OS X Lion: observations and tips

  • Update 2011-07-29: More content in the Mail section. Mentioned path bar and status bar in section on Finder.
  • Update 2011-07-27: Material on iMac freezes; longer conclusion; sections on Mail, iCal, preparing for Lion.
Having used Lion for a few days, this post describes my experiences and gives tips for using it.

1. Observations and tips

Mission control:
  • Desktops: What used to be Spaces are now called Desktops. Desktops are screens with windows that you can switch between. To unify the multitude of user interface mechanisms of OS X, the Dashboard has become a Desktop (you can change that via the “Mission Control” system preference pane). Desktops are still called Spaces in the “Mission Control” pane.
  • Swiping for moving between Desktops is great. The Mouse and Trackpad preference panes allow you to chose whether to swipe with three or four fingers (under “More Gestures”).
  • Opening and closing Desktops in Mission Control: When you move to the top right corner, a “+” button appears for opening new Desktops. If you hover over a miniature Desktop, a button for closing it appears in the top left corner. If you hold the Option (Alt) key, all those buttons are visible at once. And you can switch to a Desktop by clicking on its thumbnail.
  • Hitting Space while pointing at a miniature window magnifies that window.
  • Two-finger swiping while pointing at a stack of windows spreads out those windows.
  • There doesn’t appear to be a way to rearrange Desktops.
  • When in Mission Control, you cannot grab and move miniature windows between Desktops. Instead, you need to switch to the Desktop where a window is, grab the larger miniature at the bottom and move it to one of the Desktops at the top.
Full-screen apps:
  • Many apps such as the DVD player and QuickTime already had custom full-screen modes. Turning full-screen apps into Desktops is clever, because the full-screen mode becomes a standard user interface mechanism and because you can switch between several full-screen apps.
  • In full-screen mode both the dock and the menu bar are hidden, but can be revealed, by moving the cursor to the top or to the side where the dock is.
  • I initially thought, I would leave any app in full-screen mode that is capable of it, but having the dock and the menu bar hidden does not let you see the status indicators in the menu bar (including the time). For the same reason, I like to have the dock always visible. Thus, I only use full-screen modes sparingly, one application at a time.
  • The Esc key lets you leave the full-screen mode. Doing so moves the app back to one of the Desktops, which I find confusing.
User interface mechanisms:
  • Scroll bars: Depending on one’s input device, scroll bars appear only during scrolling. That can be changed via the “General” preference pane.
  • Natural scrolling: Two-finger scrolling is reversed by default. It takes a while to get used to this change, but it makes sense. I’ve never understood why scrolling was different on iOS and OS X [1].
  • Window resizing: Finally – The resizing bottom right corners are gone and you can resize a window anywhere: any corner, any side.
  • Automatically restoring windows:
    • Disable: Uncheck “Restore windows when quitting and re-opening apps” in the “General” preference pane.
    • Close all windows when quitting an app: In some apps, such as Safari, let can hold Option (Alt) and “Quit” becomes “Quit and Discard Windows”
  • Tips:
    • Three-finger double-tap on a word or a selection displays a pop-up definition for that text in many applications.
    • Two-finger horizontal swiping: used for navigation in many programs. For example, in Safari, it moves through the history, in iCal you go backward and forward in time.
    • Command-Option-T displays a character picker.
  • Cut and paste files: Finally! Lion’s Finder can cut and paste files. To do so, copy a file with Command-C. The go to where you want to move it and “Move files here” via Command-Option-V. That command also appears in the “Edit” menu if you hold the Option key.
  • Path bar, status bar: can be shown and hidden via the “View” menu. The former shows the path of a selected item. The latter shows the size of selected items and of free storage. You can also display free storage by hitting space when a drive is selected.
  • If you have both a solid state drive and a hard disk drive, you can eject the latter (via a context menu in the Finder) and your machine will be quieter. You can remount it later via “Disk Utility”.
Spotlight, Time Machine:
  • After upgrading, the Spotlight indices are re-created which results in a temporary slowdown. I think that’s a phenomenon some people have reported; they thought, that Lion was generally slow.
  • Under “Privacy”, the Spotlight preference pane allows you to hide some folders from searching. As the Finder uses Spotlight to give an overview of all the images and videos you have, doing so is wise for private or otherwise incriminating material you might have.
  • Time Machine: Is still very slow on my 64 bit iMac. With exactly the same data, it was much faster on my previous 32 bit iMac, so this must be some kind of bug. As a work-around I use my rsync-based Time Machine replacement called “incsync”.
  • Gestures: Two-finger horizontal swiping moves through time.
  • Create Quick Event: The “New Event” command allows you to enter date, time and a description at the same time:
        Movie at 7pm on Friday [Apple’s example]
        14:00 Lunch with Jane
  • The new horizontal layout is great on widescreen display.
  • Conversations: You can group messages by conversation, but that sometimes makes me think I have lost a message. You thus have to play with several commands and see what works for you:
    • View → Organize by Conversation: can be switched on and off.
    • View → Expand All Conversations: ensures that you see all messages in your inbox.
    • View → Show/Hide Related Messages: is useful when you are not organizing by conversation.
    I am starting to like conversations: they reduce clutter and include answers I have given (if you enable related messages, see below) – one tends to forget that after a few days, one’s own emails can be just as foreign as some else’s.
  • Define a shortcut for “Expand All Conversations”:
    • Go to “System Preferences → Keyboard → Keyboard Shortcuts → Application Shortcuts”
    • Click on the plus symbol.
    • Enter Mail as the application, “Expand All Conversations” as the menu title, and a shortcut of your choosing (I am using Command-E, which normally is “Use Selection for Find”).
  • Related messages: The following is a quote from Mail help.

