Never one to shy away from dramatic hyperbole, Steve Jobs declared ours a "post-PC world" about this time last year, acknowledging a move away from personal computers as smartphones and tablets become even more ubiquitous. And while Jobs might happily look on as iPhones and iPads become our primarily tie to the outside world, the question remains: what happens to the PC during this grand transition? To a large extent, the answer lies in the OS, which brings us to OS X Lion. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to post-PC computing.

In typically grandiose fashion, the company has declared OS X 10.7 "the world's most advanced desktop operating system," touting the addition of over 250 new features. The list is pretty uneven on the game-changing scale, with updates running the gamut from Airdrop (file-sharing over WiFi) to a full-screen version of the bundled chess game. If there's one thing tying it all together, though, it's something that Jobs touched on when he first unveiled the OS back in October: the unmistakable influence of iOS. Now it's true, we already got a taste of that with gesture-based trackpads and the Mac App Store, but those were merely glimpses of things to come. Apple borrows so heavily from iOS that at times, cycling through features makes the whole thing feel like you're merely operating an iPad with a keyboard attached.

There are plenty of welcome additions here, including aesthetic tweaks and attention to mounting privacy concerns. Like Snow Leopard before it, however, Lion is hardly an explosive upgrade. And like Snow Leopard, it comes in at a reasonable $29 (or a decidedly more pricey $69 as an upcoming flash drive install), making it a worthy upgrade for current Mac owners. But does a boatload of evolutionary features add up to a revolutionary upgrade? Let's find out.

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Apple OS X Lion (10.7) review

Apple

Apple OS X Lion 10.7

Pros

  • AirDrop allows for file sharing over WiFi
  • Resume, Auto Save, and Versions protect data
  • Supports more multi-touch gestures

Cons

  • End of Rosetta support
  • Some program incompatibility
  • Snow Leopard required for installation
Summary



Getting started


If you're looking for iOS's influence, look no further than the installation process. It's available as a disc-free download through the Mac App Store, making even the delivery method one of the larger changes here. For the uninitiated, the whole process requires just a few clicks to go from buying something to installing it on your system. Once you download Lion, the installation is a painless process that should only last 10 to 15 minutes. Things were a bit less smooth when installing the operating system on a more well-worn MacBook. That time around, the installation process took closer to 25 minutes and required an extra manual restart to get things up and running more smoothly.

Scrolling



The first time you boot up Lion, one feature hits you before any other: in one of the company's more surprising updates, Apple went and inverted multitouch scrolling. Up is down and left is right -- an unfamiliar combination that might make you suspect something has gone terribly wrong with the installation. But for better or worse, it's not you; it's Apple. Oddly, the company calls the option "scroll direction: natural," as if to say Apple's scrolling has actually been topsy-turvy this whole time. The good news here, however, is that you can easily turn the feature off by un-ticking a box in System Preferences. And yes, it takes some getting used to -- not unlike firing up a flight simulator for the first time.

The inversion seems inspired by iOS, wherein flicking up a page will cause it to scroll down (take out your iPhone and try it, if you don't believe us). The popular analogy here is a piece of paper laid out on a desk -- in order to see more text on the top, you push it down, rather than up, with your fingers. The motion, however, is far more intuitive when interacting directly with the screen, rather than an external input device. All told, we managed to get the hang of it pretty quickly, though even after having played around with it for awhile we're not quite ready to declare it a revolutionary new way of navigating. Perhaps, though, there's something to be said for the relatively short amount of time it took for inversion to become second nature. We will say that if you find yourself switching between systems with Lion and earlier OS X builds, the change can be maddening.

Multitouch gestures

Without a doubt, multitouch gestures are a core piece of this upgrade. Apple has integrated them more heavily into both the Finder and many of its proprietary apps. While in the Finder, for example, swiping three fingers from left to right brings up the Dashboard -- not unlike flicking horizontally through iOS's home screens. As with Snow Leopard, however, most of the gestures -- save for simple ones like cursor control and two-fingered scrolling -- feel secondary when it comes to interacting with the device, whereas they're critical to the iPhone and iPad.


