OS X Lion

Lion is the finest version of Mac OS X to date. It’s the sort of operating system nerds would go stand in line for… if they could. But instead you can download it right now (assuming you haven’t already).

Over the past several months I have been using the early developer previews of Lion. For me, it is not the headline features of Lion that make it such a compelling and noteworthy release. Rather, it is the thousand little refinements that all add up to what is, in my opinion, the most attractive and usable operating system on the planet.

There are some big things in Lion that stand out as the hallmark features — such as Launchpad and Mission Control — but these are not so much features as they are usability enhancements. And to me, that is what Lion is all about: enhancements.

There are a thousand subtle changes that all add up to something fine. Scrollbars have been removed and now only subtly appear when you are actually scrolling. Buttons are now a more classy square shape. Many icons are now monochrome. For the next several months you’ll be stumbling across all sorts of things that look or act better than they did in previous versions of OS X.

Even Safari’s default page for “You are not connected to the internet” has been massively updated. The old version was jarring; the new one is gorgeous. How many thousands of times have you seen that stark white page because a server wasn’t responding or the public wi-fi was acting up? It has always been jarring to me, and it’s been that way for years. But now, in Safari 5.1, you see a classy, well-designed error page. It is much more inviting and friendly. The former was ugly, but the current is art.

Here’s how Safari 1 looked when you reached a page that wasn’t responding, or if you tried to load a site while your computer wasn’t connected to the Internet:

Safari 1 Error Display

And Safari 2:

Safari 2 Error Display

Safari 3 and 4:

Safari 3 and 4 Error Display

And now, Safari 5:

Safari 5 Error Display

This “You are not connected to the Internet” design is, in a way, the quintessential example of what is different between Lion and all the previous versions of OS X before it.

There are many things like this sprinkled all throughout the OS. There are many subtle refinements which, when experienced, you don’t just think I’m glad they added this, because this is cool. Instead, you think how is it that OS X never had this before? This is the way it should be.1

And so, herein is a list of miscellaneous thoughts and observations about the greatest operating system on the planet:

Launchpad

Perhaps the single most notable new feature of Lion is Launchpad.

With the advent of Launchpad in Lion there are now three built-in application launchers in Mac OS X: The Dock, Spotlight, and Launchpad. It just goes to show what a hurdle it is to handle application installation, organization, and access. In conjunction with the Mac App Store, Launchpad is, in my opinion, a fantastic way to store and access applications.

But do I actually use Launchpad? Nope. Primarily because Launchpad is mouse friendly and I live and die by the keyboard. To activate Launchpad you take four fingers on the trackpad and pinch them together. It is awkward at best on my 2008 MacBook Pro even though I bought a Magic Trackpad to use with Lion. I much prefer to Command+Space into my application launcher of choice: LaunchBar.

Mission Control

The second most notable feature of Lion is Mission Control. Mission Control is sort-of like Exposé on steroids, and I use it because there is no way not to use it if you use Exposé. But, I don’t think to myself how happy I am about Mission Control.

Mission Control truly shines if you use Spaces — which I do not. I have all my application windows stacked on top of one another in just one Desktop space. And so, Mission Control, while more organized and intelligent than Exposé, is not significantly more useful to me.

If you use hot corners they have been improved as well. The hot corner for showing all the windows of the frontmost application now also displays a coverflow-like view of all recent documents:

Application Windows and Recent Documents

The Mac App Store

The more I use the Mac App Store, the more I appreciate it. It is great to have all your apps centralized in one hub. You can download them onto any computer and all you need is your Apple ID. It makes switching to a new Mac or setting up a new install much simpler.

The way it works differently in Lion is that apps you download go into LaunchPad, and then the LaunchPad Dock icon bounces once. This is far more elegant and scalable than the way apps installed in Snow Leopard, which was to download right into the Dock.

Full-Screen Apps

I have a love-hate relationship with full-screen apps. Partly because I love screen real estate. But full-screen apps seem to have been made with laptops in mind. Most of the apps look great on the smaller screen of a laptop, but not so great on a larger display.

I have this not-so-special theory that Apple’s flagship Mac is the MacBook Air. Full-screen apps scale best on smaller screens. I believe that Lion has been, in a way, specifically designed for the Air.

Mail

Some changes to an operating system are instantly welcomed, while others take time to get used to. Mail is in the latter camp. It goes without saying that this new look for Mail on the Mac has a very big nod back to Mail on the iPad. I did not like this all-new look at first, but now I have grown to appreciate it.

There are a few bits that I still do not appreciate, however. Such as: (1) the way a new reply message “bounces out” from the original message; and (2) the way a message window slides up and off the screen when you send it.

For those who cannot handle the new look of Mail, there is a setting to go back to the original layout under Preferences → Viewing. Note, however, that even when reverting to the previous layout, the aforementioned annoying animations will still be there.

Perhaps my favorite new feature in Mail is the enhanced search capabilities. When searching for a particular email you are offered suggested search terms — not unlike Google suggestions — that recommend people, subjects, attachments, etc. These search suggestions are both intelligent and useful.

And my favorite new design element in Mail is the look of the popovers you see when adding an event or creating a new contact — both of which are very nice.

New Event Popover in Lion Mail

Auto-Saving and Versioning of Files

Not all apps auto-save just yet. And for those that do (specifically TextEdit and Preview), I haven’t yet decided if it’s a service or a burden. It’s nice that you can quit without worrying about saving or choosing a spot to save, but I primarily use TextEdit as a scratchpad, not as a writing tool. I am always tossing bits of text into TextEdit that usually have a short lifespan. So, whenever I quit TextEdit, I have to CMD+W and then CMD+Q.