    By default, conversations include only messages in the current mailbox. You can choose to include related messages from other mailboxes, such as your messages from the Sent mailbox, or replies that you have saved to a mailbox.

    • To always include related messages in every conversation, choose Mail > Preferences, click Viewing, and then select the “Include related messages” checkbox.
    • To include related messages for the current conversation only, choose View > Show Related Messages, or click the Show Related Messages icon (if you added it to the Mail toolbar).
    • To exclude related messages at any time, choose View > Hide Related Messages, or click the Hide Related Messages icon in the Mail toolbar.
Xcode and Java:
  • Is a free 3.17 GB download in the App Store. What is installed by the App Store is an application called “Install Xcode”. You have to run that app to actually install Xcode. The installation process hung for my during the first try, after running the installer again, it finished properly.
  • Needed for things like CVS and open source package management systems such as Homebrew.
  • Java is installed on demand, the first time you invoke something from the JDK.
  • Staying oriented: While swiping between Desktops, it is easy to lose orientation. It would be nice if one could have a Mission-Control-like overview during swiping (but without spreading out windows at the bottom).
  • Apps versus Desktops: this dichotomy still makes Mission Control slightly confusing to use. Desktops are intuitive, but having both multiple apps per Desktop and apps spread out across multiple Desktops is not intuitive. The additional user interface element of full-screen apps makes things worse. The next version of OS X should try to streamline things further, especially how windows are managed. [3] describes ideas as to how that could be done. As an aside, with the upcoming Windows-8 [5], Microsoft has done a great job of applying touch ideas to a desktop operating system.
  • A better file system: The ability to tag/label files would be nice. As would be an advanced file system, as HFS+ is showing its age [4]. Quoting [4]:
    With ZFS out of the picture, Btrfs presumably eliminated due to its licensing, and future development of ReiserFS uncertain, its hard to see where Apple will get the modern file system that it so desperately needs other than by creating one itself.

    This is something I've been anticipating for years. I would have certainly welcomed ZFS with open arms, but I was equally confident that Apple could create its own file system suited to its particular needs. That confidence remains, but the ZFS distraction may have added years to the timetable.

  • Notifications and activities: While Growl does a good job, it would be nice if notifications could be handled by the operating system. For inspiration on how to implement this, Apple has to look no further than iOS 5. Alongside notifications, having a place where long-running activities (file copies, Time Machine backup, Spotlight reindexing, etc.) can be managed, would be nice, too.

