Lion: The Complete Review

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In Lion, if you quit an app with a bunch of open windows then re-launch it, all those open windows return, right where you left them. Coupled with Auto Save, Resume means that quitting and launching Mac apps in Lion is as seamless as quitting and launching iOS apps: they open back up right where you left off. (You can turn this feature off globally by going to the General pane in System Preferences and unchecking Restore Windows When Quitting and Re-opening Apps; you can also disable it temporarily by holding down the Shift key when you launch an app.)

This feature doesn't work just with individual apps. Lion also keeps track of which apps are open when you shut down or restart your Mac. If you turn off your Mac with Mail, iCal, and TextEdit open, those three apps will be running, right where you left them, when you turn it back on. (You need to be patient about this: If you try to click on a restarted app before it's ready to run, you'll see the spinning-gear and a grayed-out window.)

If you consider Resume alongside the new behavior of the Dock--by default, there's no longer a dot under running apps--it's clear that Apple is steering us toward a future in which we no longer think about turning apps on or off; rather, we'll just switch between them just as we do on iPhones and iPads. That future isn't here just yet; in Lion, you can still launch and quit apps. It's just that they're more resilient than they were before. (If you want the dots back, you can enable them in the Dock pane of System Preferences.)

Resume is another feature that will make lots of sense to Mac novices, but will force more experienced Mac users to adapt. While I don't like re-opening all my documents every time I quit an app, sometimes I want to start from scratch. Likewise, I've grown up in a Mac environment where only those apps you've specifically set to launch at startup do so; in Lion that's no longer the case. After a few weeks of working with Lion, I'm becoming comfortable with Resume, but I've had to learn to close documents I never want to see again, rather than just quitting the app.

Inside the apps

Of course, there's always more to OS X than the OS itself; there's also all the apps Apple bundles with the system. In Lion, there have been major updates to Mail, iCal, Safari, iChat, Preview, and various other utilities. We'll have separate reviews of many of them in the next few days. But in the meantime, my own quick reactions:

Mail A few months back I abandoned Mail for MailPlane, frustrated by just how slow it seemed when interacting with my Gmail accounts. With the arrival of Lion (and after implementing Joe Kissell's excellent instructions on configuring Mail and Google), I decided to give Mail another chance.

I've found the new version Mail a big improvement. The new wide layout is a good fit for the displays on most Macs, something that previously required a plug-in such as Letterbox or WideMail. Searching for messages is more powerful now, thanks to the same easy-to-use search system found in the Finder. And Mail's support for full-screen mode is solid; on my 11-inch MacBook Air, it's the only app I consistently run that way.

But I think the best addition to Mail is support for a real conversation view, clustering related messages together so you can see the entire context of an e-mail thread. (That was probably the feature I appreciated most about Gmail.) If you wish (you have to enable it in Mail's preferences), the app will pull all related messages (not just those in the current mailbox) into your view of the conversation. And Mail streamlines the conversation view by automatically hiding text quoted from earlier messages.

Safari Safari's marquee new feature, Reading List, lets you save a Web page for reading later. It's a concept that will be familiar to anyone who's used the iOS app/web service Instapaper. But it would be more accurate to say that Reading List is really just a friendlier version of old-fashioned bookmarking. I don't think Reading List is a replacement for Instapaper because it saves URLs only, not the contents of pages. But it's still better than bookmarking for keeping track of web pages that you want to read later.

Apple has also done away with Safari's Downloads window, replacing it with a popover that appears when you click the Downloads button in the toolbar. I'd often keep Safari's Downloads window open just to monitor the progress of a big download, but that's no longer possible: the new Safari's popover shows you the progress of downloads only from windows you still have open. There is one improvement, though: Downloaded items are now draggable. You no longer have to search for them in the Downloads folder in order to move them somewhere more useful; you can move from the Downloads window itself.

iChat With Lion, iChat has truly embraced its status as a multi-service chat utility. In addition to AIM, previous versions could connect to Google Talk and other servers using the Jabber protocol. But now the door is wide open: iChat supports Yahoo Messenger out of the box, and there's a plug-in system that allows developers of other chat systems to add support for their services. There's also a unified buddy list to bring all your friends on all those services together in one window; you can set a unified status message on all the systems you're using. I'm primarily an AIM guy, even now, but I'm on some other services and will now use them more often. Here's hoping that Microsoft Messenger (and Microsoft's new purchase, Skype) join the iChat party soon.

