Apple OS X 10.7 Lion roars with futuristic, and maddening, upgrades
BY ANDY IHNATKO firstname.lastname@example.org July 20, 2011 8:18PM
The Lion installation procedure is almost suspiciously simple. It asks you where you want it to go and it asks you to agree to the license and that's really it.
Updated: July 21, 2011 10:04AM
Cheap irony remains by far your best irony value. As such, I can’t help but point out that the eighth edition of Mac OS X and the eighth Harry Potter film were released in the same week.
Mac users might not be lined up in wizard robes waiting for Mac OS X 10.7 (aka “Lion”) to be released (except for those who wear wizard robes all the time anyway, and yes, I know two people who fit that description) but the sense of excitement and eager anticipation is pretty much the same.
Apple promised Lion’s release “sometime in July.” The smart money was on the company waiting until just after Tuesday’s their quarterly earnings call and sure enough, it became available first thing on Wednesday.
Lion, despite some serious flaws, is the most significant update to the Mac OS since 10.3 or 10.4 (“Tiger”). And it’s significant for the same reason Tiger was. Apple had to go through three or four releases of OS X before they had something that was as capable as the OS it had replaced, but damnit, they did it: they had an OS that could carry them into the future.
With 10.7, Apple is once again creating an OS that looks to the future. There’s a host of terrific, tangible, practical features, sure. But on the whole, you come away from the Lion experience thinking that you’re looking at Apple’s plan for the next five years. There’s little that’s truly revolutionary about Lion, but I can’t help but lick my chops and wonder what the next few years hold in store for Mac users.
Lion starts out strong with its installation process. It’s a total break from every previous edition of the Mac OS. Historically, upgrading an OS is like upgrading the wall-to-wall carpet in your living room. It’s a big, disruptive deal. With Lion, it’s more like you’re swapping out some of the furniture.
If you already have 10.6 installed, upgrading to 10.7 isn’t much more complicated than updating an app. Just visit the App Store and buy it, just like any other piece of software. The good news is that it’s just $29.99. The even better news is that this allows you to install Lion on every Mac you own, and every Mac in your house that’s linked with that App Store account. Once you’ve purchased it on your iMac, you and your family members can just download it from the “Purchased” section of the App Store.
If you don’t already have 10.6 installed . . . oh, dear. You’ve probably already spotted the problem with Lion as an App Store download: the App Store is a Mac OS 10.6 feature, so there’s no way to even purchase it from a Mac that still runs 10.5. You’ll have to either buy a $29 copy of 10.6 on disc and perform an incremental upgrade, or wait until August when Apple will (grudgingly) sell you Lion on a USB stick for $69.
It’s a clean, harmless and remorseless upgrade with only a few gotchas. It only runs on 64-bit Macs (meaning: anything produced after about 2007) and the only software it won’t run are ancient PowerPC-based apps that formerly could run on modern Intel Macs via built-in Rosetta emulation. But this doesn’t affect you unless you’re churning butter while you’re reading this review. The only PowerPC app that’s even slightly popular these days is Quicken.
Quicken users, let me break two things to you gently: the father whom you haven’t seen since he “just went out for a pack of smokes” when you were 7-years-old is never coming back, and Quicken will never, ever be updated for Intel. It’s time to use something else to manage your finances. The last thing you do before installing Lion is export all of your Quicken data because that’s also the last time you’ll ever be able to use the app.
Apple decided to show Windows users some love by releasing a Windows edition of their Migration Assistant app. Just like the Mac edition, the app will move most of your system settings and files from your Windows machine into your shiny new Mac.
DISASTER RECOVERY AND DRIVE SECURITY
The obvious worry about a diskless install is that it removes one avenue of rescue when your machine crashes. If you can’t just slide a recovery disk into Mac and boot from it, what can you do?
Apple’s given you something better: a recovery partition. If your day-to-day system gets corrupted, your Mac can boot off of the Restore volume by holding down Command-R during a restart. Then, you have options for running Disk Utility to try to fix your boot drive, restoring the drive from a Time Machine backup, or going online via Safari. You can use the browser to search for some more answers or you can access your webmail to tell your boss why you’re going to have to deliver a presentation to your biggest client using sock puppets instead of PowerPoint.
