- Review Date: 07/20/11
- Bottom line:
Unless you have powerful reasons for using anything else, you probably ought to use OS X.
Easier to use and more powerful than ever. Tablet-style features include automatic file-saving and resume. Multiple versions of documents saved automatically. Effortless integration with online services like Google and Yahoo. Views and prints Microsoft Office documents with no extra software. Interface tweaks and new conveniences throughout, including well-designed trackpad "gestures" for navigation.
No support for old PowerPC-platform apps. Distractingly cute interface on calendar and address book.
Every two years, Apple releases a new version of its Macintosh operating system, OS X. For the past six years each version, at the time of its release, has reset the bar as the best consumer-level operating system ever created. OS X 10.7 Lion ($29.99), released today via Apple's online-only App Store, continues the tradition. OS X 10.7 Lion includes convenience and safety features never seen before on a desktop operating system, such as documents that are saved automatically as you work—so you never have to save a file and can recover previous versions effortlessly—plus applications that automatically start up in the same state they were in when you closed them, and an option that, by default, restarts your system with all application windows showing exactly the same documents and cursor locations that they had when you last shut the system down. Lion also includes hundreds of major improvements and minor tweaks that combine to make OS X both the most convenient and the most powerful operating system ever.
The three main things you need to know about OS X Lion are these: It's faster and more flexible than ever. It's more powerful than ever. And you don't have to climb a learning curve to use it. Read on for the details.
Three things to know about Lion
First, OS X Lion is easier to use and more flexible than ever. The interface now includes some ease-of-use features taken from the iOS operating system used in the iPhone and iPad. Also, at long last, OS X 10.7 Lion borrows from Windows the few interface features in which Windows still had an advantage, such as full-screen windows and resizing from any window border, not just the lower-right corner as in earlier OS X versions. Lion's feature that automatically saves and resumes your applications exactly where you left off is borrowed from iOS, and works only with applications that have been updated to support it.
Apple's iLife and iWork suites get an immediate update that adds the automatic-save feature. Microsoft hasn't said when Office for the Mac will get updated to work with Lion's file saving feature, but I doubt you'll need to wait long. You probably won't have to wait very long for Adobe and other vendors to offer similar updates.
Second, OS X Lion is more powerful than ever. Thanks to its built-in apps, OS X 10.7 Lion lets you hit the ground running as soon as you start using it, unlike Windows 7, where you'll need to install third-party and download-only Microsoft software before you can view PDFs or run an e-mail client. Lion's Preview app, for example now displays and prints Microsoft Office and iWork documents in addition to PDFs and most graphic formats—something that Windows 7 can't do until you add Office and a PDF viewer such as Adobe Reader. A why-didn't-anyone-do-this-before feature called AirDrop lets you copy files to other nearby Macs without setting up networking—even if both machines are on different networks.
A persistent headache for ex-Windows users is also finally eliminated: when you copy one folder over another with the same name, Lion finally lets you choose whether to merge or replace the existing folder instead of simply overwriting the existing folder and all its contents. Similarly, when you copy a new file over an existing file with the same name, Lion asks whether you want both versions or only the new one—and it does so with a far simpler dialog box than the nightmarishly confusing "Copy and Replace?" dialog in Windows 7.
Third, the learning curve for upgraders from OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard is almost flat. I experienced only one minor bump in the road, and it was caused by Lion's built-in "multitouch gestures" that it uses, by default, for navigating between windows and within documents. If you've used earlier versions of OS X on recent Mac hardware, or if you've used the iPad or iPhone, you know all about multitouch gestures, but Windows users will need a few minutes to get used to them. A typical multitouch gesture is one in which you "pinch" two fingers on the surface of a trackpad (or Apple's trackpad-like Mighty Mouse) in order to zoom out of an image, or spread two fingers in order to enlarge it. By default, Lion, like the iPad, and unlike earlier OS X versions, doesn't display any scroll bars (those bars on the right, and sometimes the bottom, of a window that you drag to scroll through a document) until you either (1) put down two fingers on the trackpad and swipe them up or down to scroll through a document or (2) move the mouse to the part of the window where you know a scroll bar will be.
Most users—especially iPhone and iPad users—will take to these multifinger gestures as if they learned them by instinct, and Lion adds some nifty visual effects that make scrolling easier to use—for example, a bouncing effect that makes it obvious when you've scroll to the foot of a page. When I started using Lion, a few days before writing this review, I was mostly annoyed by Lion's refusal to show scroll bars all the time, and I thought I didn't like the acrobatics required for multitouch gestures, so I was glad to find a setting in System Preferences, on the General pane, that makes scrollbars stay visible always. But I have to admit that after using Lion for a few days, I became a convert to multitouch gestures, and now I've gone back to the default behavior that uses two fingers to scroll up and down a document.
