Generally speaking, you’ll find two types of OS X Lion review online. One will have involved the reviewer living with beta versions and then updating the review on launch day, to see if bugs are squashed; the other will be the result of a day or two’s intensive usage, trying to force the OS to breaking point in double-quick time.

Both techniques have their benefits and drawbacks, but it’s fairly rare for reviewers to be able to use any application for a really solid chuck of time and then report on how it impacts on day-to-day usage. But that’s what I’m able to do on the blog, due to not being on deadline to myself; and with quite a few Twitter followers responding to my Lion whining, I figured I’d provide an overview of my thoughts so far, having installed Lion on my work iMac a week ago. (For comparison’s sake, the system is a 3.2 GHz i3 with 12 GB of RAM.)

The good

  • Quick Look. Apple’s preview technology alone made Leopard worth the upgrade fee. In Lion, it’s been upgraded in two particularly important ways. First, it now works in Spotlight, which speeds up searches. Secondly, the main Spotlight window resizes, where possible, according to the content it’s showing. The UI’s also changed, with the black background turning white. I thought I’d hate this, but it turns out to be a smart design move, because the new interface distracts less from the content.
  • Mail. At first, I considered reverting Mail back to its classic view, thinking Apple’s new iPad-style layout was taking things a bit too far, but then I changed my mind. Having given the Dock a much bigger go in recent months, I’ve discovered that Apple’s way of doing things can work out well if you don’t fight it too much (and, in the Dock’s case, also use some Terminal commands—I’ve added separators to the apps area and a couple of custom stacks for recent apps and docs). In iPad-style two-pane mode, with my important parent folders added to Mail’s toolbar as drop-downs, I’m very happy with Mail. It feels faster and more efficient than the old version, and the conversation threading is pretty good. There are issues with customisation (fonts in the messages list cannot be amended, which is pretty stupid, and keyboard page-up/down is disabled in the same list), but I’ve very rarely found myself showing the mailbox column and I’m happily getting to grips with the far more advanced search functionality.
  • Full-screen mode. This is more a feature that I can see the potential of than one I actually use. It’s certainly a great idea for anyone with small screens, because it provides the means to focus and maximise screen real estate for a document. (Whatever you’ve read, the full-screen mode is often more doc-based than app-based—open two Numbers spreadsheet and they each get a separate navigable screen, rather than you switching ‘windows’.) On a 27-inch iMac… well, I’m less impressed, but that’s largely down to Apple’s inability to design its applications in an adaptive manner. Safari and Mail both prove pointless on such a display, with acres of space around content, although iCal works pretty well. Numbers and Scrivener are two more apps I now use almost exclusively in full-screen mode.
  • Speed. Post-install, Lion was barely usable as Spotlight reindexed the system. And then it continued being pretty unusable. One reboot later and everything was fine; generally, the system seems a little faster for most tasks, with only animations providing the impression that certain actions are slower.
  • App restore. Those apps that support it now start up in the same state as you quit them. This is particularly useful for Safari, which is still a massive memory hog and needs restarting a few times every day. Now, you can quit and restart without losing any tabs and without having to mess about restoring windows and tabs manually. During crashes, I’ve also found apps supporting this feature reliably restore work, which, given my note in ‘the bad’ is just as well.
  • All My Files. The new default Finder window view has pissed off some Mac users (although it can be changed to your home folder or any other location), but it’s useful. You get a bunch of mini Cover Flow rows, each containing a specific file type, with the most recent items at the left. It’d be more useful if this powered-up ‘recent items’ list spoke to third-party apps (so ‘Music’ would show whatever iTunes had recently played, for example), and it’s not very configurable in terms of which rows are shown and their sort order, but I’m nonetheless finding it a worthy addition.

