OS X Lion: The Review

Lion: The Complete Macworld Review

At a Glance
  • Apple OS X Lion (10.7)

    Macworld Rating

    At $30 for all of your Macs, the only reason not to upgrade to Lion is because you rely on old PowerPC-based apps that won’t run on it. Otherwise, it’s a great price for a major upgrade.

OS X Lion: The Review

In a decade, Mac OS X evolved from a curious hybrid of the classic Mac OS and the NextStep operating system to a mainstream computer operating system used by millions. It was a decade of continual refinement, capped by the bug-fixing, internals-tweaking release of Snow Leopard in 2009.

But the last four years have seen some dramatic changes at Apple. In that time, while Mac sales have continued to grow, Apple has also built an entirely new business around mobile devices that run iOS. Combine the influx of new Mac users with the popularity of the iPhone and iPad, and you get Lion.

Can Apple make OS X friendly for people buying their first Macs and familiar to those coming to the Mac from the iPhone, while keeping Mac veterans happy? That would be a neat trick—and Apple has tried very hard to pull it off.

(Before you read any further, you need to know that Lion isn’t right for one particular group of users: If you’re using an early Intel Mac powered by a Core Solo or Core Duo processor, you can’t run it. And if you rely on PowerPC-based apps that run on Intel Macs using the Rosetta code-translation technology, they won’t run in Lion. For more on the fate of older software, see Chris Breen’s series on Lion-incompatible software.)

A new kind of upgrade

Even before you boot into Lion for the first time, you’ll feel just how different it is from previous versions of Mac OS X. That’s because Apple has decided to release the upgrade primarily as a $30 download from the Mac App Store. After a 3.5GB download, there’s a new Install Lion app in your Dock and Applications folder. Double-click that, and the installation begins.

Back in the day, getting an OS X upgrade involved going to a store or ordering online and getting an optical disc. With the release of Lion, Mac users can get near-instant gratification. And the $30 price is remarkable—in the past Apple would’ve charged $129 for an upgrade of this scale.

However, relying on downloading alone for an OS release has its drawbacks. While the experience is clean and simple for the most common installation scenarios, things can get weird if yours isn’t one of them. What if you have a really slow Internet connection or low bandwidth cap? Downloading 4GB of data could be painful. What if you aren’t running Snow Leopard, which is required for the Mac App Store? What happens if your drive crashes and you have to reinstall Lion onto a new, blank hard drive?

Apple has answers to many of these questions, but the rules of the game have definitely changed. Company executives told me that users without access to a high-speed connection will be able to bring their Macs to an Apple Store for help in buying and installing Lion. And despite all the talk about Lion being available only via the Mac App Store, the company plans to release a $69 version of Lion on a USB stick in August.

Apple doesn’t provide an easy way to burn a DVD or format a USB drive as a back-up installer, though even Apple execs admitted that technically adept users will be able to figure out how to create a bootable installer from the contents of the Lion installation package. Wiping your hard drive entirely and re-installing Lion will be a different (and potentially more complicated) process than it is today with Snow Leopard, but for most users, installing (and restoring) system software under Lion will be a simpler process.

The good news is that, once you’ve got a Lion installer, you can copy it freely to all the Macs in your house (so long as they’re running the latest version of Snow Leopard) and upgrade them to Lion. Not only is that convenient, but it’s legal: The Lion download license covers all of the Macs in your household, making that $30 an even greater deal. If you’re planning on updating multiple Macs to Lion, though, be warned: the Lion installation app self-destructs after use. After you download it, move a copy somewhere else before installing, or you’ll have to re-download the installer from the App Store before using it on another Mac.

Scrolling and gesturing

Apple has been adding Multi-Touch gestures to OS X since the introduction of two-finger scrolling in the PowerBook in 2005. After the arrival of the iPhone in 2007, things really picked up steam. In 2008 MacBooks got a Multi-Touch glass trackpad, and in 2010 Apple brought the same gestures to the desktop with the Magic Trackpad. With Lion, Multi-Touch gestures are now front and center, and it’ll be interesting to see how users react.

For some users, gestures are already second nature; I can’t imagine using my MacBook without two-finger scrolling. As someone who uses the Desktop to store all of the files I’m currently working on, the four-finger flicking gesture that clears away all windows so I can see that Desktop is now burned into my muscle memory. (To do that in Lion, you now flick with three or four fingers and your thumb.)

But for others, gestures are completely foreign. When I mention two-finger scrolling to some people, they look at me like I’d just claimed that I’d been to the moon. (For the record: if you slide two fingers up and down on a trackpad, it’s just like you were spinning a mouse’s scroll wheel. Try it, it’s great!)

It’s true that gestures can be tricky to learn. Some feel natural, because the result mimics the gesture: the three- or four-finger flick that moves your windows out of the way and summons Mission Control; the three-finger sideways slide that moves you from one space to another; and the new four- or five-finger spread that reveals the Desktop. Others are less intuitive: the two-finger double-tap that provides an iPhone-like zoom, for example, or the double-tap with three fingers (not the triple-tap with two fingers) that produces a pop-up dictionary definition of any word onscreen. Nifty features both, but tough to remember.

Lion also dramatically changes the two-finger scroll. That’s because Apple has decided to change directions: In previous versions of OS X, if you slid two fingers upwards on a trackpad (or moved the scrollbar on the side of the window up), your view of a document moved up; the document on the screen seemed to move down, and you would see content higher up on the page. In Lion, if you push those two fingers up, it’s as if you’re physically pushing the document up; you see the content below what had been onscreen.

