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Hands on: Mac OS X, iOS morph into Lion

July 21, 2011 06:01 AM ET

Once Lion has been downloaded, you'll be presented with a license agreement, a disk selection screen so you can tell the installer where Lion should be installed, and the standard OS X authentication password request. Type in the user password for your account, and OS X moves into autopilot mode. It copies some files and configures itself, and restarts your computer; the installer does the rest.

Once the installation is finished, your computer boots again and you're ready to use Lion. The whole process should take 30 to 40 minutes or so after you've downloaded the OS and begun the actual installation.

Although Apple touts some 250 new features in Lion, many are minor tweaks to things already in Snow Leopard. But there are some important changes that you'll notice pretty quickly. That's what I'm focusing on here.

The Finder

At first glance, Lion looks a lot like its predecessor. But it feels subtly different as you start navigating around. Seasoned Mac users will note that the sidebar icons in Finder windows are decidedly grayer, perhaps to further separate the shortcuts they represent from the actual, live file system icons.

More significant is the way hard drive contents are organized. In the Finder window sidebar, you'll see a new shortcut called "All My Files." When selected, it displays every file in a Finder window, arranged by type in lists that can be scrolled horizontally. It's a neat tweak, especially if you're not very organized and always hunting for bits of your digital life. Since I know where my files are, it's not a feature I'll need. But I can see the usefulness of quick access to every document, photo, song, PDF and what-have-you in a single Finder window.

Also in the Finder sidebar is another new shortcut, called AirDrop. It's designed to make wireless sharing of files between computers easy to do. Until now, if you wanted to do that, you had to open a Finder window, click on the Mac name in the sidebar, and then choose "Connect As..." so you could log in to the other computer to move files around. (Both Macs had to be on the same network, and both had to have file sharing enabled.)

All My Files shortcut
A new Finder window shortcut, "All My Files," shows all of your files in one place. Files can be sorted by different criteria. (See full visual tour.)

In Lion, that cumbersome process is no more. By clicking on the AirDrop icon, a radar-screen view is displayed, with your account picture front and center. When another user clicks on AirDrop on their own Mac, their account picture shows up in your AirDrop screen -- and yours in theirs -- so the two of you can securely transfer files using simple drag-and-drop.

When you drag a file to the AirDrop window to begin a transfer, a chat dialog appears over the recipient's picture -- it looks like a comic book speech bubble -- so they can authorize the file transfer. After a couple of clicks, the file is moved securely over a TSL-encrypted, firewalled peer-to-peer connection. It all happens automatically. And you don't have to be on a Wi-Fi network; AirDrop can find other Lion users within about 30 feet of you, using the built-in Wi-Fi hardware in each computer. Sharing files has never been easier and this feature should be a boon in collaborative workplaces where people share files a lot. (Be forewarned, AirDrop doesn't work on older hardware, even if it will run Lion; I couldn't use it on a 2006 MacBook. More information from Apple is available here.)

AirDrop allows you to wirelessly share files with other Lion users nearby. All you do is drag and drop the file to the other person's icon in the AirDrop window; that user has to OK the transfer. (See full visual tour.)

Other welcome changes in the Finder:

  • A new Arrange button at the top of Finder windows allows you to easily sort items by criteria such as name, date modified, size, kind, etc.
  • It's now possible to resize any window by grabbing any edge or corner (a feature Windows has had for years).
  • Scrolling is reversed to better align with the "direct manipulation of content" theme started on the iPhone and expanded upon in the iPad. More about that in a minute.

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