With OS X Lion, Apple is pushing Mac OS in a dramatic new direction--enhancing the core user experience to work better on smaller screens while simultaneously making the Mac friendlier to iPhone and iPad converts by pulling core adding iOS design elements into OS X. Additionally, Apple is using the Lion release to push the Mac App Store as the premiere place to buy software for OS X users. In fact, Lion will only be available from the Mac App Store (aside from agreements for businesses and other volume customers). With significant changes that will be immediately visible to users, Lion is a far cry from the previous version of OS X, which modernized Mac OS’s underpinnings to better support multi-core CPUs and general-purpose GPU computing but left the user-facing bits of the OS relatively unchanged.
On the other hand, Lion is carrying one welcome tradition forward from Snow Leopard, its price. For $30, Apple has made Lion a killer value for all Mac owners. I’ve been testing Lion for the last few weeks, and while I’m absolutely smitten with some of the new window management features, I’m not as enthusiastic about some of iOS influences that are creeping into OS X. What’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of OS X? Read on.
Enhanced, For Your Smaller Display
As I mentioned above, many of the user interface changes made to Lion--both large and small--are in service of smaller screens. Expose, virtual desktops, and full-screen applications aren’t anything new, but the way Apple has combined them into one feature that makes it easy to find and organize many open windows is a massive functionality enhancement for anyone using a laptop as his or her primary computer.
In order to understand how Mission Control works, first you need to understand Expose and Spaces. Expose is basically the operating system equivalent of those “exploded view” diagrams that I spent hours poring over as a child. Instead of showing you all the parts of a lawn mower motor, though, Expose simply gives you the exploded view of all your open windows. Click the window you’re looking for and Expose zooms back in to it.
Spaces are just Apple’s take on virtual desktops. A virtual desktop is exactly what it sounds like--a set of work spaces that you can dedicate to different tasks, workflows, or anything else. Once your virtual desktops are set up, you can switch between them as needed, getting many of the same benefits of a multi-monitor setup on a single display. Despite several attempts to learn to integrate virtual desktops into my workflow, I never got into the habit. Whether it was because managing the apps and desktops was a hassle or because it was difficult to actually switch between virtual desktops to find the window I wanted, virtual desktops never really stuck for me, at least until now.
With Mission Control, Apple has created a virtual desktop environment that’s painless to use and easy to understand. Managing apps and desktops is simple--open Mission Control (either with a three finger swipe up on the trackpad, or by pressing the keyboard shortcut you used for Expose) and then drag windows onto the desktop you want them on. You can also right-click the app’s Dock icon to get even more granular control--permanently assigning an application to a specific desktop, or making it available across all desktops. Want to make a new virtual desktop? It’s as easy as dragging into the proper spot in Mission Control.
Switching between virtual desktops is simple too--you can click on a Dock icon to skip straight to the desktop with the app, hit ctrl+ left arrow or right arrow to cycle through desktops, or swipe three fingers across the touchpad to move right and left between desktops.
Lion finally lets windows go full-screen in OS X. While the feature is a decade overdue, Apple’s implementation is great for mobile displays with limited vertical space. When you flip an application into full-screen mode, Lion hides the menu bar and the Dock, as well as some parts of the window chrome specified by the app developer. It’s closer to the full-screen mode supported by your browser--you know, the one you never use--than Windows’s maximize function. When you take an app full-screen, it gets its own dedicated virtual desktop in the Spaces carousel, making swapping between full-screen apps as easy as a three-finger swipe. There are some problems with full-screen mode. It’s largely useless on desktop machines--if you have a 24-inch or bigger panel, you probably don’t want to use full-screen mode all that often. The larger problem though, is support. In order to use full-screen mode, apps must support it. Notable applications that lack full-screen support are Firefox and Chrome.
I’m really impressed with the work Apple has done to make real computing possible on small laptop screens. I don’t think anyone is going to get rid of a massive desktop monitor anytime soon, but Mission Control, hiding scroll bars in many apps, and taking applications full-screen makes a meager 1280x800 (or even the 1366x768 on an 11" MacBook Air) display feel more spacious than I thought possible.
You’ve Got iOS in My OS X!
At the same time Apple made OS X friendlier for small screens, it pulled several key design elements from its small-screen OS into the desktop operating system. That’s right, Apple got iOS into your OS X. While I can appreciate the company’s desire to make its desktop operating system easier for iPhone and iPad owners who are buying their first Macs, the execution leaves much to be desired.
Much like the iOS App Store, I’ve got mixed feelings about the Mac App Store. On one hand, the store metaphor greatly simplifies app installation on the platform, gives Apple a way to enforce consistent UI on its platform, makes it easy for users to pay app developers for their work, and should protect the user from malicious (or just lame) apps. On the other hand, it gives Apple unprecedented control over third-party software on the platform. In a worst-case scenario, the Mac App Store could be Apple’s first tentative step down a slippery slope that ends when the Mac OS is closed to all activity that Apple disallows--just like iOS.
