That’s what I think after spending an extended amount of time with Lion. They weren’t kidding with that “Back to the Mac” stuff. The next major version of OS X is all about blurring the lines between our favorite big cat and iOS, and so far the results are mixed. Read on for a full review.

Interface

When you first boot into the developer preview of Lion, you won’t see much different. The familiar aurora has been replaced with Mt. Fuji, and the indicator lights on the dock are turned off by default. What seems like a minor change is actually Apple trying to change the whole feel of desktop computing. Instead of running applications that you open and close, they become apps that you just switch between with little thought, just like on your iPhone. I’ll be interested to see how many people don’t even notice, and how many turn them right back on like I did.

Open up finder, and you’ll notice some major changes. Gone are big blue scroll bars that have greeted us for almost a decade, replaced with little iOS style bars that have no displayed track and disappear when not being used. I have no idea why it took Apple, or anyone for that matter, this long to find a non-intrusive way to integrate these into the interface, but it’s one of my favorite things about Lion, and puts the final nail in the coffin for Aqua.

The icons in the sidebar have also been changed to the bland, monochromatic variants that popped up in iTunes 10. I’m personally not a fan of this. It makes them harder to distinguish at a glance, and something about them just feels ugly and un-Apple. The familar red-yellow-green buttons on the top left of the windows have also been made smaller, and the gray of the window chrome has a slight texture to it. The buttons have all been replaced too, and there are sliders to distinguish between different windows and views. It looks dingy, and more like a bad Mac skin from Ubuntu.

Once you take all that in and start scrolling around, you’ll notice the biggest difference in the entire update; the inertia-based scrolling introduced in Snow Leopard has been upped to elastic scrolling. You know how your screen kind of bounces a bit, then snaps back when you hit the end of a page on your iPhone? Yep, that’s on your desktop now. I found it awkward and distracting. I never understood why on Mobile Safari you could scroll past the end of a page, and it would show you a checkered background, then sap back. On a desktop, it makes even less sense.

In addition, as you’ve most likely read by now, the scrolling has been reversed to work the same as it would on a touch screen. This is the single biggest complaint I’ve seen so far. While it’s exactly how it should work on a touch screen, this is NOT a touch screen. It should scroll in the direction your fingers go. There’s no advantage to doing it the other way. Luckily you can turn this off, but it seems like one of the many changes in Lion that Apple did just for the hell of it.

Programs

Apple has also made some changes to the default programs to iOSify them a little bit more. Let’s start with the program I use most: Mail. When you set up your account, you’ll notice that your inbox is now a column to the left of the viewing area. They say this is more like the version of Mail on the iPad. It’s also been the default setup in Outlook for some time now, but why rain on their parade? Now, while this is a nice setup, and it may be more usable, combined with the new icons in the chrome and on the sidebar, something about it just feels cluttered to me. It could be the way it displays threaded messages as separate “cards” in the reader pane, which makes it feel like there are too many things going on at once. All in all, some nice things, but needs some more tweaking.

Calendar is either minimally changed, or hugely different, depending on how you look at it. Gone is the sidebar, where I liked to have the next three months pulled up for quick reference, and in its place is a button that displays your calendars when clicked. There’s also a new year view. If you never used the sidebar for anything, you won’t care. If you did, this is going to take some getting used to.

Address Book has been revamped to look like its iPad counterpart. It’s pretty on the iPad, but feels woefully out of place here. It seems like with every iteration of OS X, there’s always something that doesn’t follow the basic interface guidelines of the rest of the OS, like how iPhoto and iTunes have had those gray scroll bars for a while now. If the Address Book looks like this now, why doesn’t the calendar look like the one on the iPad? It’s a puzzling choice.

Safari is also up to version 5, and the biggest change seems to be raw speed. It’s Chrome fast now, and blazes through pages and javascript. The same fundamental design is still in place though, with its clunky tabs, and separate google search bar. What ever happened to the tabs on top from the Safari 3 beta? That took a little bit of adjustment, but it worked surprisingly well. A lot better than always having the tab bar shown or having to hit command+t to open a tab. Something I also noticed was that new windows of Safari open like programs on an iPhone. Why wasn’t this carried through in the rest of the OS? Is that still being implemented? I guess we’ll find out.

Features

If you read my previous article, you know how I feel about Launchpad, so I won’t go into much detail here, except to mention one important fact that I forgot in that article: the icon can’t be removed from the dock. Why!? That would be like Apple forcing you to keep the dashboard (something nobody uses) icon in the dock. This HAS to change.

Another big change, and easily the best thing Lion has to offer, is a complete revamp of Spaces, Dashboard, and Exposé. They’ve all been rolled into one giant superwindow called Mission Control. Now when Exposé is activated, the desktop pulls back, revealing all your open windows grouped by application. All of your spaces sit at the top, with Dashboard getting its own space. Seeing all of these combined into one window makes perfect sense and feels like it should have been this way all along. I never used Dashboard or Spaces before because they just seemed like the extra effort wasn’t worth the benefits, but now that they’re combined with Exposé, which I use constantly, I could see myself getting a lot more mileage out of them.

Conclusion

Lion is the first major update to OS X in a while that I’m not eagerly awaiting. Unlike the welcome visual refresh in Leopard, and baked in Exchange support in Snow Leopard, there really isn’t much here to get excited about unless you really want to bounce your way through all your menus.

A lot of the visual changes only serve to make things feel more bland, and as I said before, more like a bad Mac skin. Most of the iOS additions feel clunky and strange on a desktop. Apple was the first to succeed in the tablet market because they were the first to realize that the interface and user experience need to be completely different, and on the heels of that success, they’re making the same mistake their predecessors made, albeit in the other direction.

Maybe I’m being too hard on Lion. Maybe after years of jumping right into new versions of OS X and feeling right at home, there are finally some things that’ll take getting used to, and I’m resisting that. Or maybe it just goes to show how perfect Snow Leopard really is. Either way, let’s hope some extra refining before a summer release helps to blend the desktop and touch models into a more seamless experience, because as it stands, this Lion is still a cub.

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