Upgrading From Snow Leopard to Lion
A sharper bump in the upgrade road will trip up anyone who uses apps originally written for the old PowerPC architecture that Macs used before Apple switched to the Intel platform in 2005. Previous versions of OS X included a compatibility layer called Rosetta which allowed PowerPC apps to run on Intel machines, but Apple dropped Rosetta entirely in Lion. That means PowerPC-only apps won't run at all under Lion, and there's no workaround that isn't both (1) illegal and (2) fiendishly complex. Fortunately, most PowerPC-based apps have long since been rewritten as "universal binaries" that run on Intel or PowerPC machines, so you probably won't need to worry. But if you're still using five-year-old applications, check the vendor's website for an update.
I tested Lion on a brand-new MacBook Air with Lion pre-installed, and I also tested it after upgrading from Snow Leopard on a mid-2009-vintage white MacBook and a 2009 MacBook Pro. Even though both those old machines were packed with software, the upgrade was the smoothest I've ever experienced. Basically, everything worked, with only two very minor hiccups. At the time I upgraded, the GlimmerBlocker software that blocks ads in Safari wasn't compatible with Lion, so the Lion installer stored it away in an "Incompatible Software" folder. I fixed that by downloading a beta version from the GlimmerBlocker site—but then I encountered the next hiccup. GlimmerBlocker requires Java, and Lion doesn't include Java by default, so when I tried to install GlimmerBlocker, Lion offered to download and install Java for me. All this took about ten minutes—and then everything else just worked. I used my Mobile Me subscription to sync my Mail accounts, Safari shortcuts, contacts, and much else, and Lion has worked smoothly ever since.
If you want to upgrade to Lion from an earlier version of OS X, you must be running a fully-updated copy of Snow Leopard, and you have to download Lion from the App Store that's now built into OS X. You can't buy a boxed version. Apple's online-only distribution will trip you up if you're one of the small percentage of Mac users who can only connect to the Internet via landline, satellite, or slow DSL, and you may not want to wait two or three days for the 4 GB download to complete. If it's impractical for you to download Lion via the App Store, Apple suggests that you can download it wirelessly in any brick-and-mortar Apple Store—which isn't really practical if you use a desktop Mac and the nearest Apple Store is four hours away—or wait until August, when Apple will make Lion available on a USB stick, for $69.
Making it easy
Apple's most obvious goal in Lion was making things easy for beginners. Two new features go a long way toward achieving that goal—Mission Control and Launchpad.
Mission Control is a single-screen overview of everything that's happening on your Mac. At the top are small images of your Dashboard (the screen that contains widgets that are running all the time) and your desktop, with a tab that lets you create multiple virtual desktops. Mission Control is similar to the Spaces feature already built into Snow Leopard, but it's easier to find, since it doesn't require a trip to the System Preferences app. (Spaces was limited to 32 virtual desktops, but Mission Control allows you to create as many as you can keep track of.) Mission Control also makes it easier than before to "bind" an application to a specific desktop—just drag the app to the desktop, without making the side trip to System Preferences that used to be required under Snow Leopard. You can still use Alt-Tab to toggle among all your running apps, but Mission Control is easier to use.
LaunchPad is a simple grid-like display of icons that can launch all your applications, just like the home page of the iPad or iPhone. By default, the icon for built-in apps go on the first page. If you've added any other apps, they go on a second page that automatically gets created to contain them. Drag an icon to the right edge of a page, and it moves to the next page—and a new page gets created for the icon that you're moving, if a page doesn't already exist to receive it. You can create folders for icons by dragging one icon on to another—this creates a folder that contains both icons, and you can then drag more icons into the folder and click on it to rename it. The new Apple laptops introduced today along with Lion all have a Launchpad icon on the function keys, so you get one-keystroke access to this feature.
The only annoyance I found with Launchpad is that older apps clutter it up with the updaters and other separate utilities that typically ship with large-scale applications like Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite. The Launchpad system includes everything in your Applications folder (and your user-level Applications folder if you have one), and you can't remove an app's icon from Launchpad unless you remove it from the Applications folder or delete the application entirely. (Using Launchpad, you can delete apps that you downloaded from the App Store by holding down the option key and clicking an "X" badge on the icon. Other apps have to be deleted from your disk by hand.) Until Microsoft, Adobe, and others update their applications to remove all those extra utilities so they don't clutter up Launchpad, the least bad solution I've found is to create a folder for all these icons, label it "Deep Storage," and try to forget about it.