Is a closed Mac OS likely? Not in the forseeable future, but if you read Apple’s functionality guidelines for apps, Apple does have strict controls over what you can and can’t sell in the Mac App Store. Like the App Store on iOS devices, this walled garden is both a good and a bad thing for users. It’s hard to argue against preventing apps from collecting your location without permission, forcing you to click through dopey licenses, adding junk to the Dock, or setting themselves to automatically launch when you reboot your computer. On the other hand, vague requirements are worrisome: “Apps that are not very useful or do not provide any lasting entertainment value” and “Apps that duplicate apps already in the App Store may be rejected, particularly if there are many of them” leave too much open to interpretation.
By delivering Lion to most users via the App Store, Apple has made it clear that it wants to push the app store model onto personal computers. Whether you approve of walled gardens or not, Apple has the money and time to take a long-view approach to the Mac App Store, so I don’t expect it to go anywhere anytime soon.
The Mac App Store may be a soft positive for Lion, but another iOS transplant, Launchpad, adds nothing to the OS. Launchpad just an OS X version of iOS’s home screen--it arrays all the applications installed on the system in a grid of icons available from a pop-up menu. This is a system that has already begun to break down for iOS users with dozens of apps installed--and Launchpad is every bit as broken here--it actually makes application management more confusing than the traditional Application folder. The problem, as with iOS, is organization. On a default upgrade install, the first page of apps is reserved for Apple’s apps--the stuff that comes with the OS, iLife, and iWork. The next pages are the apps that pre-date your Lion install, in alphabetical order. After that, newly installed apps from the Mac App Store appear all the way at the end of the list. It’s a mess.
The implementation in Lion doesn’t solve the inherent problem with Apple’s list of icons approach--it’s a pain in the ass to keep organized, to find anything, or to remove any unneeded apps. This list of apps is arranged with no rhyme or reason, which is counter to making an easy to understand app launching menu for neophytes. While you can open Launchpad with either a gesture, a key press, or by clicking a Dock icon, the multi-finger pinch gesture that opens Launchpad has proven challenging for me to successfully complete. Worse, once you’re in Launchpad, it doesn’t use gestures that feel consistent with the rest of OS X. To scroll between pages of icons in Launchpad, you use a two-finger gesture instead of the three-finger gesture you use to swap Spaces.
If Apple truly wanted to make application launching more humane, they’d apply logic that automatically fills the first page of Launchpad with the applications you actually use most frequently. In conjunction with the user-selected Dock, an auto-populated list of applications in decreasing order of popularity could be useful. As it is now though, Launchpad is nothing more than a haystack for your apps to get lost in.
I’m not necessarily opposed to adding iOS elements to OS X--transplanting the iPad’s three-pane mail client makes lots of sense. I’m not enamored with the inverted iOS-style scrolling that’s enabled by default in Lion, but it isn’t a big deal because it’s optional. I feel the same way about Launchpad and the App Store--I’m not going to use them, but that’s OK, because they’re optional too.
Say Goodbye to Saving Accidents
As a long-time computer user, you probably don’t think about managing files often. You’re comfortable with the directory structure that’s common in all modern PC operating systems, you understand that in order to create a new file, you launch an application and select New... While you aren’t confused by the fact that you need to manually save documents somewhere that you’ll be able to find them, other people are, apparently.
But is there a better way to approach the file system? Over the years, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and other companies have all tried to fix the filesystem problem, and none have succeeded. With iOS, Apple grossly simplified file storage--each app is an island, only able to access the files it creates or that are assigned to it. This is restrictive, even on a tablet or smartphone, and simply isn’t flexible enough for desktop users, who are accustomed to a traditional file system. The new Versions system Apple has introduced to Lion do a decent job of making file management less painful, while retaining the flexibility required when using a real computer.
In applications that are supported, saving open documents is now automatic and many of the traditional save options are missing. For example, in Pages there isn’t a Save As option anymore. Instead, your files are saved automatically at frequent intervals as you work. This happens invisibly to the user--although you can manually save a version by hitting the “Save a Version” option. You can access all of these saves at any time by clicking the word “Edited” beside the document’s name at the top of the window and selecting “Browse All Versions.” This opens a Time Machine-like interface with the most recent version of the document on the left and all the older versions on the right. Both sides are fully editable, and you can copy/paste from the old versions to the new or vice versa. When you’re done rescuing an orphaned snippet of text, you can exit the interface and your current document will reflect the changes you made.
With no Save dialog, how do you determine where new files get saved? You don’t, at least in the applications that I was able to test. Applications save newly created files wherever they choose--most often your Documents folder.