But! If you have a Mac that was built in the Post-Lion world -- today that means “the new MacBook Airs and Mac Mini Apple released on the same day as Lion” -- you can boot Lion remotely, according to Apple. If you can give your sick Mac a connection to the Internet, it can connect to Apple’s servers and boot Lion from it without any extra hardware. From there, Apple can commence a full restore, assuming that you’ve been using iCloud for backup.
That’s great if you bought a new Mac this week. What about the rest of us? Lion doesn’t include a built-in feature for building an emergency boot stick or somesuch. But if you know how to peek inside the contents of the Lion installation app and you know how to burn a disk image onto a USB flash drive, you can easily make one yourself.
While we’re on the subject of Worst-Case Scenarios, Lion adds some new disk encryption features. Mac OS’s FileVault feature can now password-encrypt your entire hard drive, not just one user directory. Lion also gives your Mac the “remote wipe” feature found in iPads and iPhones. If your Mac is lost or stolen and it’s connected to the Internet in any fashion, you can send a command that will destroy the drive’s encryption key. The data on the drive instantly becomes unreadable and then, Lion sets about overwriting the entire drive with zeroes, making your files unrecoverable.
THE MAC AS A BIG HONKIN’ IPAD: THE STUFF THAT DOESN’T WORK
Apple debuted Lion last year at an event they called “Back To The Mac.” I imagined they were signaling that after spending the past few years launching the iPhone and the iPad, they were finally ready to turn their focus back to their desktop OS. True enough, but the real meaning was that Apple intended to incorporate certain key iOS features and sensibilities into the Mac.
The results are something of a mixed bag. Two areas seem like serious misfires and they share a common conceptual fault: features that were born out of necessity on a small, multitouch tablet don’t necessarily continue to seem elegant or relevant on a desktop. I speak of multitouch gestures and a feature that I’ve come to address as “Those Damned Scrollbars.”
In theory, incorporating multitouch gestures on a desktop or notebook should work great. Beginning users will return to the previous browser page or switch to another running app by using the mouse and clicking on a control that they can see on the screen. Oh, how quaintly 1990’s! In the push-button world of tomorrow -- scratch that! -- it’s the multitouch world of the new millennium! you stroke your trackpad.
Cool. But here’s the problem: the beginning user won’t instinctively know that they can switch between fullscreen apps by swiping the trackpad with the correct number of fingers (four). And the intermediate user (let’s call him Andy) impatiently wants to know why the hell he should waste a moment taking his hands off the keyboard and pressing his fingers on the trackpad at an uncomfortable angle, when he can already switch apps in an instant just by tapping command-tab?
Most of Lion’s multitouch alternatives feel “wrong” in that same way. Should I learn Safari’s new gesture for “Back,” or should I learn the time-immemorial keyboard shortcut (Command-[), which gets me there without taking my hands off of their usual resting place on my MacBook?
I confess that my reaction to Lion’s gestures might be an early warning sign of Old Fogey Syndrome. All I can say is that even after two weeks with Lion, I’m barely using one or two of those gestures with any regularity. They should have become instinctive by now.
Onward to Those Damned Scrollbars, which I can categorically prove . . .
(You can’t see me, but now I’m waving a thick file folder that’s plainly labeled “CATEGORICAL PROOF”)
. . . is just a silly idea. On the iPhone and the iPad, scroll bars are only visible when you’re actually scrolling. As with the iPad’s multitouch shortcuts, that’s a great idea because there’s really no alternative. The iPhone has a teeeeeeeeny little screen and iOS can’t afford to waste a whole column or row of pixels on a scrollbar.
There’s no such limitation with a Mac screen. Even the screen of 11” MacBook Air is perfectly functional. And yet, Lion hides scrollbars unless you’ve actually scrolling.
Can’t stand that.
Even when they’re actually visible, they’re much narrower and harder to see.
Nope. I’m simply not having it.
It’s a terrible idea, full stop, end of argument.
