The Best (and Other) Features of Lion

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.