OSX Lion Review


Much like the move from Leopard to Snow Leopard, it’s hard to see immediate changes from Snow Leopard in Lion (beyond the slightly muted color pallet throughout the OS). However, spend just a few minutes actually using Cupertino’s newest version of OSX, and changes start coming out of the woodwork.


Right from the beginning, this is where I got hooked. If you’re using an Apple laptop, especially newer models with button-less, multi-touch trackpad, you may have discovered some the wonderful shortcuts and productivity enhancements made possible through touch gestures. I have personally grown so dependent on gestures that I shy away from Mac programs that don’t utilize them, and my productivity using Windows and Linux takes a considerable hit. Lion retools Snow Leopard’s gestures, and after a day or two of re-learning my way around the trackpad, Natural Scrolling Controlls in System PreferencesI can scarcely remember what changed across the versions of OSX. However, one of Lion’s multi-touch features hits you straight-away and refuses to fade–reverse, or as Apple prefers to call it “natural” scrolling.

Simply stated, when using the trackpad to scroll through a webpage or a text document, what was once up, is now down. For users that spend hours gazing into smartphones or tablets, the transition might live up to Apple’s naming scheme, and its also a clear indicator of Apple’s desire to merge OSX with iOS. The feature is activated by default, but it can easily be turned off in System Preferences. I was skeptical, but after trying it out for a few days, I stopped trying to scroll the “unnatural” way, and embraced the change. It really comes down to personal preference, and many users will find it easiest to disable it right after installing Lion. After more than three months since making the switch, I’ve started hacking my other machines to match Lion’s behavior. If you give it a go and find yourself similarly smitten with natural scrolling, Hotkey works pretty well for bringing the feature to Windows, and I found Natural Scrolling to be a good fix in Ubuntu.

Launch Pad/Full Screen Apps/Mission Control

If mimicking touch screens on the trackpad made you cringe, skip ahead a paragraph and shield your eyes from the screen shot. In all of its infinite wisdom, Apple thinks that we want to page through our applications exactly the same way we would on an iPad or iPhone. They call the new feature Launch Pad and placed an icon shortcut for it in the dock by default. The feature can also be triggered using Hot Corners or through a trackpad gesture. Thankfully, you can disable them. Launch Pad’s trifecta of access makes it clear that Apple wants us to use the new feature. While this type of interface might work well for 3.5″ and 10″ touch screens, I found it wholly unnecessary on a laptop computer and far less intuitive than the dock’s still-existing, highly-functional, default Applications folder.

Spaces has been completely replaced by Mission Control, which does away with the grid and limits you to a horizontal line of desktops. Four-finger swipes to the left and right let you move between desktops, four-finger swipes toward the keyboard will show all the desktop environs and groupings of application windows on the screen (this is the new Exposé). Singular windows can be moved to different desktops, and even the desktops themselves can be rearranged. It all works with beautiful simplicity, but it can get tad complicated when dealing with “full screen” applications (especially if you are accustomed to using multiple monitors). Lion now allows applications to take up the entire screen, hiding Apple’s iconic, omnipresent menu bar, at the top of the screen. This gives applications a very iPad-like feel, but don’t fret! The menu bar reappears when hovering the pointer near the top of the screen, re-enabling full control over the running application. Full Screen apps are given their own desktop space in Mission Control, which feels logical and fluid on a laptop; however, throwing an external monitor into your workspace makes Full Screen apps completely useless. Full screen apps don’t allow other programs to exist in the same desktop space, including the extended display. This means that half of your computing space is now reduced to a screen with an unchangeable image, that can’t be used. I’ve gotten into the habit of maximizing windows without invoking the new Full Screen feature in a dual monitor setup, and it works well, but the wasted space in Full Screen mode feels like a gross oversight.


Further bridging the gap between Apple’s two operating systems, Lion features completely reworked versions of the Mail and iCal applications. I’ve tried a myriad of local email clients, but I consistently rushed back to accessing my Gmail account where it worked best– in the browser. After using Mail for a week, the only thing I missed from using Gmail in a browser were the tags. The overhauled application serves up a more focused and content-rich reading experience, and I have found the integrated inbox, which compiles all my mail from four different accounts more than worth the loss of Gmail tags, and Adium sufficiently makes up for the loss of Google Chat integration in the browser. Mail’s search feature puts the Mac version of Outlook to shame, and since Mail can natively handle an exchange account, I see no reason to suffer through using Microsoft’s aging software. I can’t stress enough how well Apple succeeded in making a core app more user friendly while retaining functionality. If only the rest of Lion was as polished…