A scrollbar isn’t decorative fribble. It’s a fundamental element of a GUI. When I’m editing a document, for example, the position of the scrollbar’s thumb and its size instantly tell me two things: that I’m about halfway through the document and that there’s probably only three or four more screenfuls of text to read. All at a glance. Why force me to expend actual effort to get that information?
And don’t forget that a scrollbar is a functional element as well. I want to zap straight to a certain section. Well, thanks, Apple: you made this tiny coin-slot of an indicator a lot harder to grab onto.
Equally annoying: Apple’s reversed the direction of the “scroll” gesture. Since the year my great-great-grandfather arrived on these shores with just the clothes on his back, a few treasured belongings wrapped in his mother’s handkerchief in his pocket, and a dream of opportunity in his heart, you scroll a window by flicking two fingers downward across your notebook or desktop’s trackpad. But on an iPad, you have the visual cue that you’re actually putting your finger against an actual sheet of paper and pushing it around, so that’s how they do it in iOS. For some damned-fool reason, Apple has switched it around and that’s how you scroll around in Mac OS apps as well. You swipe down, down down, not up. I always get it wrong.
The first thing your Mac does after you’ve installed Lion is show you a help pane that explains that scrolling is all screwed up and please, just give it a try.
That’s an excellent sign that many people inside Apple accept that reversing the scroll direction was definitely a bad call.
The good news is that (like the invisible scrollbars), you can go into System Preferences and change it back. But Apple couldn’t help but be snippy about it: the Preference pane identifies Lion’s default scroll behavior as “Natural.”
Lion features a great many odd and apparently arbitrary changes to the UI. Even after two weeks, I can’t get used to the new, eentsy size of the standard Close, Minimize and Maximize window buttons. At worst, they disappear inside a window’s toolbar. At best, they’re harder to hit and they convince you to finally get around to learning the keyboard shortcuts for those functions.
THE MAC AS BIG HONKIN’ IPAD: THE STUFF THAT WORKS GREAT
Which isn’t to say that Apple isn’t on to something, here. The iPad is the first truly new computer to be released in ten or fifteen years. As such, it’s a good make-or-break test of certain concepts of personal computing that have seemed sacrosanct for decades.
Like fullscreen apps. The iPad quickly became one of my preferred computers for writing because it uses a one-window interface by necessity. If I’m writing a column with my iPad, I can’t have a Twitter window or a video in the corner of the screen. Instead, I’m writing. This quirk often makes me way more productive with my iPad than I could ever be on a desktop.
Many desktop apps (particularly word processors; wherever did people get the notion that writers have a problem with distractions?) released or updated in the past few years have included a special fullscreen mode, in which the current editing window expands to fill the whole screen, even obliterating the menubar. With Lion, Apple has promoted this notion from a Style Thing to a basic element of the Mac interface. If an app supports this OS-level fullscreen view, there’s a little “expand” button in the upper left corner of the window. What happens then is up to the app. The Lion version of Mail, for instance, expands your Inbox to fill the whole screen but it also does some nifty camera moves as you work your way through your messages. When you click to Reply to a message, the Inbox takes a step backward into the shadows so you can focus on what you’re writing.
(And can I dream that crafting a one-window, fullscreen interface for their desktop app will nudge a developer into breaking that alternative view out into a dedicated iPad app? Over the past year and a half I’ve learned that when you have iPad and desktop editions of the exact same app made by the exact same company, you’ve got a seriously formidable tool.)
For all my previous bluster about multitouch gestures that don’t make anything any simpler, it only took me an hour to fall in love with Lion’s Launchpad. Put your thumb and three fingers on the trackpad and pinch. The “real” Mac UI fades away and is replaced by an iPad-style application launcher. All of your installed apps appear in a tidy grid, lined up for inspection like dancers at an audition hoping to get picked.
Launchpad will completely win over new and casual users. I’m legally obligated to be a grumpypants so I’ll temper my enthusiasm by noting that it’s still faster to just tap command-spacebar and then type the first couple of letters of the app you want to launch. The Spotlight search service will highlight the app within the search results and you can launch it just by tapping the Return key. No need to take your hands off the keyboard.
