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The OS X Mountain Lion Survival Guide

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OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion is here. You're probably going to read a lot about all the new features and how Apple's out of ideas. Here's a guide to what will make using all that ML stuff easier—and what's going to make the new OS a pain.


Last year, OS X 10.7 Lion took a lot of us by surprise. "Back to the Mac" was the claim. Instead, we got an identity crisis wrapped in a Unix shell. This year? We know what we're in for. Mountain Lion is basically just Lion with a speed boost a dash more iOS in its veins.

Here's how to make the transition as seamless as possible. (Only after backing up your system, of course.)


What's Better

You Might Actually Want to Use Safari Now

For a long time, Safari has been Apple's hobby horse. It's stuffed full of new, semi-useful-looking features every OS X update, but for advanced users, Chrome is still the browser of choice. That might change this go 'round.

In addition to all the other Safari-only and Safari-friendlier features, the new tab switching is really good. You pinch with two fingers when you're all the way zoomed out on a page (which you should be by default), and you enter a screen that lets you scroll between all of your tabs quickly, with visual previews of each page. It's very lightweight, fast, and responsive.


Messages Is Not as Bad as You Remember

When Apple released the public beta for Messages, it was an unnatural disaster. Almost literally nothing worked, and what did work didn't work correctly. Sure, it was an early build beta, and a ton of the people using it were also using an early beta build of their OS. But the initial reaction was as loud as it was unanimous: This sucks. This doesn't work. What the hell.


Now, though, the issues are limited to a few people having issues with file transfers using iMessage. In every other way, Messages is the smooth, unified chat client that we hoped it would turn into.

The search bar is still broken as hell, though. Use Loghorrea instead.

What Can Be Easily Fixed

You Can Still Get Rid of the Ugly Leather in Calendar and Contacts

Last year, MacNix graciously gave us a free answer for the terrible leather makeovers of iCal and Address Book. Now he's done the same with Contacts and Calendar. Just go to the MacNix blog, and download the DMG files there. Install them, and your Contacts and Calendar will get an aluminum skin, instead of Scott Forstall's wild western leather bonanza.


Change the Default Location of Growl or Notifications

Growl is one of the apps that Apple is trying to murder in Mountain Lion. So far, so good—notifications are mostly very good. But for now, the two of them co-exist in notifying hell. New song comes on your Sonos while you get an IM? Sorry, you can't see that Notification panel. Both still serve a purpose, but you're going to want to move one of them to another corner.


Alternatively, you can download Hiss. It's a program that gathers up all of your Growl notifications and turns them into notifications. The downside is that if you get a lot of growl notifications, it can clog up your Notifications Center in a hurry. Also, you lose deeper features in Growl, like album art displaying when a new song comes on, or being able to click the notification and be popped into the app that launched it.

Re-Map Gestures That Don't Make Sense

Another year, another set of Apple gestures to make sense of. While this year's are absolutely more intuitive than last year's, as a whole, the gestures in OS X are less everyone-friendly than they have been in the past. So, if you'd rather have more customization than you're allowed in the basic System Preferences—which isn't much—you can install BetterTouchTool for free and assign any gesture to any command.


It works perfectly, and it can even add a Snap feature, like in Windows 7, that automatically resizes your windows to full-, half-, or quarter-screen.


Make Your Library Folder Visible

Like in Lion, your user library folder is hidden by default. That makes a number of things a pain, but it's really easily fixed: Just copy the following line of code, and paste it into Terminal:

chflags nohidden /Users/USERNAME/Library

That's it. You can navigate to your Library folder now.

Enable Key Repeat

One of the other holdover issues from Lion is the lack of key repeat. That's where you hold down the L key when typing helllllllllll no. To re-enable it, you just need to paste this into Terminal, and then restart:

defaults write -g ApplePressAndHoldEnabled -bool false

Notifications Has a Do Not Disturb Mode


It's nice that Notifications are so deeply embedded into OS X now, but if you want to keep a log of everything that happens without getting distracted while you finish a project, you can turn off the alerts and banner notifications. Just open Notification Center and drag it down with two fingers. There's an On/Off switch hidden above.

Use Keyboard Shortcuts for Notifications

Beyond re-mapping your gestures, you can make use of some of the function keys that Apple doubles up with easy-to-use gestures. Mission Control, for example, uses F3 by default. If you've got that mapped to a simple gesture, then you can use F3 for something like, say, App Exposé, or switching to specific Spaces, or just opening the Notification Center.


