10 things you should know about Mac OS X Lion

Mac OS X Lion has hit the streets, and Erik Eckel says the new release includes some outstanding enhancements. Here's a quick rundown of what's changed and what's improved.

Apple's new Mac OS X Lion operating system is much more than just an upgrade to the popular Mac OS X Snow Lion OS. The new server and client operating system boasts hundreds of refinements and improvements. Here are 10 key things to know about Mac OS X Lion.

1: System requirements

Following release, Mac OS X Lion is included on new Macs. The $29.99 ($49.99 for server) Mac OS X Lion upgrade runs on a wide variety of older Macs, too. To run Lion, one of the following processors is required: an Intel Core 2 Duo, Core i3, Core i5, Core i7, or Xeon. A Mac being upgraded to Lion must also have Snow Leopard patched to Software Update version 10.6.8.

2: Mac App Store

The Mac App Store is included by default within Mac OS X Lion. Apple's iPhone and iPad have changed the way users research, purchase, download, install, and maintain applications. Now, the integration of the application store directly within the OS marks a paradigm shift that will only grow in importance as IT departments are increasingly removed from the application purchase and deployment process.

3: Mail improvements

Mac OS X Lion introduces a new widescreen two-column email display. Messages are positioned to the left (with the addition of a new compact preview), and a message's contents are displayed in a right-hand pane. A new toolbar that mimics a browser's makes it easier to directly access mail folders while reducing onscreen clutter. And for the first time, Mac Mail features Conversations, which helps collect numerous messages within the same thread using a chronological listing that hides redundant text to make messages easier to process.

4: Electronic distribution

Organizations will find Lion an easier OS to install when upgrading older OSes. Because Lion is distributed through the Mac App Store, users can download it on all authorized Mac computers. There's no need to travel to a retail store for a CD or wait for installation media to arrive via snail mail. Users can leverage their existing iTunes accounts to acquire, purchase, and install the OS.

5: New Server App

The new Mac OS X Lion Server App simplifies server administration and makes it easier even for nontechnical users to deploy and maintain an Apple server-powered network. The Server App includes a Setup Assistant that helps in configuring a server and an easy-to-use interface for administering everything from users and groups to file sharing and VPN connectivity. The Server App also provides enhanced server performance monitoring features and email alerts when errors or issues arise.

6: Integrated Xsan technology

Xsan, Apple's cluster file system technology that lets systems share specially configured storage volumes to power high availability, is now integrated within Mac OS X Lion. Because the Xsan Admin application is also included, Xsan administrators can configure Xsan operation from within Lion. With support for a variety of Fibre Channel RAID storage arrays, Lion's Xsan integration enables even midsize and large organizations to leverage Lion servers to power demanding storage area networks.

7: Mission Control

The iPad's full-screen app operation is introduced to Macs with Lion. In past Mac OS X releases, Dashboard, Expose, and Spaces provided different ways users could configure their Macs to operate and interact with applications. Lion goes a step further with the introduction of Mission Control, a new feature that consolidates applications, Dashboard, Expose, and Spaces within a single console that includes support for a dedicated three-finger swipe gesture. Viewing all active windows and apps and accessing specific windows has never been easier.

When Mission Control is activated, the Dashboard view appears at the screen's top, followed by icons representing full-screen apps in the screen's center, followed by Desktop and standard-size Windows displayed on the screen's bottom. Adding new work areas is as easy as clicking the + icon that appears in the top-right corner of the Mission Control view.

8: Launchpad

With Mac OS X Lion, users no longer need to scour their hard drives seeking a specific application. Instead, the Launchpad feature, reached by swiping two fingers horizontally across the trackpad, calls a new display window that mimics the menu interface millions of users have become accustomed to on iPhones and iPads. Applications downloaded from the Mac App Store automatically appear within the Launchpad, making it even easier for users to track installed software.

9: AirDrop

AirDrop enables simple file sharing between Macs. Notably, no Wi-Fi network is required. When a user clicks the Finder's AirDrop icon, Mac OS X Lion automatically locates other AirDrop users located within 30 feet or so (by creating an ad hoc Wi-Fi connection). A user can transfer a file to a colleague's machine by dragging the file to that colleague's system (which appears within Finder after clicking the AirDrop icon). Note that the recipient must approve the file transfer before the file is downloaded to his/her Downloads folder.

10: Versions

A new Versions feature makes it easier for Lion users to track historic changes to documents and other files. With Versions, users no longer have to review Time Machine backups to track changes made as part of a development or revision process. Archive snapshot information is now saved within a file itself, enabling users to revert to previous versions by reviewing a file's own historic timeline from within the file itself. Version changes can be compared and files can be reverted to earlier drafts; yet when a copy is shared with another user, only the current copy is provided.