The other major win of MacOS’ iPad-ification is a subtle one. I truly believe that the concept of a visible file system is a leftover relic of the 70’s and that it’s becoming increasingly irrelevant to modern computing. If the idea of opening a window full of folder and document icons won’t disappear completely in five years, it’s going to at the very least become like Mac OS’s Unix terminal. That is, it’ll there if you look for it and you want to use it, but most users won’t need to know it even exists.
The Launchpad is just the simplest expression of this concept. Do you relate to apps as executable files stored in the /Users/username/Applications directory? Nope: they’re resources. LaunchPad treats them as such.
Lion stretches that concept a bit further with a new Finder view simply called “All My Files.” It means what you think it means. Mac OS X’s Spotlight feature is indexing all of your files all the time anyway. The “All My Files” view uses that index to present all of your files, everywhere on the drive, organized by type. In this view, it doesn’t really matter that you were careless and saved “Tralfaz’s Third Birthday” onto the Desktop instead of into the Movies folder. Scroll down to “Movies,” scroll sideways until you see it, maybe tap the spacebar to QuickLook at the contents to make sure, then do whatever you like with it.
It feels like the right way of doing things. Spotlight has also been enhanced to make it much easier to not care about the location of files. This might be the start of an ugly habit, but I tend to locate files not by going to the folder where they should be, but by just looking for them.
Which is as it should be. A modern PC has way more horsepower than what’s required to figure out what I want and then go get it for me. It’s long-past time to kick the Finder window out of the center of the experience and put the Spotlight index in its place.
I sense that I should back away from all of these big, oracular comments and mention some tangible things.
Well, the new editions of Mail and iCal seem to be a pretty direct ripoff of their iPad counterparts, and that’s a great development. Both apps benefit from a makeover in which they shake off their frowsier 2005 elements, and from a bunch of broad enhancements.
Many Mail apps can group message threads into conversations. I don’t know of one that does it as well as 10.7 Mail. If you leave your Inbox window open in the background, you can actually see it reorganizing its presentation as new messages come in. It’s much easier to power through all of the morning’s email.
I like the fact that Lion finds ways to enhance these old chestnuts without adding complexity. iCal, for instance, now supports natural-language appointment creation. Type “Dinner with Virgil at 7:30 on July 29” and iCal figures out the rest.
‘SAVE’ AND ‘QUIT’ NO LONGER MEAN WHAT THEY ALWAYS DID
Lion’s made sweeping changes to two of the most basic concepts in computing. “Saving” a document has always meant “Forget about the previous state of this document; replace it with this current state only.” Documents created by Lion-studly apps have version tracking baked right in. The app isn’t recording any one specific state of the doc; it’s recording the document as an ongoing sequence of edits. Once every hour, and every time you open the file, and every time you explicitly do a Save, and whenever the OS detects that you’ve just made a significant change, the OS records a new snapshot of the file.
At any point, you can open up a Time Machine-style portal in which the current version is seen next to the wailing ghosts of all the previous snapshots. You can then rewind the doc to a previous state or just go back in time, grab a paragraph you deleted or a spreadsheet formula you changed, and pop back into the present day. It’s easy, for instance, for me to use Versioning to write the full 5000-word song and dance online edition of this column, take a snapshot, and then cut it down to 750 words for the print edition. No need to keep two separate copies: every known state of the column still exists.
Naturally, I wouldn’t want my editor to see what a pig’s ear I made of this review when I started it. Whenever I share a doc, the exported edition only reflects its final state.
Automatic file-saving is a side effect of this automatic version tracking feature. Hopefully, losing unsaved changes to a document will become a relic of the past, like the little paper punch thing that could turn a single-sided 5.25” floppy into a double-sided one.
Lion’s new attitude towards Quitting and Shutting Down is another direct lift from the iPad. You don’t so much Quit an app as freeze its current state and release its resources back to the system. You don’t so much shut down an iPad as Pause it. Lion tries to deliver both of these concepts to the desktop.
