Some thoughts on OSX Lion

Graphic Credit: Courtesy of Chris Messina



The transition from a Windows machine to my first MacBook was a little bit awkward. Like most people who aren’t so-called “power users,” I always paid more attention to the software than I did to the operating system. Because of this, maybe I never really “knew” Windows. I spent plenty of time poking around the registry and whatnot, but it was always about “clean-up” and such. I spent more time disabling pieces of the operating system to improve overall system performance than I did learning how to use these things I just assumed I didn’t need. I cannot recall ever once caring about my OS. It’s weird, then, that by the time Windows Vista came out, I was already very tired of Windows. After spending years honing XP into exactly the passive, crippled OS I wanted it to be, I had no interest in doing the same thing for a whole new version of it. I was equally uninterested in patching the leaks that would occasionally spring from XP, and I was in the market for a new laptop. A friend had recently made the switch; and after much consternation, I followed his lead.

Mac advocates will often toss out the “it just works” mantra like it actually means anything anymore, but the nugget of truth that pillar is built upon isn’t just refferring to the infrequency of crashes and restarts. Because they control both the OS and the hardware, Apple has managed to design every part of the “experience,” if you will. Even with my old Vaio laptop, my end-user experience still revolved around pointing a cursur all over the screen using a mouse and really only touching the keyboard when I needed to enter text, and I’m also pretty sure that I never used the tiny touch panel if I ever had any other option available.

When I decided to go back to school, my computer finally needed to do more than let me browse the internet, watch a movie, listen to a song or maybe even play a game. Bringing my laptop with me to campus was unwieldy, as even my relatively compact Vaio was heavy, cumbersome, and took up nearly all of my bag. In addition to this, I found it difficult to do my work with it. A 15.4” screen can get filled up pretty quickly, and it’s to lose an important piece of research amidst the clutter. I figured out a way to use multiple desktops, but the implementation was buggy and clumsy, and it did nothing to alleviate my problem with an unusable taskbar. I needed a smaller notebook and I needed something different because I felt that I was too far gone to ever be able to effectively use Windows. I needed to start fresh and relearn how to use a computer from the ground up. I made up my mind, did a little research, and settled on a black MacBook with the Santa Rosa chipset hot on the release of OSX Leopard.

It took me about two or three weeks to fully settle into the machine. I quickly grew to love such built-in features as Expose and Spaces, and I even inured myself to the idea of embracing my keyboard as a navigation tool. Eventually these things all became natural to me, as they were designed to be that way from the ground up. I have used a Mac as my primary computer for nearly four years now, and I know how to make OSX work for me. The latest OSX release, Lion, aims specifically to improve the core functionality that drove me to purchase a Mac in the first place. Diving into Lion, I couldn’t help but feel a little lost and even a bit annoyed. After just one day, however, I cannot imagine going back to Snow Leopard. Lion improved OSX in ways I wasn’t yet aware it needed work.

What’s Changed?

Apple boasts 250+ new features in Lion, but there are a handful that are much more meaningful than the others. First and foremost on this list is Mission Control, a window management tool so powerful it replaces both of my beloved Expose and Spaces. Essentially, it does both at the the same time, but it removes the grid-like layout of Spaces. At first I found this frustrating, as it busted up my existing setup. It began to make perfect sense, however, once I started using my other favorite feature of this release: full-screen apps. A simple little button in the corner of compatible apps expands it to fill the entire screen, freeing up valuable real estate on the 13.3” screen of my MacBook Pro. Each full-screen app then occupies its own “space” in Mission Control rather than filling a desktop, rendering your old spaces mostly useless. This is a feature I’ve wanted for a long time. The extra pixels make a huge difference for things like web browsing and sorting through iTunes, and being able to give office and calendar apps their own entire screen is wonderful. It’s a great idea that makes me feel much less confined when I’m using my Mac. The desktop environment now feels like a completely separate task. It’s something that I’d thought about before, but couldn’t really appreciate until I’d experienced it for myself. Switching between Safari and Mail is sort of like changing the channel on your TV. It’s a really great way to take care of all the things you’d normally take care of at your computer, but still maintain focus on your current task.

Another big feature touted in this releast is Launchpad. Launchpad effectively replaces your applications folder, lining all your apps up across your desktop in a way which should be familiar to iPhone/iPad users. Combined with fullscreen apps, keyboard shortcuts and hot corners, Launchpad could render the OSX dock obsolete for some users. If nothing else, it’s a great way to keep apps at the ready without cluttering up your dock, using spotlight, or navigating your applications folder.

Ther are, of course, many other new features and tweaks, but these three do the most to reimagine the way you interact with your Mac. Airdrop, while I haven’t used it yet, could be very useful in the right setting; and the redesigned Mail app is an elegant and much needed refinement. The tweaks to Safari, such as the switch to the webkit 2 rendering engine, while maybe not immediately apparent, are important and a step in the right direction. Also, I’m personally a huge fan of the flatter shading and the various other graphical tweaks present in Lion. It’s full of little touches, such as animating the process of flipping back and forth between pages in Safari, or the weighty feel of switching between desktops and full-screen apps.

Thoughts, et cetera

When Apple made the jump from Leopard to Snow Leopard, the changes were almost entirely under the hood. They’ve left the innards mostly intact this time, although the removal of Rosetta and the requirement of at least a Core 2 Duo processor do not bode well for legacy apps. It’s odd for a company known for it’s finely tuned end-user experience to make such dramatic changes in how people use their OS, but these changes are all for the better. For as functional as OSX has been for so long, it was starting to look stale when compared to the exciting innovations being made in the tablet and smartphone fields, including thier own iOS. Adjusting the OS to make it more on par with mobile offerings seems unorthodox, but it actually makes a laptop or a desktop machine more fresh and viable. In the wake of journalists questioning whether or not the PC was dead thanks to the success of products like the iOS devices, Apple has shown that maybe the ideas which have made these devices so popular could actually save the PC.

Lion may have arrived at the perfect time. Windows 7 is a fine operating system, and the preview builds of Windows 8 look inventive and exciting. Meanwhile, OSX had remained largely the same experience for three straight iterations. Lion, on the other hand, does a tremendous amount to push OSX forward in different and unexpected ways. It’s not perfect, and I imagine there will be things that Apple will address in order to improve the user experience. For example, I would love the ability to arrange windows in Mission Control myself.

So far, I’ve yet to encounter any broken software. Fullscreen mode works really well with Apple software, but third party support is not fully there yet (ie Chrome’s sort of broken implementation of it). There are some bugs and graphical kinks to work out here and there. On the whole, though, this release is far more stable than Snow Leopard was, and I do not regret upgrading so early this time around. A resounding OKAY, YEAH.

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