OS X Lion Review: It's the Little Things
I suppose it’s a testament to my geekiness that in a whirlwind of work, I looked forward to “taking a break” by installing a new operating system on my laptop.
Or perhaps it’s a testament to the past successes of Apple, who have consistently offered me the pleasure of a seamless upgrading experience, despite some of the snags encountered by others.
It was only two or so months ago that I trusted Snow Leopard enough to put it on my studio machine, and I suspect the same will be the case for Lion, especially since many of the music programs I work with are not yet compatible. But my laptop is my writing machine, my learning machine, and my fun machine, and so it made sense to jump on the Lion bandwagon early with it. I’m very glad that I did, but I wanted to share my thoughts in some more detail.
I won’t review the OS from top to bottom, because if you’re after something like that there are many other sources that have done so. Instead, I’ll highlight what I noticed, what I liked, what I didn’t, and why.
Without a doubt, Lion represents the absolute fastest OS upgrade I have ever performed. Including the download of the >3GB installation file, it took me less than an hour to get up and running. This is not only remarkable on its own, but also in light of Lion’s price point, which is so low as to be almost humorous.
It made some kind of sense when Apple priced its “maintenance” OS, Snow Leopard, at $29, but when it takes the next leap forward in its grand vision of computing and keeps the price the same, it’s just plain awesome. Of course, we won’t be naive and pretend that it’s not just a marketing push to get as many people updated as quickly as possible; after all, if Apple’s demonstrated anything lately, it’s that they’re merciless when it comes to imposing forward motion on their customers. Remember Flash?
But I don’t mind that.
Frankly, whether or not I agree with all the specifics of their vision for the future of personal computing, I wholeheartedly support their pacing. Technology, more than anything else, evolves quickly, and Apple trusts their customers to keep up or get left behind in whatever comfort zone they wish to inhabit. To me, technology experts have always been unified by their adaptability, because that’s the one trait that defines the industry as a whole, regardless of what sector you’re in. Leave the hand-holding of archaic paradigms to the dinosaurs. Like RIM.
Corporate philosophy aside, the installation was not only quick but also very smooth. The installer sets aside about a half gigabyte of space for a security partition in case something goes terribly wrong (you don’t get that back, by the way, so be sure you’ve got enough space left over) and then gets to work updating the system files. After getting through the single installation screen, the computer rebooted into Lion. No configuring, no errors, no hangs, nothing.
Before you can actually do anything, a window pops up explaining the reverse scrolling concept that comes standard with OSX 10.7. In order to clear it, you have to successfully scroll to the bottom, which is a nice bit of gamification for you. If you haven’t yet heard, there’s been much gnashing of teeth from the peanut gallery about this scrolling thing, and I partly understand it.
Beyond the obvious problem of being the reverse of what everyone’s been used to as their scroll behaviour since the beginning of scrolling on a computer, the system is actually pretty intuitive. If you own an iPhone or iPad or anything like that then you’ll obviously find it familiar, so my impression is that the major complainers are those who do not have experience with those devices, or those who are on a desktop machine using a mouse.
I say this because, using a mouse, the scrolling is maddening. It just feels weird and backward, even with the Magic Mouse. But if, like me, you’re on a laptop…then suddenly it’s just like interacting with an iPad and somehow, subconsciously, it’s much easier to get used to.
That being said, I was still scrolling like an idiot for the first few minutes…but I didn’t have the desire to switch back to “normal” scrolling (which is dead simple to do, by the way, so don’t worry). I still don’t. For whatever reason, I find this scrolling makes sense to me now that I’ve given it an honest try, and it’s responsive enough that it feels quite natural. Your mileage may vary.
One of the things that early upgraders warned about was the fact that Lion, by default, switches your initial Finder view to a new “All My Files” view and that it makes all Library folders invisible to prevent any accidental system damage. Neither of those two things occurred with my installation, and I’m grateful for that, because, besides venturing fairly frequently into the Library folders, it is my humble opinion that the “All My Files” view is retarded.
