First Look: Mac OS X Lion review

0 out of 5
TBC

For

Gestures, Mission Control, plenty of new features

Against

Very touch focused

Apple’s new Operating System, Mac OS X Lion, has roared into existence and ready to download if you’re a member of Apple’s developer programme. While there are still months to go before the official launch, we downloaded the preview build to see whether you should be getting excited.

Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs, first announced the new Operating System in October giving a preview of things to come. Five months later Apple has released a developer preview build allowing developers to see what new features the new OS offers so they can take advantage of them in their own apps before the OS becomes officially launched to the public in the summer.

We loaded up the new operating system on a MacBook Pro (late 2009) to see how the new features work, whether you’ll want them, and whether they’ll make a difference to how you work and play.

Install

It used to be the case that you would buy a new Operating System on a stack of floppy disks and spend umpteen hours in front of your computer swapping disks over. Windows 95 came on a dozen we recall. Then CD, then DVD, then with the Apple MacBook Air a USB stick as the optical drive had gone.

Chances are if you are upgrading to Lion in the summer you’ll be buying your OS from the Mac App Store and downloading it to your computer before installing it. That’s how the developer preview works and shows the likely move Apple will make when it comes to releasing Lion OS X.

Should that be welcomed? Yes. While the initial download did take some time (it’s around 1.6GB) once downloaded we were ready to go - no swapping of disks, no losing of disks, just clicking on an icon and 25 minutes later (we have an SSD in our test machine) and you are watching the “Welcome” video that you get whenever you start up a new Mac for the first time.

User Interface

Nothing has changed, everything has changed. That might not make sense, but Mac OS X Lion is all about changing the way you interact with your desktop, with your apps and with the system, while at the same time making you wonder if anything has changed at all.

First reactions are good. There are plenty of tweaks with graphics as long as the app/software you are using supports them. Across the entire operating system you’ll find that Lion is very much “iPad meets OS X” with lots of features coming from the tablet to the desktop, including the focus on using the touchpad.

Scroll bars automatically hide when not in use, selecting and grouping desktop icons gives you a number in a red circle so you know how many you’ve grabbed.

Everything now also has a rubber band feel to it like iOS (pull down to the bottom of a page and it will spring back up). The highlighted dock icons by default have disappeared (you can turn them back on) to represent a one app at a time mentality, while the aqua blue menu drop down colour has been lost for a squarer, simpler design.

Also in are sliding switches to access different panes within settings. They are everywhere, even if at first you don’t notice them. This is an operating system that is all about touch as Apple continues its education on why your fingers are important to you.

Worried perhaps that there is too much of a change and a new reliance on touch, Apple has, for the time being, retained a number of ways to control your computer not forcing you to “do or die”. It’s a welcomed approach.

Gestures

If the interface is all about sliding switches from a graphical point of view, from an interaction it point of view its all about gestures. Apple has gone to town here adding loads of new gestures. The biggest initial change and the one that will confuse the hell out of you is “When using gestures to scroll or navigate, move content in the direction of finger movement”.

It makes your scroll pad react in the same way as your iPhone or iPad. Move your fingers down the trackpad and the document or web page or whatever you are working on will scroll upwards because that’s the way you are moving the page. While that makes perfect sense on a touchscreen device, it is the complete opposite to how you are used to working on a computer. Five days in and we are still struggling to get our heads around it, although wouldn't have it any other way on the iPad. It changes from a "touchpad replicates cursors" to "touchpad replicates touchscreen" type of interaction.

Back to the every day gestures and there are one, two, three, and four fingers movements and we aren’t just talking swipes left, right, up and down. You can have scroll with inertia, rotate, pinch, secondary click, swipe to navigate, swipe to open Mission Control, swipe to switch Spaces, pinch to launch LaunchPad, Spread to see the Desktop, the list goes on. The end result? You end up with an iPad with a keyboard effectively as you swipe your way around the system.

