Mac OS X Lion: What you need to know

The last time Apple updated the Mac operating system—2009’s Snow Leopard release—the most noteworthy changes happened under the hood. That’s not the case with Lion, the next major version of Mac OS X. Apple has been gradually pulling back the curtain on its latest and greatest cat, first at a preview event last October and then this week at the Worldwide Developers Conference. And what we’ve seen thus far is a pretty significant shift for the Mac OS, influenced in large part by Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS.

Big changes like the ones introduced by Mac OS X Lion produce big questions: What’s really new in Lion? How does it work? How can you get it? We’ve spent some time going over what Apple has disclosed about the Mac OS X update, and we’re ready to answer those questions—along with any others you might have about Lion.

Availability

What’s Lion going to cost me?

Would you believe $30? For long-time OS X users, that’s not an insignificant point. Four years ago when Mac OS X 10.5 came out, it cost $129 to install Leopard on your Mac. Now you’ll be able to upgrade to Lion for approximately a quarter of the cost. (And that’s assuming you install it on only one computer—more on that below.) With its approach to Lion pricing, Apple seems intent on redefining what software costs.

When can I get my hands on Lion?

Apple says the update will be available in July, and that’s about as specific as the company is willing to get at this point. The company may provide a more specific release date in the coming weeks, but it’s just as possible that Lion might simply appear on the Mac App Store one day next month, and that will be that.

Wait—the Mac App Store? I can download Lion from there?

In fact, the Mac App Store will be the only place where you can download Lion. There won’t be any option to order it on CD, or from brick-and-mortar retail stores.

What if I have multiple Macs? Can I install it on each one?

This is one of the biggest benefits of Mac App Store distribution: As with any applications you purchase from the Mac App Store, you’ll be able to install Lion on any Macs that are authorized with the Apple ID you used to purchase the OS. Which means that if your family has four, five, six, or more Macs, a single $30 payment will let you install Lion on every machine. With previous full-version upgrades of Mac OS X, $129 would get you a license for a single install, with a $199 Family Pack letting you install on up to five Macs. Apple never used DRM to enforce such rules with prior releases of OS X, but now you’ll be able to reuse your copy on multiple machines without the guilt and shame.

How about schools and businesses? Will they only be able to get the update through the Mac App Store? That seems inconvenient.

We agree: There’s probably another shoe to drop here in regards to schools and businesses. Chances are, while Apple will make hay with Mac App Store distribution of Lion for the average customer, the company will probably offer other avenues for those unable to install through anything other than traditional means. For what it’s worth, it’s also possible you may be able to download Lion from the Mac App Store, then burn a copy to DVD for installing on your other systems, though we’re not sure that’s going to be the upgrade advice Apple gives IT managers and system administrators.

What kind of Mac do I need to install Lion?

The processor powering your Mac is the best indicator of whether you’ve got Lion-friendly hardware. Apple says you’ll need a Mac with an Intel Core 2 Duo, Core i3, Core i5, Core i7, or Xeon processor to run the new OS. (In case you haven’t committed your Mac’s processor to memory, just click the Apple icon on the top left of your screen and select About This Mac—you’ll learn everything you ever wanted to know about your Mac’s innards.)

Apple’s system requirements essentially draw a line in the sand at Mac models released in late 2006. (That’s when the first Core 2 Duo-based systems hit the market.) If you hopped on the Intel transition early, and you’re still using that five-year-old Core Duo (or Solo)-powered Mac, you’re going to have to upgrade your hardware—at least if you want to entertain any thoughts of running Lion.

Of course, just because early Core 2 Duo-based Macs are compatible with Lion, that doesn’t necessarily mean performance will be great on these Macs. We’ll have to wait and see if, as with previous Mac OS X upgrades, the oldest compatible systems offer lackluster performance under the latest OS.

I’m not running the latest incarnation of Snow Leopard. I don’t have the Mac App Store. How am I supposed to get Lion?

According to Apple’s official procedure, you have two options: Buy a brand new Mac, or upgrade your Mac to Snow Leopard now. However, given that Snow Leopard was a paid upgrade and there are still people with Lion-compatible Macs running Leopard—not to mention the fact that a good number of people simply won’t be able to download the 4GB Lion upgrade due to bandwidth caps or slow Internet connections—we imagine it’s possible that Apple will quietly offer alternate upgrade paths while still heavily promoting the Mac App Store approach. But we can’t guarantee it.

How will installation work?

Apple hasn’t yet said, but assuming the procedure is similar to the installation process for the Lion Developer Preview, purchasing the upgrade from the Mac App Store will automatically download a large (approximately 4GB) installer app. Once the download is complete, you’ll simply launch the installer, which will install Lion in place—you won’t need to create a bootable installer disc or drive. You should also be able to copy that installer to another Mac and—provided that Mac is authorized to use your Mac App Store account—repeat the installation there.

