Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Pardon my geeking, but I’ve had a number of requests for a review of sorts of Mac OS X 10.7 “Lion”, and now that I’ve been using it for nearly a week, I figure it’s time I write something up.

The Good

Whole Disk Encryption - Lion actually provides a much nicer security implementation than Snow Leopard did, in the form of Filevault whole disk encryption. Given the number of data leaks into unencrypted folders outside of your encrypted “Filevault” folder in SL, whole disk encryption is really the only way you can be sure that copies of your grades, medical records, etc won’t wind up on your drive in the clear. This also works well with Time Machine, allowing you to back up in real time, and in practice, I’ve had little-to-no performance hit for my applications. There are still some flaws with the implementation involving sleep, and you should assume that storing your master key with Apple leaves it open to subpoena, but if you’re as boring as I am (or if you too decide to forego storing the key with them), that’s not a worry.

Added bonus: When you enable whole disk encryption, you start your computer and almost immediately enter your password, then everything from the white-screen-gray-apple to your desktop happens on your own. Power, password, then go get a drink and you’ll find your desktop just as you left it, no intermediate login.

Time Machine Backup Encryption - This is a killer feature. The same whole-disk encryption described above can be applied to external hard drives, which can then be used for backup. This is massively important because encrypting your whole disk then backing it up in the clear to another drive is rather pointless except for physical machine protection when traveling. You can simply elect to encrypt an existing backup, or if you don’t mind losing your prior backups, you can reformat as HFS+ Encrypted and just start a new backup on the new drive. In the future, you’ll plug the drive in, but before it mounts, you’ll have to type a password.

Added bonus: Buy two small portable drives, encrypt them both, back up your machine onto both. Leave one with a trusted friend/parent/office (without giving him/her the password), and switch them out whenever you visit your friend (so that you’ve always got a semi-recent backup). Bam, instant secure offsite backup. 5 - I send and receive a LOT of emails, and 5 is a welcome improvement in nearly every way. GPGMail is broken for the time being, though.

Terminal is tweaked - No major changes, but the Aerogel effect is cool, and going to 256 colors in Terminal is nice.

Full Screen Mode - I didn’t expect to like this, but I’m using it with Safari right now. It’s rather nice sometimes to be distraction free, and putting a terminal window in full-screen mode makes me nostalgic for my Gentoo installs of yore. It’s also nice if somebody asks to borrow a browser. it hides the bookmarks bar by default, and basically leaves them sandboxed (although they can exit at any time. Here, though, the animation is annoying.

Window changes - Windows can now be resized from any side and scroll bars have disappeared. I was skeptical, but I like it.

All the backend stuff - They’ve done a lot of backend work, described in the Ars Technica review. Which I appreciate, but isn’t immediately apparent to the end user.

Most linguisty programs work - IPA, Praat, Audacity, MacTeX, and all the other programs I use as a Linguist work just fine. That’s a wonderful thing.

The Bad

PowerPC programs don’t work - Moving to Lion meant that I could no longer run Diablo II, Starcraft (I), Duke Nukem 3D, and lots of small utilities (like “Shorten”, for opening .shn files) no longer work. No big loss for me, but check which of your programs are still PowerPC, and whether this will break anything important.

It feels slower, but I don’t think it is - This kills me, but all the eye candy added makes Lion feel slower. Animations which take a full second (switching between desktops, for instance) aren’t uncommon, and just make for a frustratingly slow experience. Apple fell on the wrong side of the pretty/performance continuum with Lion, but there are plenty of hacks online (and there will hopefully be more) which eliminate these “Amaze grandma” effects for those who want speed and efficiency. Edit: Many of these window effects can be disabled by putting the following into a terminal window: defaults write NSGlobalDomain NSAutomaticWindowAnimationsEnabled -bool NO

Mission Control is a step back - Mission Control, Apple’s replacement for Spaces/Exposé, isn’t as useful as either for power users. It’s nice to see all spaces at once, but the loss of flexibility (MC only allows one row of “spaces”, and its exposé clone doesn’t display windows as neatly. This is yet another feature that’s great for Grandma (much simpler to use), but disappointing for people who really use the machines on a daily basis.

Launchpad isn’t useful - But that’s OK, you really should be using Launchbar anyways.

Granny doesn’t need ~/Library/ - Apple has hidden the ~/Library folder by default. The command chflags nohidden ~/Library reverses that, but it’s another nod towards Granny because what’s in there will just confuse her, apparently.

Address Book and iCal - it’s cute that they’re trying, but the Address Book and iCal windows are now shaped like an address book and a desk calendar, just like Grandma remembers them! I hope this fad fades.

Apple keeps locking down settings - You can no longer adjust the font in the Mailbox listing (although the size can be changed in System Preference -> General -> Sidebar Icon Size). Folders placed in the finder sidebar no longer display custom icons. Want two rows of spaces? No, no you don’t. Apple continues the arrogant policy of telling you how you want your computer to look/work/act, rather than allowing you to give your preferences. Apple is loving the control they have in iOS, and it seems like that same arrogance is moving into the OS X world, creating a bulletproof experience for grandma, but locking down people who can manage their own machines. All we ask are preferences, hidden or otherwise, to allow us to control our computer, but in 10.7, there’s no such luck.

There are bugs - Unlike Snow Leopard, Lion made a LOT of changes, so there are bugs. If you’re needing rock stability, wait for 10.7.1 or 10.7.2.

A mixed bag for power users

Imagine somebody worked on your car. They tuned the engine up, changed the tires, installed a car alarm, and made the seats a little more comfortable. However, they also swapped out your radio. Now it only lets your access your twelve favorite stations. And your ignition switch is replaced with a big “on” switch, which starts the car, but you can’t just listen to the radio with the engine off. Also, your windshield wipers now turn on with rain, but don’t turn on with just a little rain, and they took out that switch.

That’s OS X Lion. Right now, Apple has forced a sacrifice: performance for limitation. It’s actually a wonderful update under the hood. Encryption, improved backend speed, improved terminals, and all sorts of wonderful little tweaks make Lion a great upgrade, but to get in, you have to give up some control of your machine (but not, as far as I can tell, for a good programming reason)

For Grandma, OS X Lion is a slam dunk. It streamlines the experience, removes settings that will only scare her, and makes things pretty and more impressive. The same could be said for anybody who’s just an occasional user of their computers, or somebody not doing that much customization. Lion makes OS X much less threatening, and more like iOS in terms of ease of use.

However, for power users, or even for people who have been using OS X for a few years and are more comfortable with settings, Lion feels rather patronizing, at least, at the 10.7.0 version. I have no problem with Apple improving the default settings, or even making a very streamlined and uniform experience, but I do have a problem with their changing settings with no means for users to change them back. Similarly with animations: it’s wonderful that Apple is including cool new whizz-bang animations, but it’s frustrating that they don’t provide an easy way to disable them once they get old (and they do).

All that said, to be honest, I’m still glad I’ve upgraded, and would still recommend that you all do the same. At the end of the day, I love the Encryption, the UI did get nicer, and enough of the built-in programs were improved that I feel like there’s a net gain of functionality and pleasure-of-use, despite the patronizing aspects.

Here’s hoping, though, for a wonderful 10.7.1 upgrade.

Update: Two months (and a disappointing 10.7.1 release) later, I’ve finally come to decide that upgrading to Lion was not a good idea, and I’ve rescinded my recommendation that people upgrade. See my followup review for more information and comments..

(Also, no offense to the computationally proficient Grannies out there. I know you exist, but you’re not Apple’s target market any more than I am :))

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