Lion's Roar Is Powerful - and Disorienting
As expected, Apple's new OS X Lion operating system has plenty of built-in awesomeness. Mail is shiny and new, and the new Mission Control feature is fantastic. But one particular characteristic of Lion -- one that relates to how gestures are used to move content on the screen -- just plain makes my brain hurt. Be excited, but be warned: Lion has a learning curve.
07/21/11 5:00 AM PT
There's a lot to love and like about Mac OS X Lion, but it's far more disorienting and confusing than I ever imagined.
I've been using Macs since the early 1990s, and I faithfully upgrade to new versions of the operating system quickly. The original Mac OS X was a pretty big leap, but Lion, it sure seems now, offers more in the way of interaction transformation than I ever expected.
My first conclusion: It's going to take me a lot longer to get familiar with all the new features and ways of interacting with Lion, apps, my content and workflow.
Similar Yet Different
Lion is very touch-oriented when it comes to interaction, but the problem is you're not touching the screen. So with my multi-touch-capable Apple Magic Mouse, I can flick and scroll and use many of the touch gestures that work for Lion through the mouse. I have an older MacBook, so I don't have the large multi-touch trackpads found on new MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros. And even if I did have a newer MacBook, it would still be sitting on my desk, closed and attached to a large external monitor. So my input device is Magic Mouse ... or, as I've recently been considering, a Magic Trackpad.
But the Magic Mouse seems all well and good. A two-fingered double-tap (lightly, just on the surface) launches Mission Control, and if you have full-screen apps enabled, like iCal or Mail, for example, you can do a two-fingered left and right swipe to switch between your desktop, Dashboard, and full-screen apps or Spaces. It's very much like flicking around in iOS on an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch.
However, it was when I started interacting vertically with content through the Magic Mouse that I realized I'm in for a nightmare transition. To scroll down through a Web page or list of email items or a long document, you have to flick "up" with your finger. And to scroll up, you have to flick down.
On a flat surface, when you're touching the content, as if in iOS, this is supremely natural. You're flicking the content directly beneath your finger in the direction you want it to move. Put a piece of paper on a desk and then put your finger on it. Slide your finger to move the paper. Easy enough, except the movement is the exact opposite of what I've trained my brain and finger to accept with my Magic Mouse (and previous generation Mighty Mouse) for years and years.
The Fix That's Not a Fix
You've got to be able to change this through Settings, right? Yes, you can. Under Settings for Mouse, you can deselect scroll direction so that it's not "natural." What happens? Your old-school scroll action works like it did before Lion. Nice.
Until you realize that scrolling in Launchpad, the new iOS-like app launcher in Lion, works exactly counterintuitively because of the aforementioned change. Flicking left and right across the surface of a Magic Mouse is pretty intuitive, it turns out -- flick to the left in order to move the screen to the left and reveal what's at the right. But when you deselect the new default scroll direction, the left and right flicking is reversed. So if I flick to the left, I go left. It messes with my brain, I'm telling you. What's worse is that you can use the two-fingered left-right flick action to slide between your desktop(s) and full-screen apps ... and it too now flicks in the opposite direction you would expect.
So where does this leave you? If you've got work to do, deselecting "natural" in your mouse settings scroll direction seems smart. But if you do that, it'll stifle how you learn to interact with some of the most important new features in Lion. Maybe I need more caffeine right now, but I tell you what, this little navigation issue makes my brain hurt. I'm at once very excited by what I'm seeing and using, but at the same time, I've got a bit of low-grade stress because I'm flicking and scrolling in the wrong direction half the time.
The sad part is, you probably know the only real answer here: Leave the default scroll setting to "natural" and retrain your brain to work the way Apple expects it to. (I do write this with a rueful grin, of course.)
Moving On to the Built-In Awesomeness
Lion comes with a lot of new features and revamped applications, and it's going to take me a while to explore them properly, learn the new organizing principles Apple has introduced, and figure out if they're actually delightful or not.
Mail, it turns out, is one app that's starting to delight me already. It's got a great interface refresh, and the way it groups messages seems to work so well I might actually keep on using it.
Meanwhile, one of the most touted features, Mission Control, is super-fantastic. There's plenty of ways you can invoke it, including hot corners so you can flick your mouse into a corner of your choice and get to Mission Control. There's also the two-finger tap on a Magic Mouse or three-finger up slide on a trackpad. Or you can click the app icon itself.
Full-screen apps are great, but on my aging MacBook, the graphic movement into and out of full-screen isn't particularly smooth. It's not bad, but it's not mercury slipping and sliding around either.
One feature that I'll have to learn to use and trust is Resume. Apps that you close will reopen right from where you left off. For Safari, this is pretty cool. I can have a bunch of Safari windows open, along with some that multiple tabs open, and I can simply close the entire Safari app. When I reopen it, boom, all those Web pages and sets of tabs will also reopen. (It's pretty darn cool.)
All-in-all, there are 250 new features built into Lion, but more importantly, there are some dramatic new ways to work with your Mac -- and to make Lion work for you. While I've run into some hiccups -- including Preview and TextEdit apps that inexplicably crash upon launch -- I can also see areas where I can make big leaps in productivity.
In the meantime, wow, I've got a lot to learn and explore with Lion. And a recommendation for early adopters? Plan to spend more time playing and learning than you expect.