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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  • File Vault has received a significant upgrade, featuring faster initial encryption and instant wipe with little -- if any -- performance hit. FileVault 2, as it's now called, also supports external drive encryption.
  • The Spotlight search tool adds Web and wiki to its search repertoire, has an updated organization scheme and offers live scrollable previews of search results.
Spotlight

Spotlight now offers live previews as you scroll through search results. (See full visual tour.)

  • QuickTime can now rotate video clips that have been incorrectly recorded sideways or upside down, as well as merge clips into a single movie. And screen capturing now highlights the pointer when you click on an onscreen object, which should help making instructional videos a little easier to follow.
  • For switchers, Windows data migration is built into the Migration Assistant. You can do the transfer during the initial setup, or by launching the Migration Assistant in the Utilities folder. Migration Assistant can transfer calendars, contacts, email accounts from Outlook and Live Mail, and photos, placing them in their appropriate locations in Lion.
  • Xsan support is now built in, allowing access to SANs based on this technology without third-party plug-ins.
  • After you upgrade to Lion, you can get Lion Server for $49.99. It's available through the App Store, just like Lion.
  • Time Machine backups can be encrypted.
  • About This Mac (under the Apple menu) has been completely revamped to offer more information about your hardware.
About This Mac

About This Mac now offers more detailed data about your computer with eye-catching graphics. (See full visual tour.)

Bottom line

Even with a raft of new features, both obvious and behind the scenes, Lion feels faster and more responsive than its predecessors. I tested it on several computers: a souped-up 2010 MacBook Pro, several iMacs, and a five-year-old MacBook. All were faster when logging in, launching and relaunching apps, and when doing things like browsing the Web. The spinning beach ball cursor -- the bane of every Mac user's existence -- rarely made an appearance. Lion ran smoothly and was stable on every machine I installed it on -- the lone exception being the problem I had with an outdated version of Parallels on my own laptop.

Still, it's important to remember that Lion represents a major rewrite of Mac OS X. If you're looking for stability, you may want to stick with Snow Leopard for now; it's tried and true, and has the benefit of numerous updates and fixes.

I've noticed a few minor issues with Lion, none of them show-stoppers or unusual for a new OS. For example, I occasionally run into problems with iChat dropping its connection. Other users have seen problems with full-screen apps. So keep that in mind if you're looking to upgrade. There's a reason a lot of people, and companies, wait for the first update to a new OS before installing it.

Once you do start using Lion, you'll find an OS awash in multi-touch gestures. While other companies are trying to bring this technology to desktop computers via touch-screen monitors, Apple seems to be banking on its multi-touch Magic Trackpads. It's a smart move, given how useful and portable the wireless Magic Trackpad is, especially since using gestures on a vertical screen can get tiring.

I've heard some colleagues say that Lion feels like an ungainly mashup of features, and I can see why. After all, Apple is attempting to shoehorn features from iOS directly into the Mac. But it's important to remember that the way we use computers and, more important, mobile devices today was science fiction in 2000 when OS X was born. Now, multi-touch gestures have become mainstream. What worked well with a mouse and keyboard 10 years ago works better now with multi-touch and a trackpad.

Without gestures, Lion feels like a polished Snow Leopard, which really it is -- just like Snow Leopard was a polished Leopard, Leopard a polished Tiger, and so on. It's exactly what you'd expect from engineers who have spent two years massaging an existing OS. And with gestures, Lion is exactly what you'd expect from engineers who have successfully implemented new computing paradigms in other products; it's only logical that some of those discoveries come back to the original platform.

Beyond the new gestures, beyond the UI changes, there's one thing that stands out for me: Lion leaves you feeling that you're working with a set of fairly comprehensive safety nets that build on Time Machine. I'm referring to Versions, Auto Save, and Resume. With Lion, if you ever crash, you can recover much more effectively than you could in previous versions of OS X. While Apple isn't likely to run a commercial about it, the reality is that accidents happen -- software will crash. What Versions, Auto Save and Resume do are not glamorous, but they sure are glorious.

For that alone, Lion is worth the $29.99 price.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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