OS X 10.7 (Lion) review

So, I’ve had Lion installed for less than a week and there’s some good/great things about it and some really frustrating changes. Now, there’s a lot of articles that cover the same ground and mention the same problems or improvements. I’m going to try to add new information about Lion’s new capabilities and steps backwards. To qualify my statements, let me give you a bit of my background. (Below the main article due to length.*)

Pros: Snappier Performance, Resume on relaunch after quit, Graphic changes/improvements, Finder Toolbar additions, Window resize from any edge, Focus shortcuts, Spelling/Thesaurus/Wikipedia popup, Mail link HTML preview/popup, iCal feature additions, Address Book feature additions, Safari downloads popup and rendering boost, Quicklook improvements.

Cons: Apple applications are immovable, App folder requires admin privileges to move applications, Launchpad not easily organizable & limited configurability, Library hidden by default. Mail lost its “bounce” feature. iCal “hard lock” crash wasn’t easily fixed.

Bottom Line: The improvements to the UI and new features and customizability make for not only a more pleasurable experience that also allows you to save time with fewer clicks and faster responses. The Cons are easily outweighed by the Pros list, and $29 or $69 makes it an even more compelling upgrade.

From the “Pros” list:

Performance: Bootup, App Launch is noticeably snappier on my system: a MacBook Pro 13″ (2009). For example, one nice improvement is when “calculate all sizes” is checked in the Finder Preferences… instead of having to wait forever for large folders to be summed up, display is instantaneous, which is a boon for trying to clean out old files and throw away space hogs quickly. Copying multiple sets of files seems a bit faster as well.

While already mentioned in other articles: being able to pick up where you left off in applications after you quit or restart your computer is great for getting in and out of tasks quickly. I was surprised at the speed of which the OS loaded the documents you had open. It probably took less time to resume where I left off in apps Coda, Spotify, Mail and Safari on a reboot after installing a driver in 10.7.1 than to get to the Finder fully loading in 10.6.8.

There are a few subtle and stunning graphics changes to the Finder, the screen lock screen and the Dock open app indicator. Sure it’s eye candy, but I felt it helped in unexpected ways. While I consciously noticed the changes right away, I unconsciously had other reactions I didn’t realize until a few days after the installation of Lion. It was actually feeling calmer when looking at finder windows, unlocking the screen and looking at all running apps. It’s as if the information was both easier on the eyes and faded away while simultaneously being easier to synthesize. Pretty is pretty, but what’s odd is it takes less effort to understand what’s happening in your system.The lock screen didn’t feel as forbidding, and thus I was less of in a hurry for it to disappear after typing in my password — although it disappeared faster than in previous OS X versions.

An unexpected pleasure was seeing that the Finder Toolbar items have been added to. You can now add a path popup menu, label items and connect to a server buttons. There is also a gear icon that allows you to pull up a contextual menu that’s identical to right clicking. Sure all of this was available by Command-clicking the title bar, pulling down the File menu, pressing Command-K and right-clicking an item respectively. What is missing is a button to Get Info, but it’s a minor omission. Now to expert users like me this isn’t a big deal, but for novice users this allows them not to know the secret/hidden features of the Finder in order to access them. Also, if right-clicking on the trackpad is turned off (common) or not available on the mouse (rare these days), then the only way to “find” these features is to use commands that aren’t all that obvious. For instance, many users on all platforms do not know that if you hold down a modifier key while clicking on an item, you get different or more options. Some surprisingly do not even use the second mouse button or the scroll wheel.

Finder windows are now resizable from any edge and surprisingly easy to select.

There are also now shortcut keystrokes to change focus from window to window to the dock, toolbars or drawers in the Keyboard Shortcuts section of the Keyboard System Preferences pane. This will be a welcome addition to power users that type a lot, and prefer keyboard navigation.

Integrated into the OS are now a few features that speed up navigation and information lookups. Key to these are popup windows that look like rounded-rectangle speech bubbles from comics. These quickly load and disappear allowing you to lookup the spelling or definition of words, preview an HTML link’s landing page, in Mail and Safari.

Not only that there is also tighter integration between Mail, iCal and Safari. The most noticeable is the ability of events you are invited to, to be automatically added to your calendar. Mail has a more iOS mail look which is aesthetically for the better, and allows you to look at more information in one window.

Quicklook has been enhanced as well, with the ability to open a document from the Quicklook window.

There are other minor improvements — such as Smart Folders have more criteria you can choose to filter items with — here and there, and I’m still discovering them.

Now the Cons list:

Apple applications are immovable and App folder requires admin privileges to move applications. This is a major sticking point with me. After reading my background below it might make more sense why. I often will install applications into App subfolders organized by Category. For instance, all my Audio Apps: iTunes, Audio Hijack Pro, Sound Studio, Traktor, iScrobbler, etc. go in one folder, while in the Internet folder you will find: Safari, Mail, Adium, an alias to Coda (original in Business), FaceTime, Firefox, Hulu Desktop, Nicecast, Ventrilo, etc. There are also folders for DAs (short for “Desk Accessories” from ancient Mac OS Systems), Games, Graphics, and Video.

What’s odd is that Apple realized long ago that a Utilities folder was needed for all the nicknacks that do not create documents, and quick little apps. They figured out that one layer was not enough, and that eventually users would find their App folder littered with utilities, decreasing the usability of the app folder. Sure there is the Dock, and now the Launchpad but each has its failings. The Dock shrinks to very small sizes if you were to add all apps, and the Launchpad is not as easy to rearrange, nor is it as convenient as right-clicking on the App Folder as a list in your dock and navigating to Subfolders to get to your app of choice. Eventually you will have to open the Applicatoins folder, and when you do, if you’re a jack of many trades like me, or simply like to have a lot of apps, you will find that not being able to organize your Applications makes finding apps a mess. Yes, I realize I could use a find function or make folders in the dock with aliases to all my apps or even use a third party Launching app. But it is far faster and less expensive to simply move an app to a subfolder and then locate things by category. That is after all the purpose of a Hierarchical file system, whether it be to organize documents or apps. So, this locking down of apps and making you enter your password to move anything is a step backwards for power users.