Apple says that after a few days of using OS X with this new behavior, your brain adapts and then you won’t be able go back to doing it the other way. It’s true: After three or four days, I was comfortable with the new scrolling orientation. If you’re willing to put up with a few days of weirdness, your mind will adapt. If you can’t, well, go to the Scroll & Zoom tab in the Trackpad preference pane and uncheck the Scroll With Finger Direction option; that will restore the old scrolling behavior.

Users of desktop Macs who don’t like trackpads will be grumpy about the change. Fortunately for them, you don’t need a trackpad to use Lion; most of the features you implement via gestures can also be activated using keyboard shortcuts or contextual menus.

With this change, Apple is syncing the behavior between the iOS and the Mac. Is it really necessary for the two platforms to be in sync? Right now, I’d say no. But it does make me wonder whether Apple is laying the groundwork for more crossover between the two operating systems. If someday there’s a touchscreen Mac or one that can run iOS apps natively, having a consistent scroll-direction philosophy will make sense. For now, though, if it hurts your brain too much, you can just turn it off.

Lion's new scroll bars, which only appear when you're actually scrolling.

Speaking of scrolling, scroll bars, and crossover between the Mac OS and iOS, Lion also introduces the biggest change to scroll bars since they were introduced with the original Mac in 1984. By default, scroll bars on Lion are invisible, just as they are in iOS. You see nothing on the right side of a document window until you begin to scroll with a trackpad or mouse. Only then does the scroll bar appear. When it does, it’s clickable and draggable; you can even move your cursor above or below the bar itself and click in a light-gray scroll lane to jump rapidly through a document. But when not in use, the scrollbar fades away.

As someone who has fully embraced the concept of scrolling via two fingers on a trackpad, I like this approach—I didn’t use that scroll bar space and generally don’t need to see it. But as with so many of the changes Apple is making in Lion, the company gives users who like the old way an out: In the General pane of the System Preferences app, there’s an option to always show scroll bars. If you like to click on those arrow buttons at the top and/or bottom of the old scrollbars, though, you’re out of luck: They’re gone completely. I can’t remember the last time I used them, so that doesn’t bother me.

Mission Control

Over Mac OS X’s lifetime, Apple has introduced several ways for users to cope with window clutter—the problem of having too many documents and apps open on the screen at the same time. Exposé, which lets you quickly see all of your currently open windows, was introduced in 2003 with Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther). Dashboard, that separate onscreen space for tiny widget apps, appeared in 2005 with Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger). Spaces, which let you assign apps to multiple virtual desktops, arrived in 2007 as a part of Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard).

Mission Control in action. (Click to enlarge.)

With Lion, Apple has combined all of these features into a single interface called Mission Control. When you activate Mission Control by clicking on the Mission Control app in the Dock, pressing a keyboard shortcut (F9 by default), or gesturing (swiping three or four fingers upward), you see an Exposé-style view of all the currently running applications with thumbnail views of all their open windows. At the top of the screen, there’s a list of all available spaces—including not just the virtual desktops that the old Spaces feature offered, but also all apps running in full-screen mode and (by default) Dashboard.

Configuring those spaces is simpler now: If you want to stick an app or a window into a new space, you drag its icon or window towards the top of the Mission Control screen. As you drag, the image of a new desktop appears in the corner of the screen, with a helpful plus icon. Drop the icon or window on that image and a new desktop space is added to the array at the top of the screen. You can drag items from space to space, but can’t rearrange the order of spaces.

Though you can move between spaces via keyboard shortcuts and clicking, it’s best handled via a trackpad gesture. A three-fingered swipe left or right on the trackpad will take you from space to space. It feels natural; I’m more likely to use Dashboard now that it’s just another space. Fans of the previous Spaces will need to re-orient; the old way allowed you to create a two-dimensional grid of spaces, but Mission Control limits you to a single horizontal strip. However, working with those spaces can be disorienting: When you switch between spaces, the order of desktops can get mixed up; items that were floating on top can end up behind another window. There’s definitely some fine-tuning to be done here.

I like the visual, tactile approach Apple has taken with Mission Control. I’m not sure if novice users will ever take to organizing windows and apps on multiple desktops. But since every full-screen app gets its own space by default, many people will end up using Mission Control whether they want to (or know they are) or not. I also wish there was a way to manually re-order spaces. Still, while Spaces had its adherents, I think Mission Control will be embraced by many more Mac users. By bringing Exposé, Spaces, and Dashboard together into a more unified whole, Mission Control is greater than the sum of its parts.

Full-screen apps

Lion adds a new capability that any app can take advantage of: the ability to run in full-screen mode. Once an app is updated by its developer to support this mode, a double-headed arrow icon appears in the top-right corner of the app window. Click on it and a couple of things happen.

Full-screen GarageBand (Click to enlarge.)

First, of course, the app slides into full-screen mode: You see nothing but that app; no other windows share the screen. Also, the menu bar and Dock disappear. (Really, they’re just hidden; if you nudge your mouse to the edge of the screen they will reappear temporarily). And the app becomes a space unto itself in Mission Control. To exit full-screen mode, you move your cursor to the top of the screen and, when the menu bar reappears, you click on the blue double-headed arrow in the top-right corner.

This is an interface approach that Apple has been heading toward for a while: The existing versions of iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand all want to be run in single windows, as large as possible. With Lion, more Apple apps join that party, including Safari, Mail, and iCal. Presumably, many third-party apps will follow.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    At $30 for all of your Macs, the only reason not to upgrade to Lion is because you rely on old PowerPC-based apps that won’t run on it. Otherwise, it’s a great price for a major upgrade.

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