Along with automatic file saving, Lion also saves your application states between sessions. When you close an application, everything about the workspace is saved--from the currently opened documents to the window location to your place in the document. When you re-open the application next time, everything returns, exactly as you left it. I don’t find this be particularly useful--reopening old documents isn’t particularly difficult. Apple does allow you to disable application auto-restore if you don’t want it--and it only works in applications that add support.
Apple has made significant changes to the way file management has worked on computers for decades, but to the user these changes are relatively transparent. While I doubt I’ll find myself actively using either Versions or application resume, they’re both positive additions to the platform.
Features of a Lesser Good
I’ve touched on each of Lion’s marquee features, but there also dozens of smaller features worth mentioning. Many integrated applications have been updated or redesigned, Apple’s added much needed support for modern hardware, and there are a few new features that just plain improve the OS. But first, the application redesigns.
Several applications, including Mail, iChat, iCal, and Address Book have seen redesigns. While iCal and Address Book just got a new coat of paint, Mail and iChat have been significantly updated. The new Mail application cribs the three-pane design from iOS’s mail client. Apple also added a threaded conversation view, a la Gmail, and the ability to bookmark folders inside the mail client. Both are useful additions, however the threaded view is very open and uses lots of vertical space.
The best enhancement to Mail, iCal, and Address Book isn’t actually in any of those apps. The first time you visit Gmail, AOL, or Yahoo Mail in Safari, the browser asks if you want to automatically configure Mail, Address Book, and iCal to connect to those services.
iChat also got a full workup, with an integrated buddy list--all your contacts, regardless of the service you use to instant message them are bundled in a single list. iChat also includes an option that lets you group all of your message windows in a single window. Combined with the new plug-in architecture, which should let third parties add support for their services directly to iChat, the app has almost reached parity with popular third-party solutions, like Adium.
Apple also solved a common user problem with AirDrop, a tool that makes sharing files between computers that share a physical location, but aren’t connected to the same network, dead simple. AirDrop works with any Mac that has an 802.11n Wi-Fi adapter and Lion. To use AirDrop, both parties need to have AirDrop open in Finder. Then, whoever wants to send a file drags it onto the icon for the other person’s computer. After the receiving user accepts the file, it’s zapped over to the PC using Wi-Fi. This works whether one, both, or neither machine is connected to the Internet, and doesn’t actually drop either computer from the Internet, if one or both are connected. This is a fabulous feature that I’ve already used several times; however, I wish that it worked with iOS devices as well. While I’m hard pressed to remember the last time I needed to transfer a file when I was someplace I didn’t have Internet access, I frequently find myself in situations where I’d like to leverage my phone’s Internet connection to send a file from my laptop. Still, AirDrop is a welcome addition.
The new Lion upgrade process is also worthy of note. It’s click-an-app-and-wait-a-half-hour simple--all you need to do is download the installer from the App Store, start it, and walk away.
What Don’t I Like About Lion
Though Lion’s chock full of great features, after using it for a few weeks, much of Lion feels half-baked. Replacing the disk view in Finder with a view that shows all of the users files doesn’t seem like a good idea on paper, much less in practice. While the integration of Expose and Spaces into Mission Control is great for users who didn’t understand the concept of virtual desktops before, Mission Control’s window management is unwieldy compared to Snow Leopard’s Spaces. Instead of associating applications en masse with a particular virtual desktop, you now have to manually select each one. Bummer.
I also encountered significant problems with simple window management when I was using Mission Control. When transitioning from virtual desktop to virtual desktop, apps that are pinned to each virtual desktop as well as the files sitting on the Desktop itself fade away then pop back in after the transition. It’s a jarring effect, and it simply doesn’t make sense for items that appear on all desktops to disappear then reappear.
I’ve also had problems with applications that I’ve set to display on all virtual desktops. These apps have a hard time behaving properly, they unexpectedly fall into the background, jump into the foreground, or occasionally they simply disappear. A restart is usually enough to fix the problem, unless the affected app is required for the OS to run, like Finder. These are problems that will undoubtedly disappear as Apple updates the OS and applications better support Lion, but it’s unusual for Apple to ship an OS with problems that are this visible.
Last on the litany of shame is keyboard lag. I’m finding that Lion introduced keyboard lag to my Mac. It’s infrequent, but several times since updating my MacBook Pro to Lion, I’ve typed text that just doesn’t show in the document. This never happened in Snow Leopard, and is unacceptable in any operating system.
The Exciting Conclusion
Let’s face it, for $30, it’s hard to not upgrade to Lion if you’re a Mac user. If you’re a laptop user, Mission Control is a killer piece of software worth the price of admission on its own. That said, there’s less to be excited about for desktop users. You aren’t likely to use Mission Control if you use a machine hooked up to a 27-inch monitor. And this isn’t an OS update without problems. Key components of Lion, such as the window manager, lack the polish I’ve come to expect from Apple products--especially core Apple products. If you haven’t sprung for Lion yet, it isn’t a bad idea to wait until Apple updates the OS, and hopefully works out some of the kinks.