What's missing from iChat is a bit more confusing. The iMessage service announced by Apple as a part of iOS 5 will presumably debut with its release, but it would've been nice if Apple committed to supporting it within iChat as well. And of course FaceTime is still a separate app, even though iChat supports video chat itself. I'm still not sure why I need to run iChat and FaceTime simultaneously.

iCal The new version of iCal has gotten a makeover: The top of the iCal window has been given a leather texture with hints of torn-off pages beneath (the same design approach used on the iOS Calendar app), making it look a bit more like a paper calendar. It's an unnecessary gimmick, sure--who uses tear-off paper desk calendars anymore, anyway?--but it's mostly harmless. I'm not sure why Apple has chosen to make a few of its apps mock their real-world counterparts, and the app would probably look better with a standard gray toolbar. Sometimes Apple's ways are mysterious. (The functional part of the iCal interface has also been revamped, with the source list on the left side replaced with a popover in order to create more room for actual calendar data.)

The most notable new feature in iCal is support for natural-language event creation. Click on the plus-sign (+) button in the toolbar and, instead of an event pane, you get a blank text box. Type meet with Phil Tuesday at 4 and iCal will do its best to schedule that event; in this case, it'll create an event called Meet with Phil on Tuesday at 4 p.m., and open it in the familiar iCal event pane for you to edit as needed. In testing, this approach worked well, though it's not quite as flexible as a dedicated add-on like the excellent Fantastical () or QuickCal.

And the rest

After more than 6000 words, I feel that I've still barely scratched the surface of what's new in Lion. I've run through only some of the biggest, most obvious of those changes. Among the smaller ones that stand out:

AirDrop Need to transfer files between a couple of nearby Macs, but don't have a USB keychain drive? AirDrop solves that problem, by letting two Macs connect to each other over Wi-Fi to quickly drop files back and forth. You don't even have to be on the same Wi-Fi network for it to work, since AirDrop connects the two Macs directly (and without requiring the user to fuss with network settings). It's meant to be a simple, easy-to-use file transfer mechanism, and it works. It's a smart little feature that will save all sorts of time when you need to swap files quickly.

Security In some ways, OS X has fallen behind Windows in terms of security technology--mostly because Microsoft has had to defend Windows from the massive amount of malware the platform attracts. But Apple has introduced several security features in Lion, including increased memory randomization and iOS-style application sandboxing (which Mac App Store apps will be forced to support, eventually). I'm a little concerned about just how strong that sandbox needs to be--depending on how Apple enforces those rules, it has the potential to cripple the Mac platform. Familiar, functional Mac apps could potentially have to remove features in order to fit in Apple's sandbox. We'll have to see how it plays out over the next few months.

Apple is also adopting the iOS approach to file encryption. The new FileVault encrypts your entire drive. Once your drive is encrypted, you can instantly wipe its data just by telling the system to delete the decryption key; that's the same technique used to wipe iOS devices. When you're not logged in, the data on your drive is inaccessible. It sounds like a good idea, and much more of a holistic approach than the original disk-image-based FileVault. I worry about users who might encrypt their data but then lose the key (through mental or technical error). Apple is trying to reduce that risk by generating a recovery key that you can store in a safe place, separate from your password.

Apple IDs everywhere It used to be your iTunes ID, but it's now an Apple ID. This fall, it'll work with iCloud. And in Lion, it's more versatile. If you want to grant someone file-sharing access to your Mac, you don't have to create a new user: just enter the person's Apple ID and they can log in using that; same goes for Screen Sharing. And AirDrop uses Apple IDs to verify the identities of other users. Apple's on a mission to get that Apple ID in every crevice of its ecosystem.

