Review: Mac OS X 10.7 Lion

by on August 4, 2011

Generally, when we review things they’re pretty basic products—they work with one or a handful of devices, perform a particular function, and work generally the same for everyone. This makes it really easy to compare against a baseline of expectations. If you’ve already downloaded and installed Lion, this review will probably not tell you anything new. However, if you’re not an early adopter and are wondering what the fuss is about, I decided to review Apple’s latest operating system for Mac users and judge if you add it to your list of App Store purchases. This is by no means an exhaustive list of features and changes, but rather what really matters to the average user.

The $29 Mac OS X 10.7 Lion was first shown off at the Back to the Mac event in October. This was arguably the quickest turnaround between initial discussion/demonstration and shipping. Additionally, Lion really changed a number of things compared to prior Mac OS X versions. The overall theme does follow two things—simplifying the experience for the “average user”, whomever that may be, and taking the best features of the more popular iOS devices and bringing it to Apple’s desktop operating system.

Purchase & Install

I think one of the big scary moments for anyone installing Lion is the sheer simplicity it has, especially for anyone who has worked with prior versions of Mac OS X, Linux, or even Windows. You download the installer from the Mac App Store, much like any other app, and it creates a self-destructing installer. Running the installer jumps right into the process, without options for erasing a disk, clean installs, or anything else. Apple is putting a lot of trust in its software engineers for forcing the “Upgrade” option, but it seems to have gone smooth. About a half hour later, I was ready to use my computer again. This stayed consistent with prior versions of Mac OS X. The fact that the almost 4GB installer is erased upon installation is slightly annoying, as Apple allows you to install Lion on as many Macs as you want, and this can save on downloading a copy on each machine. On the flip side, if you view the package contents, you can make your own bootable DVD or flash drive. I tried this on another computer and the process works similar to the download, except you can boot directly into an installer.

The message here is twofold: DVDs and other tangible media are dead and you shouldn’t need to worry about what options your OS installs. Does anyone care what specific items get installed with each version of iOS? Aren’t our drives (save for SSDs) large enough that an extra gigabyte or two wasted on drivers and language packs with a smaller OS worth a simpler install?

Rescue Me

Lion also does some other magic on your computer during the installation—it creates a recovery partition that is hidden from most views and uses about 650MB of space. Provided you don’t have a major issue where your drive itself is physically damaged, this should be good enough to bail out users who may have a disk error or need to reinstall Lion to their primary partition. It’s a great move for anyone with a laptop, since you can travel without any sort of recovery media and not stress as much. It also provides access to the Terminal and Safari, which is great if you need to access the Web and have a mostly-dead Mac.

The only complaint about this semi-ambitious feature (which was around in one shape or another since at least the early days of Windows 98), is that even if your computer is locked down and secure, someone could access this recovery mode by knowing the Command+R sequence. It’s no difference than them having a bootable disc, but it just makes the case for firmware passwords even stronger.

Noticeable Changes

The first change you’ll notice is the overall look of Lion is even more toned-down. I find it funny that the first version of Mac OS X was a departure from the grey-and-simple look of Mac OS 9. Over the past ten years, every iteration of Mac OS X has gotten flatter, greyer, and more refined. This is the case once again, which has created a bit of controversy, due to Apple monochromizing the sidebar icons, as seen on iTunes 10 and iPhoto ’11. At the end of the day, it’s a continuation of a theme from Apple—keep the controls simple and out of the way, and let the content be the focus.

Launchpad is a new feature that simply adds an iOS-style app overlay to the screen when invoked. It doesn’t do anything more or less, but does let you put your applications, found in the /Applications and ~/Applications folders, in iOS-style faux-folders. Most power users will still use Spotlight, Dock folders, or third-party tools, but for everyone else, Launchpad is a great idea. I’d like to think of it as an extension to the Dock. You can put your B-list apps there and still have really quick access to them without digging through folders-within-folders in the Applications or Utilities folders. In my case, it has moved things like Disk Utility, Activity Monitor, Address Book, iCal, and the iWork trio into a place where I can still call on them quickly, but they’re not taking up Dock space. It would be nice if it offered more flexibility with arrangement or included items, but this is a first-revision feature and I see it only improving from here.