Full screen apps are here. I've met people who refused to use a Mac because they couldn't run most applications in full-screen mode and thus hide the distractions lurking on the desktop. Lion takes away that excuse. Apps that have been updated for Lion, including all that the apps that ship with the OS, can expand to full-screen with a keystroke (typically Cmd-Option-F). The dock and menubar disappear when these apps run in full-screen mode, but you can bring back the menu bar by moving the cursor to the top of the screen. Older apps can't fill the screen, but the green "expand" button finally makes them expand to fill all the space between the menubar and dock (and of course you can hide the dock through a setting in System Preferences), which is a lot better than that green button's sometimes unpredictable behavior in previous versions. Unix gurus will like the ability to expand the text-only Terminal window to fill the screen—just like a Unix terminal thirty years ago.
OS X System Features
The Finder, OS X's file manager, keeps getting better. The sidebar includes a new link to "All My Files," which lists all my document files, no matter what folder they're in, and organizes them so that the ones I've used most recently get displayed first, and they're organized by type. This is a simpler and far more intelligent and well-integrated approach to file management than Windows 7's confusing "Libraries." I've already mentioned Lion's ability to merge folders when you copy or move a folder with the same as the target folder. Other features I like include the ability to create a folder from multiple files that I've selected in the Finder, simply by choosing "Group as folder" from the pop-up menu. As usual, OS X outclasses Windows with its "cover-flow"-like previews, and the ability to press the spacebar (or Cmd-Y) on a selected file and view an instant preview.
AirDrop is a very cool new feature that makes it possible to exchange files at the office, at home, or at the local Starbucks without e-mailing them or going through the hassles of networking. Simply open an AirDrop window in the Finder and drop the file you want to send on an icon that represents a user on a nearby Mac—which doesn't even need to be on the same network as your machine, merely within wireless range. If you've alerted the other user by phone or text or e-mail—or by shouting across the room—to open the AirDrop window on her computer, she'll see a pop-up message in that window asking whether she wants to accept the file. AirDrop is wireless only, and uses a proprietary wireless protocol, so you can't use it with a wired network. Also, it won't work on some older Macs (like my mid-2009 white MacBook) that have an earlier generation of the Airport wireless hardware. Apple seems to have thought hard about security in AirDrop: both computers in a file exchange are walled off from each other except for a single file transfer, and drive-by intrusions are impossible, because AirDrop requires both users to confirm a transfer.
Spotlight—the file-searcher always visible in the upper-right corner of the screen, and keyboard-accessible with Cmd-Spacebar—now adds the ability to drag and drop an item from the list of matching files. Even better, a QuickLook preview appears for each item as you scroll down the list of search results. This means I can search for a document in Spotlight, view a preview to see if it's the file I want, and then instantly drag it from the Spotlight list into a mail message, instead of laboriously opening the document's folder and dragging it from there. Dictionary lookups in Spotlight open the Wikipedia definition of the term you're looking up; this may not always be the most reliable source, but you'll probably look in Wikipedia anyway, so it's good to have the shortcut.
Versions: Apple's Time Machine backup system has always had the best interface of any backup system, with earlier states of your file system receding into the background along a time line. The new Versions feature works the same way. When you work with a Versions-enabled app such as TextEdit or the updated versions of Pages, Numbers, or Keynote in the iWork app suite, you can choose an item on the File menu to view previous versions. A Time Machine-style window opens, with the current version of your document on the left, and a receding stack of previous versions on the right. Look through the previous versions until you find the one you want, and click on a button to restore it.
Keep in mind that Time Machine saves versions automatically in the background, though you can also save a version at any time from the File menu. TextEdit saves a new version automatically once every hour, and more often if you make extensive changes. The iWork apps save new versions in the background when you pause for a moment, and even if you don't pause long enough to trigger a background save, they save a version anyway on a regular schedule, just to be safe. This feature, by the way, is smart enough to save only the "delta"—the changed parts—of each new version, rather than saving a new copy of the whole file every time. One minor bump in the learning curve is that versions-enabled apps don't have a Save As… menu item for saving the file under a different name. Instead, you use a Duplicate menu item to create a new copy of the document, and then save that under a new name.
Mail, iCal, Address Book, iChat
Most users—including experts—don't want to waste time configuring their mail app, address book, and calendar to interact with their Google, Yahoo, or AOL account. Lion now notices when you first sign in to one of those accounts, and offers to set up Mail, iCal, Address Book, and iChat to work with them. It's another feature that you didn't realize you wanted until you saw how useful it is. All of Lion's communications apps—Mail and the others—received a major overhaul in OS X Lion, but with differing results.
