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Mac OS X Lion review

Apple brings iOS features 'Back to the Mac,' but will they fit in?

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Lion review
Lion review

Upgrading to OS X Lion (10.7) costs $30. I don’t say that to comment on the “bang for buck” element. It’s more like a coded transmission from Apple: this OS is an experiment, a departure, a transition. When Apple priced Snow Leopard (10.6) at $30 it was because the OS had very few user-facing tweaks — most of the changes were under the hood. But this time it almost feels like Apple is apologizing for the abundance of experience-altering changes: “look, we know this is a lot to swallow, but at least it’s only $30!” Are the new features worth all the hassle? Let’s find out.



Just open the Mac App Store, hit buy, and watch it download.

Installing Lion is fairly straightforward, and kind of revolutionary, assuming you're already running an up-to-date version of Snow Leopard: just open the Mac App Store, hit buy, and watch it download. Some time later, depending on how fast you can move 3.74GB down your connection, you'll have the newly-minimal installer app in your dock - there's no customization here, just the ability to pick an install disk. Once you hit go, installation is straightforward and relatively quick; most of our staff computers took under 30 minutes to install Lion. The one exception was an older MacBook Pro that was having disk problems to begin with - the install hung on the "verify disk" part. On restart, you'll be presented with a quick tutorials on Lion's new multitouch gesture controls, and then you're off to the races. All in all, very clean and simple - although we'd love the ability to create an external recovery disk somewhere in the mix (by default Lion puts its own recovery partition on your main hard drive).

UI enhancements

UI enhancements

Scrolling and swiping

In Lion it all starts with the touchpad, and Apple has made the bold step of flipping a decades-old paradigm - a scrolling motion no longer corresponds to the scroll bar, instead it corresponds to the content inside the window. That is to say, pushing up scrolls the content down. Sound familiar? Obviously, iOS operates similarly. Just to make it clear, this is the opposite of how scrolling works in every major desktop operating system. Thankfully, you can switch back to the regular style if you wish. I actually left the option on the default to see how long it would take to get used to, and after a couple days it felt perfectly natural. It's hard to say that one method is better than the other (sort of like with inverted mouse look on first person shooters), but in UI design, change is always dangerous - it's certainly a bold first move from Apple.

A scrolling motion no longer corresponds to the scroll bar, instead it corresponds to the content inside the window

A smaller tweak that actually has proved more frustrating for me is that Apple has stolen the three-finger horizontal swipe away from the back / forward function in the browser and handed it over to Spaces / full-screen app switching. In its place you can use a two-finger swipe in Safari (which works beautifully, with a very iBooks-ey "peek-a-boo" ability that allows you to see which page you're about to go back or forward to before you commit) but other apps that relied on the three-finger swipe (like Chrome, Reeder, and even the Mac App Store) are sadly lacking in a back / forward gesture. I'm sure the two-finger swipe will spread quickly in the close-knit Mac developer community, but it's another jarring change for users. If it's really annoying you can reclaim the three-finger swipe and bump Spaces to four fingers - but it's hard to swipe back and forth quickly and reliably with four full fingers down on the pad. And you look kind of lame.

If you're some sort of old person and use an external mouse and that mouse isn't the Magic Trackpad, things will obviously be different for you. On the Magic Mouse you can substitute the two-finger left / right swipe with a one-finger swipe, with two fingers switching between Spaces. And if you aren't using a mouse built by Apple in the past couple of years, do you even deserve to be using a computer?


Full-screen apps / chrome tweaks

Of course it's not all just gesture fun and games. Apple has also made significant tweaks to how windows look and operate. The small tweaks are plentiful, including a smaller trio of close / minimize / maximize buttons in the top left, the ability to resize a window from any edge, and new iOS-style scroll bars that show up when you scroll or hover over the right edge, and hide away when not in use.

The biggest change, however, is a new button in the top right of most Lion-optimized apps that sends the application into full-screen mode. In practice this feels like Apple's largest nod to iOS - that sometimes it's nice only doing one thing at once. Right now Apple's applications are the shining example of how this is supposed to actually work, and right now the results are mixed. iCal, for instance, changes virtually nothing about the app other than filling the screen and hiding the menu bar. Meanwhile, iPhoto rearranges the chrome for the entire app, which looks nice and is designed to hide away while you focus on photos, but it's a little jarring from a usability standpoint.

