The Cat You Have To Have (Part 2)

9/30/2012 9:43:57 PM

Mac, take a memo

Dictation, a feature previously available only on the iPhone 4S and the third-generation iPad, has come to the Mac with Mountain Lion. The dictation engine appears to be identical to the one found on iOS and requires and internet connection. (Keep in mind that Dictation and Siri are two separate functions. Mountain Lion doesn’t offer Siri.)

Description: Description: The Mac OS X Mountain Lion Developer Preview is available to Mac Developer Program members

The Mac OS X Mountain Lion Developer Preview is available to Mac Developer Program members

Mountain Lion dictation can be used just about anywhere there is a blinking cursor. If you can enter text there, you can dictate text into it 0 no app updates required. By default, you kick off a dictation session by tapping the Function key twice, although you can customize this to a different keyboard shortcut in the Dictation and Speech (formerly Speech) preference pane. Then you just say what you want to say and once you’ve finished, your utterances will be rendered (usually quite accurately) as text.

It’s a great addition. Of course, there are better speech-to-text options available commercially. Those programs work on your Mac without an internet connection and offer voice-training and customizability that Mountain Lion’s dictation feature can’t match. But not everyone who might use Dictation needs that level of customizability.

iMessage supplants iChat

In 2011 Apple introduced the iMessage communication system, a replacement for text messaging that let iOS devices communicate directly with one another. Unlike SMS TEXT messages, the iMessage system transfers data (not just text, but images and files) via the internet, so there are no text charges.

Description: Description: With Mountain Lion, support for iMessage comes to the Mac as well as iPhones and iPads

With Mountain Lion, support for iMessage comes to the Mac as well as iPhones and iPads

With Mountain Lion, support for iMessage comes to the Mac as well. And it happens via the Message app, which is a renamed version of iChat with all its old features intact, plus support for iMessage.

Like Messages on the iPhone, Messages for Mac lets you hold multi-person chats and can optionally let people know when you’ve received and read their messages and when you’re typing a reply. And integrated video-chat button allows you to kick off a video chat with capable devices, either over traditional instant-messaging systems (as iChat has always done) or by launching the FaceTime app.

There’s a lot to like about having access to iMessage on the Mac, but there are also frustrations. It’s great that using iMessage means you have a record of your conversations on all of your devices and it makes it easy to keep on having a conversation even if you have to shut down your Mac and head for the bus stop. But every time I receive a message via iMessage on my Mac, my iPad and iPhone also chime or vibrate – not just at the beginning, but every time. There should be a way for Apple to detect which device I’m using to have the iMessage conversation and stop ringing the rest of them.

Alert! Notification center appears

Sometimes your Mac needs to get your attention. For years, many Mac app developers have built their own – think of meeting reminder pop-ups in iCal or Microsoft Office, for example. For years, the open-source project Growl has attempted to create a more general notification system and it’s supported by lots of apps.

With Mountain Lion, OS X gains a system-level notification system accessible to every developer, with features much like those already found in iOS.

Description: Description: Alert! Notification center appears

Alert! Notification center appears

Alerts appear in the top-right corner of the screen in a small bubble. Notifications remain there for five seconds and then slide off screen to the right (unless you swipe them away first or click on them to open the relevant app). Alerts, on the other hand, remain on-screen until you click on the Show or Close (or in the case of some alerts, Snooze) buttons.

The Notification Center list is a narrow band that lives just to off the right side of your screen. You can reveal it either by clicking on the new Notification Center icon at the far right of the menu bar or by swiping with two fingers starting at the far right edge of the trackpad.

Either way, your entire Mac interface will slide to the left, revealing a list of what’s been trying to get your attention recently.

Not all notifications come from apps, either: Because Mountain Lion includes integrated support for Twitter and (soon) Facebook, Notification Center can display notifications from either service – direct messages and/or mentions on Twitter and a whole host of optional items (events, application requests, nearby friends, friend requests, comments, wall posts, messages, photo tags, friend confirmations and place tags) on Facebook.

Apple has even built quick sharing links into the very top of the Notification Center list, so you can click to quickly write a tweet or Facebook status post.

There’s also a new Notifications pane in the System Preferences app, analogous to the Notifications submenu in iOS’s Settings app. From here, you can choose which apps appear within Notification Center and how their alert bubbles behave.

Notifications are good when you want to see them, but they can also get in your way, depending on context. Apple has made some smart decisions in order to let you squelch notifications when they’re not appropriate.

If you scroll up in the Notification Center list, a new option is revealed: Show Alerts and Banners. If you flip the switch to Off, notifications are muted – but only until tomorrow. Apple assumes that you just don’t want to be bugged right now, but doesn’t want you to miss out on important notifications in the future.

Another clever feature is Notification Center’s auto-sensing when a Mac is connected to an external display. I use a second display at my desk and Notification Center has no problem displaying alerts there. But if I hook up my MacBook to an HDTV or a projector, the alerts will be suppressed.

I’ve found Notification Center to be a useful addition to my Mac. This is the sort of feature that needed to be a part of the operating system for the sake of consistency and ubiquity, and Apple’s done a good job of implementing it.

I appreciate being alerted when someone’s sent me a Direct Message on Twitter or when I’ve received an important email, and the settings in the Notification Center control panel are granular enough to allow me to suppress any notifications that get in my way. (In a way, they may be too granular – I wish there was a way to more broadly set notification settings, rather than going app by app.)

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