Quitting doesn’t prompt you to save, but closing a window does. I find this behavior to be equally great and maddening. If you don’t want to restore windows when you’re quitting and re-opening apps, you can turn it off in System Settings → General. Though, there is not an option for asking you to save on quit. If you quit with unsaved documents, then they are restored when you open the app again.

Version control, however, is fabulous. Not that I use it often, but it is done so very well. You get to it by hovering over the top titlebar in an application and clicking on the triangle that appears.

Title Bar and Version Options

You are then presented with some options to revert to the last time this document was saved, lock this version, duplicate it, or compare versions.

Comparing versions launches you into a TimeMachine-esque zone where you have the current version on the left and a pile of previous versions on the right.

Comparing Versions of a Document in Lion

Various UI and UX Changes

Miscellany

  • The Apple logo on the boot-up screen is more “letterpressed.”

  • When launching an app, the window launches from the center of the screen and opens up outwards, like an app does in iOS.

  • The classic stop-light buttons in the top-left corner of all windows are now a more muted red, yellow, and green.

  • The icons in the Finder window sidebar are now all monochrome. Personally, I like the new color scheme of more muted colors in some areas and the monochrome in others. To me, it all feels more refined and less frilly.

Plug and Play with an External Monitor

I adore the way Lion manages laptops and external monitors. I find it much more user-friendly than the way previous versions of OS X have managed it.

The tried-and-true behavior of how OS X deals with a laptop and an external monitor has been this:

  • With the laptop lid closed and the computer asleep: Plug an external display, wake the computer, and the external display will be the only working display. If you were to then open your laptop lid while an external display is running, the laptop’s screen stays off.

  • With the laptop lid open and the computer awake: Plug an external display in and you have two working screens. If you were to then close your laptop lid, the computer would go to sleep.

In Lion, this behavior has been greatly improved:

  • With the laptop lid closed and the computer asleep: Plug an external display in, wake the computer, and the external display will be the only working display. If you were to then open your laptop lid, the laptop’s screen would turn on and you have two working monitors.

  • With the laptop lid open and the computer awake: Plug an external display in and you have two working screens. If you were to then close your laptop lid, the laptop’s screen turns off and the external monitor becomes the only working monitor.

In short, opening and closing your laptop’s lid is like adding or removing a second display, and does not affect putting the computer to sleep.

It may sound silly, but this is perhaps one of my favorite new features in Lion.

Rubber-Band Scrolling

Once you get used to the rubber-band scrolling of list views and windows there is no going back. As I mentioned above, I have been using the Developer Previews of Lion since March. When switching over to Snow Leopard, the lack of rubber-band scrolling was the most annoying “missing” features. It is one of those things that once you get used to it, it feels completely natural.

Dashboard

The Dashboard got an unfortunate makeover. Ever since OS X 10.4 Tiger I have found the Dashboard extremely useful. Partly because I use the Mint web-stats widget, but also because I keep a calculator, the calendar, weather, and a few sticky notes there. Hitting F4 to invoke the dashboard is nearly second nature. But now, instead of zooming into focus like it has since 2005, the Dashboard is its own space that slides over from the left. And it brings with it a new dotted background texture which I find highly unattractive.

If you want to return your Dashboard to its previous look and behavior, you can do so by unchecking the option to “Show Dashboard as a space” within the Mission Control settings in System Preferences.

Application Windows

Application windows now have rounded window corners all around. Previously, only the top-left and top-right corners were rounded. Now all four are. And, speaking of application windows, there is less window chrome in general. Thanks mostly in part to the new scrollbar.

The new, minimalistic scrollbar is copied and pasted right out of iOS. It only appears when the window you’re in is moving, and it’s intelligent enough to be a dark color on a light background and a light color on a dark background.

Other tidbits include:

  • The ability to grab any edge of an application window and resize it. (Try holding Shift or Alt while doing so.)

  • The toolbar in the Finder window no longer has that dotted division line that you can put into a Finder window tool bar.

    The Customize Toolbar Options in Lion's Finder

Auto Correct

Lion implements iOS-style auto-correcting of spelling. It literally looks just like on the iPhone / iPad:

Auto-Correct in Lion is just like iOS

It is great at catching misspellings, but I find that often times it will auto-correct to the proper spelling of the wrong word I was originally trying to spell.

If the new auto-correct really irks you, you can turn it off within System Preferences → Language & Text → Text. I appreciate it, but it needs a bit of babysitting from time to time.

The Hidden Library Folder

The ~/Library folder is now hidden. If you want to see it, a simple terminal command will unhide it:

chflags nohidden /Users/YOUR USERNAME/Library

The Dock

In the Dock you can choose to not display the blue icon orbs that glow to show that an app is active. In Dock Preferences there is an option to show indicator lights for open applications. These are turned off by default. Apple wants to eliminate the concept of an app running or not.

This concept won’t be fully realized until Macs are running SSDs and applications launch in split seconds, which means the option to not display the indicator lights for open applications is good news for all of us.

Roar

Lion is what OS X was meant to be: refined, attractive, and user-friendly.

As we’ve heard so many times from Apple, this is a “Back to the Mac” operating system. But Lion is more than just elements that pull from what we see and know on iOS. It is also full of hints that point to the future of Apple hardware and the amalgamation of iOS and OS X. It is exciting to see this big picture slowly coming into focus.


  1. However, one glance at the hideous new iCal UI and my theory is shot to pieces.
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