One of the few non-Apple apps I have right now that offers me the full-screen button is Sparrow, an IMAP mail client with a hybrid of Gmail concepts and iOS concepts. It's a little pointlessly large in full-screen, but at least none of the UI changes around needlessly. iMovie similarly keeps all its UI in place.

Obviously Windows users will scoff at the idea of full-screen applications, as well they should. Hiding the menu and having a fancy transition animation are hardly innovative moves. In fact, I really wish the Mac had a way to do two-up full-screen apps, like on Windows 7 (there are utilities for the Mac that offer this functionality, but I'd prefer it to be built in and I doubt any of them will work with Lion's official full-screen mode for apps). Also, the animation is actually kind of a pain - it takes just long enough that I'm disincentivized from jumping in and out of full-screen view. Finally, Apple's largest omission for this feature is the ability to have two full-screen applications running on two different screens. Apple just puts a cloth texture (Apple calls this "linen") on the secondary display, which is a colossal waste of space.

Full-screen applications, especially ones with reworked UIs in full-screen mode, seem to pave the way for a touchscreen interface on OS X. In fact, a lot of Apple's choices on Lion seem like they'd make sense for a touchscreen OS - though I doubt an "OS X" computer will ship without a trackpad and keyboard in addition to a touchscreen in my lifetime. When viewed through this prism, Lion starts to make a bit more sense, but right now it's all fantasy, and what Apple is providing for its actual computers seems a little off in execution.

Mission Control

A three-finger swipe up on the touchpad launches Lion's brand new "Mission Control," a blend of Exposé's "All Windows" view and Spaces (Apple's version of multiple desktops). The Exposé function key also works, but it's way less exciting.

Now, I'll be honest, I've never been much of an Exposé user. I Command-Tab my way through apps all day long, but the need for a button to show all windows sounds more like a symptom of runaway OS complexity than a solution. Mission Control, however, does a nice job grouping each application's windows together and even displaying an app name and icon. It feels much cleaner, more logical, and most importantly: useful.

If you thought a three-finger up swipe was dumb, get ready to be truly offended

But that's just the start. Up above the window groupings of the current desktop is a list of additional desktops and applications that are running in full-screen mode. Apple seems bent on teaching people to use multiple desktops - a feature that's typically associated with a Linux power user - and so Spaces is less of a system preferences thing and more of something that happens organically and naturally. A large + button can add a new desktop to the list, or you can drag one of the windows from your current desktop over to that plus button. These desktops shuffle in with the full-screen apps, and it didn't take me too long to get used to this horizontal method of scrolling through apps. You know what it reminds me of? WebOS. And it would be much better if it was even more like webOS: when I have a few desktops and a few full-screen apps open it starts to be a chore to scroll through everything to find what I want - it reminds me of back in the day on the Mac where you had to Command-Tab through each app to find what you were looking for, with no icon cheat sheet to help out.



If you thought a three-finger up swipe was dumb, get ready to be truly offended. To pull up the new iOS homescreen-style Launchpad you place three fingers and your thumb on the trackpad and pinch. It's a pretty weird gesture, but I got used to it after a while. I don't know why I bothered. If Mission Control is about putting power user-style windows management into the hands of regular users, Launchpad is about taking the easiest thing to do on any desktop operating system - launching apps - and making it even simpler. Unfortunately, I have way too many apps on my Mac to make a simple grid of icons very useful. It took me a good 15 minutes to organize everything into folders, but I'd still much rather use Spotlight to launch an app. I'm sure plenty of "light" users will just leave Launchpad in the dock and muddle through the icon grid every time they want to launch an app, but for me it was a bit of a no-brainer dock removal.

The one thing I do like about Launchpad? The Mac App Store no longer has the audacity to put apps I install directly into the Dock - they go into Launchpad instead. I also like the fact that I can uninstall App Store apps entirely from Launchpad, just like how it works on iOS (jiggling icons and everything).


Versions / auto-save / resume

It's funny how all these years later in desktop operating systems we still do tons of stuff that doesn't make any sense. Mobile operating systems like iOS and Android have done away with this silly concept of saving your work before you close an app - of course you want it to be saved! - but while many applications on Mac and Windows have features that automatically restore what you were recently working on in case your app or your computer crashes, there aren't many apps that have gone ahead and just started saving everything for you automatically. Of course, there's an obvious down side to repeated automatic saves: what if it saves a change you don't like?