Mail is better than ever, with a new interface that puts a list of messages in a column on the left, and the message itself on the right. Each item in the list on the left shows the sender, subject, and the first few words of each message. The message window on the right is finally spacious enough for viewing most of the photos that people insist on sending you, and of course you can still open a message, or a whole conversation, in a window of its own. By default, messages are both listed and displayed in conversation-style, which means that all the messages in a conversation get displayed as separate panes in a single window—and that window is smart enough to hide the parts of each message that simply quote the previous messages. Also, each message in a conversation gets a sequential number so you know where you are in the thread while you're reading any individual message. The new interface looks a bit like recent versions of Microsoft Outlook, but that's nothing to complain about, especially since Apple improved on the Outlook interface by adding the first few words of each message to the message list and by displaying whole conversations in a single window.
A nicely-designed new feature in Mail (also in the Finder) is called Search Tokens feature. It's easier to use than describe, but here goes: When you type a string in the search box (for example "PCMag"), a list of categories of possible search hits appears, for example, "People," with Murray's name listed under the name of the category. Click on this, and the search box changes to the word "From" in a colored tag, called a Token, followed by the string "PCMag." Click on a down arrow next to "From" and you can switch the token from "From" to "To," and the list of search results changes to reflect your change. You can click on the Save button to save the search as a "Smart Mailbox" – and then you can copy the Smart Mailbox from the app's sidebar to a Favorites toolbar, from which you can access it with one click even when the sidebar is closed. I'd prefer to be able to copy the serach criteria directly to the toolbar, but this is more than good enough for now. One minor inconsistency: Search Tokens can't be created in a Spotlight search, even though the Spotlight search box looks almost identical to the Finder and Mail search boxes.
Almost everything in Lion looks cleaner, better-designed, and more efficient than anything in previous versions or in any other operating system. That's why the new versions of the iCal calendar app and the Address Book app are so puzzling. Each one gets a silly new interface—based on the corresponding apps on the iPad—that makes them look like a leather-bound address book or a leather-edged desktop calendar that you used to see on a lawyer's desk. Whenever I open these new apps, I ask myself, "What could they have been thinking?"
The Address Book gets a facing-pages interface, with a list of names on the left and individual contact details on the right. The distracting book-like borders around it can't be removed. There's even a silly-looking red ribbon, which you click on to switch the list display from a list of contacts to a list of groups.
iCal is even worse. Its toolbar header looks like imitation leather. At the top of the calendar page, someone has drawn in the ragged strip left by a page that wasn't completely torn off, and if you're obsessive enough to want to clean up ragged edges, maybe you shouldn't use iCal at all. To make the whole thing even sillier, when you move forward in the calendar, an animation shows a new page folding down over the current one—but it doesn't cover up that ragged edge.
The weekly and monthly calendar views are appealing and well-laid out, but the daily view has a huge space-wasting day number in the upper left. The whole redesign is doubly unfortunate because iCal is otherwise one of the smartest calendar program out there. It lets you create entries using natural language ("lunch with Sean next Tuesday at 12") and it integrates effortlessly with Google's calendar.
iChat gets one welcome improvement: all your chat buddies appear in a single list, no matter what service you use to connect with them—Yahoo, AOL, Google, and others.
I already mentioned that the enhanced Preview app adds the ability to view and print Microsoft Office and iWork document files to its existing ability to view and print PDF and graphics files. This means you can preview a Word document, an Excel spreadsheet, or a PowerPoint presentation without adding any additional software. Windows, in contrast, needs additional software to view PDFs, spreadsheets and presentations. (Windows' WordPad and OS X's TextEdit can both edit Microsoft Word files in addition to previewing them.)
My one serious complaint about the previous version of OS X was that Preview's search feature only displayed thumbnails or page numbers for search hits in a PDF, file but gave no clue about the context of each search hit, so I might have to look through a hundred or more pages to find the one search hit I was looking for. The new version fixes this by displaying a few words of context for every search hit, so I only need to scan the list of results to find the one I want. This feature is doubly welcome now that Preview displays Word and Pages files in addition to PDFs.
Preview has a few other new tricks up its sleeve. When you switch to full-screen mode, it automatically displays word-processing documents in a facing-page view. You can now use Preview to annotate and sign PDF files—and I liked the way Preview lets you create a signature. Simply write your name on a small piece of white paper, hold it up to the camera on your Mac, and click a button.
