The last time Apple launched a new version of Mac OS X into the world, we were living in a time before the iPad and it was somewhat humble about its efforts advertising Snow Leopard as “the world’s most advanced operating system. Finely tuned”.
This time, it’s very different. Mac OS X Lion is stuffed full of user-facing features, and promoted by Apple as “the power of Mac OS X. The magic of the iPad” and across the operating system features from the tablet have taken root. For unabashed iPad fans that’s likely to be a cause for celebration but for long time OS X users, there could be a steep learning curve. Does the iOS world with its grids of icons and rampant use of gestures work well now it’s migrated back to the Mac? Let’s find out…
The Mac OS X Lion installation process is incredibly simple. As long as you have an up-to-date version of Snow Leopard on your machine, you simply head for the Mac App Store, hit buy and watch the download jump into the dock. Once the 3.74GB file has downloaded, you’re greeted by a very minimal installer app. And it really is minimal, the only option open to you is choosing the disk location. Lion’s licence covers all the Macs in your home but if you want to avoid having to download the installer for each one, make sure you copy it to a USB drive before you open it as the file self-destructs after use.
The first thing you notice when starting Mac OS X Lion is a message from Apple that scrolling has changed. Inverted scrolling is now the default which means pushing up scrolls down and vice versa. The move has caused lots of debate and moaning online but actually it does make sense. Rather than moving the scroll bar, you’re now moving the content in the window just as you do on the iPhone and iPad. That doesn’t mean it feels right straight away though. On a touchscreen device where you are interacting directly with the screen, the scrolling method immediately makes sense but with a trackpad and screen it can take some time to get used to, especially since you can still see the scroll bar moving the other direction. You can change back to the traditional scrolling method in settings but give it time before you retreat to your comfort zone – we think Apple has made the right move here, especially since so many OS X machines are laptops with built-in trackpads. Speaking of which:
The range of multitouch gestures deployed in Mac OS X is quite baffling. The horizontal three-finger-swipe – previously used to flick through pages in lots of apps – moves through desktop spaces and full-screen apps, a vertical three-finger-swipe activates the new Mission Control feature while LaunchPad is accessible via an awkward pinch using three fingers and your thumb. A spreading gesture with your thumb and three fingers still clears the screen to reveal the desktop below. On a built-in trackpad or the Magic Trackpad, they’re relatively easy to execute but attempting most of them on a Magic Mouse is a recipe for RSI. If you’re buying an iMac anytime soon, for pity’s sake choose the trackpad as your bundled accessory.
In Mac OS X Lion, Exposé and Spaces have hooked up to give birth to Mission Control. A bird’s eye view of all the windows on your current desktop grouped by application, it also shows a list of additional desktops and full-screen applications. Adding new desktops is as simple as dragging an application window to the top of the screen. Desktops and full-screen apps shuffle in with each other so you can flick through them with a three-finger horizontal swipe. It’s great for inveterate multitaskers but if you weren’t already using Spaces, you probably won’t find yourself relying on Mission Control any time soon.
LaunchPad is the most direct lift from iOS in the whole of Mac OS X Lion. It takes over the screen presenting your applications in the same grid format used by an iOS homescreen. You can then flick through pages and group apps in folders in exactly the same way as on an iPhone or iPad. That’s brilliant if you’ve got a reasonably small amount of programmes and buy most of them from the Mac App Store but if you’ve got a lots on your machine it becomes a lot less useful. It gets tiring having to page through screens to find the app you’re after and organising a lot of icons is tiresome. You can only remove apps directly from the LaunchPad if you bought them from the Mac App Store. Apps you purchase from there automatically pop up in LaunchPad. Based on a few days use, LaunchPad really does feel like a gimmick at the moment rather than a transformative way to access your applications. If you’re used to pressing command+space and then pressing a letter or two to quickly launch an application, you’ll never use it.
Application windows work differently in OS X Lion. There are small tweaks (the trio of close/minimise/maximise buttons are a lot smaller) and major ones (scroll bars only show up when you scroll or hover over the right edge of a window or scroll on your trackpad). The loss of a permanent scroll bar can feel slightly odd in some applications, particularly text editors and iTunes. Meanwhile the ability to manually resize windows by dragging at any edge is very welcome and incredibly overdue. Biggest of all the changes though is the arrival of fullscreen apps. Windows users may scoff that it has included that feature for eons but in the case of Mac OS X Lion, fullscreen means a little more.
