A proper first look at Apple's OSX Lion

By now you will probably have seen dozens of enthusiastic reviews for Apple's latest operating system OSX Lion 10.7.

Most, like Ars Technica's extraordinarily detailed 27,000-word essay, will have been written based on gold master versions of the OS sent to tame Apple journalists weeks ahead of the launch.

In most cases they will have been given the advantage of a clean install on a spotless and probably brand new Mac which has never done a day's work in its life, has been specially prepared for the purpose of writing the review, and has nothing more taxing connected to it than an Apple-branded input device and a bog standard keyboard.

The very fact that the reviewers have access to pre-release versions of the software suggests that they are part of that tiny band of tech hacks favoured by the Cupertino Press Office which in our book pretty much disqualifies them from writing objective reviews.

Apple is notoriously secretive about its new products and particularly petulant when it comes to those who have been allowed into the inner circle turning tail and biting the hand that feeds them.

One bad review is often enough to have an entire web site and all of its staff permanently excommunicated from the golden list which allows entry to Apple's inner sanctum. And any journalist who attracts Apple's ire is likely to find themselves on the wrong end of a rollicking - if not an ignominious sacking - if their negative musings result in removal from that list.

Here at thinq_ we are under no such pressures having failed at every attempt to ingratiate ourselves with Apple's PR cabal. Like many other independent tech sites, when we review Apple products, we have to wait in line with the rest of the great unwashed and, as such, like to think our reviews are based on real-world situations which will be experienced by real people, and that is the way we have approached this review.

Rather than starting with a clean slate on a fresh machine uncluttered with a selection of arcane software and unfettered by connected devices, we chose to install OSX Lion on our veritable workhorse of a machine, a three-year old Mac Pro which - as well as serving as a writing workstation for your humble author - is also used as a music production facility and a video-editing suite.

It's what most would term a 'dirty machine', not just because of the dusty detritus it has accumulated over the years, but because, by the very nature of the business we are in, it plays host to hundreds of applications, many of them questionable betas, as well as thousands of fonts, widgets, utilities and all the other doodads which inevitably end up cluttering up a workhorse machine.

It is also permanently connected to four monitors of varying pedigrees and a veritable spider's web of USB and Firewire-connected devices ranging from external storage drives to midi controllers, audio interfaces and video capture hardware.

It's not a pretty sight, and would be seen as a daunting prospect for most OS installs, but we took the plunge regardless.

Installing the Lion - a cautionary tale
As you are no doubt aware, OSX Lion is the first operating system to be offered as a download-only install accessed through the Mac App Store. As such, only those with the latest version of OSX Snow Leopard will be able to join the party.

You'll also need an Apple ID account hooked up to a valid credit card and, beyond that, the installation process should be a piece of cake.

The installer does some sneaky behind-the-scenes jiggery-pokery which most users will never even notice. The biggest difference between the Lion installation and previous disk-based versions is that it sneakily partitions your chosen hard drive (only those with a GUI format will work) and grabs a 650MB chunk for itself. It might not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, but MacBook Air owners with piddling SSD drives and those of you who like to keep your storage straining at the seams might think otherwise.

This partition is used as an installer cache and, as we will see later, acts as a recovery disk in the event of a system meltdown.

If you were one of the million people who downloaded Lion in the first 24 hours of its release, you might have noticed, as we did, that the 3.8GB installer file took rather longer than you might expect to make its way onto your hard drive. We reckon our connection was running at something like one tenth of its normal speed. A quoted install time of 5 hours 34 minutes wasn't looking so great so, in the end we gave up and left our Mac Pro to its own devices as bed-time approached.

What greeted us in the morning didn't exactly bode well.

We can honestly say that, through all of the abuse we have thrown at this machine over the years, this is probably the third or fourth time we have seen a proper kernel panic and its commensurate restart screen.

As we've already mentioned before, we deliberately pushed the installer to its limits by not exercising good housekeeping before the install. Everything that was installed on or connected to the Mac Pro during its last pre-Lion hours had stayed installed or connected.

The machine was rock solid before the installation, met all of the technical requirements quoted by Apple, and should, based on the company's 'simple installation' boasts have passed muster without problem.

A couple of reboots later, and a couple more worrying screens alerts like the one above, confirmed that the problem was not going to go away despite our crossed fingers and positive mental encouragement.

Running the Disk Repair Utility from the original Snow Leopard disk informed us that the drive in question was now suddenly beyond repair. Luckily the rig contains several drives with various other version of OSX so we rebooted, held down the alt key, and hoped for the best.

