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The OS 10.8.1 Update: Is That All There Is?

On Thursday, Apple released the first maintenance update for Mountain Lion, coming just over four weeks after the release of 10.8. This rapid schedule is pretty much par for the course. With every version of OS X, a fixer-upper has arrived a short time after the point-zero release.

Now there have been several issues reported by early adopters of Mountain Lion, such as poor battery life, which impacts some Mac note-books. This has been confirmed to me by a colleague, and a published report from Ars Technica, a popular online tech publication. But their tests involved a single model, a MacBook Pro with Retina display. The problem was made all the more confusing because it didn’t seem consistent enough to pinpoint specific models and configurations. Some said battery life was as good or better than under Lion; others said it was worse.

It was also reported that Apple was working with some customers to determine the cause of the battery life issue. This harkens back to iOS 5, where both the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4s suffered from reduced battery life. Again, the problem didn’t occur on all units, just some. After a couple of updates, Apple managed to eradicate most of the problems.

I expect there will be a 10.8 update to deal with Mac battery life problems, but it doesn’t seem as if 10.8.1 was designed to address that issue. Or at least the list of fixes doesn’t mention that problem. Indeed, most of the fixes appear to deal with issues that aren’t apt to impact a large number of users. Here’s the list:

However, Apple has an escape clause, that 10.8.1 is designed “improve the stability and compatibility of your Mac,” so there could be other fixes that weren’t identified in the short list. That’s not unusual for Apple either.

When it comes to battery life, one Apple developer said a 10.8.1 seed fixed the problem. Although the story got a decent amount of publicity in the Mac blogosphere, it wasn’t confirmed by other developers. At the same time, Apple has reportedly begun testing a 10.8.2 update, with unmentioned fixes, which may deal with battery life problems. Or maybe not. The key change is said to be support for Face-book. But since nothing is confirmed, the best I can report is that Face-book support was promised for this fall, about when a 10.8.2 update might appear. So we’ll see.

Other reported Mountain Lion problems are all about performance. Slow system response, spinning beach balls, the whole nine yards. Once again, such problems aren’t necessarily the fault of the OS. If it happens on a system where you do an in-place OS update (just launching the Installer, accepting everything, and letting it do its thing), something might be left from the previous installation that creates a problem. Perhaps there are system enhancements, kernel extensions and other changes that might cause problems under Mountain Lion.

In theory, incompatible software will be disabled and moved into a separate folder during the installation process. But there are no guarantees of perfection. Perhaps the installer may leave behind something that isn’t part of whatever database Apple uses to check for software that won’t work.

Under these circumstances, a clean Mountain Lion installation might be in the cards. That basically involves backing up all your data to an external drive, erasing your startup drive, and reinstalling Mountain Lion, after which you restore the rest of your data.

It sounds like a daunting process, but it’s more time-consuming than difficult. You can use a Time Machine backup or a third-party backup app, such as Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper! These two apps create what are called “clone” backups, which means that your startup drive is duplicated exactly. The Mountain Lion installer has a Migration feature where you can retrieve your data from a backup after the OS installation. That’s a lot simpler than just reinstalling everything from scratch and copying your data, although I grant it’s not quite perfect. But this sort of clean installation often fixes unexplainable quirks with a new OS.

My biggest problems have been with iCloud, not so much with Mountain Lion. I haven’t done a battery life test on my MacBook Pro, so I’m not prepared to say whether it has gotten any worse. Most of the time, the thing is hooked up to the power outlet anyway.

Insofar as Apple’s updates are concerned, I always hope they’ll make a better effort to inform you about all the fixes, not just a cross-section. But a battery life fix would surely be among the bulleted items if it happened.