But if there’s no disc, how can I troubleshoot my Mac if I run into a major problem?

So far, Apple hasn’t provided details for creating a bootable Lion-installer disc. However, when you bought your Mac it came with a bootable disc or (in the case of the MacBook Air, thumb drive) that can be used for troubleshooting and disk repair. That’s not going away. And Internet reports suggest that beta versions of the Lion installer actually contain a bootable disc image, so we wouldn’t be surprised if the final Lion installer gives you the option to burn yourself a boot disc or format a bootable thumb drive.

Must I pay for Lion if I got my Mac recently?

If you bought your new Mac on or after June 6, then you qualify for a free copy of Lion. Apple says you’ll have 30 days from Lion’s release to request your free copy (most likely via a Mac App Store redemption code that the company will provide).

Interface Changes

For desktop Mac users without a Magic Trackpad, will Lion be usable? I don’t see scrollbars.

While Lion has clearly been built to favor trackpad input, that doesn’t mean other users will be left in the lurch. The scrollbars you know and love are still there, but hidden—they’ll only activate when you move your mouse over the scrolling portion window. (Developer builds of Lion have included a preference to keep scrollbars always visible, as well.) As for multitouch gestures relating to Mission Control and Exposé, you’ll still be able to map some of them to keyboard shortcuts.

What are all these multitouch gestures, anyway?

There are many, and they’re configurable. (That is, you can turn specific gestures off, and you can often adjust the number of fingers a gesture requires.) You can double-tap on a word with three fingers to look it up in Lion’s built-in dictionary, scroll with two fingers, and zoom in and out by pinching or double-tapping with two fingers. You can swipe between pages (in Safari, iPhoto, and other apps) with left or right two-finger swipes, and you can swipe between apps with three or four fingers. Trigger Mission Control—Lion’s new take on Exposé—with a three-finger swipe up, and reveal the desktop by spreading your thumb and three fingers apart, as if you’re flicking all your windows away.

What’s this about scrolling being backwards in Lion?

If you’ve ever used an iOS device, you may have noticed that your content will scroll in the direction you push or pull it, imitating how you’d interact with a real-world object. In Lion, Apple has brought this concept—often referred to as inverse scrolling—to the desktop: Pull down with your fingers, and the document will move downward—bringing you closer to the top.

If this doesn’t quite translate for you on the desktop as it might on an iPhone or iPad, don’t fret: Lion includes a preference to restore scrolling to the direction you're accustomed to.

What’s changed in the Finder?

The Finder has gotten a minor makeover: its sidebar icons now look a lot like the icons in iTunes—monochromatic and simple. A new All My Files pseudo-folder in the Finder displays all of of the documents on your Mac, grouped by type. By default, Finder windows no longer show their Status bar relaying your available drive space, but you can re-enable it. And as with all windows under Lion, you can resize your Finder windows from anywhere across all four window edges.

Features

How will Lion change my daily Mac-using experience?

It could have a pretty substantial impact, we think. A trio of features—Resume, Autosave, and Versions—may have the single greatest impact on your day-to-day Mac use. With Resume, when you quit an application with a bunch of open windows and later relaunch it, compatible applications should—ta-da!—resume in exactly the state you last left them. If you’re accustomed to iOS, it’s similar to the “freeze” state multitasking approach in iOS 4; Lion brings that to the desktop, and it even works after you reboot your Mac.

Autosave and Versions combine to help you kick your Command-S habit: Compatible apps can save your files for you as you type, and you can view and restore—as well as cut and copy from—all your past revisions in a Time Machine-esque portal. By default, Versions will save a copy of your file every hour; anytime you manually save, you’ll add a new version “checkpoint” as well. As a result, you can spend more time writing your document—or editing your photo, or building code—and less time worrying about how it’s being saved and stored.

How do fullscreen apps work? How do I know about alerts in my Dock if my app is fullscreen?

Fullscreen applications—like their name suggests—operate by expanding the application to take up the entire width of the screen. They open in a separate desktop space, so that you can still access any other windows by switching spaces via multitouch gesture or Mission Control. Most of Apple’s applications will support fullscreen mode on launch; for third-party programs, however, developers will need to update their code before it can be used.

To send an application into fullscreen mode, click the button in the upper-right corner of the toolbar. You can see your dock in fullscreen mode by moving your mouse to the side of the screen where you have it anchored; you can similarly trigger the menu bar by moving the mouse to the top. If you depend on blinking Dock icons (and not audio queues) for alerts about new e-mail messages or instant messages, however, be warned that you’ll be blind to such notifications when you use an app in fullscreen mode, as the Dock operates as if you’ve hidden it. (Bouncing Dock notifications will still briefly appear when you’re running a fullscreen app.)