It's at his point that we discovered Apple's new Recovery HD facility which uses the partition we mentioned earlier. As we also mentioned earlier, no Snow Leopard install means no Mac App Store which means no Lion install. A dead end which Lion Recovery neatly sidesteps.

Another couple of nail-biting hours watching the installer progress bar crawl its way across the screen, and several cups of coffee later, we were very much back to square one.

It was now time to start pulling things apart.

The multi monitor maze
Our first port of call was our multi-monitor set-up which has caused problems with minor OS point releases in the past. Upgrades had forced us to reconfigure all four monitors in the relevant control panel including re-jigging screen resolution, physical arrangement and colour calibration. Not a pleasant task but far from the end of the world.

The rig came with two ATi Radeon HD 2600 XT PCIe graphics cards pre-installed by Apple and, apart from a couple of overheating issues caused by the usual build-up of detritus clogging the cooling fans, had never bothered us with much more than the occasional flicker.

We'd noticed that, as part of the failed boot cycle, a different monitor than we would normally expect had taken a primary role, and a few seconds before the screen rolled down its greyed shutter to reveal the reboot warning, a momentary flash of digital garbage flashed across another of the four monitors.

Time for some judicious disconnection.

We removed the DVI connectors and cable adaptors from all but the newest of our motley crew of monitors and tried another reboot with the self same result.

Next on our list of possible suspects came the array of USB connected devices which we elected to remove en-masse, figuring it would be quicker to eliminate every device - including three powered USB 2.0 hubs, four external HHDs, two external optical drives, two iDevice docks, three music controllers (one of them Firewire), two video interfaces and two audio interfaces rather than picking them off one by one.

Eureka! Lion boots first time so it looks like one of the manifold non-Apple devices hanging out of the back of our trusty Mac Pro is to blame.

As it eventually transpired after a long process of elimination, the culprit was an ancient and seldom used Novation Remote 25 MIDI controller and its pesky Firewire connection which was causing the failure. It has now been unceremoniously retired.

Getting back to normal
With all four screens reinstated, we had to reconfigure everything in the Displays Control Panel as, having initially booted with just one in place, the system had inconveniently forgotten all of those settings.

Because Apple has dumped support for the PowerPC architecture, and the Rosetta emulator which allowed legacy apps to run on early Intel Macs, some users will be disappointed to learn that many older packages, including Adobe's CS2 suite, will no longer work. The price of progress is sometimes painful and, in the case of Apple, more often than not, expensive.

First impressions
Despite Apple's insistence that Lion is a major revamp of the operating system, occasional Mac users would probably be hard pressed to notice the difference. Although the changes are manifold, many of them are subtle until you start digging deeper.

Finder windows keep the same basic layout with the familiar traffic light buttons taking on close (red), place in dock (amber) and minimise and maximise (green) duties. Icons in side bars have lost their shiny, multicoloured gloss and now appear in a subtle monochrome blue.

Nearly all of the elements of the finder have had a subtle make-over with windows buttons and progress bars taking on a less-rounded appearance than previous incarnations, changes which will be lost on all but the sharpest-eyed inspections.

Elsewhere, nearly every element of the GUI has been changed but in such subtle ways as to be barely discernible.

It's when you start interacting with windows that the major differences become apparent. Apple has gone nuts on the animations. Opening a window, downloading a file in Safari and opening and closing applications all come with a level of 'swooshyness' never before seen. It's all very pretty but we can't help but feel it's all window dressing, and the flashy animations actually make everything feel just a little bit ponderous. Basic functions may not actually be any slower, they just feel like they are.

Sacred scrolls
Because OSX Lion is designed to work with multi-touch gestures - all new Macs come with a built in touchpad in the case of portables, or the choice of a Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad in the case of desktops models - those of you without such a device may well feel left out, if not a little bewildered by Lion's new navigation methods.

Based, as they are, on lessons learned from iOS devices like the iPad and iPhone, Lion's basic interactions will at first feel unfamiliar, particularly for those struggling through with an old-fangled rodent.

By default the mouse's scroll wheel has been reversed, meaning you push scrollable content up and down the screen as you would with a touch-screen device. At first it feels unintuitive, but we reckon it will be a matter of time before it becomes second nature, and is easily overridden in the Mouse Control Panel.

In another nod to Apple's overarching implementation of touch into everything it does, Lion's scroll bars have been completely redesigned, the familiar scroll arrows falling victim to progress. The scroll bar itself has become substantially narrower and in some finder windows doesn't appear at all until you interact using a multi-touch device.

It's disconcerting to new users at times, as windows which you know should be stuffed full of files appear at first to have just a handful of icons and no apparent way of getting at the rest of them.

