Hands on: Mac OS X, iOS morph into Lion

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

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One thing users are likely to notice in Lion is something they can't see: Apple's annoying decision to hide the User/Library folder from view. (The move mimics the way system files are hidden on the iPad and iPhone, and makes it harder for people to muck things up.)

Given that a user's Library folder is where apps store settings and data, this change will no doubt make things a little more difficult for IT types who have to help users troubleshoot their computers. Smartly, Apple included a workaround: If you need to get to your user Library, click on Go in the Finder menu bar and hold down the option key. You'll see the Library in the drop down list.

Gestures and scroll reversal

New gestures in Lion may be what has the biggest impact on how people use their Macs. For laptop users with trackpads, the additional gestures will really help you fly though files, windows and multiple desktops. For iMac, Mac Pro and Mac Mini users, a word of advice: Get a $69 Apple Magic Trackpad. It's the best way to take advantage of some genuinely useful techniques, something you won't be able to do as well with a mouse -- even Apple's Magic Mouse.

With that said, there's one gesture-related change in particular that users will notice right away: The way you scroll through documents and Web pages has been reversed.

Blame iOS. Scrolling in Lion is now focused on the principle of manipulating on-screen graphics. For instance, if you place two fingers on a trackpad and push up, the contents in the document you're viewing will scroll up. Push two fingers down, and the document scrolls down. (It works the same way with Apple's Magic Mouse.) Essentially, you're "pushing" the document's contents in the same direction your fingers are moving. In Snow Leopard and previous versions of OS X, two-finger scrolls were more like grabbing the scroll bars (which moves in the opposite direction as the content), not the content itself.

The new scroll direction feels weird for about five minutes, then it feels natural. And if you really hate it, you can turn it off in the Trackpad (or Mouse) system preference under the Scroll & Zoom tab. Note, too, that the scrollbars are now thin and gray, just as they are on the iPad, and you can choose whether they're always on, off, or variable depending on input device. If you're using a regular mouse, you'll want to make sure they're on so you can grab scrollbars and scroll as you always have.

The Trackpad system preference pane allows you to turn 14 distinct gestures and behaviors on or off, and you can specify the number of fingers necessary to trigger an event. (If you're not using a trackpad, you can configure gestures in the Mouse preference pane.)

Among the gestures now available: A two-finger tap can be used to zoom in on Web page content in Safari; the same can be done with images. Three- or four-finger swipes allow you to switch among Spaces (useful when apps are in the new full-screen mode); two-finger side swipes let you go backward (swipe left) and forward (swipe right) in Safari's browser history. Spread three or four fingers and your thumb to reveal the desktop, and pinch together three or four fingers and your thumb to activate the new Launchpad app. Swiping three fingers down in an app isolates that app's windows and brings up a list of recently opened documents. Swiping up with four fingers reveals Mission Control, allowing you access to Spaces; and within Mission Control, four-finger swipes right or left flip through your Spaces.

Trackpad gestures

New gestures can be used with a Trackpad -- and to a lesser extent a mouse -- to navigate through Lion. The Trackpad system preference is used to modify how many fingers are needed for specific gestures. (See full visual tour.)

It's amazing how quickly you get used to flipping through Lion's interface with gestures, especially if you're using a trackpad. Using a three- or four-finger swipe up to activate Mission Control, for instance, feels like you're pushing open windows into neat, little stacks -- with the animation to match. After a while, the combination of gestures and motion feels almost organic.

Lion now offers the same rubber-banding "bounce" behavior found in iOS devices, where once the end of a document is reached, the scroll effect sort of stretches and bounces back, indicating that you can't scroll further. It's a neat effect in iOS, and it works well here, too.

Mission Control, which can be activated by a gesture or by clicking on the icon on the Dock, gives you quick access to multiple virtual desktops (and your Dashboard screen). Apps that support full-screen mode can be expanded to take up a separate desktop space, one for each app. Other applications that do not yet have full-screen feature remain as windows. Using gestures, you can swipe between different desktop spaces, choose which apps you want to work with, and "slide" between them. The desktops appear as mini-screens at the top of the Mission Control Window, and you can drag and drop applications between the desktops.

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