Review: Mac OS X 10.7, aka “Lion”

Lion is not an evolution of Mac OS X as we know it. It is a new user experience and as such it won’t appeal to all people. It’s also been totally revamped under the hood, and that doesn’t please developers. Lion may be a pain to some, but it’s hard to deny its leaps forward in design, efficiency, and productivity.

I am a cool lover of the Mac AppStore. My cool relationship with Apple’s new way of distributing software has to do with the fact that instead of Apple selling software on a physical carrier, and you paying for the often gorgeous physical packaging as well as the software itself, you’re now paying for bandwidth and the time it takes to download these huge files. I can’t help thinking I’d rather have a smart box to take home than sit and wait for software to download.

With that out of the way, let me first tell you what I couldn’t try out: AirDrop, because I lack the systems for it, File Vault because I can’t afford running this feature on a production machine, and Time Machine because my Mini is too slow for me to properly gauge its usefulness.

Installing Lion

The installation was a no-brainer. No decisions to make, just let it install over Snow Leopard. After the restart my Mac went in a coma. At first I couldn’t find out why, but when I tried to use Spotlight, it immediately became obvious that I would have to wait another hour before the Mac would be mine again. Behind the scenes, Lion also sets up space for versioning, and a hidden location for disk recovery — if your Mac gets messed up badly, Lion can be re-installed from that hidden file, provided your disk and disk catalogue are still intact.

When I finally got control of the machine, I discovered a whole new system. Because Lion is so new, I do think you’d better start with a fresh disk, though. After having used the system for about one and a half weeks now, I have had to clean caches, rebuild the disk catalogue and force Spotlight to index my disk again. After doing all that, Lion is purring like a Siamese cat.

The nice but not so effective

Obvious new features in Lion are Launchpad and Mission Control. Changed so much that you almost don’t recognise it if you are used to Snow Leopard’s ways are Mail, iCal, Address Book and the System Profiler (now called “System Information”).

Launchpad is an attempt at giving you immediate and direct access to all applications on your system. What you get is a nicely organised grid of icons that you can browse through — especially easy if you have a Magic Trackpad. The problem with Launchpad is that it’s good if you have a reasonably small number of apps. If you have over a hundred, Launchpad becomes overwhelming.

In addition, Launchpad doesn’t order its icons according to name but according to last installed date, which is not terribly helpful if you have a lot of apps. You can’t change the order in which the icons appear, either (at least, I haven’t found a way — my Apple contact pointed out to me you can make the icons dance by holding down the mouse on any of them; you can then arrange them, but that doesn’t make it easier in my opinion to arrange them according to a defined order). And what is truly disturbing is that Launchpad also lists apps that you’ll never use — that you’re even not supposed to use — such as helper plug-ins.

Mission Control is much better. It groups Spaces, Exposé and Dashboard. With Lion now capable of full screen applications, Mission Control allows you to quickly switch between these full screen apps and other Spaces as well as the Dashboard. Spaces was a bit a confusing feature in previous versions of Mac OS X, but with full screen capabilities it has suddenly become a very powerful functionality.

With a trackpad swipe you can easily switch between Spaces that have full screen apps open and those that haven’t. Full screen apps are automatically given their own Space, so you needn’t create one first. As if to prove its flexibility, Mission Control allows you to still create a Space deliberately.

A less obvious new feature is that you can shut down the Mac with apps and windows open, and Lion will automatically resume from their last state when it restarts. This is a great new feature but it doesn’t apply to the full screen state of your applications, so if you have a lot of full screen apps active at the time of shut down, every startup of the system requires you to wade through all apps to make them full screen again.

View Options have a new behaviour. If you change the icon order setting and then change your mind and set it back again, the icons will automatically move into their previous locations — including your own custom ordering, but after a cold restart, the View options you changed your mind on will be forced upon you anyway (a bug?).

View Options also got a new setting: “Sort by”. You now have two distinct parameters to arrange icons and sort them by. If you select to arrange icons by Date Created, for example, the Sort by parameter will be greyed out. However, if you select to arrange by Kind, Application, etc., Sort by becomes available and you can get your icons arranged as well as sorted with an animation as extra eye candy. Personally, I found this new view — which is the default one when you select the “All My Files” item in any Finder window sidebar — to be slightly confusing.

Windows and their controls have been given a more subtle design. The downside is that you’ll have to look twice to discover which is active and which is not.

Some System Preferences now apply to the Finder as well as to Mail, but not to Address Book nor to iCal. The highlight colour, for example, changes to the one you chose in Mail, but not the other two. Folder size in Mail is set in System Preferences by setting the Sidebar Folder size.

Both Address Book and iCal have a dramatically different interface compared to the older versions. Both come with a fake leather cover — very kitschy for my taste — but which you can easily change to something else (Google for “iCal Lion leather” and you’ll find replacement “kits”).

Address Book gains a red bookmark, but I can’t say I find the interface much better than the previous version. It’s different, it looks like a real address book, but it’s not more efficient in my opinion. iCal definitely loses appeal: there’s no way you can get the small calendars that were in the previous versions. Instead, the calendar is now much like one of those stripped down paper versions that were meant to lay on your desk, while at the end of the day you would try to make out something of your scribbles.

Both iCal and Address Book are in my opinion not-so-good attempts at creating an iPad-like experience for desktop computers.