Aesthetically, not all that much has changed between Snow Leopard and Lion -- the notification buttons now default to a rectangular shape, progress bars are a bit flatter in appearance, and scroll bars are now dark gray lines that disappear when not in use. Those bars -- yet another feature borrowed from iOS -- are in keeping with Apple's goal of maximizing real estate in Lion, which also includes the ability to run Apple apps at full-screen (we're sure this will extend to third-party programs as well). It's a not-so-subtle reminder of one of the ways the desktop continues to trump its mobile counterparts: there's just more space to work with. Even better, there's no limit to how many full-screen apps you can have open, and you can swipe to the right with three fingers to do something else without actually exiting that program you were using at full-screen.

We, at least, can certainly see ourselves using this option frequently, particularly during those times when we're working on our MacBook, pining for our multi-monitor office setup. Working at full-screen doesn't free up a ton of formerly unused space, but somehow even that little bit matters. To do this, click on the diagonal arrows in the top left-hand corner of a program, and notice the toolbar at the top go invisible. Mousing over the top of the screen will cause it to reappear.

Apple borrowed some animations from iOS as well, such as the familiar "rubber band" bounce that snaps a page back into frame when you've scrolled to the end. The feature is present in Apple's proprietary applications, and honestly, we missed it when we switched to some third-party apps like Firefox. Additions like this are small indeed, but they definitely add to the overall experience.

Meanwhile, Windows opened in the Finder boast a new "All My Files" option atop the left-hand column where you can find system disks in Snow Leopard. Thanks to this change, you get a quick way of locating files on the fly, breaking your system's content down by categories (e.g., images, movies, and documents). As far as arranging files and folders, you'll also find an option for listing it all according to category, just as you can already organize by, say, date created.

Spotlight


With Lion, Apple has revamped its search functionality yet again. The Spotlight magnifying glass in the upper right hand corner now extends beyond system search, adding top results from the web, Wikipedia, and dictionary results to the list. The web option pulls results from your recent history, alongside a link that will bring you results from your favorite search engine. When you click on the Wikipedia link, you'll see a pop-up a window showing the relevant entry. We can see where full Wikipedia previews in Spotlight would get unwieldy, but we would have liked to see a short, automatically generated list of Wikipedia hits, the same way Spotlight shows multiple sites in your browsing history. For instance, if we searched for "safari," we'd want to see an option to read about the browser on Wikipedia or an expedition where you shoot lions.

If you hover over the dictionary result, meanwhile, you'll see a pop-up a definition of whatever word you searched for. In fact, many of the results benefit from the Quick Look feature, which offers a brief preview of the items in the list -- a definite time-saver. In Lion, you can also drag-and-drop search results from the Spotlight list to the desktop, assuring easy access the next time you're looking for that file. All in all, these are some solid updates to Snow Leopard's already-robust search functionality.


Mission Control and Launchpad

When you boot up your Mac, two new programs greet you in the toolbar: Mission Control and Launchpad. Mission Control, accessible by swiping three fingers upward on the trackpad or hitting F3, is something of a souped-up version of Exposé. You get a shot of your desktop and all open windows in the center of the screen, each grouped by application with their designated icon. When working at full-screen, the dashboard lines the top of the screen, as do windows representing the full-screen apps you're running. There's also a window for the desktop, and if you click on that you'll see all the windows you have open there. If you never really bothered with Exposé, there's a pretty good chance that you won't give Mission Control the time of day. If, on the other hand, the feature is a regular part of your workflow, the additional features will likely be welcome. It's a nice feature, sure, but hardly revolutionary.

iOS' influence is sprinkled throughout Lion, but it's no more obvious than with Launchpad, which effectively transforms your Mac desktop into a mobile-looking one. The windows disappear and the screen becomes populated with rows of apps. You can move between pages of applications by swiping two fingers across the trackpad. Apps will appear in Launchpad as soon as they're download from the App Store. (You can also manually drag applications there.) To delete an app, hold down on it until it begins to jiggle (sound familiar?). That cutesy wiggling only happens with apps you can re-download in the Mac App Store; if not, removing software won't be that easy. As for the App Store, it now comes built into Lion, as you might have guessed by now.

In another flourish reminiscent of iOS, you can also create folders in Launchpad by dragging one app onto another. A gray area will appear on the screen, allowing you to add more apps. Once created, the folder will appear as its own icon.

