OS X Lion for Mac: 10 Things Worth Knowing Before Your Purchase (Not A Review)

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Unlike many (perhaps most) journalists who cover Apple’s products, I deliberately avoided playing with the OS X Lion betas, so my only exposure to the just-released Mac operating system was what most of our readers have seen—Apple’s public marketing materials, and a handful of reports from beta testers. But I actually went a little further than the average person, and also attempted to avoid the spoilers and biases of other writers’ opinions of the pre-release versions. So when I purchased and installed Lion this morning, I was pretty close to fresh-minded regarding the experience, and ready to share a “just like you” perspective for readers who are thinking of starting fresh with Mac OS X 10.7 today.

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Click on Read More for the list of 10 key things that are worth knowing before making your OS X Lion purchase.
(1) The Lion installation process is awesomely efficient. Though the initial download took a while—30 or 45 minutes—it was way easier and faster than driving to a store or placing an order and then waiting for a delivery truck to arrive. Apple deserves huge praise for using the Mac App Store as the conduit, doing a less than one-hour in-place install atop Snow Leopard, and having everything pretty much work when it was all done. Everything was much, much better in this regard than Snow Leopard.

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(2) Lion 10.7.0 doesn’t feel finished. Again. Gone are the days when Apple ships completely “just works” products, it seems, lost to the world of post-release “fix it later” updates. As just one example, the new marquee application Launchpad created a mass of junked-up duplicates on both of the machines I installed Lion on, provided no obvious way to change folder names, and doesn’t seem to allow apps to be deleted from the list unless they were purchased from the Mac App Store. Even if you’re willing to commit to spending 20 minutes fixing the pages Launchpad automatically creates, they wind up looking worse than on an iPad because you can’t delete apps or fix folders that aren’t right. (Update: Based on a reader tip and additional research on Apple’s Discussion Forums, we’ve discovered that the folder renaming problem we experienced is a known bug in 10.7.0: use Activity Monitor to quit Dock, then relaunch Launchpad and you’ll be able to change folder names, as shown a couple of screenshots below.)


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Launchpad’s issues are particularly galling because it’s installed right near the top of your Dock so that you see it and try to use it—even though it currently adds very little value that the Dock can’t already provide. There’s a good idea here, namely creating a nested extension of the Dock for non-critical applications, but it hasn’t been accomplished or even properly polished here. From a user experience standpoint, Launchpad starts out by sucking, and continues the more that you use it; there’s just no reason that it had to be this way.


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(3) Mission Control is just plain neat. As promised, it feels like a more powerful version of Expose that properly leverages the idea of Spaces—a feature that has been in Mac OS X for a while but was never as convenient for average users as it could have been. Now, thanks to stacked windows and multi-touch swiping, extra desktops and some full-screen apps may just start to make sense.


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(4) Lion feels as if Apple is running out of good UI ideas for OS X, and has introduced some bad graphic design elements into core applications. Put aside the sometimes gimmicky over-animation of the Lion UI—zooming effects, windows popping out, and so-on. In addition to the now well-established decolorization of in-app icons across multiple apps, Apple has cluttered up the new default Mail window by trying to cram tons of small text into its preview window.


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TextEdit has gained some new formatting tools but they’re tiny, and have been stuffed into an increasingly crowded top bar. Apple number badges in the Dock now look overly sharp. And so on. It’s as if different Apple app teams are all working on screens with radically different resolutions and DPIs, rather than trying to develop properly-sized, resolution-independent apps. Is OS 11 going to be needed before all of these disparate UIs are unified in some smart way?


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(5) It just works. A surprising number of applications—basically everything I use—seem to either work in their pre-Lion forms, or to have been updated properly to work with Lion. I’ve had a total of one app hiccup so far: a droplet I was using with Adobe Photoshop CS5 required Rosetta/PowerPC emulation support, which is no longer included with Lion. No Adobe update showed up. Problem? No. Adobe had created a fix earlier: just recreate the droplet with the latest version of CS5, and it won’t require Rosetta any more. Took a minute.


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(6) Apple’s new approach to scrolling isn’t intuitive, but it isn’t as bad as some people suggested, either. While it’s non-intuitive initially to use the Magic Trackpad to scroll down for up or up for down—a change introduced to bring the Mac and touchscreen-based iOS devices into scrolling parity—frequent iOS device users will most likely get used to it quickly, and a reverse scrolling option is available. Lion’s new invisible scrollbars will also take a little getting used-to, but I really like them, generally speaking.

(7) Multi-touch app-switching is really fun, but full-screen mode is a little rough right now. The idea of switching from a windowed environment into a one-app-per-screen world is nowhere near an easy sell on the Mac, or even a good idea, particularly for desktop computers with huge screens. Additionally, it looks like apps need to be individually updated by Apple and other developers to support full-screen functionality, and the transition from windowed to full-screen mode is awkward: hit an arrowed button and the app disappears from the desktop, becoming its own separate space to explore. For these reasons, switching to a full-screen app just doesn’t all feel intuitive or natural right now. But three-finger swipes from screen to screen are fun to play with, anyway, and accessing Mission Control with a similar swipe is neat, too.

(8) AirDrop is beyond welcome—if your Mac supports it. Multi-Mac users have been challenged for years by the simple task of sending files from one machine to another. Apple lets Lion users do this with ease: open a new AirDrop window from the Finder, locate another Lion machine’s icon, and drop files onto it. As long as you (or the other Lion user) confirms that the files are wanted, they send. Simple. Great. The only hitch: AirDrop is only supported by some 2009 and later Macs because of a wireless networking issue. Here’s hoping that Apple fixes it.


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(9) About the OS X Lion name. I don’t think Apple’s omission of “Mac” from the Mac OS X name this time was an accident. I think this is preparation for something big, and Apple’s scrubbing of “Mac” from everything was nearly complete. Except for the Lion installer, which says “Install Mac OS X.”

(10) A brief thought on Multi-Touch. It took Apple way too long to bring proper multi-touch support to the Mac after introducing the trackpads into its notebook and desktop computers, but at this point, the gestures feel so intuitive and useful that it’s hard to think about going back to a pre-multi-touch input device. It was funny to hear some people discussing Microsoft’s new “Mac-ready” mouse yesterday without giving much consideration as to whether it would really be able to support all of the gestures Lion uses on the OS level. Going forward, the Magic Trackpad is really going to be the preferred input device for Macs, until touchscreen Macs arrive. Launchpad, of course, seems as if it was designed for that express purpose.


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There are some other features and changes that are worth talking about, too—Resume, Auto Saving and Versioning, et cetera, but for the time being, I’ll leave this article right here. My early impression is that Lion certainly has enough features and future value to justify the relatively low $30 asking price, but that it couldn’t have been priced much higher without generating grumbles. By ending compatibility with PowerPC Mac apps, all but strictly requiring Core 2 Duo processors and 4GB of RAM, and adding only a handful of major user-facing features, Lion wasn’t going to light the entire Mac world on fire. But the value of its Mac App Store-based, super easy multi-computer installation and some of the smaller new features will make it appealing to recent Mac users, anyway.