Apple OS X Lion

Lion is a major evolutionary step for Mac OS XPhoto: Apple

Apple’s new operating system is a magnificent beast but it might just bite you when you least expect it, says Seb Janacek.

I’ve been using Lion for about five days now. I installed it a couple of days after it was released. In that time I’ve grown to love it and be slightly infuriated by it in roughly equal measure.

Lion is a major evolutionary step for Mac OS X. The July release comes a few months after Steve Jobs’ twin declaration that we are living in a post-PC world and that the Mac is no longer centre of the digital hub, merely another device. A bitter pill for millions of loyal Mac users to swallow.

The evidence of Apple’s post-PC philosophy is clear. The Mac’s input works with traditional input devices – keyboard and basic mouse, but the flourishes and the benefits are reaped through using devices controlled by touch.

The ideas that Jobs and other executives highlighted in Apple’s Back to the Mac conference last year are here and for the large part work well. The big idea was that Apple had learned a fair bit designing and selling iOS devices, particularly the iPad, and wanted to share some of the interface elements and concepts with the Mac.

To my mind, Lion offers far more features than its predecessor, Snow Leopard, which was really just a system-wide tweak, but also more than any of the earlier big cat OS iterations. Apple regularly markets its OS releases as having 200-plus new features but you’re hard pushed to name more than a few key ones per release.

For Panther it was quick user switching, Tiger got Spotlight system searching and Leopard brought the inestimably useful automatic back-up feature Time Machine – arguably the most important of OS X.

Compared with Snow Leopard – and almost four years after Leopard was launched – Lion seems packed with new tweaks and capabilities. If you’re an iOS user and especially an iPad owner a lot of the new features will look very familiar.

The most obvious visual implementation of the Back to the Mac idea is in the Launchpad, which presents a layer of application logos floating above a blurred background image. The screen can be swiped left and right and the images moved around and arranged into folders – see the two folders on the bottom row of this image, far right.

Lion's Launchpad feature offers easy navigation and access to applications and echoes the iPad's operation

Lion’s Launchpad feature offers easy navigation and access to applications and echoes the iPad’s operationImage:

It’s a useful way of getting access to your programs and a clear nod to the way the iPad operates.

Another idea carried over from the iPad is the concept of not having to save progress on documents. This facility may well turn out to be Lion’s…


…killer feature but one that eventually people won’t notice.

The idea is simple: if an application crashes or is shut down without saving, the application saves the latest version of the document automatically. This safeguard is massively useful but requires a compliant application. Apple’s iWork suite works beautifully here.

The same applications now save all versions of documents so you can scroll back in time, just as with Time Machine, to find that killer paragraph you accidentally deleted weeks ago. Yet another feature that will probably be taken for granted in the future and on other platforms.

Full-screen apps look great, especially on a smaller 13-inch screen where window clutter is often a problem and where space is at a premium.

In addition, Lion’s new Mission Control feature – see below – also comes in handy here.

Lion's Mission Control feature gives an instant overview of programs, documents, desktops and widgets

Lion’s Mission Control feature gives an instant overview of programs, documents, desktops and widgetsImage:

As well as the visual clues from iOS, the other big nod towards the Back to the Mac concept in Lion is in touch gestures.

Apple introduced a number of gestures between Snow Leopard and Lion. These gestures are supported by various Apple devices including notebook trackpads, stand-alone trackpads and mice.

iOS is, of course, all about touch and eschews the stylus approach. It’s all about getting hands-on with the software and it pays dividends by delivering a more inclusive user experience with a device. Apple’s hoping for a similar pay-off with Lion.

The number of touch-based interface commands in Lion has grown since the last OS iteration – indeed, there are now so many that remembering them all is a challenge.

Just before updating to Lion I’d splashed out on one of Apple’s Magic Trackpads – basically a four-by-four-inch smooth trackpad that lets you perform a number of touch-based gestures.

Apple Magic Trackpad

Using Apple’s Magic Trackpad with Lion’s range of commands is more fun than using the mousePhoto: Apple

Before that I’d been using the rather splendid Magic Mouse, which is now paired with a MacBook Pro. Using Lion across both machines with both devices, it’s clear that the OS benefits from having the wider area for touch commands. The Magic Mouse’s commands are also slightly different to the trackpad’s and switching between the two computers can be confusing given the wide number of commands available.

But it’s clear that using the trackpad with Lion’s range of commands is easier and more fun than using the mouse, which can be fiddly. At the same time you need to be more alert to resting your fingers on the trackpad as errant finger brushes can jump you into Mission Control or another screen accidentally.

That said, it’s something of a revelation for a day-one iPad user to share some of the user interface elements of the tablet with the Mac. I think this part of the Back to the Mac idea will be most fun to play with over the coming months.

Low points for Lion

Despite the flourishes and interface delights there are also some issues with Lion.

Performance is not what you’d expect, something that a number of friends and colleagues are reporting. Performance is patchy despite running cleaning scripts and executing a top-to-bottom purging of system caches.

Safari in particular is testing the patience despite a number of useful new features. Normally I can blame Virgin Media but they’ve resolutely provided me with 20Mbps of download access for the best part of the week so the blame is on the software – the hardware is relatively new.

In addition, I’ve noticed a number of strange buggy incidents. Three or four times I’ve opened an application only to be sent inexplicably back to the system’s login screen.

Every new OS has bugs and no doubt most will be sorted out in coming months with software updates from Apple and from third parties making their applications more Lion-compliant.

Despite the odd bug and occasional system lag, Lion is a real treat for Mac users who, let’s face it, haven’t been the main focus for Apple in recent times. Lion has a new ideology, a new look and a whole new bunch of features to play with. It also has the familiarity with iOS which continues to help lure new users to the Mac platform.

Yet you feel it is only part of the story. The Mac is now just a device and not the centre of your digital world, according to Apple.

We won’t be able to assess whether this view holds true until iCloud launches later this year. By then we may get a better idea of how the Mac fits into the company’s vision of a Post-PC world.