Gestures and the reversed scrolling are two things that have also gotten a bit of press. I have found that the “Natural” scrolling takes some getting used to, but once you think of things like an iOS device, it makes some sense. Mouse users may have the hardest time adjusting, and thankfully, the setting is reversible. As for gestures, when paired with Mission Control or full-screen apps, are a joy to use on any of Apple’s notebooks. I enabled the 4/5-finger gestures on my iPad and find it convenient for avoiding the home button and switching apps, and the same process works on my MacBook Pro. Full-screen apps remind me a little of “maximized” windows on various versions of Windows, except that you can switch between them with a simple swipe. I’d almost say they’re cleaner and I can get to them faster than a number of windows piled on top of each other, as long as I know where each one is spatially in relation to another.

Elsewhere things are more of the same with some fine-tuning: the same 3D-and-ridiculous Dock introduced with Leopard, but now the indicator lights can be turned off. The way Apple sees it, most apps should work like iOS apps—there is no open or closed—I like this idea, especially if it works as seamlessly as it does on iOS. For this and many of the other new features, users will have to upgrade their applications to Lion-compatible versions. Fortunately, Safari, Mail, Pixelmator, and Apple’s current iWork and iLife suites all have been updated to take advantage of Lion’s new features. For many users, this should be sufficient to try these new ways of working with documents and applications.

Don’t Panic

I find it funny that the biggest complains en masse are things that Apple is offering, but not forcing. As I wrote things like scrolling, gestures, Launchpad, the hidden Library folder, and more can be undone or ignored, leaving an OS that acts pretty much like Snow Leopard. Sure, it’s more disruptive than the transition from Leopard to Snow Leopard, but Apple is providing some flexibility. Even the iOS-style character accents work alongside the tried-and-true Option key method.

A lot of tech people are saying that Apple has lots its mojo with Lion, or that it is “dumbing down” the experience. Instead, I see it much more simplistic than that. Apple is delivering, as promised, a more iOS-like experience on the Mac, but has done nothing to limit Lion as a desktop operating system. Sure, power users may need to get accustomed to some changes, but that was the same with the Jaguar-to-Panther, Panther-to-Tiger, Tiger-to-Leopard, and, to a lesser extent, Leopard-to-Snow Leopard transitions. It’s progress and making the computer more approachable for the non-geeks.

One feature that many will appreciate if they deal with foreign languages is the iOS-style character input. If you have a letter with an accent, rather than remembering which accent you need through an Option-key sequence, you hold down the letter you want to use, much like an iOS device. From there, a popup gives you all the possible accented versions of that letter and you can pick the one you want. This comes at a price—key repeats are turned off. Fortunately, this can be reversed through a Terminal command, but most users shouldn’t notice. Also, the “old way” of entering symbols still works, so your habits don’t need to die.

Why Upgrade?

The big question is if Lion is worth the hassle and money of upgrading. For most users who are using Snow Leopard, it’s a tough sell. With Snow Leopard, we have a very efficient, polished, known product. Lion has bugs, some performance issues, and numerous incompatibilities. Still, it does make your computer a more enjoyable experience, especially once you get the hang of gestures, use Mail a lot, are an iOS addict, or have apps that will make use of the document tools (Versions and Auto-Save). These changes alone could be a lifesaver for some, while others represent a groundwork for the future iterations of Mac OS X and third-party applications. If you have the money and a computer that can handle it, it’s a worthwhile product to check out.

The One-Sentence Verdict™

Compatibility issues aside, Mac OS X Lion represents a big shift for Apple’s way of thinking about the Mac and is low-priced enough that everyone should download it eventually.

Pros: Low price, recovery partition, polished new features, iOS-ification optional

Cons: Changes a number of traditional Mac OS X processes, incompatible with PowerPC apps

The Facts

4/5Product: OS X Lion
Company: Apple
Platform: Mac (Core 2 Duo or Newer)
Price: $29.99 (Mac App Store US Link)

This post has been filed in Mac Apps, Miscellany and Reviews