As with everything else in Lion, the default settings can be changed to something more familiar for those unwilling to embrace change just yet (or those of us who have been spending too much time banging the mouse on our desks trying to get an apparently stuck scroll-wheel to work).

It's all part of Apple unification of OSX and iOS and may seem a little less confusing to anyone who also uses an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch.

The de-cluttering of finder windows and native Apple applications also means that window resizing grab handles have gone the way of the scroll bars, being replaced with eight-way arrows which appear whenever the cursor touches the edge of a bounding box, much like those in Microsoft's Windows.

It's all about full screen
On the subject of native apps, Apple's home-grown offerings have all had a lick of paint and, for the most part, have taken design and interface cues from their iOS equivalents.

Mail now has threaded conversations rather than a long list of lonely emails and a frankly unfathomable full screen mode which does little beyond sending the application window scurrying off to the primary screen on multi-monitor set ups, which is really annoying.

In fact, most applications, including Safari, behave in the same incomprehensible manner. Ironically, the one app you would want to reposition itself to your biggest and best monitor, iPhoto, stubbornly refuses to move, staying steadfastly stuck to the display to which it was originally pinned.

It's early days for Lion, and multi-monitor set-ups seem to have been given very little consideration, especially when it comes to rigs like ours and the whole much-trumpeted full-screen functionality.

Animating multiple windows flying across the full width of four displays puts a strain on lower end graphics cards and becomes ponderous at best and downright jerky at worst.

A similar battle for resources and lack of attention to detail can be witnessed using Apple's new screen management tools which come in the form of Launchpad and Mission Control.

Launchpad is a pretty close facsimile of the home screen on an iPad. It's a one-stop window for all of the stuff in your Applications folder. You can flick between the pages with a finger swipe or a grab and fling gesture with a mouse. But Launchpad is restricted to the primary screen once again. It seems a bit of a waste, when you have four monitors, and four pages of apps, to display them using only one.

Mission Control, which is a bit like a melding of Exposé and Spaces, shows you everything open on your Mac at the press of a dedicated button (F3), keyboard short-cut or multi-digit gesture.

Best of all, it finally makes full use of multiple monitors making cluttered desktops like ours supremely simple to navigate.

Four screens worth of clutter arrange themselves nicely into stacked piles of files based on the application which opened them.

We'll dig deeper into OSX Lion when we've come to grips with the 250 changes Apple says it has made to the operating system but, for now, our first impressions are nearly all positive.

We've deliberately played devil's advocate here giving the installer a workout it would not normally have to endure, and pushed the OS to its limits with a complex, although not that uncommon system.

Lion is far from a ground-breaking reinvention of OSX in the same way Tiger was when it bounced its way onto Mac screens the world over. Neither is it an under-the-bonnet retooling, lacking the bells and whistle craved by Apple fans experienced in the underwhelming leap from Leopard to its Snowy sibling.

Apple is attempting to change the way Mac users interface with their personal computers using lessons learned from its ubiquitous iOS gadgets, and the forced rethink of hand-to-screen interface won't be to everyone's taste.

For most technology users, the mouse has been around for as long as the PC. It's a device with which we are all to familiar, and letting it go won't be easy.

Apple has been careful to offer alternatives to those not willing to relinquish the rodent just yet, but the coming tide of tablet devices from every box builder on the planet is set to change the world forever, if Apple has its way.

Having spent just a couple of days tinkering with OSX Lion 10.7, we have mixed feelings. The convergence between touch-screen devices and traditional PCs is almost inevitable, and Lion bridges that gap admirably.

Newcomers to computing will find the Mac's new platform intuitive and unobtrusive. Experienced Mac users will find the system flexible enough to allow them to ease their way into the new way of thinking. Windows switchers, on the other hand - particularly those uninitiated into the foibles of iOS - may find the whole thing utterly baffling.

The big question is, is OSX Lion worth £21 of your hard-earned cash if you are currently running OSX Snow Leopard (which, of course, you must be if you want to install it)?

The short answer is no. Unless, of course, you already own an Apple laptop with a multi-touch pad, a Magic Mouse or a Magic Trackpad.

Twenty-one quid is not a great deal to consider for most people, but adding that to the cost of one of Apple's input devices, which really are essential if you want to get the most out of Lion, bumps the cost of the upgrade to over £80, which is an entirely different kettle of cats.

As to whether we would, with hindsight, have installed the OS on our beloved Mac Pro if we weren't tasked with writing this first look and the subsequent full review (coming soon to a monitor near you)...

Probably not.

And not before we've disconnected everything which didn't come in the original box, that's for sure.