What is AirDrop?

First revealed during the October Lion preview, AirDrop got more extensive demo time during WWDC. It’s a file-sharing feature designed to allow users in the same area to transfer files wirelessly. AirDrop finds other users in your vicinity—even if there’s no Wi-Fi network—and allows you to exchange files with them.

Select the AirDrop item in the Finder’s Sources sidebar to see the icons of other AirDrop users on your local network. To share a file, drop it onto the icon of the person you wish to send the file to. The receiving party will see a notification asking them if they’d like to accept or decline the transfer.

Can I use AirDrop to send files to my friends or family out of state?

No. This is short-range technology—it’s only designed to find other users within a 30-foot radius, Apple says. So unless you’re standing at the state line and they’re on the other side waving at you, you won’t be able to use AirDrop to send files to your out-of-state friends and family.

What is Launchpad?

The Launchpad gives users instant access to all the applications on their Mac. It’s a look reminiscent of the home screen of an iPad. Users can see their entire application library laid out in icon form, arrange folders, scroll through pages, and rearrange apps as they see fit. Windows users who transitioned to the Mac after falling in love with their iPhone may very well take a liking to Launchpad’s Home screen-like interface; for experienced users with oodles of applications, however, it may prove too unwieldy for general use. As anyone who’s accumulated a few pages of apps on the iPhone can tell you, it’s a lot easier to just give up and use Spotlight rather than play the app-finding equivalent of Where’s Waldo. That said, Launchpad seems primarily aimed at iOS switchers, and those of us who prefer the comfort of the Finder can easily ignore it.

What is Mission Control?

Mission Control is a reinvention of Exposé and Spaces, OS X’s respective window-switching and virtual desktop features. In Mission Control, you use trackpad gestures (or keyboard shortcuts) to quickly view all your running apps and switch between different workspaces (which include shared spaces with multiple apps, apps running in full-screen mode, and even the Dashboard). Instead of configuring what goes where via a System Preference pane, you just drag and drop apps and windows into new spaces from the Mission Control view. The idea is that you can be more productive by switching among different views (say, an e-mail window versus one containing a Web browser and a note-taking app), and Apple is counting on Mission Control being easier to use than Exposé and Spaces.

What’s new with the other OS X applications I’ve come to know and love?

In Lion, you’ll find new revised versions of most of Apple’s core applications: There are changes across the board in Mail, Safari, iCal, Address Book, Preview, TextEdit, iChat, Photo Booth, and Quicktime Player—even Dictionary and Font Book have a new feature or two.

Mail has received the biggest overhaul, gaining a new three-column layout, conversation view, message previews, related messages, search suggestions, inline reply and deletion controls, custom labels and flags, the addition of an archive mailbox, and Exchange 2010 support.

Safari, meanwhile, has a new Reading List function (similar to Marco Arment’s Instapaper); multitouch gestures like tap (or pinch) to zoom and two-finger swipe for navigation; enhanced privacy features; and support for new CSS3 and JavaScript elements along with the WOFF text format.

iCal and Address Book have been reskinned to more-closely resemble their iOS cousins, while Preview has gained new signature annotations, magnification tools, and support for opening iWork and Office documents. TextEdit has a new top toolbar, while iChat now supports third-party plug-ins for adding new IM services in addition to a unified buddy list. Photo Booth has several new effects, support for trimming video clips, and a fullscreen mode that imitates the photo booths of yore.

QuickTime has brought back several features from its defunct sibling, QuickTime Pro: You can now merge and rotate clips, export just the audio of a clip; and do partial screen captures (with or without cursor clicks). You can also export to Vimeo, Flickr, Facebook, iMovie, and Mail.

Dictionary now supports inline dictionary definitions, OS-wide: This means you can highlight and control-click a word (or perform a three finger double-tap) anywhere in the system and have the definition appear in a pop-up. Font Book has been slightly reorganized and optimized, and there are even a few new system fonts: Damascus, PT Sans, and Kefa. In addition, if you like emoji, you’ll be pleased to see that Lion has integrated Apple’s own custom color emoji font.

The Mac App Store is staying the same, right?

Nope. Even though it just arrived in January, the Mac App Store should undergo a few modest changes when Lion arrives. Like their iOS counterparts, Mac app makers will be able to add in-app purchases and push notifications. Apple is also requiring developers to add sandboxing—which prevents applications from interfering with other bits of information on your system—for heightened security.

Updating your software should go faster, too. Lion will favor “delta” updates for the apps you own, meaning the Mac App Store will now download just the changes in a code for each software update rather than the entire application.

This story, "Mac OS X Lion: What you need to know" was originally published by Macworld.

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