2. Various tidbits from other sources

  • Make An OS X Lion Boot Disc. There is a .dmg file inside the Lion installer that you can burn to a DVD. It is best to backup that file before installing Lion.
  • Nine Things You Should Do After Installing OS X Lion. Quote:
    Leave It Alone For A Few Hours: After Lion launched yesterday morning, reports started pouring in that folks who made the jump from Snow Leopard to Lion were seeing terribly sluggish performance. Then, like magic, the sluggishness disappeared.
    Additionally, the author suggests to disable natural scrolling, Dashboard as a Desktop, and autocorrect. I am happy with all three of these features.
  • Miscellaneous Lion Tips and Tricks” [via @antoine_sd] has lots of good stuff. Quote:
    [...] head over the Finder’s Go menu in the menubar, click on it and press Option. The Library will be an extra option to quickly launch. [The Library folder is hidden by default under Lion]
  • Seven under-the-radar Lion features you might have missed. Quote:
    Merging folders in the Finder. If you try to drop one folder onto another folder of the same name, Lion will offer to merge all the files into a single folder. Similarly, you can select multiple files and folders and use the new Group as Folder command to quickly add all those files together into a new folder.
  • Daring Fireball Linked List: Save Sheet Shortcuts in Lion. Quote:
    [...] the new keyboard shortcut for the “Don’t Save” button in the standard sheet that appears when you close a document with unsaved changes — it used to be Command-D, but now it’s Command-Delete.
  • Mac OS X: Our Favorite Hidden Features in Mac OS X Lion. Quotes:
    • You can now select several items in the Finder and choose File > New Folder with [number] Selections to put them all into a new folder.
    • The top-level Applications folder has new permissions that make it hard to remove anything; if you try to drag something out of the Applications folder, it may stay there, and you’ll get an alias instead. The solution is to hold Command as you drag. (If even that doesn’t work, it’s because the application belongs to Apple, not to you, and you’re no longer allowed to move it.)
Features: Lion support by various apps:
  • Yes, Google Chrome Built For OS X Lion Is Coming — But It Will Take Time [via @antoine_sd]. Quote:
    When I posed the question about a native Chrome for OS X Lion on Google+ yesterday, Sundar Pichai, Google’s SVP of Chrome, weighed in. “The scrollbar should get fixed in canary tomorrow if not tonight. Will disappear till you start scrolling. Fullscreen needs more work and we will add it to the list and get it fixed but will take some more time. In general, we care about a great native experience on every platform and so the team is pushing hard to get a great stable version for Lion. Can’t wait to try it all out…,” he wrote.
  • Textmate: Lion Notes

3. Preparing for Lion

The following utilities give you Lion features on pre-Lion systems:
  • With Scroll Reverser enables natural scrolling.
  • Letterbox gives you a horizontal Mail layout.
  • BetterTouchTool lets you configure touch gestures in a manner that goes way beyond Lion. I used in the past to get swipe-switching between Spaces.

4. Conclusion

Freezes. I am one of those iMac owners who have experienced freezes under Lion. The phenomenon is as follows (TUAW has more details):
  • Wake up from sleep, play an H.264 video. Then you can still move the cursor, but everything else is completely frozen. Only a restart helps.
  • Affected are: QuickTime and Flash (YouTube etc.).
This is very inconvenient, but I can work around it. It just goes to show that if you really depend on your computer, you should wait a month or more before upgrading to the latest OS version.

Other than that, I like Lion – my favorites are:

  • Natural scrolling. Believe it or not, I like it.
  • Increased support for gestures (e.g. swiping to move between Desktops).
  • Cut and paste in the Finder.
  • Mail: horizontal layout, grouping by conversation.
  • Dropping Apple’s proprietary term “Airport” (that made sense back when Macs were among the first computers to support Wi-Fi) in favor of “Wi-Fi”.
Full-screen apps are an interesting first step towards improving the decades-old desktop user interface metaphor, but it is all still lacking in coherence. I am hopeful, though; many good ingredients are there, now they just have to be rearranged into something simpler.

5. Related reading

  1. Scrolling: to proceed, move fingers up on touch devices, but down on trackpads. Why?
  2. Essential Mac applications
  3. Fixing Mac OS window management
  4. Mac OS X 10.7 Lion: the Ars Technica review [by John Siracusa]
  5. Windows 8: Microsoft restarts its operating system efforts (an analysis)