That's where versions come in. Apple has borrowed the Time Machine UI and applied it to version histories, except these are versions of the document that are all stored with the same file (Apple only saves what's been changed, to keep down the file size). Every time you hit Command-S you're saving a "version" of the file that can then be scrubbed through in the Time Machine UI if you feel like back tracking. Developers will need to use Apple's SDK tools to hook their applications into the system, but after that OS X handles all the file system magic so you don't have to worry about some developer sucking at versioning. This will be even more important as Apple launches iOS 5 and iCloud - you'll be able to browse through versions of files that are synced between your Mac and your iPad or iPhone, so you can roll back those drunken changes you made to your resumé at 2AM on your phone the other night.

In addition to manually-saved versions, OS X will automatically save a version of a document every hour while you're editing. Best of all, even if your computer crashes or you quit the app without saving, you resume right where you left off - as if you'd saved right before you quit. Unfortunately the only applications I have right now that do any of this versions stuff are TextEdit (which I'm using to write this review, in fact) and Pages (Apple offered a free update yesterday afternoon). It works great, though. After I save a version the title bar is clean, but once I start typing again it's appended "Document Name - Edited." The black dot in the middle of the red button is gone. If I quit TextEdit it doesn't pop up a save dialog or anything, it just quits, and when I re-open I'm right back where I left it, including the "- Edited" clarification.

It's not just apps that save their state when they quit, by the way: when you restart Lion you get the option to have all your windows and applications pop up right where you left them. This sounds nice in theory, but not everything shows up exactly where I left it, and I guess I'd rather just start with a clean slate anyway.

Autocorrect / word lookup

It might seem like a minor little tweak, but Apple has added as-you-type autocorrection to Mac OS X, and it's kind of wild. It's not as extreme as iOS - it won't capitalize the first word in every sentence for you, for instance - but it catches and corrects misspelled words automatically. It also offers iOS-style suggestions, so while the corrections happen automatically, you have a better warning that Apple is about to mess up your word. After the change is made a blue underline flashes briefly, and if you select a word or a paragraph you can see blue underlines denoting words Apple fixed, though it's still easy to miss it in action, or sometimes hard to tell if it's already made a change or suggesting a change. There are plenty of times when I'm writing a technical term and Apple auto-corrects it into a different word, but it's not as aggressive as iOS and overall the good outweighs the bad for me. Of course, you can always turn it off.

Of course, you can always turn it off

The other minor tweak that I'm really liking is the ability to double-tap a word using three fingers and getting a contextual lookup of that word. Depending on the word Apple will offer dictionary (built-in), thesaurus (built-in), and even Wikipedia (internet access required) entries in-line. If you want more info on a topic you can dive into Apple's Dictionary app straight from that menu. It's pretty great.

Included apps

Included apps


Safari still looks and acts like Safari, but a lot has been changed once you dive in. Apple has a new version of WebKit under the hood, which includes Chrome-style sandboxing to keep certain processes (read: Flash) from bringing down the whole browser. Ironically, Chrome has been really buggy and crashy for me in the past couple of months, and I've been relying on Safari to get through the day - although I still highly prefer Chrome's approach to tabs. Otherwise I'm absolutely loving Safari. It's insanely fast, not just in performance (it's a hair slower than Chrome on Sun Spider) but in feel. The best part is the iBooks-style "peek-a-boo" gesture I already mentioned, allowing you to check out what's forward or back before you commit. In fact, this is one of the best examples of natural user interface in the whole OS - a swipe gesture that reveals hidden information that couldn't be easily gotten at with an old fashioned button or key command. Hopefully Firefox, Chrome, and other similar apps can offer a similar interaction as they get their respective updates for Lion.



I don't know what app in Apple's whole stable has had more redesigns than Mail - or stayed so decidedly middle of the road. The flavor for 2011 looks a lot like the iPad Mail client, with a default two-column view - message list on the left, conversation view on the right. It looks nice, and runs fast, but the third-party Sparrow app did it first and did it better - even including in-line message responding, which Apple can't match. It feels particularly silly in Mail's full-screen mode, where the message editing dialogue is a locked-in-place pop-over. It feels more like a hack than a UI that I'd like to see imitated by other developers.