What a joy! In 10.6, quitting an app was an endless joy-sucking parade of closing windows and checking for unsaved changes. In 10.7, it’s no big deal at all. Just now, I had about nine different documents open and in some process of editing. I tapped “Quit” and my word processor (which had been updated to take advantage of Lion’s new features) just up and quit without putting up any fuss.
I relaunched it, and every document was re-opened. The windows were exactly where I’d positioned them. Any selected text was still selected. The cursor positions were the same.
The same trick works at the system level. If you check a box when you shut down your Mac or log out of your account, Lion will restore your entire workspace to the way it was when you come back.
MISSION CONTROL: HOLD THE COUNTDOWN
Apple seems to come up with a new concept for process management with every other release of the OS. 10.7’s new idea is “Mission Control.” The simplest way to explain it is as a mashup of Exposé and Spaces.
You can enter Mission Control from the Dock, but the official policy is that doing things the non-multitouch way is for losers. If you still have three fingers left after the Fourth of July, use them to swipe upwards on your trackpad to enter Mission Control. Behold: you see a brand-new space that contains all of your open windows (sorted and stacked by application), and a bar containing all of the Spaces you’ve defined. This bar also includes any apps you’re running in fullscreen mode; Lion defines a fullscreen app as a separate Space. While you’re in Mission Control, You can Quicklook individual windows for a closer look at their contents, zap straight to them within their apps, or drag them into Spaces.
I had the same initial reaction to Mission Control that I had to Spaces, Exposé, and the Dashboard.
“Wow, that’s really slick!”
Good. But I never ever ever ever use Spaces, Exposé, or the Dashboard. Spaces is a nice idea, but I don’t really think in terms of “this is the space for my Mail,” “this is the Space for all of my Sun-Times work,” and “this is the Space where I work on my code.” Exposé is a lovely idea, but historically, it’s always worked way, way too slowly to be of any use. It’s so much easier for me to just use an app’s “Windows” menu to navigate to the window I want.
As for Dashboard? Honestly, accidentally activating Dashboard via Mission Control was the first time I’d used Apple’s widget system in years. Why do I have to go to a whole separate space just to use a calculator and get the weather? I’ve got a nice calculator app and a bookmark to Weather Underground. I don’t have to leave my normal work environment to get there.
So you’ll forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical. Mission Control is a fine concept but I wish Apple had come up with a way for my Mac to manage my navigation for me rather than give me yet another operational environment to try and work into my lifestyle. They’re a bad fit. Maybe I’m just not a typical user.
THE LIGHTNING ROUND!
• Quicktime Player, Preview, and TextEdit have always been the unsung heroes of MacOS. If you poke around with these three built-in apps, you’ll find a surprisingly muscular video editor, document viewer/organizer, and word processor. Lion continues the trend of sneaking in terrific power features that make these apps surprisingly competitive with Apple’s commercial iApps.
• Automator -- the best feature of Mac OS X that you’re probably not using -- now can create ebooks. Got an idea for a tool that spits out an ePub? (“Take this webpage I’m on, turn it into en ePub, then sync it to my iPad”) It’s easy as pie.
• AirDrop is the latest salvo in the war against SneakerNet file transfers. In the olden days, you shared a file with someone on the other side of the room by flinging a 400K floppy diskette at them. Now you do it by flinging a 16 gigabyte flash drive. Why? Because peer-to-peer networking is often just way too complicated. AirDrop cuts it down to the simplest procedure possible. Nearby Mac users can see your Lion machine and their faces show up on a little radar screen. Drag a file onto someone’s head and they get the file. You don’t even need to establish a local WiFi network: it’s all peer to peer.
• Boy does Lion ever like to animate things. Windows bounce in, sent email messages zoom out, selecting a group of files causes them to huddle together into a little pile for warmth. It’s pretty and it seems able to keep up with me when I’ve got lots of windows and tasks open. Let’s see if this speed is consistent over the next few weeks, even in the most CPU-stressed of times. It’s all fun until someone has to wait a half a second while a dressy piece of animation plays out.