Remember the convenient smart folders in the pre-Lion Finder that helped you locate documents from today, yesterday, past week, all images, etc? Yeah, those are gone now. In their place is the perplexingly stupid “All My Files”, which offers what it says on the tin, organized by file type. Not date. You can scroll through them and set them to be organized by date if you like, but why would I want that over the much faster, single click solution from before? Still working on an answer for that.
Lucky for me, Lion decided it wasn’t going to force that view on me after all, so my Finder still opens by default to my user folder. And I’m adding my smart date views back to the sidebar manually.
The experience of using Lion is worth mentioning briefly, especially given Apple’s obsession with user experience over technicalities. Like it or not, their attention to detail has paid off in a big way. I simply haven’t encountered a more responsive, quick, and well designed user interface before. Everything has been carefully refined. Gone are the bubbly interface elements, replaced by sleek rounded square buttons, delicious icons, and unobtrusively communicative animations. If you like colours and bubbles, you’re going to be sad. If you like clean modern design principles, you can join me over the moon.
Regarding the new features, LaunchPad and the smarter Spotlight are cool to play with, but in practice I still just use Alfred for most of my file-finding and application launching. It’s simply unmatched for speed and versatility.
Mission Control, on the other hand, is magnificent. If you’re anything like me and often find yourself whipping between multiple windows in multiple programs, the new Mission Control view is a glorious extension to good old Exposé. The difference, for those still confused about it, is that Exposé shows you all windows from the app you have active, allowing you to quickly pull another one to the forefront, whereas Mission Control shows you all windows from all applications as well as your Desktop and Dashboard in a much more organized manner, and lets you zoom to any of them instantly. On my laptop, swiping up with 4 fingers shows me Mission Control, and swiping down shows me Exposé. It’s intuitive, quick, and will save me some useless
The gesture integration overall is quite impressive. I don’t use hot corners or anything like them, so for me the basic multi-finger swipe gestures make more sense. Pinching brings up LaunchPad for now, and pushing three fingers apart scatters everything out of the way to reveal the desktop.
An unexpected consequence of the upgrade was that I seem to have ditched my favourite email client, Sparrow, in favour of the built-in Apple Mail. I was basically disgusted with the previous iterations of Mail, but the new version 5 that ships with Lion is truly incredible, and, while it admittedly borrows many things from other apps that came before it, it pulls them together and polishes them into a greater whole. The threaded conversation handling is unmatched, and the ability to keep track of flagged (starred) emails, drafts, and even notes across all accounts either together or separately is terrific.
To make it the ideal app for my purposes, I would love a deeper integration with Google’s system of assigning “important” emails and sorting the inbox to show them first. I don’t actually get enough email to justify needing that, but it would be a nice feature to have. It also took it a while to synchronize all my email content once I’d gotten my accounts added (interestingly, it pulled emails from the server in batches of 5,000 or so) but then that’s not a surprise given the amount of data I have, spread across several different accounts.
To leave off, I’ll mention two other issues I encountered that seem less common and that I hadn’t previously heard of. For starters, the FaceTime app (which I did not have installed before) now comes built into Lion and…doesn’t work. No matter what I’ve tried, I can’t get it to connect, which is unfortunate since I would have liked to test it. A quick glance at Apple’s support site reveals that it’s a very wide-spread issue though, so I’m expecting an update in the near future. Which brings me to my other issue: the Mac App Store.
Besides having a slightly lighter-coloured icon in Lion vs. Snow Leopard, the Mac App Store has also been misbehaving for me. For instance, even though I’m logged into my account and it recognizes what apps I have installed when I’m browsing through them, I cannot consistently access my Purchases area. It either does not load, or tells me I have not purchased anything (ha-haaa!), or it crashes. So far I’ve managed to get it working just long enough to grab the Xcode 4.1 update, but something is clearly broken.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my birds-eye view of Lion. My first impressions. As I continue to play with it, I may have more thoughts to share, but hopefully my initial experiences will help you decide whether or not you have any interest in upgrading at this point.