by Jason Parker / July 19, 2011
The bottom line: Mac OS X Lion is definitely a worthy upgrade for all Intel Mac users. Featuring several interface enhancements and useful new features across all the core apps, Mac OS X Lion is an excellent update for the price.
When Apple showed off Mac OS X Lion at the Worldwide Developers Conference keynote speech earlier this year, it was clear the company had paid attention to its successes with the popular iOS devices, and was now beginning to include successful iOS features in its flagship OS. Also, with Apple laptops and tablets now far outpacing desktop sales, Apple has moved from a primarily desktop computer company to embrace mobile computing. This release of Mac OS X seems to be a reflection of Apple's successes in those categories.
With this eighth major release of the big-cat OS, Apple is adding more than 250 features. Some are big interface changes, whereas others are smaller refinements with the clear aim of making certain actions easier. Priced at $29.99, the upgrade adds plenty to make it worthwhile for most Mac users, but those who do not have Snow Leopard will need to pay for that upgrade as well. Lion can only be downloaded via the Mac App Store, which was introduced with Snow Leopard.
Installation for Mac OS X Lion requires a couple of steps. Start by running Software Update and check for Mac App Store updates--this is always a good practice before a major upgrade, to make sure you have the latest versions of Apple's core apps.
From there, simply navigate to the Mac App Store in Snow Leopard, purchase the upgrade, and begin downloading. You will need to have an account with Apple via the Mac or iTunes Store in order to purchase Mac OS X Lion. The OS is about 4GB (approximately the size of a full-length film download), so depending on your connection, you may want to start the download before going to bed or leaving for work. When the download is finished, the Mac OS X Lion installer appears in the Dock and launches automatically.
Mac OS X Lion installs in place, so you won't need to create a separate disk or run the installation off an external drive. All of your photos, documents, applications, and other saved files will be there when you're finished with the upgrade. Once the installation is complete, your Mac will automatically restart and you'll be ready to start exploring Mac OS X Lion. Apple also told us that Snow Leopard users migrating data to a new Mac with Lion should first grab the Migration Assistant update for Snow Leopard. This will ensure all of your files, photos, and information will be smoothly transferred to the new system.
Other download options: Apple recognizes that 4GB can be a big download, especially for users without broadband. Users who do not have broadband access at home, work, or school will be able to download Lion at all Apple retail stores. If there are no stores close to you, you'll need to wait until August when Apple says Lion will be made available on a USB thumbdrive through the Apple Store (http://www.apple.com) for $69.
Multitouch gestures: With the success of touch-screen iOS devices and sales of Mac notebooks outpacing desktops, it's only fitting that Apple would make multitouch gestures a priority in Mac OS X Lion. Whether you're using the trackpad on the MacBook Pro, the MacBook Air, or the Magic Trackpad for desktops, you'll be able to take advantage of multitouch gestures that get you where you want to go quickly without having to navigate using a mouse. The Magic Mouse offers alternative gestures as well, so you won't be left out in the cold if you prefer a more traditional mouse.
Even the feel of gestures seem smoother, which Apple says is not a change in how the functions work, but are attributable to new animations for things like swiping, zooming, and momentum scrolling. Whatever the explanation, it works well.
In Mac OS X Lion, Apple has rethought the concept of scrolling through pages by making the idea of the scroll bar mostly obsolete. Now you can swipe with two fingers to scroll through a Web page or document, but the document moves as though you are actually moving it with your hand. This is different from former scrolling methods, where you would scroll downward with the scroll bar to make a Web page move upward, for example. This might take some getting used to for many people, but we found it very intuitive once we got used to "grabbing" a Web page or scrollable document and moving it. The scroll bar is not completely a thing of the past, however, because it still shows up to indicate where you are on a page and disappears once you're done scrolling--it's just that you will mostly no longer need to use it.
Some of the more-useful gestures we found were the aforementioned two-finger scrolling, a three-finger swipe upward to open Mission Control (more on this later), and the three-finger swipe to the side to switch between full-screen applications. All of these gestures are very fluid and intuitive and--once you remember the important ones--should become second nature.
Full-screen apps: One of the more obvious differences between the Windows and Mac operating systems throughout the years was Windows' ability to easily switch (or maximize) to full screen, while Mac apps would always launch (and remain) in a window. With Mac OS X Lion, you're now able to switch the core Mac apps to a full-screen view using a diagonal arrow icon in the top right of the app window. Apple's Mac software that's separate from the operating system, like iWork and the iLife apps, now have this functionality as well, but you'll need to update them through the Mac App Store to add full-screen capabilities. Apple says that full screen will be available as an API to third-party developers as well, so expect many of your favorite apps to soon be updated with full-screen support.