• Apple’s getting more aggressive about runtime security. Lion itself is fully sandboxed and Apple is demanding that all apps submitted to the App Store must be sandboxed as well. What all of this means is that every chunk of code running inside your Mac will be walled off from every other chunk of code. So a buggy app won’t be able to affect the performance of anything else on your machine, and malicious software, already a non-problem on the Mac, will be that much more difficult to create and unleash.
THE FUTURE IS CLOUDY (AND THAT’S GOOD)
Let’s go back to the future. Lion feels like the most future-forward OS Apple’s released in ages. The built-in autosave and version control, and fullscreen apps, and be content to think that these are fine features as-is, for example. But we know that these features are also important parts of a new foundation. Lion is an OS that was designed to be used with a cloud service. Yes, I know, big deal: anything with a keyboard and a screen can use a cloud storage service. Conceptually, you’re just asking it to connect to a file server. Computers have been able to do that for ages. Lion goes far beyond that.
Why would you make document autosaving and version tracking a core function of the operating system, instead of just hoping that developers acknowledge that they’re great features? Answer: iCloud. If I were writing this review three months from now, when the iCloud service is fully armed and operational, the machine I work with would be irrelevant. I could just tell my MacBook Pro’s word processor that I’d like to share this review with my other devices. Every time I complete a paragraph, iCloud would take that tiny microbreath of information and push it into iCloud, which will then push another microbreath down into my iPad and my iPhone. No need for me to every perform a sync or worry that the iPad I just grabbed on my way to the coffeeshop doesn’t have the same edition that I left on my MacBook Pro in my office at home.
It’s hard not to think about the implications of other Lion features, too. Fullscreen app modes mean that there are fewer restrictions on the sizes and shapes of Mac OS hardware. It also makes it conceptually much easier for a desktop Mac app to “project” itself into an iPad screen, using Screen Sharing features. Mission Control and Launchpad are interesting ways to manage apps and their windows on a desktop machine. Now think about those same interfaces on an HDTV in your living room. It sure seems like these interfaces would easily allow you to operate a Mac from your sofa with just a Bluetooth keyboard and trackpad, doesn’t it?
Less farfetched: the dinky little $999 MacBook Air -- the superslim 11-inch notebook with just 64 gigs of storage -- becomes five times more credible running Lion than it does running 10.6. Small screen running fullscreen apps, iCloud for automatically sharing just those project files you’re working on this week, bigger and more colorful alternatives to peering at dozens of windows crammed with listings of thousands of files . . . hmm.
Autosave and fast-resume features are associated with lighter, thinner, more mobile devices that have zero moving parts. Clearly, the MacBook Air is destined to become an anchor machine in the Mac lineup. Doesn’t it also make you think about other kinds of superslim, superportable devices that could run the Mac operating system?
On that note . . . isn’t it curious that the Mac OS now has a fine-grained privacy control that allows you to control which apps can determine the precise location of your MacOS device? Yes, WiFi and network addresses can give an OS a pretty fair estimation of a machine’s location, but it seems like a clear nod towards as-yet-unannounced Mac hardware.
Of course you should upgrade to Lion. It’s the ultimate no-brainer. Columnists like me enjoy the woolgathering parts of the review where we talk about infrastructure and UI endemics and then lie back on the sofa and speculate about what all of this could mean for the future. It’s fun and it nicely pads out our word count.
But when all that’s done, Lion is packed with protein. $29 for system-wide version control and autosave? Sold. $29 for new editions of Safari, Mail, Address Book, and Calendar? Sold. . . . Of iChat, Preview, TextEdit, and AirDrop? . . . For the new, killer security, disaster-recovery and remote-restore tools? Yes, and hell yes. Just on features alone, Lion is a terrific bargain.
At the same time, 10.7 represents one of those dividing lines between the Past and the Present. Modern apps will require Lion. Increasingly over the coming year, apps that run fine in 10.6 will only be used by Civil War reenactors and the people who entered a sealed environment late last year to simulate the isolation of an 18-month mission to Mars.
Mind you, I’m still eager to see Apple build a truly new operating system that jettisons every last lingering longstanding element of the Mac OS that objectively has no place in a modern computer. Until then, Lion is a big enough slice of the future to make almost anybody happy.