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Saturday
Aug202011

One month with Mac OS X Lion

It's been one month since Apple released Mac OS X Lion, so I thought now was the perfect time to write a short review. However, before getting started, I should state that I'm a Mac Developer and therefore have actually had access to Mac OS X Lion since February, when the first developer preview was released.

Before I dive into the details, I think it's worth touching upon the installation process for Lion, as for the first time it was delivered exclusively via digital download. Although this initially caused a lot of concern amongst the Mac community, I personally believe it was the right approach. This is because it makes the operating system upgrade process incredibly simple, as it is fully automated and as easy as applying a normal system update (something that anyone can achieve). The importance of this accomplishment only becomes clear when you compare it to the competition. For example, the Windows XP to Windows Vista / 7 upgrade path is incredibly complex, requiring the user to understand the different versions and technical details, such as 32bit vs 64bit. They also need to go through the hassle of booting from a system disc (which often requires a BIOS change) as well as having to worry about serial keys, activation and drivers. This painful process can be a challenge for power users, let alone someone that is new to computing.

The only concern with the digital download approach was the lack of plastic media, which was perceived to reduce the ability for power users to complete a clean install. However this was simply not the case, as the process to create a backup USB or DVD is the same in Lion as it was in Snow Leopard. Something that any power user should easily be able to achieve. However, this did not stop thousands of users posting on forms complaining, therefore Apple have made the task even easier by releasing a free tool, known as the Lion Recovery Disk Assistant.

To summarise, Apple have managed to create an upgrade process that is simple to understand (only one version), instantly available (via the App Store) and can be completed with a few simple clicks. While at the same time retaining all the advance tools that power users have come to expect. That, in my opinion, deserves respect!

So, to the operating system itself. I'll start by saying that I was one of the users hoping for a radical user interface (UI) redesign with Lion. Instead we got an evolution of the familiar Aqua UI which has been with us since 2001, these minor changes include a new monochrome toolbar in the Finder, as well as new animations for switching Spaces, opening new windows and displaying dialog boxes. At first I was disappointed, but after using Lion for a prolonged period I began to see that these small changes make a big difference. As not only do they modernise the operating system, but they also bring it into alignment with the iOS platform (if you don't believe me, I suggest you go back and look at a few images of Snow Leopard compared to Lion).

Unfortunately, with all the good work Apple have done with the UI, there are also a couple of flaws. Yes, I'm talking about Address Book and iCal, both of which, in my opinion, are simply horrific. After being fully immersed in the beauty and elegance of Mac OS X, you are suddenly shocked into this strange "half computer, half real world" experience. Take Address Book for example:

As you can see from the images, the unified user interface is nowhere to be seen and instead we have a highly detailed, but very out of place "real world" theme. Apple would probably say that this helps users identify with the application, however I would argue that this simply is not necessary and in fact cheapens the entire look of the operating system, something I would expect to see in Windows Me, but not Mac OS X.

Thankfully these couple of mishaps do not spoil the entire experience and the rest of the operating system is exactly what we have come to expect from Apple. The legendary Mac OS X performance and reliability remains, with phenomenal boot times (especially on systems with solid state drives) and native applications responding instantly, even under heavy work loads. I have even found Lion to be more reliable then Snow Leopard, especially when browsing web sites that use legacy plug-ins (yes, I have just referred to Flash as legacy).

I have found some of the new features, such as Mission Control, Restore, Versions and Auto Save to be valuable additions that make the operating system more intelligent, allowing me to focus on the task at hand, instead of the computer itself. I have also been impressed with the new Finder, that is not only quicker and more refined, but also includes new time saving features such as AirDrop, for fast network file transfers.

Regarding Full-Screen Apps, Launch Pad and the new Multi-touch gestures, personally I have not found these to be as useful, but understand why Apple have made these changes. For example, Full-Screen Apps has clearly been designed to optimise screen real-estate, which becomes increasing important on devices such as the MacBook Air, while Launch Pad reduces the learning curve between iOS and Mac OS X, allowing anyone familiar with the iPhone or iPad to quickly understand and use a Mac. The only questionable area for me is the new multi touch gestures, some I have found to work very well (Mission Control and Spaces), but "pinch with thumb and three fingers" to activate Launch Pad is simply crazy and that fact that you can't customise it is a real shame.

The only positive is that Apple can easily make changes to the the gestures in a future update.

Finally, I think it's worth commending some of the new security enhancements, such as full system encryption and applicaion sandboxing. These new features should help position the Mac as a business ready device, as well as improve system reliability and keep the operating system safe from malicious attack. It's these behind the scenes changes that often go unnoticed, but ensure that Mac OS X remains the most secure consumer operating system on the market today.

Overall, I think Joshua Topolsky says it best - "The software is notable not just for what it adds to the user experience, but what it hides or removes completely". Therefore, after a month of use, I have no doubt in my mind that Lion is the best version of Mac OS X ever released, but also retains it's title as the best consumer operating system in the world.

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