Once in full-screen view, you'll be able to use multitouch gestures like the three-finger swipe horizontally to smoothly move between applications. If you want to see the Dock while in full screen, move the mouse to the bottom of the screen, take your finger off the mouse then swipe down again. Apple has stuck to this particular design aesthetic for many years by not implementing this basic feature, and we're really glad to be able to finally use apps full screen in Lion.
Mission Control: Mac OS X has offered many ways throughout the years to quickly navigate to open apps and open windows through various iterations of what Apple calls Expose. But with Lion, you'll now have Mission Control, which displays all your open apps and windows so it's easy to find everything you're currently working on in one screen. Apple also integrated Spaces (separate desktops to organize your work) into Mission Control, with the use of a floating icon in the upper right corner of the Mission Control window. Now, if you want to move work to a separate space, you'll enter Mission Control, then click and drag the windows to the icon to create an extra desktop.
We found earlier versions of Expose to be somewhat confusing, with different buttons for different actions causing you to have to experiment to find the right key to see all windows open in an application. With Mission Control, your open apps are displayed across the top with the Expose view of all open windows at the bottom--no confusing options. You still have Function keys (with new obvious icons on the new MacBook Air and presumably on Macs to come later), but you can also do a three-finger swipe upward to open the unified Mission Control screen on any trackpad. We really like how easy it is to get to Mission Control using multitouch gestures. It eliminates steps and gets you where you want to go, quickly.
Safari: Apple's Web browser got a few enhancements to make it easier to use and lets you use multitouch gestures to smoothly navigate from page to page. The app supports the newly designed scrolling method, along with tap or pinch to zoom, and swipes to navigate a tab's history. This is one area where you'll particularly notice the natural animations of the new multitouch gestures: when two-finger swiping a Web page, it slides over smoothly exactly at the speed you swipe. Even though the animations are mostly an aesthetic upgrade, we found it much easier and more elegant than hitting back on the Web browser and reloading past sites.
A new feature called Reading List acts as a temporary bookmarking system for stories you want to read a bit later. When you see a story you can't get to now, hit the plus sign to the left of the address bar and choose Reading List (you can also Shift-click a link in a story to automatically add it). Once you've collected a few stories, you can go back and read the preloaded sites in your Reading List. When you're done, you can click Clear All to clean out today's list. We think this particular addition is very useful for quickly grabbing links to stories without having to save them to your bookmarks.
A small but welcome addition is a new Download indicator on the upper right of the browser. When you download a file in Lion, an animation shows the file fly to the icon, then begins downloading. Click the icon to check progress or to look at past downloads. Though small, it's a much better interface design than digging through menus to show the Downloads window and lets you know right away that your download has been initiated.
Launchpad: Obviously taking queues from what works on iOS devices, Apple decided to add the same application layout to Mac OS X Lion. You still have an Application folder like previous versions of Mac OS X, but now you have the option to click the Launchpad icon in the Dock or use a three-finger and thumb-pinching motion to open Launchpad. Just like the iOS experience, you can click and hold an icon to bring up the jiggle motion, then reorder apps or drag them on top of each other to make folders. You can also easily delete an app by clicking the X next to the icon.
In our demo, Apple pointed out that the Dock has always had its limitations. It works great for keeping your favorite apps close by, but over time you'll end up with tons of small icons that are hard to see. While adjusting magnification helps somewhat, for a lot of apps, the Dock is not ideal. Now with Launchpad, you'll get the same experience as iOS devices, but we're still not convinced it will be well-received by users. We'll have to wait and see how users respond, but it seems like more of a gimmick (tying the functionality together with iOS devices) than an efficient way to open apps. We think it's almost like a step back from creating an application folder in the Dock, but you will have to decide for yourself which method you think is more efficient.
Autosave, versions, and resume: Everyone has had the experience of working on a document and hitting Command-Save frequently to make sure you don't lose anything. Likewise, we've all had the experience of losing our work after forgetting to save. Mac OS X Lion will now save your work every 5 minutes or whenever you do a significant action, like sending the document via e-mail, for example. It will also autosave when you pause for a significant amount of time, like when you're at the end of a paragraph. At each of these events the document is saved automatically so you no longer need to remember and will be less likely to lose your work.
What's even more impressive is that you now have the ability to look at past versions of your document just like you would look through Time Machine, the Mac's backup system. This means that if you don't like the direction you took on a document, or thought a past version was truly what you wanted, you'll now have the ability to pick a better version from the past. Autosave and versions is truly a welcome addition to OS X Lion that just about anyone will appreciate. Like other new technologies in OS X Lion, versions will only work on core apps like Preview, TextEdit, and the iWork suite initially, but it will be available as an API for third-party developers to add into their own apps, and we suspect most of them will.