Full screen apps are also not really all that wonderful all the time. There’s perhaps one exception: Mail, because that application now takes up more width than height. When I open BBEdit in full screen, I get a very ugly empty space on the right. When I open Safari full screen I cannot switch between search engines — the whole search engine field seems locked as I also can’t get my previous queries listed when in full screen mode. Addiotnally, I keep going to the top to expose the toolbar and menu, which slide open with one of Lion’s wonderful and smooth animations.

Except for some of the quirks (bugs perhaps?), full screen is a matter of taste. Much of the user experience Lion has to offer is also a matter of taste of course, but in terms of efficiency Lion equally much of the user experience pays off. The efficiency boosts are often measurable and quite easily so: look at your watch and see if you can shave off time of simple tasks.

The efficiency boosts

In Mail, for example, you now get clearly labeled message threads or conversations. The individual messages are numbered with a big number in the top right corner. You can collapse conversations at will. More importantly, if you have a collapsed conversation and want to reply to one of the individual messages inside the thread, Mail doesn’t just assume you want to reply to the last message. It waits for you to click on the right one.

This behaviour is actually very effective, because it doesn’t matter if you first expand the thread, then select the message, and only then hit the reply button, or hit the reply button first — you can actually reverse that workflow and still reply to the correct message.

Mail now being larger than it is high — meaning its mailbox list sits next to the message list, next to the mail body text — is a better arrangement than it was before. It’s easier to see short message clips (you can customise the number of first message lines to be visible) and therefore more efficient at skipping low priority messages. I’d say Mail has the potential to save much time, if used optimally.

With a toolbar running above the lists, you can even collapse the mailbox list altogether and keep a very uncluttered interface. Flags are also better: the flag colours and labels now follow those of the labels in the Finder Preferences.

Another efficiency boost comes from Lion’s automatic save and versioning capabilities. These do exactly as they say: you don’t have to remember saving your document anymore, and if you want to go back in time and use an older version, you can by selecting “Revert to Save”. A Time Machine look-alike screen will open and allow you to select from versions that have been saved back in time.

Very neat, this new feature, but very sad none of the third party developers currently support it. Not even BBEdit 10, which is the closest to a native Lion app I got (BBEdit 10 does have auto-save built-in, but I’m not sure it’s the Lion auto-save the app uses).

What is particularly frustrating about auto-save and versioning is that vendors like Adobe and Microsoft most probably are not going to use these capabilities. At least these two vendors have their own agenda and method of organizing versioning and automatic save. It’s nowhere near as elegant and well designed as Apple’s, but since when did they care about that?

On the bright side, versioning and autosave is available in TextEdit, Preview, and all iWork 2009 apps.

Preview is another application that has received quite an efficiency boost. It closes in on Adobe Acrobat Pro, with more and better organised editing tools, the ability to scan your signature and add it to a PDF, and much more. Preview really is becoming a document tool that can compete with paying programs. As an example, I tried to sign a PDF document using my signature. The procedure was typically Apple-like:

  • First sign on a white, blank sheet of paper with black ink
  • Connect your iSight or webcam if it isn’t built-into your Mac
  • Click the Add Signature button on the Annotate toolbar
  • A window pops open with a rectangle “target” area
  • Use your iSight (this also works with Logitech Mac-compatible webcams, and even with a Microsoft Lifecam) to scan the signature so that it fits the target area and your signature sits on the blue line in the window
  • When you’re satisfied with the result (the software takes a snapshot with each change of position) click “Accept”

Your signature is now stored for later use, or for use in this document only. Other novelties of Preview are the magnifier — great for people who have trouble reading — which acts differently depending on the document being viewed. When a PDF document is being viewed, it is a rectangular area that adjusts to the width of the text, and which acts as a loupe. When it’s an image, it’s a real, rounded loupe, much the same as the Aperture loupe. This the eye to detail that we all love and expect from Apple.

Spell checking is another behind-the-scenes improvement. Although there are people who dislike spell checking to be on while they type, there’s no denying Lion does a great job — and if you really dislike it, you can always turn it off. Unfortunately, Lion’s spell checker doesn’t work in some third-party applications, although I personally very much like the discrete way in which suggestions are made.

Lovely user experience, period

There are also features that don’t particularly add to your efficiency or productivity, but are simply great new ways of doing things or looking at things. The first that I noticed was System Information. When you open System Information via the APple menu, you’re now presented what looks like a stripped down version of the information window.

On closer inspection, though, this small window has the basic information on your system you need, and it presents it in nicer ways than previous versions. For example, the “Storage” button in the toolbar reveals your connected disks with coloured space indicators. These colour bars tell you how much space is taken up by documents, images, movies, backups, etc. In the case of storage, below this information is a button that can take you to Disk Utility immediately.

If you click the “Memory” button, the window will show you the memory slots of your machine, with the amount of memory in each slot, and below a button that tells you how to upgrade memory.

I also had the impression the complete System Information report is more complete — this seems to be expanding with each new version of Mac OS X.

Much of Lion generates a lovely user experience. Even the ‘elastic bounce-back’ Magic Trackpad users can experience when they scroll to the end of a screen or window is a nice gimmick in my opinion. Best of all: Lion doesn’t run slower than Snow Leopard. In some areas, it’s even a bit faster.

After a week playing with the new Mac OS X, I’m used to it, and I can safely say — except for the few quirks that I’ve found — it’s been a wonderful experience. True, there are some aspects that I would like to see changed or which I would like to be able to change, but those are few. Only iCal and Address Book are apps of which the changes I really don’t like.

If you seek efficiency, productivity, pleasure when working, and a minimum of frustration created by a system that works against you instead of with you, then Lion is just what the doctor prescribes. It’s darn cheap too.

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