Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Adapting to Mac OS X Lion 4: Usability of the new features

This is my fourth and final post about my adaptation to Mac OS X Lion. The other three are about scrolling direction, dealing with apps and careful backup when installing.

Apple has made a list of over 250 changes to Mac OS X. It is worth a read, since without seeing this list, you might not notice most of the changes. The following is my opinion about the usability of the most important changes a typical user will notice and/or be able to make use of right away.

Mission Control: This unifies what used to be called 'spaces' and dashboard. It is accessed by swiping four fingers up (or using a dock item). Switching spaces without entering mission control is accessed by swiping four fingers left or right. Overall I think this has been implemented very well. My only gripe is that I would have liked it if the ability to arrange spaces in a 2-D grid were available; they can only be arranged linearly. Overall race of this change: A

Full screen applications: Web browsers have had the ability to operate in full screen mode for some time, as has Microsoft Powerpoint and a few other apps. All this so-called new feature really does is two things: It unifies full-screen apps with Mission Control/Spaces (see above), and provides a unified API so apps can all do full-screen apps consistently. Unfortunately full screen apps don't yet do the nice things that Powerpoint does when you have two monitors, and there are reports of Powerpoint crashing. Also it does not yet play nicely with Lion's implementation – for example it does not place itself into a separate 'space' when full screen is invoked. Very few apps can currently run using Lion's full-screen capability since they need to be updated. Aside from making presentations, full-screen apps makes sense on tiny iOS screens, but not on large Mac screens. I think therefore that most developers will not or should not bother implementing this capability.  Overall grade of this change: B-

LaunchPad: This is the feature that brings an iOS-like list of all your applications to the front. I find it to be very well designed and non-intrusive. Launching apps from LauchPad is much faster than navigating to the Applications folder in Finder, scrolling through the list, and clicking on an app. It can be accessed from the dock, or using a gesture that involves three-fingers and the thumb, which I found easy to master. Some reviewers have panned this as unnecessary, but I think it is a welcome improvement:  Overall grade of this change: A

General system UI changes: The new multitouch gestures for doing things such as rotating, entering mission control etc. seem to be relatively easy to master. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I don't like the reversal of the scrolling direction of the two-finger gesture, but this is easily reversed. I also don't like making scroll bars optional, but again these can be brought back. Finally, I don't like the loss of the 'aqua' look that has been part of OS X since the beginning. Overall grade of these changes: C+

Changes to Finder: The most visible change in Finder is the grey colour, lack of icons and unnecessarily large font in the sidebar. These are negative changes. There is also an 'All my files' entry. This would seem to be useful only to a tiny fraction of users who hardly have any files; most users will simply want to get rid of this option. The ability to save searches is gone, although I think relatively few people used this. Overall grade of the changes: D

Changes in Time Machine: Time machine will now back up changes on your laptop while you are away from your main Time Machine backup disk. This is an excellent improvement, probably worth the entire cost of Lion itself. It won't save you if your computer is stolen or damaged, but it will be of great benefit if you delete a file, or make an unintended change. For people like me who bring their laptop wherever they go and leave their Time Machine disk in one place (home or work) it means that you now have hourly backups wherever you are. I do have one gripe: Although Time Machine does make backups hourly (to the local disk) when away from the external disk, if you click 'Back up now' it insists on looking for the external disk. This makes no sense; it should simply back up locally. Overall grade of these changes: A

Changes to Mail: The most noticeable change in Mail is the threading of conversations. Apple has done a particularly nice job of this. Related messages are grouped together as a single item, but you can ungroup them easily using the right-arrow key, and regroup them using the left-arrow key. Overall grade of the changes: A

Changes to iCal, the calendaring application: The visual appearance has taken a distinct turn for the worse. The 'leather and torn page' look is ugly. And in month view, the colours are too washed out. An outstanding critical bug that I reported a long time ago has been fixed: You don't get stuck in an inescapable dialog when trying to edit an event to which you were invited. But you still can't edit such events properly: You can change the calendar and alerts, but you can't add notes, change the location etc once you have accepted the invitation. ICal does add a 'year' view that shows a 'heat map' of your availability. It remains to be seen how useful this is, since it doesn't respect whether one is 'busy' or 'free'.  Overall grade of changes: C+

Changes to Address Book: The main change to the Address Book app is that it now looks like a physical book and only two of its three main panes are visible at a time (list of groups, alphabetical list, details of a contact). This is strictly form over function; there is nothing positive to redeem the changes. Overall grade of changes: F.

Restoring of open files apps when you restart apps: This seems to work for all files. In Microsoft Office, for example, each open file is re-opened. I am not actually sure that this will prove useful universally; sometimes you want to quit an app just to close all the pesky windows. But it is useful in certain contexts, such as accidental quitting. This feature works best in apps that are built for it, and which also have auto-saving (discussed next) such as Preview. You can be in the middle of editing a file (e.g. cropping a photo) and you can quit. WHen you resume the app, your editing is exactly at the state where you left it. I think that what this feature needs is an ability, after you relaunch, to say 'no, I didn't want everything reopened'. Overall grade of these changes: A-

Autosave and versions: This is an excellent pair of features, banishing lost work to the history books (barring a disk crash). I am surprised how long it has taken versions to come to the Mac; I remember using versions on an old VAX machine in the 1990's. The feature only works, for now, in Apple's own apps, since vendors have to change their apps to make it work for them. I think many will, but it will take time. For people who have not paid money for Apple's Numbers or Pages, you can try the features out in Preview, by editing a pdf or jpg file. It works very nicely. When you ask to revert o an older version, it takes you into an interface that is essentially that of Time Machine. Overall grade for these changes: A+ 


Lion is well worth the price: The improvements to Time machine and Mail, as well as the Mission Control and LaunchPad features are each very valuable. Apps such as Address Book have only negative changes, but they are not so bad as to ruin the overall experience. Overall grade for Lion: A-

The only reasons not to upgrade to lion would be:

  • You have PowerPC applications that are mission critical, with no replacement. I think it was both unnecessary and unfortunate for Apple to abandon support of their incredible Rosetta capability for running older apps. Apple is one of the biggest companies in the world; I think the costs of supporting older apps for many more years would have been insignificant. Their motivation must have been to force developers and consumers to upgrade and keep the Apple experience advancing ever forward. But lots of people will be left behind.
  • You have an older machine or not enough disk space. It is interesting to note that I now have about 10% more files in my overall system than before the upgrade.

If Apple is anticipating that developers will jump on autosave, versions, and full screen quickly, I think they will be disappointed. Developers will want to be able to sell to Snow Leopard users who are stuck with no upgrade path, due to lack of Rosetta. Many developers will therefore wait a year or longer before incorporating the new APIs.

The next major change to Mac Os is the upcoming iCloud capability. I will blog more about that when its details become clearer.

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