At £20.99, OS X's seventh major release is cheaper, and likely more effective, than any other upgrade you could make to your Mac. With easier file sharing, improved backup and greater use of iPad-like gestures, it's like getting a whole new Mac for less than the cost of some RAM. It's available now from the Mac App Store.
Where Lion's looks are concerned, little has changed beyond a new pop-up effect for dialogue boxes and a squaring-off of their buttons. The way you use your Mac, though, is significantly different, and for some it will take a little getting used to.
Scrolling now works in reverse, so to move down your page you push up on the trackpad or mouse. Likewise, to see anything to the left of your current view, you swipe right. Scroll bars, too, have largely disappeared, fading into view as you scroll and disappearing again as you stop.
If that sounds familiar, it's because we've seen it on the iPhone and iPad, and it's not the only place where iOS has influenced OS X. The new Launchpad, which is accessed from the Dock or by pinching five fingers on the trackpad, lays out the icons for each of your Mac's available apps in an iPad-like grid, which splits in half when you open a folder.
Gestures like this five-finger pinch are more important in Lion than any preceding release. Beside pinching and swiping, you can now push four fingers towards the keyboard to invoke Mission Control for an overview of all active applications, and while you can still use control and the arrow keys to switch between spaces (which are now set in a row rather than a grid), it's quicker to swipe between your virtual screens with three fingers. Safari, too, is now gesture-enabled, with two-finger swipes moving you back and forth through your browsing history.
One small but overdue change is the ability to resize application windows by dragging any edge or corner. Previously, it had only been possible to do this from the lower right corner, which meant you often had to reposition the window halfway through resizing -- a bone of contention for some PC switchers.
There's another nod towards the Windows way of doing things in the Finder, which now has an All Files view that groups your files and folders by type, wherever they might be on your Mac.
Auto-save is now a core feature. Apple provides the hooks for developers to build it into their apps, so in the unlikely event your Mac crashes when you're using an enabled application, you shouldn't lose any data.
Applications also now relaunch in their last known state, so if you close Keynote or Preview with two or three files open, they'll be ready and waiting the next time you use it. We found this a mixed blessing, as we frequently quit an application at the end of the working day with no intention of returning to the same file in the morning.
We were more impressed, though, by Versions, which joins Time Machine, Apple's system-wide backup tool, to provide an equivalent feature on a file-by-file basis. Like auto save, it must be enabled by the app's developer, after which it takes snapshot views of your documents every time you save them, building an archive of previous states so that should you commit an edit too far you can roll back to a previous state.
Versions also allows you to lock files to prevent accidental edits. There's no password or encryption involved, so it's not a full-blown security feature, but it does have a neat side effect in that by locking a file you effectively turn it into a template, as all subsequent edits will have to be saved with a new name to prevent overwriting the original.
Several headline apps have had subtle makeovers. iCal and Address Book now look far closer to their iPad equivalents, and Safari has been refined, with downloads no longer spawning a floating window outside of the browser to track their progress. Instead, this information is hidden behind a button on the toolbar which, when clicked, calls up the familiar downloads window, now within a bubble.
TextEdit is a more capable word processor thanks to a redesigned toolbar with drop-downs for fonts and paragraph formatting. Preview -- which can finally be invoked by a dedicated button on every Quick Look window -- can sign PDFs using your own handwritten signature, captured using your Mac's built-in camera.
The biggest change, though, is to Mail, which receives its most significant revamp in 10 years. The toolbar has been slimmed down, and you can hide the inbox column entirely, using drop-downs on a secondary toolbar to switch between your inboxes, outboxes and multiple accounts. It looks almost the same as Mail on the iPad. A new full-height preview pane lets you read more of each message without spinning it off into a separate window, and with messages threaded by subject it's easier to keep track of conversations.
Even the revamped auto-correct takes a cue from the iPad. Rather than switching out words automatically without any warning, this system-wide tool now pops up a suggestion bubble that's accepted when you next press space or use punctuation. To reject the suggestion on the iPad, you'd tap it; to do the same in Lion, just press escape. Being more obvious in its implementation, we found this a significant improvement, as it led to fewer unexpected malapropisms in our
Other changes are important, but less likely headline grabbers. Air Drop builds on the success of Bonjour, Apple's zero-config networking protocol, allowing Macs running Lion to see each other wirelessly, even if they're not connected through a router, and for the user of one to drop files on another. This will be a boon for ad-hoc working groups meeting in coffee shops or libraries.
FaceTime, the iPhone video-conferencing tool, has earned itself a place on the Dock (previously it was a 69p download from the App Store). About This Mac has a new, more graphical layout, with direct links to Disk Utility, upgrade instructions and the manual for your Mac on apple.com, and a pane that checks whether your machine is eligible for service and repair.
So far, so good, but Lion isn't for everyone. It's been well publicised that this version of OS X won't run on older PowerPC machines. Less well known is that Rosetta, the inbuilt emulator for running PowerPC apps, has been removed, so upgrading to Lion could also require that you upgrade other applications on which you rely. The Front Row media playback suite has gone too, perhaps to encourage sales of Apple TV.
Lion is initially available only as a download from the Mac App Store, which itself is only open to those who have already upgraded to Mac OS X 10.6.6 or later. Apple suggests users without broadband at home download Lion at an Apple Retail Store, or else wait until August, when it will be available on a USB thumb drive for £55. That must be some thumb drive.
We've been using Lion for several months through its development cycle and been consistently impressed by its stability and the speed at which it runs on a decidedly middling MacBook. Apple has clearly learnt much from its experiences in developing iOS, and the features it has brought across to OS X are logical, genuine enhancements.
We'll be rolling it out across all of our Macs, and so should you -- although you might want to wait a few days for any last-minute bugs to be ironed out.Edited by Nick Hide