The Best (and Other) Features of Lion

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

Apple touts that Mac OS X Lion has 250+ new features. If you count every little thing that’s changed in Lion, there are well more than 250 (as Apple omits mention of numerous minor modifications to the OS). However, only a very few of these features managed to get my juices flowing. I’ve put together a short list of these personal favorite features, the ones I am most enthusiastic about and expect will make the biggest difference in my productivity. Admittedly, the list doesn’t include every welcome new feature; I’ve limited myself to system-wide and Finder features, skipping over ones specific to applications such as Mail and Safari. [Note: John Martellaro recently posted his list of favorite Lion features; not surprisingly, there is some overlap with what I describe here.]

Before finishing up, I’ll take a brief look at a couple of Lion features that I did not greet with any enthusiasm, concluding with my initial overall assessment of the new OS.

Favorite features

Recovery HD. As a troubleshooter, this has to be number one on my list. 

Mac OS X Lion installs a “recovery disk” in a hidden partition of your drive. This is a bootable partition. To start up from the recovery disk, hold down the Option key at startup. When the screen appears from which you choose a startup partition, one of your choices will be “Recovery HD.” Select it and you boot into a system that resembles what you would see if starting up from an Install DVD (or flash drive) from an older version of Mac OS X.

From this Recovery HD, you can reinstall Lion! That’s right, all the software needed to reinstall Lion is permanently on your startup drive! [Update: To clarify, while the Installer is on Recovery HD, the actual Lion data files are not. They are instead downloaded from the Internet when you select to install.] While this capability would have been useful in any version of OS X, it’s critical in Lion. This is because Lion is the first version of OS X that you download from the Mac App Store. As such, the OS purchase no longer includes any physical media. Recovery HD is Apple’s answer to the burning question: How do I reinstall Lion without an Install DVD? As a bonus, Recovery HD allows you to bypass those frustrating occasions when you can’t find an Install disc or when you’re on the road and forgot to bring the Install disc along.

Recovery HD offers more than just a reinstall function. As with the older physical Install media, you can also run Disk Utility, allowing you to repair, erase or reformat your Lion partition. It can do this without affecting Recovery HD itself. Other useful Recovery HD options include restoring from a Time Machine Backup, running Terminal or opening a special browse-only version of Safari. The last option is helpful for when you are seeking a support article to assist with whatever problem led you to boot from Recovery HD in the first place (this assumes, of course, that your problem does not prevent getting online).

I see at least two potential snags with Recovery HD: First, what happens if your hard drive is so corrupt that you can’t boot from Recovery HD? Second, how do you initially install Lion on a Mac that is not running Snow Leopard and therefore has no access to the Mac App Store?

In such cases, you will want a physical media alternative. Is there a way to create one? Yes. Assuming you can download Lion from some Mac, you can create an install flash drive from the Install Mac OS X Lion application. First, if you intend to install Lion on the drive where it was downloaded, you should save a separate copy of the installer (it’s located in the /Applications folder). This is because the application gets deleted as part of the install process. Second, using the Show Package Contents contextual menu command to get inside the application, extract the InstallESD.dmg file. Via this disk image, you can easily create a startup flash drive; the subrosasoft web site has posted a detailed tutorial.

Apple claims you can only run the Install application from Macs you have authorized to share content from your Mac App Store account. I believe (but have not confirmed) that the bootable flash drive solution works-around this limitation. Of course, I would still only use this to install Lion on Macs that have legitimate access to the OS; I am not condoning piracy here.

The dmg-based flash drive is not a complete substitute for Recovery HD. It doesn’t provide access to Disk Utility or any of the other utility software. All it does is allow you to reinstall Mac OS X Lion. [Correction posted 7/20: Creating a bootable drive from the InstallESD file does include access to Disk Utility et al.] You could alternatively use the Lion Installer to install a full version of Lion on a flash drive, although this is overkill of emergency use. This does lead to one final question here: What will Apple ship with new Macs that come preinstalled with Lion? Will they come with a flash drive that is equivalent to Recovery HD? We’ll soon know. [Update: We now know. For the answer, read my comment below.]

Regardless of the snags and omissions, Recovery HD is an impressive and elegant solution for how to manage without an OS X Install DVD or flash drive. 

Resume. This feature has already proven itself to be an incredible time-saver for me. Whenever I quit and relaunch an application, it opens up to exactly how I left it, down to the location of every previously open window. 

