Mac OS X Lion: A First Look

OS X Lion in the Mac App Store
OS X Lion in the Mac App Store

Today, Apple released Mac OS X Lion ($29.99 store | webpage). The operating system is the seventh update in the OS X series (version 10.7), and it packs some of the most groundbreaking changes into it.

For the first time in history, a widely distributed consumer, prosumer, and enterprise operating system is not available on portable media. The only official way to get Lion is to download it from the Mac App Store, or buy a new Macintosh with the OS pre-installed. The OS installer is quite large at 3.49 GB, and will take a while to download, even on high-speed connections. (Apple is offering to let people use its high speed wi-fi in its stores, should they be lucky enough to live near one.)

While Lion is touted as being revolutionary – and it does in fact feel like a large change – the system is solid, dependable. For many users, though, there will require some time to get used to some of the user interface changes. Instead of scrolling your fingers up to go up on the trackpad, you scroll them down to go up. Similarly, you get to the left by moving your hand to the right. This seems counter-intuitive, though it is what people do on the iPhone and iPad. As you start doing it, you might feel like you’ve gone down Alice’s rabbit hole; if you decide you don’t like it, you can go to Apple > System Preferences > Trackpad (and/or Mouse) and turn off “Scroll direction: natural.”

Among the key features Apple is touting, there are some of note:

  • Multitouch – The operating system supports using gestures with several fingers to perform complex tasks, such as opening Mission Control (three fingers up) or change full-screen applications (three fingers to the right or left).
  • Full-Screen Applications – Many Apple applications, and probably many applications in the future from other software developers, take advantage of a new feature that has the application take up the whole screen. This is especially powerful in Apple’s Mail and iPhoto applications.
  • Mission Control – This displays all of your active desktops, including the Widgets desktop. It has never been easier to manage multiple work environments and switch between them. I may actually use this, while I found Spaces to be confusing and disorienting. It will be easy to have a browser open in one desktop and a genealogy software package open in another, and switch back and forth.
  • Launchpad – All of your installed applications appear on a list that expands infinitely to the left and right. This clearly mirrors the iPhone and iPad application navigation method, and looks to be an easier way to get to your programs than either the insanely small icons in your dock (if you have as many there as I do!) or simply navigating to the Applications folder. You get to Launchpad either with the Launchpad icon in the dock, or using a pinch with thumb and three fingers.
  • Spotlight – One of the true innovations of Mac OS X, which has only recently had comparable functionality on Windows in recent releases, is Spotlight, systemwide search. The new version of the OS adds previews to the search results, helping you see if this item is what you were looking for.
  • AirDrop – Simple, no-configuration-required wi-fi file sharing. This will be handy if you are working with someone and just want to give them the census image for their grandfather’s household in 1930. This will allow a lot of people to leave their thumb drives at home.

I am very pleased with Lion. While I cannot agree with Apple’s predictable hyperbole, it looks to provide a lot of shortcuts to allow me to get from one application to another without losing my place. It’s well worth the $30.

One warning: Power PC applications no longer run with OS X Lion, which drops the Rosetta technology that made these workable in previous versions. To see what you will be leaving behind if you upgrade, log in as the Administrative user, then type Option-Apple and select System Profiler. Go to Software > Applications. Anything with “PowerPC” or “Classic” (that is, OS 9) will not run in Lion.