One feature that I do really like is the stacking search terms, which makes a ton of sense for sifting through mail (from: "Josh," when: "today," subject: "when is the Lion review going up?") and are completely intuitive. This also shows up in the Finder...


Apple loves tweaking the Finder UI, trying to see exactly how minimal they can get it. Unfortunately, I think they went too far this time. The row of icons along the left have turned monochrome, which makes them difficult to differentiate at a glance. Much more jarringly, the new default view for new windows is something called All My Files. It offers Cover Flow-style rows of files sorted by your criteria of choice - for some reason my "sort by date" view put three vCard files for random people I never talk to at the top of the list, with no way to get them out of the way other than delete them. The "sort by kind" view makes a little more sense, but for some reason "Documents" (you know, like .txt and Word files, those things you're always working with) are at the bottom. These would all be adorable (or annoying) missteps if it weren't for the nefarious underlying theme: it's all another attempt by Apple to destroy the file system as it exists. "Nested folders that organize your files logically? That's so 2010!" I'm going to fight the power for as long as I can.

It's all another attempt by Apple to destroy the file system as it exists

The other new thing in Finder is AirDrop. It's a sort of magical "it just works" file sharing method, which finds other Macs running AirDrop in the near vicinity (roughly 30 feet, according to Apple) and allows you to drag and drop files to send them to one another. There's no real security, so you'll want to make sure you know who's sending you a file before you just hit "accept," but Apple does tie in Apple IDs, so if someone is in your contact list their name will pop up under their face. Where the real magic comes in is that AirDrop works peer-to-peer, so your two computers don't have to be on the same WiFi network, or even connected to WiFi at all. This might not kill sneakernet dead, but it's certainly a major blow - and a welcome feature in an age where it's easier to steal a song from some server in Sweden than to share a Word doc with the person sitting next to you.



Spotlight is one of my most favorite features of any operating system ever, and Lion includes a couple of great tweaks: you can drag and drop files straight from the Spotlight menu search results, and you can get Quick Look previews up there as well - even for websites!


Mac App store

One of the biggest features of Lion was actually released to Snow Leopard users a few months ago. The Mac App Store brings an iOS-style method for buying, downloading, and updating applications "Back to the Mac." I've always been very impressed with the quality of application development on the Mac, given its minority market share, but anecdotally I feel like there have been a rash of great apps released since the App Store went live - or maybe Apple's tight vetting process and sexy presentation is just helping me find them better. Apps like Reeder, Wunderlist, Sketchbook, Fantastical, Sparrow, and iA Writer have been making their way around the office, and I'm suddenly not shy to spend money on desktop apps I really love or that are truly useful. And, as demonstrated on iOS, paying for stuff has a great secondary benefit: it prompts developers to build more great stuff. I feel like there's already a slight renaissance in the works for desktop applications on the Mac, and as iCloud gives developers even more incentive to have an app on iOS and the desktop I think things are just going to get better.

Unfortunately, there are some strong drawbacks to the App Store right now. Most of the great apps are in the $20 range, and that's a bit much to spend on an app that you haven't tried - Apple badly needs to implement a sort of trial system, something that many developers were doing on their own. Secondly, updates are a mess. Before the Mac App Store most of my applications could update themselves seamlessly. I'd get a notification saying a new version was available, I'd click install, restart the app and I'd be good to go. Now the process is vastly more difficult: I get a notification of an update, I click on it and I get sent to the application's App Store page in the browser, I click "view in App Store" from there and get sent to the App Store app, but from there I still have to go over to the Updates tab and update from there. Right now, with a minority of my applications from the App Store, it's a minor annoyance, but if it remains unchecked it will slowly but surely drive me insane.

The other problem with updates is that due to Apple's approval process, if an app update gets into the wild with some major overlooked flaw, the developer can't push out a fix until Apple approves it - which usually takes two or three days. This has recently hit me personally with the refreshed-for-Lion versions of Sparrow and Pixelmator. There's nothing worse than rushing to get an update, only to be stuck with a broken piece of software with no easy way to downgrade back to the working version.


Most Mac users I know use Adium for chatting, but that might change with Apple's inclusion of Yahoo! Messenger support, improved tabbed chatting, and (most importantly) a unified buddy list. Apple also has a plug-in architecture, which will hopefully allow for non-hacked Growl support in the near future, and there are some new wacky filters for video chat that actually track your face - worth the $30 upgrade price alone, in my opinion. Sadly, what I was really hoping for with Lion was integration of...