The best part is what happens when you logout of your account or restart your Mac. From the dialog that appears, there’s an option you can check called “Reopen windows when logging back in.” With this enabled, your Mac returns to the state it was when you logged out. Every application and document reopens. At least on my MacBook Air (with its SSD drive), this happens incredibly fast. Apple must have done some significant optimizing of the code here. The restart time, including opening all prior files, is now shorter with Resume enabled in Lion than it was for the same Mac running Snow Leopard without Resume.

AutoSave and Versions. AutoSave is another great time-saver. And a potential life-saver. Now, when I attempt to close an unsaved document (or quit an application with unsaved documents open), the “Do you want to save the changes in the document…?” message no longer pops up. Don’t worry. This is good. Under Lion, documents are automatically saved when they close — as well as at regular intervals while you are working with them. You can say good-bye to having to type Command-S every couple of minutes. You no longer have to remember to save. The OS does it for you.

The only time I found that AutoSave didn’t function was with never-saved “untitled” documents. This makes sense; I don’t consider this a bug. Still, this leads to the following tip: When opening a new document, save it before you do anything else. Until you save, AutoSave can’t protect you from the danger of losing unsaved data after an application crash or other mishap.

What about those occasions when you might not want changes saved? Maybe you’re experimenting with different ideas in a document and want to be able to revert back to your starting point. No problem. Drop down the menu accessible from the center of the title bar of your document. From here you can select “Revert to Last Saved Version.”

This raises an interesting question: What exactly is the “last saved version”? It’s not what you might initially think. Even though your document is being auto-saved every few minutes, these are not candidates for the “last saved version.” That honor goes to the version saved either when you last manually selected the Save command or when you quit the application. In other words, assuming you never bother with the Save command, the Revert option will always return you to the state of your document when you last opened it. Another way of looking at this: while making changes to an open document, the word “Edited” is added to the right of the document name in the title bar; when you use the Revert command, you return to the version that existed prior to the appearance of “Edited.”

If you want to return to any other saved version, older or newer, auto or not, select “Browse All Versions…” from the same titlebar menu. This brings up a view of all the versions of your document, via an interface that is similar to Time Machine. Select the version you want and it’s restored.

Merge Folders, Group as Folder and Keep Both Files. While managing files and folders in the Finder is never a fun task, Lion adds several useful new features that make the job go more smoothly.

Merge Folders. This is a long-desired feature for me. Now, when moving a folder to a location where a same-named folder already exists, instead of having only the option to “replace” (which results in the loss of any data in the existing folder that is not in the moved folder as well as unnecessarily forcing all duplicate items to be recopied), you can choose to merge the contents into a single folder. This merges/syncs the contents of the two folders. As Apple puts it: “When you try to combine two folders with the same name, the Finder now offers to merge them into a single folder.”

The only problem I’ve had with this feature (and it’s a huge one) is that I can’t get it to work. No matter what I try, all I get is the old Replace option. Either the feature is not yet implemented (as of the golden master version of Lion) or it works in some non-intuitive way that I haven’t yet figured out.

I’ve had more luck with two related worthwhile features: Group as Folder and Keep Both Files.

To use Group As Folder, select all the items you want to place in a new folder. Now Control-click on one of the items. From the contextual menu, select the top item — New Folder with Selection. Now sit back and watch the animation as Lion creates the new folder and puts the selected items in it. Nice!

Keep Both Files is invoked when you move a file into a folder that already has a file by the same name. Now, in addition to the option to replace the existing file, you can choose to “Keep Both Files.” If you select this, Lion will append the word “copy” to the moved file and add it to the folder.

Lookup and Character Picker. These two improvements may be small but they’ll save significant time and hassle when typing text.

Lookup. In Snow Leopard, if you want to check a word in the Dictionary, you highlight the word and select Look Up from its contextual menu. This launches the separate Dictionary application (which sometimes takes an annoyingly long time to load). In Lion, access is simpler and quicker. When you’re done typing a word, do a three-finger double-tap on the trackpad. The word will highlight in yellow. At the same time, the word’s Dictionary and Thesaurus entries pop-up within the document itself (not as a separate program). Very cool.

Character Picker. Do you ever need to add an accent or a tilde or whatever to a character you’re typing? Taking a cue from how things work in iOS, such additions are now more convenient than ever in Lion. Just hold down the desired letter after you type it. A pop-up menu appears with all your choices. Select the one you want and you’re done. You no longer have to remember an assortment of keyboard combinations to get the desired special characters.