Mail, Address Book, and Calendar


Mail is one of many Apple-built applications that takes advantage of Lion's push toward the full-screen, devoting the left side of the screen to a list of messages with two-line previews (you can go into system preferences and make these longer). On the right, meanwhile, you'll see the emails themselves, grouped together in conversations. Search has also been improved, letting users drill through attachments and filter results according to sender and subject. True to its name, the Address Book defaults to book mode, forgoing the card-based organization of past versions. The application supports Yahoo syncing, iPhoto import, and lets you make FaceTime calls directly from the app. iCal, meanwhile, has made it easier to add contacts with the Quick Add feature, which detects phrases to determine where it fits into the calendar.

QuickTime


Apple's video player also got an upgrade with Lion, offering up, among other things, some simple editing capabilities. New on the list are the ability to export audio-only tracks, rotate clips, and record a portion of the screen. Most notable, however, is the ability to merge clips, by simply dragging a file onto an open clip, creating a timeline on the bottom of the screen, which should look familiar to anyone who has spent any time with iMovie, achieving Apple's consistent goal of adding functionality while maintaining simplicity. The program's functionality as an editor is still quite limited -- after all, Apple's certainly not looking to cannibalize its own iMovie brand.

Resume, Autosave, and Versions

Resume, Autosave, and Versions will likely be the most important additions for many of you, particularly given that mobile devices are supposedly geared toward data consumption, while PCs are more ideal for data creation. Resume saves apps automatically, opening them up where you left off, even when you restart the entire system. By now, this is a pretty standard feature for browsers, which reopen the tabs you were using when the program crashed. Resume does them one better, though, in that it works across applications, remembering not only what you were last doing with the app, but also the size of windows and their place on the screen. Unlike some other new Lion features, Resume actually worked with a lot of third-party apps, including Word and Firefox.

When you restart or shut down a system with applications open, a dialog box will ask whether you would like to open all the windows intact when the system reboots. If your shutdown was a bit more forced on the other hand, the system will prompt the same question after you've rebooted. If you do nothing in that second scenario, the system will automatically log you into all of your closed applications after one minute. Anyone want to bet we'll soon hear plenty of cautionary tales about people who had, er, unfortunate windows open up on them in mixed company?


Auto Save and Versions are likely to save a lot of heartbreak for a lot of users. Auto Save builds saving functionality into the operating system so that when you have unsaved changes in a document, for example, Lion adds "Edited" to the title and saves changes, protecting you from the nightmare of losing all that data in the event that you forget to hit Command - S. Although the OS saves every change automatically, it only folds these tweaks into a new version once an hour. That's actually a good thing: using our jobs as an example, we wouldn't want Lion to create a different version every time we fiddled with a word choice or added a comma. Also, don't be alarmed by the thought of all the versions you might rack up: Apple assures us each version is not saved as a separate file.

You can also lock a document, duplicate it, revert to an old version, or view all versions -- all by clicking the title bar. Clicking "duplicate" will make an identical copy of your current document to pop up alongside the one you're currently using. Clicking "lock" will protect the document from accidental changes -- if changes are made once the document is located, a dialog box will prompt you to unlock, cancel, or create a duplicate document.

Clicking "view all versions" launches Versions, a Time Machine-like screen with a familiar outer space background, featuring the latest version of the document on the left and a stack of previous versions on the right. Clicking each one will bring you back to the previous version, along with the time it was created. Here you can revert to the last saved version, if you're so inclined -- if you revert, changes lost during that decision continue to exist in the Versions layout, for future reference.

Versions, along with Auto Save, will be a likely favorite for anyone who spends a significant amount of time word processing. Unfortunately, the features are still fairly limited -- they work with Apple programs like TextEdit, Automator, and Preview, but not popular third-party programs like Microsoft Word. Something tells us that functionality is likely not far behind.


Safari


The latest version of Safari (v5.1) gets some nice upgrades here, including new gesture support like pinch-to-zoom (or double tap-to-zoom, if you prefer) and the ability to navigate back and forth between websites by flicking the trackpad with two fingers, not unlike the single-finger swipe that works with mobile Safari. It's a feature that translates pretty well into this desktop version. Apple also promises fewer crashes in this build, thanks to a new process architecture that separates content and browser interaction from one another, so unresponsive pages don't bring down the entire program. There's some welcome security and privacy enhancements on board as well, including the ability to sandbox webpages to isolate potential malicious actions and a feature that lists -- and lets you remove -- all of the sites storing data via cookies and other sources on your system.

