OSX Lion, Rawr…

I have been using Apple’s latest operating system for almost a month and now that I feel comfortable I thought I would write a bit about it. I am not sure that I would call it a review because I am not attempting to be comprehensive or thorough on every point. This is just an outline of my thoughts as I have used it.

Installation

The installation process was fairly painless for me, despite the long download. I really appreciated how little effort it took to get things moving. I also really appreciated the fact that it created a separate installation partition on my SSD instead of requiring external media. My only concern is if the disk itself is the problem when a reinstall is needed. Luckily there is a fairly painless process by which an external boot partition can be created on a USB drive. If you’re not geeky enough to do that there is always over the air restoration available. This is obviously the way Apple is headed and I’m not hesitant to embrace it.

Visual Evolution

As a designer the thing that I have paid most attention to is the aesthetic evolution that Apple is pursuing. Overall I really love the squared off buttons and progress bars as opposed to the old pill shaped aqua bubbles. The whole color palette is more subdued, even grayscale in some elements, and overall it serves to reduce clutter well. I was worried about a lowered functionality with the loss of colored icons in the Finder sidebar but I really have not found that to be the case. There are more subtle animations throughout, my favorite being the rotating radar icon and progress animation in the new AirDrop file transfer utility.

Linen seems to be Apple’s new pinstripes, luckily it is not nearly as offensive. It is present on the login screen, as a background for full screen apps, and behind Safari pages (you only see it during the new rubber band scrolling animations). It’s as if Apple is trying to say that the whole OS is built on top of a linen sheet and if you could peel away every window, toolbar, and wallpaper you would be able to rub the screen and feel its fibers. I personally do not mind it, it seems to work better here than what I’ve seen of iOS5’s notification center. One physical texture that I do mind is the background for Dashboard, it seems more like bubble wrap than the metal pinboard they’re going for. That reminds me…

Dashboard

I have read in other reviews that some people dislike the fact that Dashboard is its own space now instead of an overlay of the current space. I have no opinion about this one way or another, I am just so happy that Dashboard’s performance has been drastically improved. I have always felt that simple utilities in the Dashboard could be such a great thing but it was always so slow that I would only use it grudgingly. Now it sails along and is as responsive as I could want. The performance first increased slightly for me after installing an SSD a few months ago but now under Lion it feels like it always should have been.

In which I weep

I am not the first to say this by a long shot. The hair began to rise back during Lion’s developer preview when screenshots of the new iCal leaked onto the web. Then when it became clear that not only was iCal going to be skeumorphized but so was the Address Book my worst fear was confirmed. What a kitschy, unfortunate bunt. Beyond the fact that I don’t like the look Address Book is now close to unusable. The major problem with relying so heavily on an analog metaphor is that functionality that works in real world objects has no clear parallel in digital applications. The fact that I have to click the bookmark to get back to Groups makes no sense and probably won’t be discovered by new computer users. The only reasoning I can think of behind it is that Apple wants users to think of contacts outside of organizational structures, similar to the way they want users to think of files in one big bucket instead of spread throughout nested folders. Needless to say I am not happy with iCal or Address Book’s makeovers and hope that it is not a trend that will continue across the board. Bringing an element of physicality to otherwise cold and unnaproachable interfaces is one thing, but a calendar does not have to look like a desk calendar. I have never had a desk calendar so this Trompe-l’œil holds no nostalgia for me.

Lion is for laptops

One fortunate coincidence about the last month is that I have been out of town on vacation twice and have thus used my MacBook Pro as a laptop. Usually my laptop stays shut and plugged into an external monitor, but because of my travels I have been using it as it was intended. It is clear to me that Lion was designed primarily with laptop users in mind. Considering how many Apple sells, that is not a surprise. The gestures, once discovered, allow for delightful navigation. Now I understand why the Magic Trackpad exists. It is not that Lion is bad when used on a large monitor, it’s just obviously not the intended target. Full screen apps work really well on a laptop, but they seem to need a different layout for larger screens, similar to how Universal iOS apps cry for a reworked layout on the iPad. I think desktop users will like Lion, but laptop users will love it.

Dumbed down?

Another common concern among the geeky crowd is that Apple is dumbing down the OS. Apple has hidden the Library folder, which has been out in the open for as long as OSX has existed. The Library folder contains preferences, fonts, and many other necessary files to run OSX and 3rd Party Applications. The Library folder can be revealed via the Go To Folder item under the Finder’s Go menu or can be permanently revealed via the Command Line. I think this is a good way to do things. Although it may make experienced Mac users nervous, messing with the Library has caused a lot of heartache to more typical users. The real question is this: Would any user who wants access to the Library feel nervous using the command line? My impression is no.

As long as advanced users can go deeper if needed I think that Apple’s decision to remove confusion for newer computer users is a sign of insight and not dumbing down. One thing that Apple could do to make these changes more palatable to the geeks is provide a preference pane, like Secrets, an unlikely scenario.

Natural scrolling

This is another new paradigm that is causing some people a lot of problems. In Lion, the scrolling direction is reversed, as if you are actually grabbing the content and moving it up or down. It definitely took a little while to get used to but I think in the end it is a better way to do things. Those new to computers, especially those who come from using smart phones and tablets, will likely find this to be a more natural method. It just takes a little while to break muscle memory.

Roar or whimper?

You may be able to tell that I really enjoy Lion. I think it signals where Apple is headed and overall I am happy with the direction, disregarding iCal and Address Book. As designers we often want to strip away cruft in order to make the experience as fluid and pain free as possible for users and Apple’s latest offering is an example of that. It will sting a little for long time Mac geeks to see that we are not the only users anymore, but that is the price of the success we’ve been anticipating for Infinite Loop. My verdict, Lion roars.