Less than enthusiastic

There are a few new features in Lion that I actively avoid. Maybe I’m just an old dog having trouble adapting to some new tricks, but I prefer the old way in these instances. Two immediate examples come to mind:

All My Files. I have no interest in seeing my documents organized by category. I especially don’t need to see my music or photo or movie files listed, as I almost never search for them in the Finder anyway. And I don’t care to give up on using folders to organize my data. Without the context of the enclosing folders, the nature of many files becomes almost meaningless to me. For example, IMG_0412.JPG is not a helpful name. However, knowing that the image file is in a folder named “Colorado Trip 2011” is all the info I need. This folder context is absent in the All My Files view. Having to scroll horizontally through thousands of images to search for a desired one doesn’t make All My Files any more useful.

Pullout Quote

Full screen apps. There are positive aspects to full-screen apps. I enjoy the lack of clutter and absence of distractions. The immersive quality of a full-screen view can be compelling. Still, there are too many times when I want to switch back and forth between apps (such as for copying and pasting text) or simultaneously view the contents of documents open in separate apps. At such times, full screen apps become more of a hassle than a help. Further, if a full-screen capable app has not been updated to take full advantage of the option (meaning that there is little or no on-screen access to menubar or keyboard shortcut commands), its full screen view winds up feeling clumsy. Almost all full-screen apps are currently in this category.

Bottom Line

Mac OS X Lion has enough worthwhile new features that I would recommend an upgrade overall. Still, my over-arching reaction remains tepid. Beyond the top three features cited here, few of the changes are in the “must-have” category. While I don’t necessarily consider this a negative, especially for an OS that is now more than ten years old, it means you can afford to carefully weigh the cons and pros before deciding what to do. As I’ve already covered, Lion drops support for Rosetta and adds major “iOS-ification” features such as LaunchPad and Mission Control. If these are not to your liking, you may want to hold off on upgrading — to see how the chips ultimately fall.

Lion is really the first iteration of a major new iOS-influenced direction for Mac OS X. As such, although Lion is ready to roll as is, there are more than the usual kinks to be worked out. I expect OS X to be a better smoother-functioning product in its next major iteration. Even with this current version, I expect my opinion to improve as I have more time to play with the OS and get accustomed to all that is new. Regardless, I expect almost all Mac users with Lion-compatible hardware will upgrade eventually. That’s the way things have always worked. This time won’t be any different.

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30 Comments Leave Your Own

Lee Dronick

“Character Picker. Do you ever need to add an accent or a tilde or whatever to a character you?re typing? Taking a cue from how things work in iOS, such additions are now more convenient than ever in Lion.”

Is Character Viewer, and Keyboard Viewer, still around in Lion? Character Viewer is something that I feel needs to be more Mac like.

1stplacemacuser

...especially for an OS that is now more than ten years old, ...

Actually, its DNA shows it’s about 25 years old or so, give or take a few years.

/NextStep FTW!

MOSiX Man

Ted,

The ‘All My Files’ idea doesn’t really work well for me, yet, either - though I could see it growing on me. In the mean time, we can simply right-click on ‘All My Files’ and select ‘Remove from sidebar’, then drag our home directory back into the top spot in the sidebar.

I’m also not entirely sold on the idea of full-screen apps. Like you, I find it… less than pleasing… to have swap between apps to look at more than one at a time. With Leopard and Snow Leopard, I’ve also gotten used to the idea of clicking and holding on the title bar for a window, while switching to a new space, to move that window. That option is gone in Lion. If Apple could build in an option, for multi-display configured Macs, to allow full-screen apps use up just one screen and allow another such app take up the other screen completely, that would make it much more worthwhile for me.

(I find it annoying that some people are getting really bent out of shape about all the changes in Lion. They act like all these changes are irrevocable, that all of the new features are being forced down their throats, and that therefore Lion just sucks. The reality is that, with few exceptions, you can use Lion in the same old way as you use Snow Leopard, or you can choose to use the new features and options.)

jadams

...especially for an OS that is now more than ten years old, ...

Actually, its DNA shows it?s about 25 years old or so, give or take a few years.

/NextStep FTW!

Actually OS X can be traced back to UNIX which is now around 40 years old…

1stplacemacuser

Actually OS X can be traced back to UNIX which is now around 40 years old?

