My Favorite (Stealthy) Lion Features

Apple’s new OS X, Lion, has lots of new, glitzy, high-profile features, but there are some lesser features, not so widely discussed, that will really make your Mac life better in subtle ways. They’re really cool as well. Let’s take a look.

For some, the prospect of Lion is like a blind date with Annie Walker, the CIA agent from USA’s “Covert Affairs.” One is intrigued by the possibilities but apprehensive about potential complications and annoyances. For example, a gun fight in the restaurant. Worse, if that’s possible, one has heard stories about what’s happened to other fellows on their dates with her.

All this stems from the discussion about how Apple has tried to make Lion easier to use, more “iPad-like,” and that means to some, dumbing down. The newbies know nothing of this and will be using Lion, perhaps, as their first OS X, but the more experienced users may feel like certain (techy) doors are closing on them.

What we have to consider, however, is that the OS is not an end in itself. OS X exists solely for the purpose of getting a task done, hopefully a pleasant one. That could be editing a photo library, searching the Internet for a new iPhone case, or sending a tweet. In addition, after ten years, Apple has learned what kinds of housekeeping tasks the OS can attend to itself and what things require some human intervention. OS X is all grown up and can take care of itself these days. As a result, that task focus, rather than the system maintenance and fiddling focus, is the hallmark of Lion.

Looked at in that light, my own perspective is different. The more I use Lion, the more I like it. That’s because I feel I can be more productive with Lion and not worry so much about the operating system aspects. They’re still there, and I can still do things the older way if I wish, but there are potentially fewer distractions. For example, see Ted landau’s excellent: “Reclaiming the Finder in Lion.

Put another way, one could go on that date with Annie Walker and look forward to a pleasant, relaxing evening. She’s off duty, wearing a sexy outfit, and left her gun at home. We can focus on dinner, not watching the exits.

With that in mind, let’s look at some of the lesser known but cool features of Lion.

Covert Affairs

1. Finder: Group as a Folder. This looks like an idea from iOS. How many times have you had a bunch of files on the desktop and ended up, cleaning up, by first creating a folder and then dragging them into it? Lion makes this really easy: just (CMD) select the items, right click, and select “New Folder with Selection.” Of course, you have to rename the folder, but Apple even makes that easy by pre-highlighting the default folder name.

2. Finder: Keep Both Files. Another OS X annoyance used to be that dragging a file with the same name as a preexisting one in a folder would result in a dialog: essentially replace or don’t replace. In Lion, the OS will rename the new file, appending “copy.” The bad news: it only took Apple ten years to think of this.

3. Restore: Recovery Mode. The Lion install takes some extra time at the start to carve out a new partition and install a basic copy of Lion there. Apple has already developed this technology for Boot Camp, and so it’s a no brainer by now. It’s also a concept used on the Apple TV 2G. In an emergency, one can boot from the second, smaller partition and check out the main partition with Disk Utility as well as perform some other maintenance tasks. Hold down the OPTION key right after you hear the boot chime, and you’ll be presented with a graphic of the devices and partitions you can boot from.

When you boot normally, Disk Utility doesn’t show this second partition. That seems like one of those “closed doors” at first, but then you think about it, that emergency boot partition needs to be out of sight, out of mind. Leaving it visible in Disk Utility just invites meddlesome tinkering. Of course, when you boot from the recovery partition, both partitions are visible in Disk Utility, as they should be for diagnosis.

OS X Utilities

Mac OS X Utilities, alternate boot partition

I just wish Apple had included a fifth entry here. “Quit utilities and boot normally.” As it is, you have to enter CMD-Q, then select a new partition to boot from. A nit-pick.

4. Preview: Smart Magnify. One of the often overlooked features of the Leopard family is the ability to hold down the CTRL key and roll the mouse scroll wheel to magnify the screen. I do this when I’m look at a chart in an article in Safari that has a graphic that’s just a tad too small.

Preview ads a smart magnifier that can selectively magnify an area in Preview. Turn it on and off in Preview’s Tools menu.

Smart magnify

Preview: Smart Magnify

5. Privacy Preferences. It’s easy these days to convert a WAN IP address to a location. Here’s one site that does it. Without considerable deep fiddling, there’s no way to keep a website from knowing your location, and that’s how some location-specific ads appear in your browser.

However, with the advent of the iPhone and iPad mobility, we’re seeing more and more OS X apps that want to access and utilize your location. In that case, Lion allows you to determine whether an app can access that information. It’s in System Preferences -> Security & Privacy -> Privacy tab.

6. Resume on Restart. Lion has a checkbox in the restart dialog that dictates whether everything will be as you left it after a restart. This, of course, is in the style of the iPad where everything is pretty much as you left it.

This is one of those things where the Apple engineers are thinking like we think and have to do the same tiresome housekeeping when they come into work each morning. Thanks Apple.

7. Drag and Drop from the Downloads List. In Safari, you access your downloads with a new down-arrow icon on the upper right. So far so good. But how many times have you wished you could more easily get one of those downloaded files onto the desktop, for more visibility, for some kind of operation? Now, it’s easy. Just drag the download entry icon from the download window. Note: there are some restrictions. If the file has moved since you downloaded it or it’s already in the location you’re dragging to, the dragged icon will have a “not allowed” badge attached.

8. Safari Sandboxing. It’s about time. Chrome has had this feature for quite some time, and I’ve lamented that fact before. Sandboxing keeps websites and their executables from accessing the deeper OS. This stops malicious code, delivered to Safari from a website, from doing any harm. I was hoping this would appear in Snow Leopard, and it’s high time Safari got on par with Chrome.

9. Time Machine: Encrypted Backups and Local Snapshots. These features are a recognition of the mobility of users these days. Hard disks, especially those used for Time Machine are getting smaller and smaller — and easy to lose on travel. You may have your internal hard disk encrypted with File vault, but that’s all in vain if your miniature TM drive is lost. Encrypting the TM backup is essential and a great addition.

Local Snapshots lets you, as Apple says, “take the Time Machine experience with you when you’re away from your Time Capsule or backup drive.” Local copies of your changed files are stored right on the Mac. I haven’t had a chance to try this out, but I know I’m going to love it.

10. Login Screen Text. Ever since I can recall, we had to edit a PLIST in order to generate a login screen message. Finally, after ten years in the field, an OS X System Preference makes it easy to build that text. Mine says, “Property of John Martellaro [my iPhone number],” To create or edit this text field, go to System Preferences -> Security & Privacy -> General tab.


There are over 250 new features in Lion that Apple has made public, but these are some of my personal favorites. In lots of little ways, Lion makes life easier, more productive and more secure for any user, but especially mobile users. The more the OS fades into the background and yet works wonders for us, the better our Mac life will be.