How does all this work with a mouse? Well it doesn’t really - this is a trackpad experience through and through. You can use it with the Magic Mouse of course (but it's uncomfortable). We tested the system using the Apple TrackPad and the bigger space on the dedicated device certainly helped. We suspect Apple will push buying one very hard come summer time when Lion is on sale.

Finder

The old smiley face is still here and still acting as the hub of your computer, although for how much longer we aren’t so sure - personally we aren’t expecting it survive beyond Lion's successor. But before we pen its eulogy, it too has had an overhaul getting a newish look and new icons down the left-hand side. 

There are two main additions: All My Files and AirDrop. All My Files is as it sounds, a way of seeing all the files on your computer in a stack of scrolling icons as if you were buying an album from iTunes.

You have a number of options of how you view the information here either by the standard format which is: Documents, Images, PDF documents, Music, Videos, and Presentations, or by application, by Size (handy for tracking down big files), Date last opened (Today, Yesterday, previous 7 days, etc), or other relevant options that we are sure will be useful. In all cases we found the files displayed in reverse chronological order.

AirDrop is also new and is a way of sharing files with other people locally. Unable to meet up with other people who also installed Lion, we’ve yet to try this ourselves, but have been privy to a demo by Apple product managers at a briefing. The idea is that both of you log into AirDrop so you can then share files over an ad-hoc wireless peer-to-peer network that you’ve created. You don’t need a wireless network for it to work but you will need to be local. It will be handy when your colleague wants a document or picture off your machine and you don’t have an internet connection just to email it use a Dropbox type service.

Security and Privacy

Security is taken more seriously in Mac OS X Lion too. Disk Encryption has been overhauled (it encrypts the whole disk not just the home directory) and you now have privacy settings that work in a similar way to the iPad.

You can now enable or disable location based services on specific apps and control it all from a single pane within the System Preferences area.

There is also an Internet Accounts section, again similar to iOS, that allows you to manage all your Mail, iCal, Address Book, iChat and other accounts from a single pane. It makes it much much easier to manage and makes setting-up your system to work with your existing email account a doddle. It doesn’t currently work with Microsoft’s Outlook or Entourage apps however, only core Apple apps.

Backing Up with Time Machine and Versions

Time Machine is still here, but it has been enhanced with new tweaks. You can now “Create local snapshots” as well as set to turn off back-ups when you are on battery allowing you to save power. The local snapshots mean that theoretically you could back-up your files to a partition on your internal hard drive, but we are still struggling to see why you would need this. 

Versions plans to take this one step further and records the evolution of a document as you create it. It works in an interface similar to that of Time Machine, allowing you to scroll back through your work as long as it has saved it. If you find that the documents you create take less than an hour then this feature might not be so helpful. There is no word as yet as to whether you’ll be able to change the frequency at which it saves.

In the preview build there is currently a 1 hour fixed version save which can’t be changed. This is great for when you are working on long projects but if you are typing for an hour then you’ll stand to lose a lot of work if you’re relying on this to get you out of trouble.

LaunchPad

If you wanted your Mac to look like an iPad or iPhone then this new feature will be right up your street. Click the new icon on the dock and LaunchPad will fire up giving you a grid of apps as if you were on iOS. 

Organising the apps is as laborious as it is in iOS and for us the experience meant 15 pages of apps randomly scattered around. Apps can be arranged and put into folders, or left on pages and pages. With no auto sorting capabilities it's a bit of a mish-mash at the moment. 

We would like the ability to sort by type, alphabetically or even some attempt at organisation. If you are trying to think ahead, no you can’t just organise your applications folder and the results appear in LaunchPad, although it would make it a lot easier.

Once you have got things organised we can see that it is going to be a quick way to access the app you are looking for, especially when you grasp all the gestures available to you.

Mission Control

A cluttered desktop full of windows, Dashboard, full screen apps, LaunchPad. It’s understandable that you’ll get lost quickly in the new operating system from Apple. An attempt to manage the transition and multiple ways of getting to different parts of the system is Mission Control.

