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Taming the Lion: A Week With Apple's Latest Mac OS X

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Aug 4, 2011 5:00 AM PT

I'll admit, for a few hours, especially when TextEdit and Preview were crashing upon launch and I was having trouble adjusting to the new "unnatural" direction of mousing, I thought I had made a terrible mistake upgrading to Mac OS X Lion on launch day. How was I going to get any work done?

Taming the Lion: A Week With Apple's Latest Mac OS X

With 250 new features, Lion offers a solid upgrade, especially when you consider the price is just US$29.99. Of the 250 new features, though, there's a handful that have the potential to impact the everyday use of your Mac, as well as propel you into a new touch-focused Apple future. Understanding and using these features will determine your success with Lion.

Rethinking How You Interact With Your Mac

In an introductory Lion video, Craig Federighi, Apple vice president of OS X software, cuts to the chase when he says, "Lion is so exciting because we were able to really step back and rethink the desktop user experience."

Lion is exciting, and Apple did rethink the interface. The company claims that no company has invested more in perfecting gestures than Apple. To sum up the new desktop experience, which is a lot like the iPad and iPhone experience, "You just push the content the way you want to go."

The Desktop Screen as a Surface

If you're a longtime computer user who uses an Apple Magic Mouse or scroll wheel mouse, the key to surviving Lion is to stop fighting your old instincts and start building a new metaphor in your mind: The screen is a surface, and to move the surface you touch and push.

There are two visual tricks that work for me. The first is to consider the screen like pieces of paper on a table. If you want to move the paper on the table with a finger, you push, slide and flick. Scrollable lists, for example, are another matter. The new Mail application features a three-pane style in which your Inbox or folders can show you a scrollable list of all your mail with a few lines of preview text. Since Lion's scroll bars by default don't seem to exist until you flick or scroll to make them appear, scrolling can be disorienting, because the direction to make the content move is the exact opposite as it was in Snow Leopard and previous Mac OS generations.

To rejigger my mind, I imagine the scrollable list to be like the selector wheel in the built-in iOS Clock app on my iPhone -- flick to spin. Obviously a big, long list of email is more oblong than a round clock wheel, but the image helped my brain make the transition.

Around the Web, others have expressed similar discomfort in Apple's new scroll method, but most seem to be able to adjust within a few days. It took me two days. Now it feels pretty natural, but that comes with a new challenge. When I use a Snow Leopard-running Mac, I can't get it to do what I want until I realize I have to go old school. And as a frequent Windows users, too, I'm having the same problem: I'm going to have to move everything to Lion or become bilingual in how I see screens and interact with content.

New Gestures

To get the full Lion experience, you're going to want to have a multi-touch Magic Trackpad or a new MacBook with a multi-touch trackpad. I have an aging MacBook and a Magic Mouse. The Magic Mouse lets me use some of the new gestures, but not all. The best use of my Magic Mouse is being able to swipe over into Dashboard to snag a quick look at widgets, then swipe back, use a two-finger double-tap to launch Mission Control, and swipe back to previously viewed Web pages in Safari.

Because I'm really starting to appreciate and enjoy the new content-pushing interaction with Lion, I'll likely splurge and buy a Magic TrackPad so I can take better advantage of all the new gestures.

Full-Screen Action

Apple seems to think people need to move to full-screen apps in order to mirror iOS and to be able to concentrate on one app at a time. I don't have much trouble with immersion or ignoring background windows, but the extra screen real estate is handy when you're really trying to work through something with maximum efficiency.

If you're on a smaller-screen device like a MacBook, the extra space is quite nice. On my 24-inch external monitor, though, there's not much need for me to go full-screen with the new Mail app, for instance, or redesigned Address Book. iCal, though, always seems better to me the larger it is.

Mission Control

The new Mission Control is a lot like the old Expose, just a bit more comprehensive and consistent. With Expose, I used to use a hot mouse corner to explode my desktop for quick inspection of the elements I was working on, which let me switch to whatever it was I wanted. Mission Control is more predictable in how it shows applications and elements, giving me a possible sub-second improvement over Expose. What I do like, though, is how Mission Control treats full-screen apps in full-screen mode -- easy to find and get in and out of.

