heard on the wire

Some Lion impressions

Mac OS X 10.7 — aka Lion — is some achievement. Quite how Apple managed to take something so well loved, time-honoured, proven and functional and turn it into the dog’s dinner that is Lion’s interface beggars belief.

It all looked so promising from the installation screen. Then the hideous reality: iCal’s faux leather; Address Book’s faux address booky look; full-screen Photo Booth’s red curtains — all combine to assault the senses and affront good taste.

Successive versions of OS X have redefined and refined the way information is presented, until Lion. The great beast of the African plains has suffered a severe attack of skeuomorphism, that potentially fatal enemy of usability, a distraction and a substitute for thoughtful design.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the skeuomorphs meant anything. It’s not just that no one ever owned a faux leather calendar with torn paper edges, many Mac users under the age of 40 or so never owned a calendar, period.

However we have owned Macs and accumulated years of automatic behaviour, of expectations. So they expect to see title bars in application windows; instead we get an ugly implementation of iPad’s Address Book, complete with faux stitching and paper edges (suggesting multiple pages) and lots of grey.

Yes, there’s lots of grey, confusing, unclear, all-merge-into-one grey. Of course, iTunes let us know what to expect, but implemented across the whole OS it becomes depressing, frankly. And it’s not simply a matter of aesthetics; colours make it easier to identify individual icons and buttons. Instead, like these drive icons, they’re muddy, indistinct. It comes as something of a surprise that Finder labels aren’t offered in seven shades of grey.

And don’t even get me started on all those linen backgrounds. Awful — so bad that I’d rather they’d just use a flat shade of grey. Or those curtains…

Interface abominations aside, the three most obvious changes in Lion are Mission Control, Launchpad and the App Store — most obvious because they’re the three things that the installer dumps into the Dock. Ironically, all implemented beautifully and elegantly (though be warned, there is some linen).

I don’t use Spaces, so Mission Control is a step backward since it doesn’t display minimized windows, as Snow Leopard’s Exposé does. Hopefully this is an oversight, rather than a feature, and will be remedied forthwith. But as things stand, if, like me, you use the custom setting to minimize to application icon rather than into the Dock, there is currently no way of seeing which windows you have shrunk.

Launchpad is clearly designed for the trackpad and of limited advantage on the conventional desktop, where it’s quicker to use the Dock or, even more efficiently, Spotlight or another key-based tool to launch applications. Still, you can’t have too many ways to get to the tools you need, provided that Launchpad, they don’t get in each others’ way. Launchpad succeeds in that respect

The App Store is little changed from the beta that’s been running on Snow Leopard for several months now, though Apple has thankfully fixed the Spotlight bug where searching for “app” showed the most recently run application rather than the store. A small win for those of us who like to drive our Macs from the keyboard.

Talking of which, there are some adjustments to be made, most notably the use of ⇧⌘D in the new combined save dialogs that integrate support for Lion’s Autosave and Versions features. Consistent with the Finder, this key combination takes you to the Desktop; to invoke Don’t Save, type shift-command-backspace. But the readjustment is a tiny inconvenience compared to the obvious advantages of the new features. With a Time Machine backup running, there really is no reason why you should ever lose a file again.

Other features worth lionising (sorry) are less than obvious. Take, for instance, the ability to drag any mailbox to Mail’s new favorites bar and access them sequentially with command-1, command-2 etc — as you have long been able to do with bookmarks in Safari. Coupled with the new layout, it’s a fantastic time and space saver if you have multiple mailboxes, smart or otherwise.

Safari itself co-opts the “save to read later” idea from Instapaper and, if memory serves, the extinct Mac version of Internet Explorer (and steals the ⇧⌘L shortcut from the Search With Google service — easily remedied in the Keyboard system pane, if required). It’s a handy feature, nicely implemented, but hardly offers anything in the way of new. Meanwhile the Downloads window becomes an icon-and-popup. Neater but, without a keyboard shortcut, less easy to access.

Other new-but-not-really features include: automatic spelling correction, initially obtrusive but not for long; full screen apps — I guess you either like them or you don’t; “natural scrolling” which, while it drove me mad initially, now seems completely, well, natural; and lots of multi-fingered gestures for those who can be bothered to remember them.

But whatever you feel about the UI ugliness, the “250 new features” add up to an impressive upgrade, even of some of the individual benefits are marginal. And there is certainly one thing that should make every compatible-Mac owner upgrade — Lion’s new security architecture. It’s qualitatively better than before and in these days of hacking , phishing and identity theft, worth the upgrade price alone.

And the upgrade process? Fantastic.

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