Adventures with Mountain Lion: Notifications

Apple's move to embrace Growl-like system notifications is an admirable first step, but there's work to be done. 

The new cat Mountain Lion has finally been unleashed, continuing Apple's push to make Macs look and feel more like iPads. This week I've taken a closer look at a few aspects such as the move to embrace iMessage on the desktop and the move to banish RSS. Today I'll wrap up with a look at Mac OS' new system-wide notification system.

Notifications are basically little pop-up windows which alert you to important events. They've been around in various guises for many years and you've probably encountered them with desktop mail and calendar applications. You'll also find them in web browsers thanks to technologies such as HTML5. Notifications have also found their way onto mobile devices, plus Apple "borrowed" the concept of a dropdown notification bar from Android.

The way you use notifications depends on the way you like to work. Some people hate pop-up notifications because they distract them from the task at hand. Alternatively some people love notifications because they let them keep an eye on the world. Personally I love detailed pop-up email notifications because I can glance at them to decide if the email needs my immediate attention or if it can wait. A basic "You've Got Mail" notification is frustrating, because it forces me to constantly switch between applications, only to discover it wasn't worth the interruption. I also use notifications for calendar appointments, instant messaging and news alerts (the latter tapping into RSS feeds).

There's no right or wrong way to use notifications, it really comes down to personal preference. That's why flexibility is important in a system-wide notification system. Of course if you're a Mac user who loves notifications then you've probably discovered the impressive Growl (there's also Growl for Windows, but I've never used it so I can't vouch for it). If you're hoping Mac OS' new built-in Notification service will match all the bells and whistles of Growl you'll be disappointed, but the new system shows potential.

Notifications is a new option in the Mountain Lion System Preferences which mimics the look and feel of the Notifications options built into iOS. As with iOS, this desktop menu reveals which desktop applications are compatible with Notifications and lets you tweak how their notifications are displayed.

Apple has also added a dropdown Notification List on the Mac OS desktop for viewing a list of recent alerts. It slides out from the right (pictured above) and is available from any desktop if you're using Spaces. You can access the Notification List using a new icon in the status bar at the top right, but it takes a little time to adjust if you instinctively dive for the top right corner to access Spotlight.

You can also call up the Notification List with a two-finger swipe to the left which starts off the trackpad. After a while this feels easier than going for the status bar icon. When you call up the Notification List, what you see is pretty much identical to the pulldown notification area on an iGadget. Yes, your Mac now looks that little bit more like an iPad. Scroll up and you'll find a switch which disables all notifications (but it will switch itself back on the next day). Notifications are also suspended by default when you run presentations. At the top of the Notification List you'll also find a box for typing Twitter posts, but it only appears if you've entered your Twitter contacts via the Mail, Contacts and Calendars System Preferences panel.

The Notification List only takes up about a fifth of the screen, but you can't leave it open while you work. Clicking on a desktop application hides it away. Unfortunately if you're away from your Mac for a few minutes, there's no way to tell at a glance whether there are new notifications waiting for you. It would be handy if the Notifications icon change appearance in some way to let you know.

Thankfully Apple has opened up Notifications to third-party developers from day one, so you can expect more applications to get onboard over time. Of course at the moment Growl is the de facto Mac notification standard which is supported by a vast range of applications. Growl's new Rollup feature is also similar to the Notifications List. Growl's developers intend to incorporate Notifications support, but it remains to be seen whether Notifications and Growl will peacefully co-exist or whether Growl will be marginalised over time.

The latest version of Growl is only available through the Mac App store, which is both good news and bad. The good news is that Apple obviously hasn't declared open war on Growl. The bad news is that Apple can change its mind on a whim and leave Growl in the lurch. That's the price you pay for getting into bed with Apple.

Head over the to the Systems Preferences and you find that by default Notifications on Mac OS supports Calendar, FaceTime, Game Centre, Mail, Messages, Reminders, Safari and Mac OS's new Twitter integration. Third-parties are obviously welcome, because Google Chrome (my browser of choice) also appears in my Notification Centre. You can click on applications in the list to change how they behave, with options similar to iOS -- no notification, a "banner" which disappears after a few seconds or an "alert" which stays on the screen until you deal with it. Alerts offer interactive options such as Reply and Dismiss, although if you're fast enough you can click on a banner to switch to that app. You can also elect to play a sound with your notification, although for some reason the email sounds won't play for me. I've also found that Twitter alerts are sometimes very slow to arrive.

One frustrating thing about Notifications is that you can't modify the appearance and location of your pop-ups as you can with Growl. All Notifications are small grey windows and only a drab application icon distinguishes them. You can't make the text of a notification larger or control how long it remains on the screen. What's more frustrating for me is that only one Notification appears at a time, with the next one pushing it off the screen after a few seconds. It's frustrating if a few emails come in at once. I prefer Growl's option to give each notification its own window. Occasionally it means I get a string of pops down the side of the screen, but at least I don't miss anything. I realise not everyone wants to use notifications this way, but at least it would be nice to have the option rather than Apple's standard "father knows best" approach.

Of course as with every Mac OS upgrade, Apple Mail has disabled all my favourite plug-ins including GrowlMail. So at the moment I'm stuck with Apple's mail notifications. Unfortunately it looks like the GrowlMail project may have stalled, which is disappointing. I'd be happy to pay a few dollars for a new version that worked with Mountain Lion (and a few more dollars for the awesome MailTabs, which adds tabs to Apple Mail). If the loss of the GrowlMail plug-in is a deal-breaker for you, you might considering switching to another mail client which supports Growl, although changing mail client isn't decision one should rush into. Unfortunately even workarounds such as modifying GrowlMail to work with the new Apple Mail 6.0 and rolling back to the last version of Growl don't see to bring back email notifications.

Unfortunately Apple has also stripped the RSS features out of Mail and Safari, while it's spun off Mail's notes features in a separate iOS-style app. Once again some people might prefer to use Notes this way but some of us relied on using Notes within Apple Mail and don't appreciate Apple enforcing change simply to slavishly mimic the iPad.

Mac users will also notice that Apple has also taken away Calendar's traditional pop-up notifications, which previously let you select how long you wanted to snooze an item before you were alerted again. New Calendar notifications have a snooze button, but there's no way to know how long it will snooze for. Not even Apple's Mac experts in my over-the-phone product briefing knew how the snooze button decides how long to snooze for. It "just works". Once again father knows best, you just press snooze and let Apple worry about it. It's a 15 minute snooze for my 1 hour reminders, but they seem to vary. Some people might prefer this approach, but I think Mac users at least deserve the option to choose for themselves. Thankfully, as before, Calendar notifications still pop up even when the calendar application isn't running.

One interesting innovation with Notifications is that Mail give you the option to filter them. Under Mail's General preferences tab you can switch new message notifications between Inbox only (the default), All Mailboxes, Contacts and VIPs. You can nominate someone as a VIP by clicking the star next to their name in an incoming email. Personally I don't think I'd use this, because I never know who an important email is going to come from, but for some people it would be a godsend. If you want an extra level of control, you can also control Notifications via Mail's Rules preferences panel. I'd love to see the option to receive Notifications for all emails, but have the VIP pop-ups somehow highlighted.

So what's the verdict? If you've never used desktop notifications before you might love what Apple has ported across from iOS, but if you're a Growl user you'll probably be underwhelmed with Apple's new offering. At least you can keep using Growl, with the frustrating exception of GrowlMail. Notifications' limitations might be frustrating, but it is a respectable first step. Hopefully Apple will continue to improve it and offer greater flexibility, rather than decide that near enough is good enough and let it stagnate.

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop