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Mac OS X Lion Review

Our Verdict

Apple's latest OS combines some of the best aspects of the iPad with powerful new features that help save users time.


  • Time-saving multitouch gestures
  • Helpful Mission Control view
  • Several apps run at full screen
  • Smarter email search
  • Auto Save adds peace of mind
  • iOS-like Launchpad for apps
  • AirDrop makes sharing files locally a breeze


  • Can't close apps or search from within Mission Control
  • Dock could use a makeover
  • Using new gestures requires learning curve
  • Must manually exit search to return to inbox in Mail

Someday, Apple's desktop and mobile operating systems could very well become one, and you only need to use Mac OS X Lion for a few minutes to realize that the walls are breaking down. There's an iPad-like Launchpad for the apps you buy from the Mac App Store, a heavier emphasis on multitouch gestures (just like iOS 5), and many apps run at full screen.

At the same time, Apple hasn't forgotten that notebooks and tablets are different beasts, which is why Lion includes new features to fully leverage the muscle and productivity potential of MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros. For example, Mission Control lets you see all your open apps and Spaces on a single screen, and Mail has souped up search capabilities that will make Outlook users jealous. Lion also includes some features we'd like to see migrate to iOS.

At just $29 as a software upgrade, Mac OS X Lion is almost a no-brainer for current Apple notebook owners, but how well do all of the new features work? And is Lion reason enough to choose a Mac over a Windows laptop?

Mission Control: Meet Your New Hub

A three-finger swipe up: It's the gesture we used most in our day-to-day computing with Lion, and we suspect the same will prove true for both longtime and first-time Mac users who pick up this OS. This gesture launches Mission Control, which provides a single view of everything that's going on your notebook and integrates Expose. Up top you'll see the Dashboard on the left, and the rest of the row is populated with thumbnails of full-screen apps you may have open. The center area of Mission Control houses your desktop and apps that aren't running at full screen.

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If you want to cut down on some of the clutter, you can add a desktop space just by clicking on the + button in the upper-right corner. You can also drag open windows into newly created Spaces, but not full-screen apps, which is a bit confusing.

We like the way Mission Control organizes open apps. For example, if you have two Safari windows open--not in full screen mode--Mission Control will automatically layer them on top of one another and place the Safari icon on top of the stack. It's just friendlier than the old Expose.

Mission Control can get confusing, however, when you have two instances of the same application open where one is in full-screen mode and the other is not. For example, at one point during our testing, Pages was both in the top row of thumbnails in Mission Control and in the Expose view in the middle of the screen.

We would like to see a few enhancements to Mission Control. First, we wish you could close or quit apps--full-screen or not--right from this interface. (Right now you can only delete Spaces.) In fact, you can't close apps in the dock while in Mission Control mode either. We'd also like to see Apple add a Spotlight search bar to Mission Control so that this incredibly useful tool truly is ubiquitous. You can launch Spotlight with a shortcut at any time (Command + Spacebar) elsewhere in the OS, but this shortcut doesn't work in Mission Control mode.

Mac App Store + Launchpad: The iPad in Your Mac

The Mac App Store launched earlier this year, and since then Apple has become the largest software retailer, beating out giants such as Best Buy and Walmart. This isn't a huge surprise. The Mac App Store is just as attractive and easy to use as its iOS counterpart. Assuming you have an iTunes account, downloading an app is as simple as entering your password. Apple says there are thousands of apps available.

When you download a new app, you'll literally see it fly over to the Launchpad and start downloading, just like the iPad. Lion is also smart enough to add app shortcuts for programs you didn't download via the App Store, such as Firefox and Skype. It's kind of like the way iTunes adds album art. More good news: When performing updates, Apple downloads only data that's new for each app (called Delta updates), which saves time.

To get to the Launchpad at any time, you can select the icon in the dock or perform a pinch gesture using three fingers and a thumb. In addition, the latest MacBook Airs have a dedicated Launchpad key on the keyboard (F4). As with iOS devices, you can press and hold on an app to delete it or you can drag one app onto another to automatically create a folder. The Launchpad and Dock also complement one another; you can drag an app onto the Dock so it's always within easy reach.

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Multitouch Gestures: Too Many Shortcuts?

One could definitely argue that Apple has gone a little overboard with multitouch gestures in Mac OS X Lion. There's a pinch and swipe for almost anything you can think of. However, there's no arguing that once you get the hang of them, these gestures are quite useful.

We've already covered Mission Control (three-finger swipe up) and getting to the Launchpad (pinch with three fingers), but Lion has many more tricks up its sleeve. With a sideways three-finger swipe you can easily switch between applications running at full screen, and by default you use two fingers to swipe between pages. The Settings menu lets you make certain changes, such as swiping left or right with two or three fingers, but that automatically changes swiping between apps into a four-finger gesture to avoid conflicts.

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Perhaps the most controversial gesture in Lion is how the OS now handles two-finger vertical scrolling, whether you're on a web page or a document. The new default option is Natural, which mirrors the experience on the iPad. In other words, you swipe up to pull content up from the bottom of the page, as opposed to scrolling up to move the scroll bar up in a document. We didn't find this setting to be very natural and turned it off, but we suppose heavy iOS users will appreciate it.

Other helpful gestures include spreading three fingers and your thumb to show the desktop--as opposed to clicking Fn+F11 on the keyboard--and double-tapping to zoom in on a specific area of a document or web page.

At times, we found the gesture system to be a bit overwhelming, as similar finger movements accomplish different tasks depending on what's open. For instance, spreading three fingers and your thumb can be used for exiting Launchpad, as well as for showing the desktop. Overall, though, the system works well, and we rarely had to execute a gesture more than once for it to register.

Full-Screen Apps: Unitasking Done Right

No more dragging the sides of windows to expand them, or being distracted by a cascade of apps running behind the one you want to focus on. That's the goal of full-screen apps in Lion. Many of Apple's apps now run at full screen, including everything from Mail and iTunes to Safari and the entire iLife and iWork suites. Apple also promises that many more full-screen apps will soon be available in the Mac App Store.

To make an app full screen, you just click the top-right corner of a full-screen app. We wish full-screen apps opened that way by default, but at least Lion will remember to re-open an app in that mode once it has been engaged.

At first, full-screen apps look almost too clean, with no options visible at the top and bottom of the screen. But all you have to do is bring your cursor to the top of the screen to see the menus. To get the Dock to appear, you move the cursor to the bottom of the screen, then push it downward once more. This avoids launching the Dock inadvertently.

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Navigating between full-screen apps is a cinch; just swipe sideways on the touchpad with three fingers. If you have a lot of full-screen apps open simultaneously, you'll find it easier to switch apps by launching Mission Control.

Mail: Smarter Search, Conversations Sans Clutter

Apple's Mail app now supports Exchange as well as POP accounts. We especially like how Mail dims your inbox in full-screen mode when composing a new message. To make it easier to file and find messages in your inbox, Mail includes a Favorite bar where you can store the folders you use most (Work, Family, etc.) What impresses us most, though, is the app's super-charged search functionality.

After just a few minutes we realized just how invaluable the search bar is in the Mail app. It not only suggests results on the fly and categorizes them accordingly by People and Subject, but you can create search tokens on the fly to narrow your search. For instance, we typed a contact's name in the search box and then "July" to see only those messages we had received from that person in that month. We could then click on the search token to switch between viewing messages received from that contact and e-mail sent to that person using a drop-down menu. Pretty clever.

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Our only beef with the new-and-improved search is that you can't just click on Inbox to get back to your list of new messages, as you can in Outlook or Gmail. You must click the X next to your search query to back out of it.

Another welcome feature in Mail is Conversations. While we find Google's Conversation View too cluttered and confusing, Mail in Mac OS X Lion neatly separates messages in a chronological order, so the conversation is easy to follow. The app shows only new text by default so you don't have to needlessly scroll to get to the part of the thread you're looking for. Mail displays a number in the inbox pane to tell you how many messages are in a conversation, and clicking that number will drop down the complete list so you can select a specific e-mail.

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Resume, Auto Save, and Versions: Less Work for You

We can tell that Apple put a lot of thought into how to save users time. A great case in point is the new Resume feature. When you close an app and then reopen, everything is just the way you left it, including where you were in a document and even the position of the cursor. Resume also remembers any windows, palettes, and panes you had open, a boon for creative professionals.

If you restart your Mac, by default Lion will automatically launch all the apps you had open previously. However, you have the option to tell Lion not to open windows when logging back in; just check the box when restarting.

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Auto Save is yet another example of Lion's ability to improve the computing experience without you having to lift a finger. The OS automatically saves your work in the background, so after you save a document once, you don't have to worry about continuously pressing Command+S. Auto Save is built into TextEdit, as well as the latest version of iWork.

Don't want Auto Save to kick in? Mac OS X Lion lets you lock documents so you don't make any unwelcome changes while reviewing an important doc. You can also make duplicate copies of documents (good for creating templates) and revert to an original version of a doc by clicking the document's title and the choosing one of the above options from a drop-down menu.

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Last but not least is Versions. This feature enables users to compare the current version of a document against previous versions using a Time Machine-like interface. Mac OS X Lion automatically saves a new version every hour, as well as when you make "significant changes" or use lock, duplicate, or revert. However, you can manually save a version at any time. One of the coolest aspects of Versions is that you can drag and drop an image, paragraph, or other object from an old version to the latest version of the document.

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AirDrop: Local File Sharing Made Easy

Death to the USB key! The AirDrop feature in Mac OS X makes sharing files simple using a secure peer-to-peer network. All you need to do is start the app, then find the other person nearby who's on a Mac using Lion. You then drag whatever you want to share on top of the other person's picture, and that other user will get a pop-up invite. If the person accepts, the transfer starts. In our tests, we shared photos and PDFs in both directions without any issues. Unfortunately, Windows users can't join in on the fun.

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AirDrop has a lot of potential outside of file-sharing. We could easily imagine Apple adding social-networking functionality to this feature so users can introduce themselves and trade messages or Facebook profiles in cafes or on campuses. We can also see AirDrop being used at business conferences to exchange information. Don't be surprised to see AirDrop make its way into iOS, either.

Safari: A New Surfing To-Do List

A lot of us mean to read articles that we open in new tabs but never get around to checking them out. That's what Safari's new Reading List is for. By dragging a page directly onto the eyeglasses icon beneath the address bar, you create a mini bookmark list of stuff that you want to get to later.

Mac OS X Lion also leverages multitouch gestures well in Safari. You can swipe sideways with two fingers to see the last page you visited, and double-tap to zoom in on a particular area of a page. We do think Safari could do a better job of being more social, though. We'd like to see an option to share web pages with Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ friends and followers built right into the browser.

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There's no doubt that Apple is on a roll with Mac sales, and it's not just the shiny and slim notebooks that have allowed the company to enjoy growth at the expense of many Windows laptop makers. It's how the software and hardware work together, such as the instant resume from sleep on the 11- and 13-inch MacBook Air, and how smoothly and easily gestures work on Apple's trackpads. What Mac OS X Lion does is elevate the computing experience while sprinkling some of the iPad's magic.

The Launchpad alone will prove attractive to first-time Mac buyers, while power users will appreciate Mission Control, even though that view can get confusing when you have a mix of full-screen and windowed apps. We definitely see some room for improvement in certain areas that haven't been touched, such as the Dock. Some of the icons are more cute than clear, such as Safari (a compass) and Finder (a two-colored face). And while Apple does a nice job explaining what various multitouch gestures do under Preferences, this part of the OS definitely has a learning curve.

In some ways, Windows 8 looks more ambitious because Microsoft is installing a completely new front end on the OS. With Lion, the innovations are more subtle. Then again, Apple isn't under any pressure to start from scratch or turn a desktop OS into a tablet-friendly one. Consumers already really like Mac OS X, and Lion brings some of the features people love about iOS to the table while treating computers as the content creation engines they're designed to be.

Yes, we'd like to see a lot more full-screen apps (which will come with time) and deeper social-networking integration in everything from contacts and calendar to the browser. It also remains to be seen how well Lion will work with iCloud. Overall, though, Lion is a bridge to the future we'd happily use as our everyday OS.

Mac OS X Lion Specs

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Software TypeOperating Systems