I noticed a couple of tiny first-release glitches in Preview's ability to view Microsoft Office files. In some of my Excel 2010 worksheets, but not all, Preview couldn't find any text that I entered in the search box. If I were viewing a number of worksheets, and trying to find the one that included specific text, this might cause me to miss the file I was looking for. Also, in one of my PowerPoint presentations, Preview garbled some images—even those these displayed perfectly when I opened the same presentation in Keynote. You can expect this kind of thing to get fixed in Lion's inevitable point-one update.
Powerful everything else
I'm still discovering subtle improvements everywhere in Lion. For the first time, I don't have to remember the series of keystrokes required to type in a letter with an accent or umlaut. Instead, I just hold down the "e" or "u" or whatever other letter, and Lion displays a list of accented variants of it, so I can choose the one I want. The Safari web browser now displays an animated download icon in the upper right corner (like the one in the iPad's version of Safari) so you can see a download in progress without opening a separate window. QuickTime now combines two or more movie clips and uploads them to Vimeo, Facebook, or Flickr, in addition to YouTube. One feature I haven't tested is a Windows import wizard that imports documents and settings from your old Windows computer to your new Mac; the Windows-side software won't be available for testing until Lion is released today. A FaceTime app makes video calls to iPads and iPhones, and lets you initiate a call directly from the Address Book.
As in previous versions, the Unix underpinnings of OS X give expert users vast built-in power, while non-technical users can create their own automated workflows through the Automator app or the uniquely human-friendly AppleScript system, which has no built-in counterpart in Windows. (Windows Scripting is vastly harder to master than AppleScript.) AppleScript now gets prebuilt templates, in addition to the sample files provided in earlier versions, so it's easier than ever to automate OS X.
A few small things have disappeared. The iSync application is gone, probably in anticipation of Apple's forthcoming iCloud service, which will get integrated into Lion after being introduced sometime in the fall. And the FrontRow full-screen TV-and-media app is also gone, probably to be replaced by a forthcoming new feature in iTunes—though Apple won't say anything about it.
Some of the new features look as if they're going to be improved in the future. For example, I hope Apple will change its mind about the way it implemented the automatic-resume feature that reopens your apps exactly where they were when you closed them. In the current version, this feature is system-wide. You can turn it on or off for the entire system in System Preferences, but I'd prefer to turn it on or off for individual applications. I like to have my word-processing documents and worksheets open exactly where I left off—but I'm not sure I want my browser to open all the windows I opened earlier. If I was watching Rebecca Black sing "Friday" when I closed my browser at home, I'm not sure I want her to start singing again when I open the browser again at work. One workaround is worth remembering: if you use Private Browsing in Safari, then the Resume feature is automatically turned off in Safari only.
One especially nice feature about Lion is its new emergency boot provision. If something goes wrong with your system, reboot holding down the Cmd-R key combination, and you'll boot into a menu of repair and rescue utilities, including a web browser that you can use to look for help, the Disk Utility for checking and repairing disks, and a Reinstall OS X Lion option that downloads and installs Lion for you in case you can't boot into your existing system. Very neat—and there's nothing like it anywhere else.
Windows users—is OS X Lion for you?
Terrific as it is, OS X isn't necessarily for everyone. The only real reason to use one OS rather than another is because you prefer the apps that run under that OS, not because you like the interface. OS X now supports high-powered versions of almost every application software in existence, and, for most users, there's no strong reason to prefer Windows once you've got used to the convenience and—sometimes—the sheer pleasure of working with OS X.
When it's time to answer my mail, or browse the web, or work with graphics, I reach for my MacBook. For some—not all—of my work, I still use Windows, but my work has special requirements that affect very few other people, and I still rely on two Windows apps that have no matching version under OS X. One is Microsoft's Expression Web for editing web sites. The other is Corel's WordPerfect Office, which I use for editing the WordPerfect documents that I've been working with for twenty years. (Please don't waste your time sending messages telling me that I can convert those documents in LibreOffice or something else; I already know about those, and they're not good enough for the kind of work I do.) I can run both these apps fairly seamlessly in OS X by installing either Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion, then installing Windows inside Parallels or Fusion, and then installing Expression Web or WordPerfect. It works, and it's surprisingly smooth, but apps running in an emulator like Parallels or Fusion aren't nearly as well-integrated into OS X as native Mac-based apps are. I mention this only because it's something worth thinking about if you're a long-term Windows user who's considering a switch.
For existing Mac users with hardware that can handle Lion, I'd strongly recommend upgrading, though, if you like to err on the side of caution, you may want to wait for the point-one update that typically arrives a month or two after the first release. Lion is the best operating system ever made, and unless you have a strong reason for using anything else, you owe it to yourself to start enjoying its ease and power.