Hands on: Mac OS X, iOS morph into Lion

Apple goes all in on multi-touch gestures in its new OS

Apple has finally unleashed OS X 10.7 Lion, the revamped operating system for the company's desktops and laptops. Lion is the latest in a string of major OS revisions released over the past 11 years, and this newest cat borrows some tricks from Apple's mobile lineup.

In fact, when Apple CEO Steve Jobs first unveiled Lion last fall, he made the point that it would incorporate some of the lessons learned from iOS, including automatic document saves, saved states for apps, and systemwide gestures that until now have been more common to the iPad and iPhone.

[ Visual tour: Mac OS X Lion up close ]

In some ways, the rollout of multi-touch gestures may be the biggest change Lion offers when it comes to how you interact with the new OS, but it's other features, like Auto Save, Versions and Resume, that many users will appreciate most.

The last major desktop operating system from Apple was Snow Leopard, which arrived in August 2009. When that OS was introduced, the iPhone 3GS was all the rage and the iPad was still under wraps. But Apple was already figuring out how it could use swipes, pinches and taps in what would become Lion.

Was the company's decision to change in a fundamental way how Mac users interact with their computers a desperate bid to emulate the success of iOS or a stroke of brilliance? I think it was both -- without the desperation.

Getting started

Lion, which costs $29.99 and is available only through the Mac App Store, requires users to have Snow Leopard in place first. And it has beefed up system requirements compared to Snow Leopard. Chief among them, Apple's new OS requires an Intel 64-bit processor, so anyone with a Mac that doesn't have at least a Core 2 Duo chip can forget about upgrading.

Lion also wants at least 2GB of memory to run -- 4GB is better -- and at least 4GB of free space on your hard drive for the file download. Yes, download. Rather than dashing to the store for a Lion installation DVD, you fire up the Mac App Store, buy the OS online, then download and install it. (No doubt, MacBook Air users will be delighted, since the Air doesn't have a built-in optical drive.)

The bad news: Anyone on a slow connection is going to be waiting a while for the OS to download, although Apple has offered the Wi-Fi in its stores to help out people who don't have broadband. The good news: If your household has more than one Mac, you can hop on that other Mac, use your App Store login there, click on the "Purchased" tab and install Lion using the same Apple ID. The bonus? You don't have to enter a ridiculously long Genuine Protection ID like Windows users do.

For companies worried about updating a lot of Macs in the workplace, Apple has a solution: Enterprise customers with volume licenses can download the Lion installer, which places itself in the Applications folder, and then copy that installer to the machines being upgraded. Apple sent out the info in a PDF explaining what enterprise and education users should do. It also will offer a copy of Lion on a flash drive for $69.99 sometime next month.

Note: If you don't save a copy of the installer before you update to Lion, you won't be able to save it later. The installer deletes itself after the installation is complete; if you need it later, you'll have to download it again from the App Store.

A couple more caveats: Lion no longer allows you to run software written for PowerPC, as the Rosetta framework that allowed older apps to run is now gone. And if your machine doesn't have a glass multi-touch trackpad, you'll be missing out on the new gestures built into Lion. (Earlier versions of the trackpad without the glass coating don't support more than two-finger scrolls.)

Lion installer

After downloading Lion through the Mac App Store, the OS installer takes over and handles the update from Snow Leopard. (See full visual tour.)

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