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Mac OS X is the most successful PC operating system in history. A bold claim, but read on to find out why.

Success for some pundits is expressed by quantity - the number of software licences sold, the size of the installed customer base, the extent of the monoculture monopoly.

We’re not talking about quantity though. Mac OS X has been the most successful OS as it has the highest standards of consistency, of attention to detail in the user interface and in its usability. It’s the safest, most steady and reliable computer platform for everyman, and arguably the easiest for real people to use.

The only computer operating system that’s proven more successful by this metric, even more intuitive, is one also devised by Apple, and that’s iOS – the system that fuels tens of millions of iPhones, iPods and iPads across the globe.

Which is perhaps why Apple has chosen to morph some of the mobile system’s features and interface elements into OS X. And that is ‘OS X’ now rather than ‘Mac OS X’, for with this release, we see the end of Mac OS X as a name, and the beginning of OS X – minus the ‘Mac’.

First impressions – changes to the interface

The first thing you may notice on a Mac laptop when moving to Lion from earlier versions of Mac OS X — and any other OS for that matter — is that scrolling now works backwards.

Instead of using the paradigm of using two-fingers to pick up a window’s scroll bar to drag up and down, you’re now resting your fingers on a page in a virtual way, and sliding that page up and down as if your fingers were physically touching it.

Lion natural scrolling

Natural scrolling is introduced with OS X Lion, taking its cue from the iPhone and iPad

Some users have found this disconcerting at first, but after a few hours’ use, we found it awkward to return to the old scroll style. Apple calls it natural scrolling, and that’s how it now feels. It’s switchable from the Scroll & Zoom tab of Trackpad preferences, but we feel it’s worth perservering with if at first it seems ‘wrong’.

There’s also an element of bounce when your scrolling hits the end stops, just as in iOS. This depends on the app you’re using at the moment: some native Apple apps such as Safari show this bounce behaviour, while others like iTunes and Firefox do not.

Also not consistent across the board right now is the full-screen experience. We found that Safari, Preview, Terminal and QuickTime can be expanded to smoothly fill the entire display, after clicking a diagonal-arrow icon that appears in specific programs’ top-right corners.

Full-screen apps may sound like a tumble back to Windows 95, but it’s a great facility for removing all distractions while making the most of available screen space, as we’ve become used to in Apple’s own word processor app, Pages, which had a similar function — ‘had’ being the operative word here as it’s now strangely disabled in Lion, perchance awaiting an update in iWork ’11.

Unlike the old Windows full-screen modus operandi though, it’s very simple to see what’s also going on on your Mac, by sliding back to the main desktop with a three-finger flick to the right.

Mission Control

In Lion, OS X’s virtual desktop system (‘Spaces’) and the window-layering Exposé feature have been mashed up together into something called Mission Control. This simplifies the many options available with the two former systems, at the expense of some loss of control and readability.

For example, we would set Spaces as a two-by-two grid of four virtual desktops, viewable in birds-eye view as such from a mouse hot corner; and this view would show at decent size what’s going on in each Space. And from here, it’s a doddle to slide any open app window to another desktop.

Lion Mission Control

Spaces meets Exposé in OS X Lion's Mission Control

Mission Control now runs thumbnails of each virtual desktop across the screen top when activated, but each at just a fraction of normal size. You can have up to 16 such spaces ready for use, yet even with only four set up, it’s difficult to see quite so clearly what’s happening on each.

More annoying though, you cannot pick up a window from another desktop and move it at will, until you switch to that space first. And windows currently minimised to the Dock are now longer exposed for browsing under Mission Control. Exposé’s show desktop is still available from the thumb-and-three-finger gesture, via a new three-fingers-and-thumb ioutward pinch gesture on the trackpad.

A very neat touch is that you can customise each desktop with its own wallpaper, a long-overdue touch. Even more welcome though, may be the final introduction of Finder window resizing from any corner and any window edge.

Dashboard and its manifold little widgets remains, and can be found one screen to the left of the main desktop.

Scrollbars are now transparent by default — until you start to scroll by trackpad or mouse anyway — which has the advantage of tidying the interface, if making it impossible to see how far you are down a long document or webpage, until you start to scroll the page again. You can deselect this invisibility option in the General pane of System Preferences.

Perhaps the biggest gotcha also inherited from iOS is the restoration of windows and open apps when restarting the computer or logging back into a new session. When we restart a computer, we expect a clean slate of operation, save those programs we choose to auto-launch on startup.

Now, Lion will always re-open any previously opened apps on startup, along with documents you previously had open too. The latter can be prevented by deselecting ‘Restore windows’ from the General pane of System Preferences, but we really need an option to return to classic tabula-rosa computing as an option too.

Launchpad

A retro ‘50s rocket symbolises Launchpad in the Dock, a new way to overview all installed applications on the computer, then pick one to launch. Also available from a three-fingers-and-thumb inward pinch gesture, Launchpad strongly echoes nothing less than an iPhone or iPad’s home screen. You can even rearrange them to taste like in iOS.

Lion Launchpad

Find any app with ease with OS X Lion's Launchpad

Anglophones will be pleased to see that all-American Apple has finally included a British English dictionary and thesaurus in the system’s Dictionary application, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary.

iCal and Address Book get a twee iOS-like leather-bound desk accessory look. In the case of iCal especially, this can slow down productivity, since you must wait for each page leaf to slowly turn when you want to flick through pages of the calendar. You can return to the faster instant-flick browsing, but only after holding down the Alt key.

In another small step backward in usability, the colours of icons in the Finder sidebar windows have been removed. Where once were easily recognisable shortcuts for USB drives and FireWire disks (orange icon), Windows and UNIX sharepoints (Blue screen-of-death icon), along with coloured symbols for Applications, Documents and so on, we now have uncoloured grey outlines. This brings the Finder in line with the last update to iTunes, but that doesn’t stop us finding rapid folder and drive identification that much harder.

Other minor tweaks to the Finder include smaller ‘traffic light’ red/yellow/green buttons for close/minimise/maximise, and a default view in new Finder windows that shows ‘All My Files‘ — a multi-tiered Cover View-like graphical overview of, almost literally, all the files on your computer.

Lion Finder

The Finder file browser in OS X Lion has been simplified, and has a more monochrome look

In a bid to simplify the Finder interface and take the user further away from any confusing system files, the Macintosh HD shortcut no longer appears in the Finder sidebar; and a user’s own Library directory is now invisible. You can temporarily summon it up easily enough though, using the Shift-Command-G shortcut, then typing in ~/Library.

Overall speed of a Mac running Lion feels subjectively snappier than Snow Leopard. It’s a trend that’s been continuing with almost every feline update since 2001, only we’d wager more noticeably so with the transistion from 106 to 10.7. That could be down even more trimming and optimisation at a low level of the operating system. There have been some significant changes under the bonnet.

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