It’s been a long two years since the release of Snow Leopard, and with all the fanfare surrounding Apple’s mobile devices recently, many Mac users, myself included, are feeling a little left out. Lion’s much-anticipated release follows Apple’s promise to bring focus “back to the Mac” by integrating advancements from iPhone and iPad development into the Mac platform. In its attempt to bring the best of iOS to the next generation of OSX, Apple has some people worried that Lion will turn their Macs into giant iPads, or introduce iOS-like restrictions to the Mac. Now that this cat is finally out of its cage, let’s dive right in and see what Lion has to offer!
Unlike Snow Leopard, which featured mostly behind-the-scenes improvements and few obvious changes, Lion is a feature-packed major update that will noticeably change the way you use your Mac. Lion comes packed with over 250 new features, so let’s take a look at some of its biggest selling points (in no particular order).
1. Improved Interface & Interaction
Lion makes some significant changes to the way you interact with your computer, moving away from the standard point-and-click input and towards a multi-touch future. The most noticeable change is the way Lion handles scrolling: they’ve changed the appearance and behavior of scroll bars, and reversed the direction of the two-finger scroll.
Instead of having scroll bars taking up valuable screen real estate, scroll bars are now only triggered when you use a scrolling gesture on your track pad or mouse, and the scrolling content now moves in the direction your fingers travel, so it feels like you’re “pushing” or “pulling” content as you would on an iOS device.
To change the scrolling direction back, go to System Preferences / Trackpad and disable the checkbox at the top marked “When using gestures to scroll or navigate, move content in the direction of finger movement.”
Lion also features some welcome design updates: core elements such as buttons, sliders and progress bars have all been redesigned, and now fit better with the overall appearance of the windows and applications.
2. Expanded Multi-Touch Support
Lion introduces a slew of multi-touch interactions, from the familiar spread-to-zoom to new gestures like the five-finger pinch. Some of the gestures take a bit of getting used to, and you may have to customize them in System Preferences, especially if you’ve already been using gestures like three-finger scrolling in apps like Reeder or Sparrow. Of the default gestures, I found the most useful to be the three-finger swipe to move between spaces, and the five-finger spread to view the desktop.
A lot of the gestures in Lion are actually more advanced than those in iOS (though probably hint at things to come in iOS5) and offer some powerful new options for interacting with your Mac. I think there’s a very futuristic appeal to multi-touch, sort of a tactile-meets-virtual interface that reminds me of the computer interface in Spielberg’s Minority Report.
3. Versions and Autosave
Versions is really, really cool; I would pay for the upgrade even if this was the only new feature. Though not implemented in all applications (it’s up to app developers to update), Versions is like Time Machine for your documents. When using a supported application, like TextEdit, you’ll notice that as you make changes, instead of seeing a little black dot in the “close” button, a little arrow beside the word “edited” appears at the upper-right corner of the toolbar. When you click on the arrow, you have the option to revert to the last saved version, lock the current version, or browse all versions. When you select “Browse all Versions,” you’re taken to a Time Machine-like interface where you can see autosaved (or manually saved) versions of your document and restore from any state.
Rather than just autosaving at specific intervals, Lion saves whenever you pause what you’re doing, or every 5 minutes. This “pause-detection” means that the autosaved versions of your document change in logical steps, instead of just wherever you were at an arbitrary point in time. Versions only saves the changes on each document, instead of re-saving the whole thing each time, so it doesn’t hog up your disk space.
4. Mission Control
I’ve heard Mission Control aptly described as “Exposé on Steriods,” because although it performs the same function as exposé, it’s much more powerful (and simple). There are basically two exposé actions: slide three fingers up to view mission control, slide three fingers down for current application windows.
Mission Control is like Leopard’s “show all windows” Exposé feature, but now it intelligently groups windows from the same applications, displays and lets you switch between spaces, and generally makes the whole feature cleaner and faster to use. Swiping down displays all open windows in the current application, as well as a list of recent documents. I find both features to be time-saving, but would prefer more customization options with the multi-touch gestures (for some reason I always want Mission control to show up when I swipe down).
AirDrop allows you to easily and painlessly share files with nearby Macs without cables or wi-fi. AirDrop appears in your Finder’s sidebar, automatically detects other Macs with AirDrop within 30ft and lets you drag-and-drop files between computers. AirDrop uses data encryption and firewalls to keep your information safe, making it a great option for transferring files between a laptop and desktop, between coworkers, or sharing photos with a friend. I sometimes collaborate on projects with my roommate, I expect AirDrop to be a huge time saver!
When you need to shut down your computer, you generally have to go through the process of going through each open application to save documents and quit, and then re-opening all your applications and documents after restarting. Lion introduces a feature called Resume, which preserves the state your computer is in before shut down, and then restores your computer to the same state when you restart. I didn’t think I’d find this feature very helpful at first, now I realize how much productivity I used to lose every time I had to restart because of an update or browser crash. If you’d rather have a fresh start after shut down, you can uncheck the option on the shut down dialog.
And Much, Much More
In addition to the highlights I’ve discussed, here’s a quick run-down of some of Lion’s other notable features:
- Mail 5 features conversation view, more powerful search, and a re-oriented interface.
- Full Screen display for supported applications, with three-finger swipe to switch between them.
- Redesigned Applications including iCal and Address Book.
- Accessibility improvements keep Apple at the forefront of accessible technologies, including improved text-to-voice, VoiceOver Activities, Braille support, and zoom settings.
- FileVault 2 encrypts your entire hard drive for increased security, using XTS-AES 128 encryption.
- Finder updates include the very cool “all my files” sidebar shortcut to view recent files, sorted by type. Also boasts improved sorting features and multi-touch browsing.
Unlike the more seamless upgrade to Snow Leopard, you might find some of your apps aren’t yet compatible with Lion, so be sure to back up, and check that your essential apps are supported before updating.
I’m overall very impressed with Lion’s new features, and at only $29, there’s really no reason not to update if you’re using a supported Mac. Though you may not be a fan of features like the Launchpad or reverse-scrolling, rest assured that your Mac isn’t being relegated into an iPad.
So, will you be upgrading? Are you happy with the direcion OSX is headed? What are your predictions for the future of the operating system? I’d love to hear your thoughts!