Gatekeeper Is Kind of Dumb


GateKeeper is Apple's new security measure to protect you from malicious software. It warns you when you're about to install an app it doesn't recognize, or just something you didn't install form the Mac App Store. It has varying degrees of strictness, but its default is pretty totalitarian. It freaks out about Steam, for instance. Steam! You can fix this under System Preferences > Security and Privacy > General, and checking Allow App Downloads from Anywhere.

Pains in the Butt You Can't Avoid

Battery Life Issues

Based on the GM build, there have been reports that Mountain Lion is consuming battery power much faster than Lion had. That seems odd, since it's also running a good deal smoother, which implies efficiency and fewer resources being used, but it's something to keep in mind if you need all the battery life you can get.


Full Screen Still Sucks on Two Monitors

Another lingering issue in Mountain Lion is the way it treats fullscreen apps when you're using two displays. Just like in Lion, fullscreen mode creates a whole new virtual workspace in Mission Control. That means that you're stuck using a fullscreen app on one screen, and on the other you have a stupid grey screen not doing anything. Great.


Notifications Are Kind of Untrustworthy

OK, so the notifications panel is pretty nice overall. And the alerts for new Messages and Emails are especially good. But it's all finicky. Sometimes an email will get stuck in the notifications panel, even after you've read it. Other times you'll get a Messages notification for an IM you received 10 minutes ago, instead of one you just got, or when nothing happened at all.


Update: The image below points from the Twitter notifications to the Mac app, but the Twitter API is linked to the web client. The point remains for Messages and Mail.


There's a Chance Something Is Up with Wi-Fi

There have been reports in beta, including the GM release, of issues with Wi-Fi connectivity. Apparently, with certain networks, people are able to connect, but do not get any internet service over the connection. Which would be a big deal. Apparently wired connections still work, but if you absolutely, positively, 100 percent cannot afford a connection problem like that, it might be prudent to hold back a few days.


You Can't Sync Messages Logs Across Computers Anymore

With iChat, you used to be able select which folder you wanted to save your message logs to. That's no longer the case in Mountain Lion. Now, you just select whether you want to save them at all, and they are spirited away to your Library folder. You can find it by making your user Library visible using the Terminal command above, and navigating to User > Library > Messages > Archive. Your old logs will be ported over, and sorted by date in that folder.


That would be enough of a headache, but as a side effect, your logs also no longer show up in Spotlight searches—even if you make the Library folder visible using the trick above.

Power Nap Is MIA

Power Nap is Apple's take on Intel's Smart Connect technology, which wakes your closed laptop into a low-power state periodically when it's in range of a Wi-Fi connection, and pushes new email, messages, and alerts to your machine. It's also totally MIA as far as we can tell in the GM. Presumably, it will come in a firmware update—probably soon—but for now you're without one of the more useful updates to Mountain Lion.


Mission Control Still Kinda Sucks

Mission Control was one of the more controversial changes to Lion. It killed all-app Exposé and multi-row Spaces. People liked that stuff. In their place, we get a mutant hybrid of the spaces and old Exposé, with the added benefit that all of an app's windows are grouped together.


Apple fixed some issues with the original iteration, like not being able to rearrange spaces, but there are still dumb issues. Why can't you move the first Space on the left somewhere else? Why are you sometimes unable to drag a window into another space? You have to drop it and re-drag it, and hope this time you see the darkening-out animation over the other Space. And why can't you drag an app from one display's Space to another Space on your other display?

Organization for Finder Somehow Got Even More Confusing

Finder's sorting options haven't changed, exactly. It's still got the option to show you traditional icon view, list view, or the new-to-Lion by-type scrollable rows. And you still have to hold down the Option (alt) key after clicking the settings button in a Finder window to get to the "Sort by" options instead of the "Arrange by" options, which are totally different but you'd never know from their names.


What's new is the Arrange by button right next to the settings button. So you've got two ways to use the hard-to-navigate Arrange options, and the other set of options buried in plain sight. It's a small gripe, but a telling one in the way that Apple's arranged its infrastructure.

And if you skipped Lion all together, you can check out the tips we gave you last year, in our OS X Lion Survival Guide. Otherwise, check out the best new tips for Mountain Lion.


Mountain Lion Review: OS X Needs A New Vision
Go Get Mountain Lion Right Now!
OS X Mountain Lion's Best 10 Tricks: The How-To Video Guide
Should You Upgrade to OS X Mountain Lion?


Image credit: Culver/Hulton Archive