Why I'm not committing to Lion -- yet

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Allow me to provide a little insight into how stories with headlines like these generally work. The Author distends his or her minor objections to New Technology X to the point where said technology becomes something that anyone with a lick of sense approaches only with sterilized tongs and a throwing net. This is done, in part, so that The Reader can choose A Side and shake the nearest gardening implement in either support or fury.

In what I hope breaks from this mold, may I say—without vilifying Apple’s latest Mac OS release or those people who’ve chosen to embrace it—that Lion isn’t yet for me. At least not for the Macs I use for getting much of my work done. I spent many hours with the Lion betas and lived with the final Lion release on my MacBook Pro for a couple of weeks while traveling. I have to admit that I was relieved to return to my Mac Pro running Snow Leopard. And here’s why.

Input devices

One of the major themes of Lion is the touch interface and gestures. To fully take advantage of them, you must use a trackpad. (Yes, I know today’s Magic Mouse supports a smaller set of gestures, but unless you shop in the petite aisle of the local Glovateria, half those gestures are wasted. Any side-to-side swipe with well-fed fingers is a painful and often futile exercise.) I find a trackpad to be a less precise input device than a mouse—more often than I’d like I have to wrestle with my trackpad to accurately place the cursor. So, I’m a mouse guy.

As a mouse guy, gestures are a feature I don’t use. In cases where a mouse click is clumsy in comparison to an operation that can be accomplished with a gesture—swiping to a previous page or rotating an iPhoto image, for example—I’ve found that a keyboard shortcut works admirably (and, unlike a gesture, works every time). Also as a mouse guy, Apple’s natural scrolling is no benefit to me. I understand why it could be useful with a trackpad—it’s hardly a leap to imagine how the direction of iOS gestures can be implemented with a trackpad—but when you introduce a mouse’s scroll wheel, the conceit breaks down. There’s nothing natural or intuitive about moving a scroll wheel in the direction opposite to what we’ve used in the past.

Applications I don’t use

Apple has introduced a number of improvements to Mail, including conversations, the Favorites Bar, and better searching. I still won’t use it. The decision to use one email client or another often rests on a couple of features vital to your perceived needs. In my case, I need to be able to quickly categorize people who send me email and then filter that email based on the sender’s category. Specifically, if I receive a PR release, I tag the sender as PR so that whenever that person next sends me a message, that message is diverted to my PR folder. Mail doesn’t provide an elegant way to do this. Microsoft Outlook does. And so Outlook—despite its bugs and slowdowns—remains my choice. Again, this is a very specific need. Mail may be a perfect fit for you.

iCal and Address Book—with their new “like the real thing” look—aren’t for me either. iCal has become less useful to me over the years thanks to Apple hiding its editing features and, now, forcing you to click a Calendars button whenever you want to see a list of your calendars. I’m hopeful (and happy) about these applications’ integration with iCloud, but I manage events and contacts elsewhere—BusyCal for my calendars and Outlook for contacts.

High-concept, lower functionality

When working with Lion I sometimes feel like I’m watching an Andy Kaufman routine—concept is key to appreciating the performance. But when you focus on what’s really happening, it’s just some guy singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

Take Launchpad, for example. The Launchpad idea works well on an iOS device given the constraints of the interface—no windowed environment or sense of a directory hierarchy. But on a Mac where I may have hundreds of applications? There are better ways. I know, it’s one of many options for launching applications. And it’s an option that’s best used by those who have very few applications. But for me—who has those hundreds of applications—it’s a clumsy interface that I’ll ignore.

Or scroll bars. This is another concept that works well under iOS but makes little sense to me in the Mac OS. How, in any way, does removing the arrow buttons from a scroll bar make that scroll bar more functional? The aesthetic of a less cluttered scroll bar (or no scroll bar at all) is interesting, but I don’t need my Mac to be aesthetically interesting in this instance. I need it to provide me with controls for easily navigating windows.

And Autocorrect: I’ve found this feature to be a lifesaver on my iOS devices because of those devices’ small keyboards, where I’m apt to mistype. However, I use a full-sized physical keyboard with my Mac. With that keyboard, I’m a far better typist and yet Autocorrect pops up every so often to “correct” a perfectly fine word. If I’m not careful, wrong words are inserted and I later have to go back and correct the autocorrection.

For power users and not

Lion has a load of features that power users could take advantage of, yet Lion often steps in the way of those same power users. I’ll offer Mission Control as a +1 for power users. Apple took a couple of underused (because they were a bit clumsy) features—Exposé and Spaces—and mixed them together into the rich soup that is Mission Control. Work-environment management has become more powerful and gestures make the thing a pleasure to use in the right hands. But cool-looking though it may be, it’s not a feature that the mythically bumbling new users, “your parents,” are ever going to touch. Both the concept and execution are too convoluted for newbies.

The –1 for power users is permissions. Lion routinely demands that I authorize one action or another with my Administrator’s password or flat-out bars me from conducting an operation because I don’t have the proper permissions. I understand that the notion of the Administrator doesn’t mean what it once did—someone with the power to easily initiate real change on the Mac. And for good reason: Anyone who installs Lion is an Administrator and granting that kind of power to new users isn’t always a good idea. However, if Apple is going to dilute the Administrator’s account to the point where error dialogs fly left and right and I need to access Info windows to alter permissions on files and folders to do things I could easily accomplish under Snow Leopard, let’s create another user level—the Super Administrator. I’m not asking for root privileges, but I would like to be able to move files where I want them, throw out items in the Applications folder (even if they were installed with Lion), and have a visible Library folder in my user folder.

Not baked to my satisfaction

And there’s Lion’s stability. It’s not unusual for these kinds of major OS releases to have problems when they first leap from the gate. Lion is no exception. The initial Lion release was buggy in my experience. The 10.7.1 release has helped, but I still find Lion less stable than Snow Leopard.

Summing up

My hope is that those who are tempted to react to this story’s headline will scroll down to this bit before posting a heated reply. Again, I’m not suggesting that Lion is a terrible, horrible, no good OS. It may be a great fit for you—particularly if you use a trackpad and find gestures convenient. Additionally, like every other version of the Mac OS, I expect it will become better baked with each update. And I also understand that I can switch off nearly all of the features that I don't care for.

So, what it boils down to for me is this: What in Lion compels me to abandon what is currently a stable and functional version of the Mac OS? As a mouse-centric power user who’s tweaked his Mac to near-perfection, not enough.


[Christopher Breen is a senior writer for Macworld.]

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At a Glance
  • 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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