(USA TODAY by Edward C. Baig) The new Mac OS X Mountain Lion operating system software that Apple unleashes in the wild today doesn't represent as dramatic a change as Microsoft will be making this fall moving from Windows 7 to Windows 8.
In Microsoft's case, the look and feel of its upcoming operating system - meant to be friendly for touch-capable tablets in addition to traditional PCs - is starkly different compared with earlier versions of Windows
By contrast, in migrating from OS X Lion to Mountain Lion, the ninth significant release of OS X in 11 years, Apple takes the Mac on a path that will look awfully familiar to users of the iPad and iPhone. But the added features should please the Mac faithful just the same.
As part of Lion, Apple brought OS X ever closer to the iOS operating system at the heart of the company's prized tablet and smartphone. In several ways, Mountain Lion makes the two operating systems even more alike, raising the question of if, or perhaps, when, they will merge someday.
For now, users of the iPad and iPhone will recognize in Mountain Lion such iOS fixtures as Notification Center, Notes, Reminders, Game Center, Messages, Dictation and AirPlay Mirroring.
Among the updated features, I'm keen on Twitter and especially Facebook integration, plus improvements in the Safari Web browser. Throughout the operating system, Apple has placed a handy "share" button within apps, making it simple to share photos, videos, Web links and documents, with different options depending on the app. Mountain Lion is also the first version of OS X to come out since Apple introduced its iCloud service.
Apple is making a big deal about new features aimed at buyers in China, as well. Suffice to say, the typical American consumer will recognize a mere fraction of the more than 200 new features that Apple is claiming overall for Mountain Lion.
I've been testing Mountain Lion on a MacBook Pro loaner laptop. I also upgraded my own second-generation MacBook Air laptop, which was previously running Lion.
My verdict: The collective changes in Mountain Lion are worth the relatively modest $19.99 price to upgrade, though you'll have to wait for some features. For example, the ability to display and keep your Facebook friends data fresh in the newly renamed Contacts app - it had been called the Address Book - comes as part of another software update this fall.
Taming Mountain Lion. The new operating system will be preloaded on new Macs, of course. Folks who bought a Mac on or after June 11 are eligible for a free upgrade.
Those paying for the upgrade must download the new operating system from the Mac App Store. After the purchase, you can freely install the software onto all the personal Macs you own, provided the machines meet the system minimum requirements. That basically eliminates an iMac or MacBook Pro dating to the middle of 2007 or earlier, a Mac Pro from early 2008 or before, a Mac mini from early 2009 or prior, and MacBooks and MacBook Airs that came out ahead of late 2008. Even if your machine can handle Mountain Lion, it might not be able to handle all the new features.
Exhibit A: On the MacBook Pro, I was able to successfully test AirPlay Mirroring, a feature that, through an optional Apple TV box, lets you wirelessly display what's on the Mac screen on a high-definition television. It wouldn't work on my Air, though.
Another new feature, called Power Nap, can silently keep the computer up-to-date with such things as mail messages, calendar and store updates and more while it sleeps. It, too, requires recent (mid-2011 or later) Mac hardware.
Running the upgrade. The upgrade on my MacBook Air went smoothly and took all of 20 minutes. Apple says any further updates to the operating system from here on will come through the Mac App Store rather than through Software Update.
ICloud. Apple's cloud-based service, launched last fall, now has 125 million accounts. You can easily set up Apple's cloud service by logging into the computer with an Apple ID - copying your settings, accounts and any work you 've done on other devices to the Mac. One way to exploit iCloud is by storing documents you've created from the various apps supporting the Documents In the Cloud feature that Apple is touting. Any edits you've made to the documents from iOS or Mountain Lion machines are reflected when you launch the document from another device. Of course, Microsoft, Google and others are hoping you'll use their cloud-based services.
Messages. The iMessage instant chat and text-messaging service on the iPhone and iPad come to the Mac, as part of the newly named Messages app. It had been iChat in earlier iterations of OS X. Through iMessage, you can send free texts to anyone with an iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or Mac with Mountain Lion, adding sizable HD videos or other attachments of up to 100 megabytes. You see indicators when your message has been delivered, read or when the recipient is banging out a response. You can easily arrange group messaging, too, and switch to a FaceTime video call at the click of a button.
Apple plans to unify your AppleID and your phone number when iOS 6 software ships in the fall, which should make it easy for some people to get in touch. The app also lets you use supported instant messaging services AIM, Yahoo, Google Talk and Jabber.
Reminders and Notes. Reminders provides basic to-do lists; Notes is an area to, well, jot down whatever is on your mind. You can even pin one to your desktop. As in iOS, you can arrange to have a reminder appear when you arrive at a particular location. Through iCloud, the apps can be kept in sync with reminders and notes on your iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and various computers.
Notification Center. Another iOS feature brought to the Mac is a repository for calendar invites, messages, missed FaceTime calls, Game Center friend requests, Twitter mentions and more. Notifications are generally unobtrusive; Apple turns them off if you're giving a presentation in its Keynote software. You can choose to be notified by a banner that appears in the upper right corner of the screen that goes away automatically. Or select an alert that stays on the screen until you dismiss it. To summon a notification, you swipe with two fingers from the right edge of the computer's trackpad to the left. Or you can click on an icon that appears on the upper right corner of the screen. Another nicety: Within Notification Center, you can post a Facebook status update or tweet without opening a separate app. Apple is opening Notification Center so that developers can add such notifications to their apps.
Facebook. Speaking of Facebook, the Contacts app will be populated with your Facebook friends. When a pal makes a change to a phone number or address within Facebook, the change is reflected on your computer. Your friends' birthdays also appear in the Calendar app. Through a bit of weirdness on the MacBook Pro, though, numerous "Birthday" listings appeared with no name, alongside the listings for people having a birthday who were named. Apple says it could be a beta issue, since Facebook integration isn't quite final.
Safari. Apple has unified the address bar and search field within the browser, following the lead of other browsers. You can easily see which tabs are open by pinching in on the trackpad, then swiping to move among them. Via iCloud, you can see which tabs are open (and pick up from where you left off) on your other devices.
Game Center. You can discover games, stats, and field requests inside Game Center, another feature borrowed from iOS. But I wasn't able to test social gaming by competing against someone on the Mac, or on an iOS device. Apple says Mac apps capable of taking advantage of Game Center are coming at launch but only a handful at the start.
AirPlay Mirroring. If you have an Apple TV and recent Mac, you can wirelessly display the screen contents of the Mac on an HDTV. I got AirPlay Mirroring to work with the MacBook Pro, though there was occasional stuttering as I watched videos from Hulu Plus and Netflix on my Panasonic HDTV, possibly a connection hiccup. It was generally watchable, though the screen was far brighter and sharper on the computer.
Dictation. Apple chose to leave its Siri voice assistant off the Mac for now. But you can use your own voice to dictate instead of type, just by rapidly pressing the function key on the keyboard twice. The computer didn't always recognize what I had to say, but in quiet environments, got it right more times than not.
Gatekeeper. Through the years, the Mac operating system has been near bulletproof when it comes to malware and viruses. New Gatekeeper security technology that can screen suspect apps you want to download is meant to keep it that way.
Apple has committed to a roughly once-a-year upgrade path with OS X, so don't be surprised if next year, Mac software resembles iOS software that much more. In the meantime, Mountain Lion is one big cat that you'll want on your computer