Screen Sharing As someone who keeps a Mac mini in a closet as a server, I use the Screen Sharing app a lot. It's gotten a few nifty improvements, my favorite being the ability to log in as one user on a remote Mac while a different user is logged in locally. I love the idea of quickly popping into my home iMac and moving a few files around without making my wife log out first.

AppleScript and Automator Fans of scripts and workflows will be happy to know there are upgrades to both AppleScript and Automator. AppleScripts can now access all the Cocoa frameworks, offering huge power to scripters who learn even the most basic Cocoa tricks. Some cool new services are installed by default, including the ability to convert videos into formats that are consumable by iOS devices and auto-generation of ePub-format ebooks. And installing Automator actions and services just got a lot easier--when you double-click on them, the system offers to move them to the right place for you.

Resize anywhere Apple's given in to the Windows convention: you can now resize a window from any side, not just the bottom-right corner. This eliminates the small shaded area in the corner of every window. After using the bottom-right corner to resize windows for the past two decades, it's going to take me some time to adjust to this.

Restore partition When you install Lion, the system automatically creates a special startup partition on your hard drive. This means that, if something messes up the contents of your hard drive (but doesn't physically damage the drive), you can reboot, hold down the Option key, and then boot into the restore partition. From there you can run Disk Utility, reinstall Lion, wipe the drive and restore from a Time Machine volume, or even load up Safari and browse the Web for troubleshooting advice. It's not a feature that will help you in the event of a catastrophic hardware failure, but it's a great backup for those times when the contents of your drive get hinky.

Is it stable?

I've been using the final version of Lion for weeks now and have seen very few bugs. It's been a comfortable ride. That said, this is Mac OS X version 10.7.0--note the zero at the end. If you are someone who wants to try out the cool new features of Lion today, by all means take the plunge. But back up your drive first, in case you need to fall back to Snow Leopard. And on systems where you do critical and time-sensitive work, you might be best advised to wait a little while until the developers of your most vital apps certify that they're good to go with Lion. No new system release is without its quirks. As stable as this release has been for me, it's a major update and you should proceed with caution. I've upgraded my work iMac and my MacBook Air to Lion; the home iMac that my wife and kids use will remain at Snow Leopard for a little while longer, just in case.

Macworld's buying advice

After a long period of relative stability on the Mac, Lion is a shock to the system. It's a radical revision, motivated in part by the vast influx of new Mac users coming to the platform from iOS, that makes the Mac a friendlier computer. Veteran Mac users who don't like those changes can turn many of them off, or just opt not to use them.

Auto Save, Versions, and Resume should together reduce the amount of time you spend managing files, so you can focus on the more important task of actually using them. Mission Control sweeps several window-management initiatives into a more cohesive whole. The new search system in Finder and Mail is so good you'll wish it was in Spotlight too. Finder's All My Files view is a handy way to quickly get a grasp on what's new and changed on your Mac. Mail's upgrade is impressive, especially its expanded view of conversations and related messages.

On the downside, Launchpad owes a bit too much to the iOS, limiting its utility, and it's too hard to organize apps. Full-screen apps have potential, but only if developers embrace the format and truly re-invent their interfaces; even then, users of multiple monitors will find that those interfaces waste perfectly good screen-space. And Apple's reliance on a downloaded installer app causes needless complications, especially when a hard drive dies.

Can novice users fresh from the Apple Store and grizzled Mac vets who have been pounding out Terminal commands since 2001 share one operating system without driving each other crazy? It's an interesting question. With Lion, Apple seems to be doing a fine job of adding novice features without making them too maddening for more comfortable users. That's good, because novices become veterans over time.

In the past, Apple has charged $129 for upgrades with far fewer improvements than this--and that price upgraded just a single system. At $30 for all the Macs in your world, the only reason not to upgrade to Lion is because you rely on old PowerPC-based apps that won't run on it. Otherwise, it's a more than fair price for a great upgrade.

This story, "Lion: The Complete Review" was originally published by MacCentral.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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