Mac OS X Lion Review

Apple released their new operating system earlier this week, Mac OS X Lion. Like most upgrades there's a lot different from the last version of OS X, most notably Mission Control. It's an OS upgrade that very much adheres to its maker's philosophy: opinionated and decisive. Is this good?

I've had the pleasure of playing with Lion for the past couple of days. I've used it extensively while at work and while lounging at home. Is this upgrade worth your time and money? Read on to find out.


Installation

There's two ways you can get Lion. The first is by upgrade. Apple has made the upgrade process to Lion extremely easy. Starting with the $30 dollar purchase through the Mac App Store the Lion installation file is downloaded to your computer. When the download is complete you run the installer and after confirming you want to upgrade to Lion your computer reboots and begins the process. Come back a half our later and your computer is done: you're running Lion.

The second way to run Lion is by doing a clean install. This process is for those with a little more technical experience but one that can still be done by anyone. First you must burn the Lion installation disk to a DVD (or USB drive). After booting into the DVD you must format the hard drive that you are installing Lion onto. If you don't format the drive then Lion will default to an upgrade. After formatting the drive you start the installation process and again, you're running Lion in less time than it takes to watch an hour-long drama.

One thing I noticed from installing Lion through the first method: after the first boot into the new Lion upgrade your Spotlight index needs to be rebuilt to support Lion. This process takes longer than the install of Lion. While it's being rebuilt your computer will be slowed down. It is best to avoid heavy computer use until this process is done.

Also it almost goes without saying that a clean install of an operating system will perform better than an upgrade. With an upgrade you get the luxury of not re-installing all of your applications and settings but, because none of your old files and settings were removed the clutter remains. This can be fixed through a clean install or maintenance utilities. My recommendation is to do a clean install if you can, otherwise the upgrade will be more than suitable.


Mission Control

Mission Control is hands down the best new feature of Lion. It is a replacement for the old Expose feature found on Snow Leopard. Mission Control is activated by swiping up with 3 or 4 fingers (set in preferences). Once activated it gives you an overview of all the application windows you have open and shows you all the desktops you have currently available. Mission Control allows you to easily switch to any application you have open, allowing you to find a program that is open that may have become lost behind the clutter of other programs.

While using Mission Control I found it dramatically increased my productivity. I set up my system to have three desktops. I placed all my conversational applications on the left (Skype, Sparrow (GMail client), iChat), all work related applications in the center (Google Chrome, TextMate), and I placed all supplemental work applications on the right (Terminal, Finder windows, and GitX). With this setup I was able to focus on the task at hand, switching from desktop to desktop to access the application I needed to use. Mission Control allowed me to navigate around fluidly and kept all of my applications in sight, preventing any from getting lost.

The one part of Mission Control that I find lacking is the inability to rearrange the order of your virtual desktops. This was possible in Snow Leopard but has been removed in Lion. I hope it is put back into Lion with a future update.

Mission Control is very powerful. It will only be as powerful as you make it. Take some time to get used to it and you'll find your level of productivity will dramatically increase. If nothing else this is the reason you should upgrade to Lion.


Full-Screen Apps

One of the more interesting features of Lion is the ability for apps to go into full-screen mode. When activated the app stretches onto its own desktop and takes up the entire screen.

This feature isn't complete in my opinion. When an app enters full-screen mode it appends itself to the end of your virtual desktops. This wouldn't be a problem if you were able to rearrange the order of your virtual desktops but because you can't you're forced to have your full-screen applications laid out in the order that you opened them. For this reason alone I find myself not using my applications in full-screen mode. This inflexibility makes the feature more of a handicap then a help.


Launchpad

Launchpad is a pretty much a one-to-one copy of the home screen on an iPhone. It's rows of icons of your installed applications and you access it by making a pinching gesture on the trackpad.

This feature is kinda cool and fun to play around with at first. However after the novelty wore off I found myself never using it. It's cool to show off to your friends but ineffective in daily use.


Resume

This is a very cool feature of Lion. Resume allows you to pick up right where you left off, on both a system and application level. Let's say you have two internet sites open, you're in the middle of reading an e-mail, and you have iChat open. You can restart your Mac and when it boots back up it'll restore it to just how it was when you shut it down. That's pretty damn cool.

I use this feature almost unconsciously as it's so neatly integrated into Lion. I'm able to shut down and boot my Mac back up again without worrying about remembering what I was just doing.

On an application level I can have the Preview app opened with two images. If I quit out of it and then re-open it'll load up the two images that I was just previously viewing. At times this is helpful and at times this is annoying. Sometimes I want to open an app and start from scratch. With this feature that isn't always the case. However it is much easier to close a window than remember a window.


AirDrop

AirDrop allows you to easily transfer files from one Mac to another. It does this through the Bonjour messaging system and the whole process is easy and painless. It's great for sharing files quickly between two people in the same room: you won't have to pointlessly e-mail someone a Word document because you need them to read over your essay. You just AirDrop it to them and it's there without any hassle.

I haven't used this feature extensively as there aren't many other Lion installations near me so I'm interested to see how much I take advantage of AirDrop in the months to come.


Native App Upgrades

With Lion most of the core system applications have been upgraded. Mail, Address Book, and iCal have all been modernized, taking cues from their iOS siblings. I find the upgraded iCal much more fun to use and the transitions from one month to the next are very pretty.

Photobooth has a few new effects that are fun to play with. However the upgrade that I love the most is its new full-screen mode. I feel like I'm actually in a photo booth. Very fun to see, it brought a huge grin to my face the first time I saw it.

Safari has been upgraded to version 5.1 seeing both performance improvements and new page transitions and the ability to zoom into words like Mobile Safari on iOS.

Perhaps the upgrade that I'm most excited about is iChat. With this new version you're finally able to have a combined Contact List window which means that rather than having a Contact List for my Facebook chat account and my GTalk account it all shows up in one window. It's this small features that I hugely appreciate and make my use of the application that much greater.


Conclusion

When I first installed Lion on my computer I was truthfully a little disappointed. There were features of the operating system that I didn't understand and found confusing. Mission Control was weird at first. I didn't understand how it was an improvement over Expose. However with patience I learned how to use it to my advantage and I now find myself flying around my Mac faster than ever before.

Like all Apple products Lion is an opinionated product. It has an idea of what is best and doesn't shy away from letting you as the user know. It makes no apologies - it only asks that you give it a try before you pass final judgement. After trying Lion for almost a week I can safely say that Lion is a very worthy upgrade.