uploaded the photo to Twitter's photo sharing service) and then Tweet a website from Safari. But it requires you use the native Twitter client, rather than one of the third-party ones you might be running. Apple does plan to add Facebook integration this Fall.

Dictation:  I actually spoke these words when writing this review. Yes, these very words. Turn on the dictation function under System Preferences, press the function key twice, put your cursor where you want your text to appear and start talking.

The software worked very well, completing full paragraphs without errors and recognizing where to put spaces, though not punctuation. While the dictation function worked in the address bar of Safari and in Gmail, it didn't work in Google Docs.

Stability:  There are lots of other new features in the latest version of Mountain Lion -- like Game Center access and Airplay, which lets you stream what is on your computer to the latest Apple TV. But on top of those all Apple has cleaned up some of the small issues that one found in Lion. For instance, in Lion when I opened a number of photos at once in Preview, the thumbnails wouldn't always show; in Mountain Lion they do.

Another example: When I tried to hook up my laptop to a second display using Lion, I couldn't expand an app on the second display to full-screen. In Mountain Lion, I can. I didn't experience any application crashes when testing the software either.

And that's ultimately why Mountain Lion is worth your $20. Not only do you get a bevy of new features, which I found to enhance and speed up my day-to-day computing tasks, but it cleans up some flaky issues that lingered in Lion. For the price of those cups of coffee, you get a modern operating system, which more than any other right now gives you a continuous computing experience with your phone and tablet. Of course, whether you upgrade is up to you, but you cannot use the it's-a-hassle excuse.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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