The Lion Report: Look for the Rough Edges

July 21st, 2011

Many of the reviews of Mac OS X Lion seem cut from the same cloth. The same 10 fundamental features, particularly the enhanced iOS veneer, are cited over and over again. How many times do you need to be told about all the great things you can do by tapping, swiping, and zooming on a touchpad before you decide whether it’s all worth the bother?

Predictably, some of the new window management features are getting their share of criticism. Why should you have to point at a scroll bar before it becomes visible, as you do on an iOS device? Wouldn’t you like to know if that move is worth it, whether the document needs to be scrolled horizontally or vertically before you exercise your fingers? Not that I’m lazy, but this is a feature that can be turned off in System Preferences, which is exactly what I did within minutes after my Lion installs were done.

Reversing the direction of scrolling is also another debatable feature. With an iOS device, you push down, the page goes down. With traditional graphical operating systems, you move the scroll bar down, the document moves up. I’ve compared the former to a front wheel drive car, the latter to rear wheel drive. My friend Jason Snell, Editorial Director of Macworld, says you’ll get used to the new scheme in a few days if you’re willing to keep an open mind. I turned it off. But if I were a fan of gestures, I might choose differently. But I use a traditional mouse, a Logitech MX Revolution, and thus I prefer to stick with the traditional mousing method.

Another key feature of Lion is the ability to reopen your document windows when you relaunch an app, or just restart. This can be a good thing, or one that simply leaves you waiting for all those documents to reopen. Fortunately, you can turn this feature off globally in System Preferences, and not select the appropriately labeled checkbox when restarting. Or if you only want to disable the feature occasionally, just hold down the Shift key when launching an app and it won’t look for the previously opened document windows.

Two of the most important 10.7 features may or may not work, depending on which app you’re using. Auto-Save is meant to operate precisely as advertised, meaning that your documents are regularly saved in the background, so you don’t have to remember to regularly use that Command-S. Versions lets you examine previous updates to your document, so if you decide to ditch something you really don’t want to keep, you can revert to an older version.

All well and good, but don’t give up Command-S just yet. You see, these two features will only work when an app becomes Lion savvy. Same for Full-Screen Apps. While a number of Apple’s own apps, including iWork (just updated) will support these new file and window management schemes, others won’t. Obviously, you don’t want to have to remember which apps are Lion savvy and which aren’t, so the best decision is to continue to use an app’s existing auto-save capability, something you’ll find on such apps as Microsoft Word and QuarkXPress, or continue to press Command-S whenever appropriate. It will probably take months or years for most apps to gain these features.

Another significant change is the way Spaces works. Though not widely used, Spaces allowed you to put one or more apps in its own custom desktop, freeing you from app/document clutter. Unfortunately, Spaces was also flaky, and some apps would mysteriously move from one desktop to another. Whether that’s the fault of the app or Mac OS X, I don’t know.

The Lion version merges the window management into a unified app called Mission Control, which also displays all your open document windows in one place. For Spaces, you just drag the app window to a tiny desktop icon at the top of the screen. You can move them from one place to another, but I’m not sure that the system works any better this way. And, yes, I did remove the preferences for Spaces first before trying out this new scheme.

Speaking of a preference file, Apple has decreed that regular Mac users should see them, or anything in their Users’ Library folder without going through a little extra effort. So you can use a Terminal trick to keep it displayed, or hold down Option and choose Library from the Finder’s Go menu.

My assumption is that Apple has fielded lots of support calls from Mac users who deleted the wrong files. At least if you’re trying to move something from your root Library folder, you’ll have to give your password first, or it’ll just be copied to wherever you drag it. You’ll be forced to think before you screw up, not after.

Over the next few weeks, in addition to all the wonderful eye candy, you’ll be reading about Lion’s glitches and the poorly-implemented features. No doubt there will be a 10.7.1 before long to rid us of some of the worst ills of the first release of Lion. And, by the way, it’s time for you to remove the word “Mac” from the OS’s name. It’s just OS X from here on, so says Apple.

All in all, I’m actually quite positive about 10.7. It’s a worthy upgrade, if you aren’t saddled with PowerPC apps that won’t work. Apple’s ongoing success clearly demonstrates that they are making the right decisions for the most part. But that won’t stop some of the skeptics from believing the company is fated to self-destruct any time now, if only because they keep repeating that same falsehood.

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