The bad

  • Wi-Fi. While my router’s not the most robust model in the world (top tip: never buy Belkin), it usually goes for longish periods before needing a reboot. Under Snow Leopard, the Mac only very rarely had problems connecting. Since OS X Lion arrived, the connection attempt times out after waking from sleep every single time. I’ve tried numerous tips to fix this, to no avail, bar removing all USB hard drives before sleeping the Mac (which has helped some people). Like most OS problems, I can’t imagine this is affecting a particularly large number of users, but others on my Twitter feed have similar issues and one thread on the Apple support site was well over 40 pages long last time I looked. Problems range from ad-hoc login problems through to complete Wi-Fi failure, so I’ve apparently not got it that bad, despite having to waste five minutes every time my Mac wakes. (Note: while 10.7.1 fixed this issue for some people, it hasn’t for me.) Update: I finally got around to replacing my Belkin with a DrayTek Vigor 120 and Airport Extreme. This morning, the Mac woke and connected to the network for the first time since Lion was installed. Therefore, I guess there are issues with the way in which OS X Lion, my Mac’s hardware and the Belkin N1 communicate; that said, the hardware was all working fine under Snow Leopard, and with the sheer number of Wi-Fi-oriented complaints across the web, I still think this is a point that counts against Lion.
  • Launchpad. To be fair, Launchpad could be good, but it’s currently half-baked. On iOS, this means of launching and managing apps makes some sense; on the Mac, the launch aspect works well enough, but the almost total lack of options is infuriating. You can’t sort apps automatically (you can only drag them individually), nor can you hide them without the help of third-party add-ons. On an iPhone, you merely have to put up with a few stock Apple apps, but on the Mac, installers and all manner of other crap show up. And while click-hold wiggles the icons, ready for deletion, this only works with apps installed using the Mac App Store. The entire thing reminds me of what would happen if you took DragThing, dumbed it down, then dumbed down the result of the dumbing down, and then continued doing this for an entire night, just because.
  • Mission Control. I’m also finding this half-baked. The idea is to give you an overview of what’s running on your Mac, including full-screen documents and apps. In reality, the grouped windows aren’t terribly useful, because they overlap and don’t enable you to expand them, nor can you navigate the windows using the keyboard. Mercifully, Quick Look support remains, and Exposé is still in place on a per-app basis.
  • The Mac App Store. Maybe it’s my machine, but the Mac App Store in Lion runs like crap. It’s so slow and locks up constantly. It makes buying apps—something so simple in Snow Leopard—a chore.
  • Scrolling. Apple’s ditched scrollbars and reversed scrolling direction in OS X Lion, to ape iOS; so you now use gestures to ‘push’ content in the direction you want it to move. That in and of itself isn’t too bad, but one thing I’ve learned this past week: you’re screwed unless you’re running a fairly recent Mac laptop or have a Magic Trackpad. The mouse isn’t enough to comfortably deal with gestures. By beef with the system, though, is largely its inconsistency regarding fallbacks. In Mail, you cannot scroll the messages list by paging up and down, so you’re forced to use gestures—unlike in iTunes; in iTunes, scrollbars don’t appear for mouse-grabbing on hover—unlike in Safari. And so on. The inconsistency isn’t great for such an important system component, nor is bringing over one of iOS’s worse failings: system-wide hidden mystery content. Want to know if there’s more to see in a document? Tough. You’ll have to wiggle the current page to check.
  • The grey. OS X Lion is very grey. Toolbars are grey. Sidebar icons are grey. It’s very dull. I’m sure some graphic designers will like the lack of distraction, but I often use colours for navigation cues, and most of them are now gone, which is a huge pity. Finder’s sidebar also no longer displays custom icons for folders, adding to hunt-and-peck issues rather than improving navigation.
  • Stability. I’ve had many crashes for previously stable apps under OS X Lion, including Numbers, TextEdit and Preview. I suspect this might in part be down to the new Resume feature, which, as previously noted, at least tends to put things back as they were on a relaunch.

The ugly

  • iCal. Seriously, what the fuck is going on with iCal, Apple? Skeuomorphic design might be the in-thing on the iPad, but were Mac users really complaining that iCal was tricky to use and yelling, “If only Apple would make it look a bit like a tacky leather calendar, like the iPad’s Calendar app, but worse, everything would be all right”. It’s hideous UI design; worse, it looks cheap and out of place alongside the slick, streamlined Mail (and even iCal’s own preferences, which look fine). And this is a pity, because iCal gets two things very right: the much-improved Day view, with its upcoming events list, and the ‘heat’ Year view, using colour to show how busy you are on each day. I use it in full-screen mode and try to avoid the leather.
  • Address Book. Yeah, they wrecked this one, too, making it simultaneously look like a Fisher-Price app and reducing its usability. Still, I guess we should think ourselves lucky: at least Mail didn’t suddenly turn into an on-screen mailbox, or force you to lick virtual stamps by swiping your Magic Touchpad with your tongue.

And the rest

There are some other aspects of Lion that I’m either not bothered about either way (the increase in gestures) or haven’t really used enough to comment on (Auto Save, Versions, Air Drop). Overall, despite the fairly balanced ‘good’ and ‘bad’ lists above, I’m actually pretty happy with Lion, not least since its £20.99 price-tag is reasonable. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Wi-Fi issue, I think I’d happily dismiss the other problems, apart from the visual-design disaster that is iCal.

What I do believe is essential with Lion, though, is an ability to rethink workflow. If you’re absolutely set in your ways, you’re screwed. It might not seem it from screen grabs, but this OS really does change a whole bunch of things. You need a trackpad. You need to realise Apple’s default method of scrolling is probably going to be the only method next time round. You need to go with the flow with the likes of Mail and iCal, because Apple’s not going to change its mind.

Also, with the Wi-Fi issues lots of users are experiencing, I strongly recommend you follow my advice and clone your Mac before upgrading, just in case you end up being one of the unlucky ones who cannot connect at all.