The 'Real leather! Real paper!' aesthetic really bothers me personally


Why this is still a separate app really puzzles me. Not only does it duplicate iChat's basic video chatting function, but it does it so terribly. It's impossible to know if people from your contact list a.) Have FaceTime; b.) Are online; c.) Even want to be friends with you anymore. The whole vagueness of whether a call will go through on your iPhone or you iPad or your Mac has yet to be rectified, and it all ends up feeling more like some Kinect hacker project than Apple's ploy to destroy the phone number and make video chat a natural part of phone calls.

What I really want is for iChat to add in the relevant parts of FaceTime (ability to call phones), chuck the rest, and integrate iMessage as well. That's the future, so why isn't it here now?


Apple basically borrowed the iPad calendar app entirely, and the "Real leather! Real paper!" aesthetic really bothers me personally. Functionally the app works just fine.


This was a pleasant surprise for me. After Apple axed QuickTime Pro's quick and dirty editing features in favor of the stripped down QuickTime X I almost lost hope, but the new version of QuickTime offers really great drag and drop editing. It's even resolution-independent, so it's easy to take multiple clips with different original resolutions (like a screen capture, a video shot on your phone, and a high-res DSLR clip), lay some audio underneath, and export. So long iMovie! QuickTime also offers simple screen capture, video capture, and audio recording.

Under the hood

Under the hood


Account management

One nice iOS-style tweak in OS X is the centralized account management pane in System Preferences, which lets you add and manage your Gmail, Exchange, MobileMe, Gmail, Yahoo!, Aol, and eventually iCloud accounts. I don't know how deeply non-Apple apps will be able to hook into this - I know at least iCloud will apply system wide - but I'd love to use this as a central way to manage my logins instead of entering and tweaking my info every time I try out a new calendar or chat or mail application.

Recovery partition

Further under the hood is a wild new recovery mode. Since Lion doesn't come on a disc, there's obviously no Lion disc to boot to should something go wrong. Instead Lion builds its own bootable recovery partition. If you hold down option while booting you can select it and from there you can recover your machine from a Time Machine backup, reinstall Lion, or run Disk Utility. What's really wild (at least in the not-so-wild world of recovery partitions) is that there's a copy of Safari and working WiFi in recovery mode, so you can browse support documents to your heart's content. Obviously none of this will do any good if your hard drive dies entirely, but it's pretty nice for everything other than that worst-case scenario.


I'll admit to being a bit of an edge case when it comes to software. Most of my primary applications have been updated this year, if not this month. For that reason I haven't had any major compatibility issues with Lion. Not everybody will be so lucky, however. Lion kills all support for PowerPC apps, so if you had something working fine under Rosetta on Snow Leopard you'll have to decide if you can afford an upgrade or change to another application once you're on Lion. There's actually a site already dedicated to tracking Lion app compatibility, so if you run any mission-critical older software it might be worth a look - some notable broken apps include Office 2004 (2008 and 2011 are fine) and Adobe Photoshop CS2 (newer versions are fine, with some minor problems). My solitary casualty was "Stair Dismount," a decade-old game that allows you to push a rag doll figure down a flight of stairs. It will be mourned, but there's apparently an iPhone version out now so I guess I'll survive.

Performance / stability

With an entire OS update, performance and responsiveness is going to always be a pretty subjective thing. Stability at least is pretty cut and dry, and I'm happy to report that Lion has treated me well on all accounts. Of course, most of my time is spent in a browser, and Safari's blazing speed has a lot to do with the good vibes I'm getting. I'd say overall the OS is more responsive and "smoother" than Snow Leopard. Not everything is perfect, however. Launchpad has gotten "stuck" a couple times in a pretty transition, Mission Control can have a one- or two-second delay before launching (making me think I got the gesture wrong) if I haven't used it in a while, and the Mac App Store has felt almost broken at times - possibly due to the immense download strain it's currently under. Still, most the other core experiences (Finder, Mail, iCal, iPhoto) have been flawless.

One interesting thing to note is that Apple has apparently disabled hardware acceleration for Flash in Lion. I don't know if this is a temporary solution to recent problems with Flash stability, or a long term solution to long term problems with Flash stability, but at least on my new-gen Core i7 MacBook Pro, Flash has performed as well as it ever has on a Mac.