AirDrop


Easily one of the most exciting new features of OS X, AirDrop is an incredibly simple drag-and -drop file sharing system that allows you to swap files with other Macs over WiFi. The feature is baked directly into the Finder, appearing directly under All My Files. Clicking AirDrop will activate a sonar symbol, indicating that the system is searching for other compatible computers (read: with Lion installed).

Once you've activated AirDrop, you'll be visible on other people's Macs, with your icon and user ID identifying you. Likewise, exiting Airdrop will automatically make you appear unavailable. Dragging a file onto another user's icon in the radar rings will prompt a box asking whether you do, indeed, want to send the file. Once okayed, the other user must confirm he or she wants to receive it. Transaction agree upon, an animated image of the folder leaps into the receiver's Downloads folder. It took us 44 seconds to send a 39MB folder between two MacBook Pros.

The files are encrypted, and show up in the user's downloads folder. Perhaps coolest of all is the fact that files can be transferred without connecting to a router; rather, they can get the job done over peer-to-peer WiFi, assuming their Airports are enabled and the computers are within 30 feet of each other.

This isn't the first wireless transfer system we've seen, of course, but Apple executes it with typically user-friendly panache. It's easy to see home users and coworkers alike getting plenty of use out of the feature.

Security and Privacy

Naturally, the security / privacy concerns don't begin and end with AirDrop and Safari -- after all, as OS X has grown in popularity, so too have the potential threats. Apple has introduced a handful of features meant to address this, including application sandboxing, to prohibit harmful programs from infecting the entire system. Also on-board is a new privacy center, which helps users opt in and out of things like location targeting, for which the company has taken flack in the past.

Compatibility

It should be reasonably well known at this point that this is an upgrade over Snow Leopard -- meaning if you're unable to upgrade to that OS you're going to be left out of the loop here, too. If you're still rolling with a PowerPC-based machine it should come as no surprise that you're not invited to this party, but Rosetta support has also been axed, meaning none of your legacy apps are going to be let past the velvet rope either.

We didn't notice any major hangups on our clean system when installing Lion -- no force quits, no stumbling applications, even amongst not Apple programs like Firefox, which can sometimes be a burden on an overworked system. Our more seasoned laptop had a bit more trouble, however, with an additional restart required, as mentioned above. We also ran into some compatibility issues with Firefox plug-ins, which required some troubleshooting -- Safari, not surprisingly, fared a lot better with the reinstall.

Performance

If you're running Lion, it means you've got a 64-bit Intel-based Mac (yes, that includes the Core 2 Duo MacBooks that started selling a few years ago). As of this writing (read: the day Lion started shipping), it's only available on the newly refreshed MacBook Air and Mac Mini, but you can expect it to roll out to all of the other Mac desktops and laptops over the coming weeks.

Over all, standard computing tasks didn't seem all that faster either -- like most other features in the operating system, light users likely won't notice drastic improvements on a day-to-day basis. On the other hand, the system with Lion was able to complete more labor intensive tasks like exporting a video in iMovie in significantly less time, shaving precious minutes, from eight down to five.

We benchmarked the updated system with Geekbench, and found a noticeable drop in scores, from 5,777 to 5,302 -- a dip that we didn't notice ourselves. We were also unable to get Xbench to run on any Lion system we tested, making us wonder if either benchmark is really Lion-friendly at this point.

Wrap-up


If Apple's end game is a complete shift away from the personal computer, Lion feels like a transitional operating system -- one that hasn't quite sealed the deal. After all, even though 250 features sounds like an impressively round number, most of the offerings are evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, in keeping with a precedent Snow Leopard set. It's worth repeating, however, that Lion, too, costs just $29. Between that and Apple's decision to make the operating system available through the nascent Mac App Store, it feels almost is if the company is downplaying the significance of this update, even as it tosses around the title of "the world's most advanced desktop operating system."

If Lion can truly be considered the "most advanced" operating system around (a matter that is certainly open for debate), it is not due to the jaw-dropping new features in this version, so much as the raft of tweaks -- some subtle, and all welcome -- it has made to an already-excellent operating system. Some of the features like AirDrop and Versions may be enough to wow users by themsleves, but this upgrade is unlikely to upend most Mac users' workflow. Chances are, though, you'll find more than enough features amongst the 250-plus to justify that modest price tag.