Why I’m not a fan of Lion… yet

I am not a curmudgeon

When a new operating system upgrade appears, I believe it takes time to adjust and adopt. I do not pine for the good old days when everything was supposed to have been better. I’m not a conspiracy theorist who is always telling the world that Apple is trying to take away our rights and liberties. When I first installed OS X 10.7, also known as Lion, I expected what I had gotten in the past: A magnificent update that challenged me to think out of the box a little, but, at the same time, improved my workflow and almost seemed to read my mind. Very few times have I installed an OS X update and not quickly seen what it had to offer and why hanging back with previous versions would be a mistake. In fact, up to and including Snow Leopard, I never have.

I did not have the same feeling for Lion. Yes, I have been charmed by fullscreen apps and the new Mail app and even by the desktop pictures, but what I found is that I hit several speed bumps and road blocks along the way. Where OS X updates typically feel like throwing off a strait jacket, Lion felt rather like strapping one on. I have finally met with an OS X update that makes me wonder if I should have hung back and waited. Allow me to explain the three main areas in which I feel Lion has failed to live up to the hype.

What’s up with the UI

First, the UI has been dramatically changed in many ways, most of them needlessly: the scrolling direction that’s suddenly reversed, the diminutive size of the scroll bars, the complicated trackpad gestures, the butt-of-jokes spell checker, the inflexibility of Launchpad, the home finder window, the invisible library, the forceful shove into using Spaces, the inexplicable persistence of the widgets screen, the only-sometimes-cool saved app states and a number of things which were actually working very intuitively and logically before Lion. To be fair, many of the new UI options can be turned off/on so I’ve managed to mitigate some of the clumsiness and gone back to what I know (and what is more logical). I will note that some features (like the spellcheck) don’t actually stop working when you turn them off in the system preferences. I expect we’ll see some of this tweaked or fixed in the first point release, so I wouldn’t say I’m panicked yet. But, on the other hand, many of the changes are working just as intended, and so a point release isn’t likely to see reversion to previous interface design.

Too much iOS may not be a good thing

This leads to my second point, where from a few steps back it becomes clear that Apple is shoehorning OS X into becoming the desktop version of iOS. That’s not a crime, per se, but the transition needed to be gentler and with greater thought to creating the perfect operating system for Macs and not just One OS To Rule Them All. iOS was designed primarily for small devices intended to be used quickly and on-the-go. The gestures and swipes were meant as an escape route for those who didn’t want to poke out complicated tasks on a miniature touch-keyboard. Few people will sit and do more than an hour of typing on their iPad, much less their iPhone. They won’t likely manage dozens, let alone hundreds or thousands of files. They won’t often switch between ten browser or finder windows. The Mac does different tasks over a different timeline, and some iOS-friendly tasks are actually more awkward and illogical on a Mac (which you will notice by playing Angry Birds with a mouse instead of a finger on a trackpad or touchscreen). Certain other bridges between iOS and OS X are actually very clumsy and ham-handed. The pinch-zoom is a good example. On iOS, it enlarges and shrinks the contents of the entire screen so it’s like leaning closer or pulling away. On Mac OS X it often increases/decreases font size. Not the same thing at all and, to be honest, do we really need a zoom on a 13+-inch screen in the first place? Was that actually a need that’s gone unmet for OS X users?

Performance, performance, performance

The third point is about performance. Unlike a lot of purists, I’m not against fancy animations or visual doo-dads that make the graphical experience more interesting or robust, but what I know is that OS X 10.7 does not perform particularly well on the MacBook or previous-generation MacBook Air. Transitions are stodgy, text fields are slow to respond to a cursor, gestures sometimes take several seconds to do what they’re meant to do and large animations (such as opening new full-screen windows in Safari) stutter. This is to say: You could have bought any of the non-Pro laptops that Apple sells on July 19 and, the next day, your device would be discontinued and not-particularly-great at running Lion. This is kind of a raw deal, especially considering that Lion was initially revealed to the public along with the debut of the next-to-latest generation of MacBook Air portables, so it’s not inconceivable that consumers may have even bought that now-discontinued MacBook Air expecting it to be their Lion machine. In fairness to Apple, the previous-gen MacBook Air and white MacBook aren’t a disaster under Lion, but a considerable drop in responsiveness and performance is easily felt. I realize I’m showing my age, here, but there is a school of thought that feels it’s not crazy to expect a major OS update should improve performance… maybe not for legacy machines, but for a laptop that could theoretically be only a few hours off the Apple Store shelf before the OS release? Not crazy at all. Though I won’t claim outrage over this niggling point, it’s definitely a further support for the idea that Apple wants you using a certain machine in a certain way, and has trouble conceiving of why you’d have to do it differently. Personally, I believe most people can only afford a single computer upgrade every 12-18 months (if that), so I’d expect a computer that’s sold in 2011 should run a 2011 OS X upgrade with aplomb.

It’s important at this juncture to point out that Lion is far from a failure, and as an operating system I will still stand behind its robustness and power (let us also not doubt that 10.7.1 is surely just around the corner). Perhaps it comes as such as shock to see illogical or awkward design decisions in a major OS X update because previous updates have always solicited a response of “Ah, that makes more sense” in its UI design, its workflow and options presented to the user. Lion most definitely has a different agenda, and perhaps this fourth point is the one that bothers me most: The homogenization of all Apple devices and the way the user interacts with them. Apple has traditionally been criticized — sometimes unfairly — for controlling the user experience too rigidly, but Lion definitely delivers a message to the user: “This is what you’re going to want to do, this is how you’re going to do it, and if you don’t agree then you’re the one with the problem.” And that’s an interesting posture for a company that once boasted how what they did was “for the rest of us.”

Corey has been been a tech journalist with a focus on Apple since 1998 and has written for The Loop, MacHome magazine, and as games contributor for The Mac Bible, and co-hosts the iGame Radio Podcast. He works as a… Full Bio