Lion’s calendar app gained the same usability and interface improvements as Mail, yet not all changes to iCal were for the better. I find the faux leather skinning of the app visually unappealing in its own right, not to mention its nauseatingly inconsistency with the rest of the OS’s apps, aside from the Address Book, which got the same coat of ugly paint splashed on it. Aesthetics aside, I found the new version of iCal so usable that I seldom access my Google Calendar through the web interface. How much of this change stems from my new dependence on Mail remains to be seen, but there’s a high probability that the way I interact with my mail/calendar is being influenced by Apple’s co-dependent ecosystem.

Finder’s Favorites and Devices sidebar defaults suffer a few changes in Lion in the form of removing Hard Disks and adding Air Drop (addressed below) and All My Files. Removing a direct link to the hard drive continues the iOS-ification of OSX, and All My Files serves as the default view upon launching the file browser. Thankfully, these options can be changed in Finder’s preferences, but it was alarming to not see my hard drive on Lion’s first boot.

Auto Save/Versions/Resume

Anyone who has accidentally saved over the “good version” of a document with an older, incomplete copy can attest to gut wrenching feeling that follows, and the trepidation marking every subsequent click of the Save button. Auto Save and Versions do a great job of resolving this issue. Of course, only iWork and other native Apple apps support it for now, but Microsoft and others have promised to work the features into their programs as an update. Hopefully this hits the current applications as an update, and Microsoft refrains from using this as a reason to sell me yet another version of Office. Resume does what applications should have long ago-programs open to the same state they were in when you closed them. This works blissfully well 99% of the time; however, sometimes a program will decide to open in the part of your desktop that was on an external monitor. I’ve only had this occur in Power Point, and restoring usability to the program is as easy as selecting “Window -> Arrange All” on the tool bar. Troubleshooting around the feature makes Lion feel like a beta release and can be intensely frustrating.

Lion and the Cloud

Upgrading to Lion requires a 4+ GB download from Apple’s Mac App Store, and the OS’s dependence on a speedy, solid connection to the net doesn’t end there. With the latest update, users register their Apple IDs with iCloud (Apple’s reinvention of Mobile Me), which offers free email/calendar/cloud storage service, which can also keep tabs on your machine if you are unfortunate enough to have it stolen. The web interface for the service feels clunky and unfinished, but the same complaints cannot be said for iCloud’s integration into Lion. In my experience, the mail and calendar interfaces behave identically to a synced Google account, but I see no reason to abandon an existing Gmail account for Apple’s service. Apple graces you with a default of 5GB of mail storage, which is also shared with cloud backups of any of your iDevices. Since there’s no vanilla file storage or cloud document editing, iCloud will likely fail to replace most users Google Docs or Dropbox dependencies.

iCloud does offer an extremely valuable “Find My Mac” feature, though, which can zero in on any registered devices geolocation (provided said device is connected to the internet). While useful, Apple’s built-in security tool lacks the depth of Prey (a freemium product available for most devices and operating systems), which also tracks geolocation of and remote access to stolen computing devices.

These services get infinitely more useful if you have multiple machines running Lion and/or mobile devices using iOS 5. Photo Stream and Bookmarks can keep things synced across machines, and iPhoto, on my Macbook Pro, automatically downloads the photos I took on my iPhone. As great as this integration is, it pales in comparison to Back to My Mac, which allows full remote access to internet connected machines with a few simple clicks. If you’ve got a Mac Mini idling on standby at home, retrieving a file or even running a program from across the country couldn’t be easier. There are plenty of applications and other technical methods that will let you do this on any machine, but having this feature built into the OS adds a level of simple accessibility that can’t be matched. If you have a particularly fast internet connection, try remotely accessing your machine from a remotely accessed machine and watch your bandwidth disappear.

Even in this world of interconnected devices, getting a large file from machine A to machine B can still prove challenging, particularly when they are in the same room and you don’t have a flash drive handy. Lion’s new Airdrop feature is supposed to remedy this conundrum by using the local WiFi network to push documents from one Lion machine to another. Of course, that’s the catch; the feature is worthless unless you have two Macs, both running Lion. Considering Airdrop requires two Macs running Lion on a private network, where you need to move a file from one machine to another, I’ve yet to encounter a chance or reason to use the feature.