Along with autosave and versions, you also never have to worry about closing down your Mac in a rush. With Mac OS X Lion's resume features, you'll always have the same apps open when you launch, just like you left them when you shut down. Even the applications themselves will be in the exact same state as you left them, ready for you to resume work. If you don't want to resume your desktop, system specs, and apps as you left them, or just want to start clean, you always have the option during restart to turn the feature off. We think that depending on the situation, the resume feature will definitely come in handy for getting back to work quickly, but it's also nice that you have the option to start fresh upon restart.
Mail: Apple's Mail app got a complete overhaul in Mac OS X Lion as well. It's clear that Apple listened to users, adding a laundry list of new features to add much-needed functionality and make one of the most important apps easier to use. A new wide-screen view--which many will recognize from the iPad mail app--lists messages (with a short preview) on the left and shows the full message and content on the right. When you compose a new message in full-screen mode, your inbox dims so you can focus on writing in the message window without distractions. A new Favorites bar sits just below the toolbar where you can get quick access to mail folders and see new message counts at a glance. Each of the new additions reduces the amount of digging through file menus and time spent clicking your mouse, so we think users will like most of the changes. For those who like browsing in folders, you're still able to view them by hitting the Show button on the left side of the toolbar.
A new formatting bar in messages makes it easy to make font changes and create formatted lists. Another new feature gives you one-click archiving to let you archive one or several messages, and the Mail app automatically creates an archive folder for you.
Searching in Mail got a major improvement that will be helpful to all users of the Mail app. As you type, Mail adds suggestions based on what's in your inbox. But you can then click a resulting suggestion that creates a Search Token that gives the term a rounded gray outline. When you enter another search term, it searches only the messages that include the term in the Search Token. These additions make it possible to search using a name, then a month, then a subject, and only get the results that include those criteria. Mail in Google already has a very powerful search engine, but with Apple's use of tokens, you have the ability to be much more specific.
AirDrop: Whatever computer you are using, sending a file quickly to a friend or coworker on the same network usually requires opening your e-mail client, composing an e-mail, attaching the file, and sending it off. Many companies have dropboxes to make this a bit easier, but it usually requires several steps. Mac OS X Lion makes this process painless with AirDrop. When you want to send a file, simply hit the AirDrop button in the left navigation field of a Finder menu, and you'll be given a graphical representation of users around you on local Wi-Fi. From there you can simply drag-and-drop the file on top of a coworker's avatar to send the file immediately. Anyone who uses a Mac in a work environment will appreciate this fairly simple, but important feature addition.
Switching from Windows: For those who work on Windows machines who are thinking about crossing over to Mac, Lion makes it easier to make the switch, with tools that import your most important data and personal files. Lion will automatically transfer your Outlook and Windows contacts, Outlook calendars, e-mail accounts (including Outlook and Windows Live mail), and all your music in iTunes. You can also import your home directory folder and contents, so you'll be able to find your most important files right away. It will even import your browser bookmarks from Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Safari and sync up your localization info and desktop picture.
It's no surprise that Apple would streamline this process to maximize new users, but we can appreciate the lengths it went to make the transition as smooth as possible.
Overall, Mac OS X Lion has more than 250 new features, many of them small, but all seemingly with the idea of making current common processes easier. The strong focus on multitouch gestures indicates Apple's focus on its more popular notebook line, but makes many helpful changes that desktop users will appreciate as well.
Mac OS X is not without its annoyances. We found some features to be a little gimmicky, like Launchpad for launching apps like an iOS device, but we also think carrying over the design aesthetic will probably help new users (whose only experience with Apple is through the iPhone) to acclimate to Mac OS X more quickly. We also believe it's a bad user experience to force people to buy Snow Leopard before being able to buy Lion--it almost seems like a punishment for not upgrading at every available opportunity. Although Apple has a pretty good reason (Snow Leopard introduced the Mac App Store), it seems there ought to be some way for users to upgrade without the additional cost. Still, to get all these features for $60 (if you don't have Snow Leopard) is not all that bad in our estimation--it just feels unfair.
Nevertheless, the features in Mac OS X Lion will make for an excellent upgrade for the price, whether for a Mac desktop or notebook. Upgrades that make the Mail app more useful; the addition of the very well-designed Mission Control; smart innovations like resume, autosave, versions; and AirDrop will all be welcome additions for any Mac user. For Snow Leopard owners, this upgrade is a no-brainer. For those who own an older system, it's probably still worth biting the bullet and adding several new features to the Mac operating system.