The last truly stable and reliable version that I can remember using was the last build of Snow Leopard — version 10.6.8. Prior to this, it was the last build of Tiger — version 10.4.11. The versions in between these releases were all extremely disappointing. Not for lack of exciting new features or further refinement of the Mac OS UI, but for stability and sluggishness reasons. The amount of crashes and general poor performance I experienced on these releases were pretty bad. It’s not just my bad luck with hardware or anything, but I’m sure if you were to ask others (or do some research for yourself), you would find many unhappy people.
Leopard introduced some pretty hefty enhancements to OS X, albeit many of them under the hood where most people wouldn’t experience, nor appreciate right away. Many new APIs were introduced, thus usurping old APIs that Apple felt needed to be left behind — all in the name of progress. From what I recall with my experience with Leopard, I encountered many Finder instabilities and networking bugs related to SMB sharing. At the time when I was using Leopard, I was running a 2007 15” MacBook Pro. I remember that 10.5 was a significant facelift from 10.4 — mainly eschewing Tiger’s love of pinstripes for a more subtle flat grey look. I welcomed this change — I embraced it. After my love affair with the fresh coat of paint that was 10.5, I quickly became annoyed with how much slower the OS felt — it was a stark contrast to its predecessor. Surely, a new OS shouldn’t be less reliable and make my hardware feel slower? This was the reality that that was starting to set in as I spent more time with 10.5.
Two years after the release of Leopard, Apple announced Snow Leopard, carrying on with their adorable tradition of cat names. Snow Leopard was not meant to add any significant bells and whistles, but was purely targeted towards cutting the fat and trimming loose ends. Apple truly delivered with Snow Leopard, and made my 2007 MacBook Pro (which was gasping for air) sing praises of joy once again.
In July of 2011, with the release of Lion, Apple went back to make significant changes under the hood. Once again, many changes in order to deprecate legacy APIs and to keep pushing forward on technologies Apple truly cared about. Just a few months after the release of Lion in the Mac App Store (a first for them), 10.7.2 added iCloud support — the impact of this which wouldn’t really be felt until now, although I’d also argue they’re just barely getting started. By comparisons sake, Lion was a disaster for me. For Macs that have them, the way the OS handled automatic graphics switching between integrated and discrete GPU was astoundingly poor . The transition between switching GPUs never felt smooth, and many apps that weren’t graphics intensive would seemingly trigger the discrete GPU at whim — thus significantly impacting battery life on MacBook Pros. It wasn’t until I discovered a little handy utility by Cody Krieger called gfxCardStatus, which allowed me to significantly improve my experience. This proved to be an essential app on Lion, as it allowed me to not only monitor which offending apps were triggering the discrete GPU, but I could also force it into integrated graphics mode (which tricks OS X into thinking the Mac you’re using doesn’t have discrete graphics). Other than general GPU switching nastiness, I couldn’t stand the choppy animation transitions between full-screening apps, and exiting out of full-screen mode. Even on a 17” 2010 MacBook Pro, the animations didn’t look smooth enough. I spent some time testing newer MacBook Pros, including last years line and the Airs as well — all of them felt like utter garbage. Even with new hardware, Lion still didn’t feel as responsive as it could have — as responsive as it should have been! Honestly, at what point do you just throw your hands up in the air and admit that the fastest hardware in the world is not going to improve your operating system’s sluggish animations? I desperately hoped the next release of OS X, whatever that may look like, would be a massive improvement (at least to save me from stabbing myself in the face).
Just last week, Apple shipped Mountain Lion, the successor to Lion. There’s actually a surprising amount of refinement in this OS in so many aspects. Some of those refinements are minor, whilst others more significant — yet all of these things add one to one massively improved user experience. I’ve only used 10.8 for a short period of time, just as the rest of you, however I keep being pleasantly surprised at how stable and fast it is. My 2010 MacBook Pro actually feels snappier in so many ways — and yes the animations are a bit snappier where they need to be. Other than just performance and the general leanness of 10.8, the much improved iCloud integration and updates to major apps and even Finder itself are very welcome indeed. Some of the little improvements are subtle, but I discovered if you search for ‘Address Book’ or ‘iCal’ in Spotlight, it displays the newly renamed ‘Contacts’ and ‘Calendar’ apps for those that aren’t yet accustomed (I believe that’s done via kMDItemKeywords). One of the somewhat minor but noticeable changes in Mountain Lion are the scroll bars. In 10.7, Apple introduced iOS inspired scroll bars that disappeared when not in use — allowing the user to focus more on the content. In 10.8, you still get the disappearing scroll bars, but they seem to contract and expand in size, depending on what you’re doing with the Finder window (it’s actually subtle, but a well done animation).
Lastly, I’ll say this: iTunes is still a piece of shit, and they’re still shipping DVD Player. This can’t last, and once the entire Mac lineup drops their optical drives — if that happens before 10.9 — DVD Player will probably not make the cut.