A much easier solution would be to enable a shared folder on one machine, allowing access to the chosen documents. This is a relatively simple process, configurable through System Preferences, and doesn’t require all the machines to run Lion, just OSX. Another solution might be to use a truly cloud-based solution, like Dropbox, which eliminates the need for close proximity and the constraints of OS compatibility since it only requires a web browser and an internet connection.


While I generally prefer Lion over Snow Leopard, Cupertino’s latest isn’t all candy and sunshine. Aside from the balanced (and not-so-balanced) give-take of app overalls and interface changes, some of Lion’s other “improved” and/or exclusive features left me utterly befuddled, aggravated, and at times remorseful in my decision to upgrade.

Recovery Partition

When you upgrade to Lion from Snow Leopard, the install process creates a new recovery partition, which can rebuild your system should your hard drive become corrupted, malware mysteriously find its way onto your machine, or if you just want to start over from a Time Machine backup. Unfortunately, if your hard drive fails, that means the recovery partition on your hard drive is likely inaccessible. Lion being a downloaded upgrade further complicates the issue. Of course, Apple would happily sell you a USB Thumb Drive for more than double the cost of Lion by itself, but there’s much better, cheaper solutions. Apple doesn’t advertise that you can extract an ISO from the Lion download file and create your own install DVD or flash drive. They do, however, provide you with the information to create a USB recovery partition, which will help you recover the OS if your entire hard drive fails.

Multiple OS Support/Boot Camp 4.0

Lion comes with an updated version of Boot Camp, which allegedly improves performance when booting into Windows 7. In order for the recovery partition and the enhanced version of Boot Camp to function properly, Apple overhauled the existing EFI boot program. In doing so, it also crippled my triple-boot setup, which used a program called rEFIt to let me boot into Linux, OSX, or Windows at startup. While some have been able to get rEFIt working with Lion, I haven’t had much success, and I’ve resorted to using Ubuntu’s Wubi installer to get Ubuntu running along side of OSX and Windows. The change is annoying for me, but I’m sure most will welcome Boot Camp’s enhanced support for Windows 7, which has felt much more solid and crash-free than when I ran it along side of Snow Leopard.

App Crashes

I might push my computer a little harder than the average user, but I’ve noticed a huge increase in application force quits in day-to-day use. The worst part of these mini-crashes: more frequently than not, it’s Apple’s core applications (Preview, iPhoto,iTunes, Mail, iCal, Pages, and Safari), not the more obscure, open-source or 3rd party apps (Adium, Chromium, Skim, VLC, Audacity). The crashes have noticeably dropped in frequency in the past month as updates have rolled out, but I expected a smoother transition from Apple. It should only be a matter of time before the last of these bugs get squashed, but the application crashes invoke memories of the dreaded Windows XP BoD, which constituted a huge part of why I migrated to OSX in the first place. Windows 7’s increased usability on my system makes every application crash in OSX feel like a slap in the face.

Death of Power PC Support

Perhaps making the app force quits even more difficult to stomach, Apple’s decided to make draw the line in the software and stop supporting Rosetta programs. As a recent Mac convert, this won’t affect my day-to-day operations, so I can’t say much about it, but I can see how it might be a deal breaker for others. I can only hope that it means more efficient processing for the OS and future applications, which might help me squeeze a few extra years out of my current laptop.


The cutest version of OSX. Ever. http://laughingsquid.com/mac-os-x-maru/In my experience with OS upgrades, the changes you don’t notice and just start using are generally the best ones, and Lion brings many such improvements to OSX. For example, application windows can now be re-sized from any side instead of only the bottom right corner. I started using this feature immediately, and didn’t realize it was something new until I booted up a Mac using Snow Leopard. However, Lion’s improvements to OSX come at a price deeper than the $29.99 debit to your credit card. Lion pushes its users to a computing environment that is heavily dependent on an internet connection and is caged off by its dependence on Apple’s cloud services (e.g. App Store, iCloud, iTunes, etc.). As iOS and OSX continue to merge, Apple seems determined to make its products more usable with one hand while taking greater control of your system with the other. Focusing on controlling the computing experience is hardly something new for Apple, but frequent application crashes and a mildly disjointed user interface are difficult to stomach. Considering the sum of these shortcomings, it is very hard to recommend the upgrade to Lion to everyone. Apple’s assumption of constant internet access, aversion to physical media, and increased hesitance to give the user easy access to core files in Lion come dangerously close to sending me running to a different OS. For now, I’ve worked my way around Lion’s annoyances, but the next iteration of OSX might not find me so forgiving.

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