In Lion-optimised apps, a new button in the top right hand corner activates full-screen mode. At a basic level it hides the dock and menu bar allowing the app to encompass the whole screen but results vary depending on what programme you’re using. In iCal, the changes are minimal but iPhoto and GarageBand both rearrange the layout of the whole app. It’s visually appealing and definitely helps you focus on whatever you’re working on but it can feel a little odd having to hunt around to find the rearranged controls. When you’re running a full-screen app, it acts as a space in its own right so you can flip between it, any other full-screen app and your open desktops.
iMac or Cinema Display users may scoff at this, and to be frank, for heavy Photoshop editing with multiple windows it’s useless, but after testing OS X Lion on a new 11-inch MacBook Air, we’re sold on it. More casual users will love being able to swipe through a small handful of applications (Mail and Safari, say) this way.
Apple loves messing around with the Finder to see how stripped back it can make it. This time that means the row of icons in the left hand menu have been turned monochrome, following in the footsteps of iTunes 10 which first introduced the desaturated approach. As with the jukebox app, the change has simply made the menu harder to navigate at a glance. It’s one of those aesthetic decisions by Apple that really doesn’t make very much sense.
The other big change to Finder is the new default view, All My Files, which sorts your files into Cover Flow-style rows. Apple appears to be attempting to encourage you to see your files as one big soup of information to sifted through rather than a stack of folders. If the new view doesn’t appeal to you, and for us, with our thousands of word docs, it does not, it’s easy to navigate through the Finder in other more familiar ways.
The search function in Finder has also had a significant upgrade. Type a word and it suggests a search category to apply to it, making it far easier to quickly drill down to the item you’re after. It’s smart too: if you type in a date or file format it will recognise the type of information you’re giving it. The same kind of intelligence has been applied to the Quick Look function which now allows you to preview videos and audio directly in Finder as well as letting you take a close a look at them and other files using the Quick Look button. The ability to add frequent file searches as well as locations to the left hand menu is also a great new addition.
Like Finder, Spotlight has been tweaked in Mac OS X Lion. You can now drag and drop files straight from the Spotlight drop down menu and Quick Look has migrated there too. That’s really handy for quickly finding an image or music file you’re after and it even includes websites as the search now extends beyond what’s just on your system.
Resume, Versions and AutoSave
Resume, Versions and AutoSave are three of the quietest but potentially most revolutionary new features in Lion but they’re not without their issues. Resume means that the OS remembers its state, so that when you restart or turn on your machine again you’ll find the applications that were previously open ready to use just as they were before. That’s a familiar experience from modern browsers like Chrome and Firefox but with your whole desktop in play, it can feel slightly claustrophobic after being used to a clean slate when you first switch on your machine. If you’re concerned web pages you’d rather the world didn’t see will automatically be restored, don’t worry – Restore respects private mode in web browsers and can be switched off entirely in settings. Whew.
Versions takes the Time Machine concept of being able to roll back your hard drive to a previous state and applies it to individual files, even using a version of the same UI. Rather than saving over the previous incarnation of a file when you hit Command-S, you’re now saving a version of it. You can then go back and review previous versions and even revert to them. The feature is only present in a few applications at the moment (notably Preview, Pages and TextEdit) but third-party developers will be able to easily add it using Apple’s SDK. Versions will become really useful when iCloud launches making it easy to keep track of editing you’ve done across different devices. One slight concern is the way versions multiply in the Finder, quickly cluttering up the list view.
AutoSave is the third part of Apple’s new approach to saving files in Mac OS X Lion. In addition to manually-saved versions of files, OS X periodically saves a version of documents you’re editing. In applications that support AutoSave, that means the slow death of the Save dialog. Instead, if you close an app that includes AutoSave, it will just shut down, keeping the active document as you left it.
Home advantage makes Safari the best browser on Mac OS X Lion, for now. While other options including Firefox and Chrome have lost gestures they previously used to allow you to whip around the web, Safari has gained pinch-to-zoom and double tap-to-zoom plus the ability to navigate between website with a two-finger swipe – moving back a page has never been so seamless. It’s also had a speed boost and is more stable thanks to sandboxing which separates the processes at work in a particular tab from the application as a whole. Hopefully though, rival browsers will gain the same gesture support in their next updates.