Launchpad not easily organizable & limited configurability, as mentioned above. The first thing I did was destroy the Launchpad icon on the dock. What I did not realize is that there’s no way to get it back (update: it’s in the Utilities folder) and see if there are any preferences for it that would allow me to alphabetize or arrange Apps with a click (update: there isn’t). Instead I am forced to click and drag apps between screens and go back and forth to arrange things. While this is fine on iOS devices, this is a Mac: there’s a reason you can organize your iOS device apps in iTunes, although that could also be improved.

User Library hidden by default. Now this is only of interest to people that like to tweak things, or in case a preferences file is corrupt. This might be minor, but the second item does happen, and without easy access to the prefs folder both end users and support techs have to jump through a few more hoops to get to the prefs folder. Not only that the hiding of this folder, may stop a smart, but novice user to not be able to fix their own problem because they might not even realize it exists. I’m all for being able to hide folders that people should not touch: .DS_Store, the Kernel, etc. But what I’m against is hiding files that can easily be thrown away or moved and recreated by an app to solve problems quickly. Yes, I realize people could google their problem and find the answer including how to reveal their Library, but this takes additional time and is a waste. If Apple wanted to it could have instead added a feature to the Finder that was what they did to their Apps in the App folder: lock objects that shouldn’t be moved in place, while allowing them to be modified. They could call it “Location-Locking” or “Move-Locks” or something, and add a checkbox to he Info window that admins could uncheck to trash corrupt files.

Mail lost its “bounce” feature. Now, I used to use this feature to bounce back spam to senders who actually gave their return address. Which worked some of the time for me to be automatically taken off of spam lists. I miss this ability, it’s a minor one, but an annoyance nonetheless.

iCal “hard lock” crash wasn’t easily fixed. While I was writing this review, I decided to double check iCal, but it would not open and would crash on launch. I knew that either the cache or the prefs file was corrupted, or worse the App. So, I went looking for the Library and ran into the hidden User Library problem above. I ran into the spotlight problem of excluding system/library files to find all iCal files in the Library without opening the a window to the Library first and limiting the spotlight search to items there. There is also no way to include the User Library in menubar accessed spotlight searches that I know of yet. (Although to be fair, I’ve never had to look for one.)

All these omissions, meant to make it easier for novices to navigate, organize and use the Finder, Dock, Launchpad also hobble advanced and expert users. While I know real experts use the Terminal for real speed. This is an article from the perspective of someone that wants things speedy and accessible to less advanced users.

Sidenote or “Solutions for a Small OS“:

I wrote Apple long ago… so long ago that I’m pretty sure Copland was still on the Horizon, and Steve was still running NeXT. I mentioned my concerns over the fact that the Finder and Apps should not be “one size fits all” interfaces. I said the GUI should be customizable to allow novice and advanced users to find the right balance of power and complexity. So, I proposed this: make a Control Panel (the System Prefs previous incarnation in MacOS) that allowed a user to switch their user mode. Allow people to select a radio bottom, pull down a menu or check a box to unlock added features that would only serve to confuse novices, or anyone other than developers. Perhaps even, there should be a 6 way switch: Child, Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Expert, Developer. Child would incorporate additional “safeties” that would not allow someone to modify or throw away files that didn’t belong to them, or that they shouldn’t touch. While on the other end, developers would be able to do pretty much anything from rearrange files, have additional menu commands, see hidden features, and even edit resource files and look at them in a HexEditor that was built into the OS. Of course I got no response because I am not a respected developer, large company nor do work for Apple. If Apple did this: allow power users and up to heavily modify their systems beyond what they allow it would silence the objections over customizability that Windows and Linux have. And it would also enhance the user experience for those people who do not need training wheels.

Perhaps I will expand on my Ideas for improvements to OS X at a later date. But I sense you’ve nodded off. Goodnight and sweet dreams (of a better OS).
(Update: you can move most Apple apps into subfolders by modifying ACLs but remember to move then back before an update.)

My Background:

I have used the Mac OS since version 1.x, and before that I had access to a MS-DOS PC with a 286 processor. So, I have a lot of experience with the evolution of GUIs and computer systems in general. Also, I have a good amount of experience with Windows and Linux as well as a few other little known platforms, including dead ones such as OS/2 and BeOS. Now, I’m not an old man, but I’m getting there. So, I have to mention I was a child when I first encountered computers.

I used to play with punch cards when my father took me to work. I saw a crude Star Wars Tie Fighter game running on an oscilloscope in 1977, that the engineer at my dad’s work at Halcyon (that was somewhere between Fremont, CA and San Jose) who wrote it let me play. I exclaimed, “You should make this into an arcade game!” He dismissed the idea, laughed and replied, “There’s no money in games” or something similar.

Back then, there often was no technical support for software, or if it did exist, it was often much more expensive than a pre-teenage boy could afford. So, I had to come up with my own solutions to problems. I had to learn how the computer’s worked. I learned enough Basic to write really crude programs often taken from early computer magazines. and I thumbed through a 2nd edition of Kernighan and Ritchie’s C Programming Language. Also, of importance to this review is that I had to come up with my own organizational systems to keep track of files and applications that I acquired and installed as often as I could get my hands on them. Thus, the reason I do not like the direction OS X is now heading: from being able to manage my setup easily to managing things for me but striping out features I depend on to be able to customize the system to suit me.

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