Well, let’s not go that far.  Ancient unix was all CLI.  GUI-based Unix didn’t appear until Nextstep, and possibly Solaris.  The GUI based unix, the finder, files and folders, mail.app, textedit and all those came with Neststep, not with the various *nix variants.

Correct me if I’m wrong.

MOSiX Man

Correct me if I?m wrong.

OK. First, I believe that X11 (and earlier versions of the X Windowing System), which provides a graphical interface for Unix terminals/workstations, pre-date NextStep by a few years. Also, the Finder never had anything to do with NextStep. It was part of Mac OS from the very beginning and that’s how it became part of Mac OS X.

1stplacemacuser

MOSIX Man, having used NeXT since 1988 and worked at NeXT in the mid-90s, I can say that the Mac OS version of Finder is nothing like the Nextstep version of Finder.  The Mac OS X version of finder is very much a descendant of the Next version, and not much of the Mac OS version.  The Mac OS version of finder is closer to the Windows version than to NeXT.

1stplacemacuser

Dupe

JonGl

Lookup. In Snow Leopard, if you want to check a word in the Dictionary, you highlight the word and select Look Up from its contextual menu. This launches the separate Dictionary application

Just for the record, you can open up definitions within an app in Leopard and Snow Leopard also (and maybe Tiger, but I didn’t learn of this trick until Leopard). Simply open the Dictionary app and its prefs, and at the bottom, next to “Contextual Menu” choose “Opens Dictionary Panel”. Now you don’t have to open the Dictionary every time. BTW, I believe there’s also a keyboard shortcut. I use Control-Command-D, which, I believe, is the default.

Oh, and I learned this right here on TMO! Nancy, I believe it was, who wrote the article.

-Jon

Ted Landau

A new Apple KB article provides the answer to what to do if you can’t access Recovery HD. The answer? Start up your Mac directly from Apple’s Servers. Here’s a quote:

“Lion Internet Recovery

If you happen to encounter a situation in which you cannot start from the Recovery HD, such as your hard drive stopped responding or you installed a new hard drive without Mac OS X installed, new Mac models introduced after public availability of OS X Lion automatically use the Lion Internet Recovery feature if the Recovery HD (Command-R method above) doesn’t work. Lion Internet Recovery lets you start your Mac directly from Apple’s Servers. The system runs a quick test of your memory and hard drive to ensure there are no hardware issues.

Lion Internet Recovery presents a limited interface at first, with only the ability to select your preferred Wi-Fi network and, if needed, enter the WPA passphrase. Next, Lion Internet Recovery will download and start from a Recovery HD image. From there, you are offered all the same utilities and functions described above.

Only thing that is still not clear to me: Will this work on Mac models that predate the release of Lion?

The article goes on to explain how to install Lion on an external drive and what to do if the Installer says that no Recovery HD can be created.

Finally, the article discusses how to re-download Lion Installer from Mac App Store, if it got deleted: Hold down the Option key when clicking the Purchases tab.

READ THIS APPLE ARTICLE!

P.S. A TMO article (http://www.macobserver.com/tmo/article/apple_to_offer_lion_on_usb_sticks) reports that Apple will release a USB stick version of Lion next month.

MOSiX Man

@1stplacemacuser - So, the file browser in NextStep was called the ‘Finder’? If so, I sit corrected.

1stplacemacuser

Don’t recall.  I think it was Finder.  It was nice in that it showed you the complete path to the current folder or file, much like what is now shown at the bottom now (except it started from your home directory, since NeXT boxes back then were mostly for multi-users, each with their own personal home directory).

1stplacemacuser

Heck, even the home icon on the Mac OS X is exactly the one from NeXT.  The left column of frequently used docs or apps is exactly like NeXT’s, except that it was on top.

Lancashire-Witch

Does anyone know how to make the Dropbox badges work again after installing Lion?  Dropbox itself continues to sync OK; but I’ve noticed the badges on the file/folder icons have disappearwed, and so has the Dropbox icon on the Finder Toolbar.
Unlinking and re-linking the machine doesn’t fix it.

Maybe I’m missing the obvious - again!

MyRightEye

Apple removed the Password Reset Utility from the Installer, totally screwing us Mac techs. Now we have no way to reset a user’s password. Bad, really bad.

Robby Berman

Ted, I think you’re wrong about Recovery HD containing all of the install files for Lion. First off, I’ve read elsewhere it’s only about a half gig in size. Next, I had a pretty bad install of Lion for some reason, and had to reinstall it. I tried using Recovery HD and it re-downloaded the installer from the App Store.
Of course, I’d prefer to be wrong here.