One side note: Flash, which Adobe readily admits is only in beta for OS X Lion, barely works at all right now. We’ve only got one YouTube video to load so far – but you can bet Adobe will be patching this up sharpish.
Mail, iCal, Address Book
Mail and iCal both take their cues from their cousins on the iPad. The updated version of Mail now dedicates the entire left hand side of the screen to a message listing with two-line previews (which can be extended via system preferences). Emails are now grouped together in conversations and search has been powered up just as in Spotlight and Finder. Curiously with Address Book and iCal, Apple has decided to continue its taste for celebrating dying analogue formats. By default iCal goes for the tear sheet design first shown on the iPad and Address Book is literally an address book though the addition of iPhoto importing and the ability to make FaceTime calls straight from the app makes it a lot more useful.
Along with tweaking Mail, Apple has also brought account management into the heart of the system. Head to System Preferences and you’ll find a dedicated menu for adding in your Gmail, Exchange, MobileMe, Yahoo! and AOL accounts. This will also eventually be home to your iCloud account and allow you manage all your syncing and remote storage from one place.
One of our favourite features in Mac Os X Lion is AirDrop. It’s an incredibly simple way to swap files between Macs which doesn’t need you to be on the same network to do its stuff. Rather than using a Wi-Fi network as a middle man, AirDrop makes a peer-to-peer Wi-Fi connection between Airports. Clicking AirDrop in Finder activates a search for Macs running Lion within 30ft which it identifies with the owner’s Apple ID. To share a file you simply drag it onto the other user’s icon and they’ll receive a message asking if they want to accept the file. If they do, an animated image of the file you’re sharing leaps straight into their Downloads folder. The transfers are encrypted and very speedy according to our tests with a 53MB file making the leap in just under a minute.
Hidden gems and odd additions
Apple has trumpeted 250 new features in Mac OS X Lion and there are plenty you’ll just stumble upon. It took us a few days to realise that the forthcoming iOS 5 Twitter integration has already been presaged by the option to tweet any text you select and the new low-power wake mode that allows you to remotely access files without switching on your Mac’s screen is a welcome addition. The craziest new feature we stumbled upon though was in Preview which now allows you to add a signature straight into a PDF using the iSight camera. Open a PDF, click the annotations button then the signature button and you’ll be greeted with a window encouraging you to sign your name on a piece of white paper and hold it up to the camera. Bingo! A reusable digital signature. Microsoft, you need to steal this.
The addition of system-wide AutoCorrect may seem a little less welcome. The bane of many an iPhone user’s life and star of its own internet meme, Damn You AutoCorrect, has graduated to the Mac and while it’s not as wild as its mobile cousin, you might want to switch it off. It doesn’t capitalise the first word in every sentence or randomly decide that a reference “reading” must mean the city of Reading but does make small corrections automatically. Netbooks are netbacks. What the hell is a netback? It does highlight corrections with a blue underline and offer up suggestions for alternatives but if you still have nightmares about being lectured by Clippy back in the day, it’s another feature that can be switched off in settings.
Installing onto a clean system worked like a dream but on our 13-inch MacBook Air, which had previously had the contents of an old MacBook Pro migrated to it, we did notice some issues. The main one was multiple versions of Apple apps clogging up LaunchPad. It seems if you’ve squirrelled away applications in folders of your own choosing the Lion installer can get a little confused. Beyond that the only obvious compatibility issue is the death of Rosetta and with it the end to support for PowerPC applications. If you still need to rely on them you’ll have to stick with Snow Leopard for the time being.
At £20.99, upgrading to Mac OS X Lion makes sense but with its many new features and changes, it feels like things start to get complicated once that ultra-easy installation process is over. If Snow Leopard was Apple grooming an established product to get the best from it, Lion often feels like it’s been thrown into a room full of funhouse mirrors. You have to rewire your brain to get used to the new approach and may even need to switch off some of its most jarring features. Ultimately though, this is still an excellent OS with lots to recommend it. AirDrop and Versions are worth upgrading for alone and Apple is bound to smooth off some of the rough edges with its next update.