It’s ultimately a suped-up Expose allowing you to access different parts of the OS quickly. Now your app windows are clustered together so you can see multiple document windows together for example. Above that is a list of what Apps are open full screen, plus Dashboard and Desktop. Find what you want, click on it and it brings it to the front of the screen so you can work on it. You’ll know it from Snow Leopard already and it works very well here in Lion too.

Resume

Shut down your Mac and you’ve got to then re-setup your desktop as you like it every time, opening apps and documents. It can, say Apple, force you into putting off that mission critical update because you’ve got lots of apps and documents open and running. Not any more thanks to Resume, which will make sure everything is as you left it. Have we found ourselves turning our Mac off any more since this feature has been available? No, but over time we can see ourselves doing so.

Apps

One of the big focuses for Mac OS X Lion is the ability to run apps full screen just like you do on the iPad. The idea of the developer preview is to give developers the ability examine and experiment, then implement the same features as Apple has with its core apps.

So we get Mail, Safari, iCal, and Address Book to try out. Running apps full screen is an interesting experience and one that works at times and not at others. It's also something that you can kind of do on Snow Leopard already if you want to hide the Dock and maximise apps windows completely: using Spaces recreates the experience more closely allowing you to swing from one to the other quickly. Modern computing is all about multitasking, having a chat with a friend while you surf the web, or checking your emails while you find a date in your calendar. Here however the idea here is that you focus on one task at a time and then slide between the two - it makes sense on smaller screens, but not necessarily on a large iMac display.

It works when you want to read an article on a web page (like this one) in Safari and take your time to enjoy it, but it doesn’t work when you’re trying to do many things concurrently. It’s almost as if Apple are saying “whoa, slow down!” Whether you're the kind of person that can or can’t slow down will really determine whether you like the idea of going full screen or not. That said with a flick of a couple of fingers you can be back to the desktop.

Actually using the apps within Lion is more like using them on the iPad. Mail has taken the iPad's landscape interface (we wouldn't be surprised if we saw the changes here going to the iPad as well), and using Safari full screen is also virtually identical to the iPad experience. Can we see ourselves using iCal full screen on a big display? Probably not. 

And for those interested, using full screen apps when you've got two displays running leaves the other one just greyed out - it's dead space. We'd love to be able to go full screen on one display and have smaller apps running on another, but currently that's not an option.

Other bits and bobs

We’ve detailed most of the new features, but there are plenty more that we’ve not yet found, or have yet to be added in future builds before the official launch.

They include Podcast Producer for producing and hosting your own podcasts, SSD TRIM support that will mean your SSD drive will work better with the new OS than it has with previous versions, improved About this Mac changes that gives you a more iTunes style overview of your computer, Find my Mac that, when enabled, is likely to help you find your computer should you lose it or it gets stolen, Signature Capture that lets you use the camera to get a picture of your John Hancock.

What’s missing

Remember this is a preview build and that means stuff will change. So far a couple of things have gone, but to be honest none you’ll probably notice. Support for Power PC apps appears to have been ditched, as has Front Row.

Verdict

So what should you make of Mac OS X Lion? Well the simple way of looking at it is that the Mac operating system has been iPad-ified. When Apple first announced that the new OS was coming they talked about how it would bridge the gap between the iPad and the Desktop and they weren’t kidding. 

The biggest usability change will come in the adoption of the gestures, and the sliding switches rather than the creation of LaunchPad. What is certain though is that Apple have continued to evolve the OS embracing the way most of us interact with mobile devices and tried to replicate it here on the desktop.

We very much believe that this operating will be seen by future generations as the “Empire Strikes Back” rather than the “Return of the Jedi” when it comes to telling the story of Apple's journey through the land of the OS. Apple believe that the future is about touch rather than the traditional way of computing, and everything we see here reaffirms that.