John Dingler, artist

Hi Ted,
Appreciate the list of evaluated features. The “Resume” feature itself promises to be worth the price of Lion v1.

Curious…wondering if there were already third party plugins with the functionality of “Resume” for Snow Leopard.

Ted Landau

I think you?re wrong about Recovery HD containing all of the install files for Lion.

Yup. The data files themselves are downloaded from the Internet. I added a clarification to the article.

Ted Landau

pple removed the Password Reset Utility from the Installer, totally screwing us Mac techs.

Yup. Could you use password reset option in Terminal as an alternative? Otherwise, Apple’s answer appears to be that “Apple ID can be used to reset your user account password.”

MyRightEye

One, it’s rare for my customer to have an Apple ID, but, I suppose if they bought Lion through the app store, they will have one, but this does not resolve the issue of them not being in the store, or contactable at the immediate time to ask for their Apple ID. Most of the time we reset the password it’s because they wrote down the wrong password, don’t know it, or we can’t reach them. Takes 1 min to just reset the password, and then we change it back with the customer when they collect their machine. Now we will have to wait, potentially days, holding up other jobs, delaying theirs, while we wait for them to call us. And then what if they still can’t remember? Well we will have to find a way around it, but as of now, it’s not looking good at all. And the only ones that are going to look incompetent here, is us! Thanks Apple!

Lee Dronick

Yup. Could you use password reset option in Terminal as an alternative? Otherwise, Apple?s answer appears to be that ?Apple ID can be used to reset your user account password.?

And if you don’t have an Apple ID then click here https://appleid.apple.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/MyAppleId.woa/

MyRightEye

They must already HAVE an Apple ID Harry. You can’t create one and then reset the password.

John Dingler, artist

I dunno…this whole ID thing, from the comments so far, sounds like it demands too many steps and too many “if not this, than that” decisions to be truly consumer-focused, you know, for people like I am.

Tom Zepko

My first reaction to “All My Files” was the same as yours, until I discovered the “Arrange By” options.

Try “Arrange By Date Modified”.

This results in a beautifully displayed list of the files you’ve worked on—grouped by Today, Yesterday, Previous 7 Days, Previous 30 Days, Earlier.

And you still have the usual choices View as Icons, List, Columns, and Cover Flow. The preview pane in the Columns view, the images in Cover flow, plus the ubiquious Quick Look make it easy to recognize files.

And if you need to locate the file in the folder hierarchy, simply select “Show Path Bar” in the View menu.

“All My Files” turns out to be extremely useful.

vpndev

Apple removed the Password Reset Utility from the Installer, totally screwing us Mac techs. Now we have no way to reset a user?s password. Bad, really bad.

As Ted mentioned, now we have Terminal as part of Recovery. And as root. With that, “passwd <short_name>” is your friend.

MyRightEye

Some more info would be helpful.

diverreb

No Lion for me until there is a solution to the Quicken 2007 issue of it not running in Lion…  I assume some other older apps using Rosetta will also be non functional…

vpndev

Some more info would be helpful.

Well ...  you start the “Recovery” process and select Terminal. That gives you a bash shell, as root.

As root, you can change any password on the system without knowing what the old one was.

To change root’s password, enter “passwd”  [without quotes, obviously)

To change password for the user with short-name “fred”, type “passwd fred”.

If you don’t know the short names of users, type “ls /Users” and you’ll get a list of the home directories (excepting for users like me who have home dirs on other volumes)

HTH

DamenS

(I find it annoying that some people are getting really bent out of shape about all the changes in Lion. They act like all these changes are irrevocable, that all of the new features are being forced down their throats, and that therefore Lion just sucks. The reality is that, with few exceptions, you can use Lion in the same old way as you use Snow Leopard, or you can choose to use the new features and options.)

Sorry - This is not making sense to me.  Why would someone do this ??  What is the point in buying (spending money on) a new (and presumably still slightly buggy and less-compatible) version of an operating system in order to disable its new features and use it “the same old way” you used the old operating system ?

Lee Dronick

Have youse guys that installed Lion checked out the new TextEdit! Nice new formatting bar. The Fonts list has a category for Windows Office Compatible so you don’t use a font that those folks may not have installed.

Also Character Viewer has been improved. It now has Emoji and Pictographs/Dingbats

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