Browsing many pages in Safari is another matter. Mission control stacks up all your Safari windows, which makes it harder to find the right browser window when you had many open. There is a nifty new feature that helps, though. If you take a Safari browser window full-screen (button in the upper right corner), Mission Control will treat just that window like a full-screen app. This is particularly cool when you're working with a Web-based application. Nice job, Apple!

Safari Gets Better

The new Safari also makes navigating the Web a better experience than ever before in two key ways. The first is that you can create a bookmark for a set of open tabs. Click the bookmark again, and boom, all those tabs will open. Not a new feature to other browsers, but it has been a long-time coming for Safari.

Apple also added a new Reading List pane. It's a left-side column that lets you add Web pages to create a list of things you want to read, keeping them handy and front and center. I used to drag a lot of URLs to my desktop to not only save them but also ensure that I noticed them again in the future. Now I just add them to my Reading List.

On the Launchpad

In Snow Leopard, I used to use the Applications folder that was added to the Dock. One click, and you get a long list of all your applications in alphabetical order. It works great, so when I saw the iOS-like Launchpad, I was thinking, "Eh, not sure that I can really use this glitzy little thing." Then I realized that I could move the applications around into swipeable pages (like the iPhone or iPad) and group them into folders. (This ability to swipe and invoke Lauchpad through gestures is a key reason a new Magic Trackpad is in my future.)

So now, for example, I can group all my photo and video editing apps into a single folder. In the future, I won't have to remember an app's name in order to find it if I only use it a few times a year.

Let's Resume

In Snow Leopard, I always dreaded needing to shut down and go mobile. Sure, I could put my MacBook to sleep, but often enough you want to shut everything down to save on battery life. That meant closing all my open windows, and often enough, that would be quite a few Safari browser windows. But with Resume, if you close an application, it will reopen right from where you left off. If you have several open windows, Safari will reopen those windows. If you close Pages with a document open, it'll relaunch with the document open -- and saved from where you left it. This is pretty darn cool. I still find myself obsessively saving documents (an old, ingrained habit), but it's a need that's heading toward extinction.

The only downside that I can see right now is privacy. If you're working on Christmas gift list, for example, you'll want to pay attention and close the document before you close the application; otherwise the gift list (or whatever you had open) will open when a family member launches the app.

Along these same lines, Lion has the built-in ability to keep track of all your "versions" of documents. I personally don't have much call for going back in time and finding old versions, but if you're the kind of person who does, this could be handy.

For households with multiple Lion-based Macs, a new feature called "AirDrop" has the potential to make sharing files easier than ever. Just find the person's Mac, drag the content to "air drop it" and boom, you'll have an easy WiFi-based transfer without any networking hoopla to mess with. Obviously it becomes more powerful when you're hanging out with others who have Lion, too.

One Little Hiccup So Far - the Animations

Lion, it turns out, has all these subtle little animation activities that make the desktop seem to come alive, like windows that start small and then explode to their final large size. On my old MacBook, these animations aren't as smooth as I'd like to see. The worst offending shift comes from moving an application in and out of full-screen mode. The animation probably looks wicked cool in a fast and subtle way on a faster Mac, but on my MacBook, it's clunky. I'm not knocking Lion here, just acknowledging that my hardware isn't up to snuff. I fully expect a smoother experience with newer models that have better graphics processing capabilities.

All in all, if you're thinking about moving to Lion, you should know two things: 1) think about content as being on a surface, and 2) you'll want to become familiar with gestures, if not invest in a Magic Trackpad. If you hit the settings and preferences hard, you can de-Lion Lion into something more akin to Snow Leopard, but if you're upgrading to Lion, why not retrain your brain? While these metaphorical shifts aren't easy, I'm beginning to appreciate the new swipe and flickable results.

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