Apple Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion) review

In a decade, Mac OS X evolved from a curious hybrid of the classic Mac OS and the NextStep operating system to a mainstream computer operating system used by millions. It was a decade of continual refinement, capped by the bug-fixing, internals-tweaking release of Snow Leopard in 2009.

But the last four years have seen some dramatic changes at Apple. In that time, while Mac sales have continued to grow, Apple has also built an entirely new business around mobile devices that run iOS. Combine the influx of new Mac users with the popularity of the iPhone and iPad, and you get Lion.

Can Apple make OS X friendly for people buying their first Macs and familiar to those coming to the Mac from the iPhone, while keeping Mac veterans happy? That would be a neat trick—and Apple has tried very hard to pull it off.

(Before you read any further, you need to know that Lion isn’t right for one particular group of users: If you’re using an early Intel Mac powered by a Core Solo or Core Duo processor, you can’t run it. And if you rely on PowerPC-based apps that run on Intel Macs using the Rosetta code-translation technology, they won’t run in Lion. For more on the fate of older software, see Chris Breen’s series on Lion-incompatible software.)

A new kind of upgrade

Even before you boot into Lion for the first time, you’ll feel just how different it is from previous versions of Mac OS X. That’s because Apple has decided to release the upgrade primarily as a £20.99 download from the Mac App Store. After a 3.5GB download, there’s a new Install Lion app in your Dock and Applications folder. Double-click that, and the installation begins.

Back in the day, getting an OS X upgrade involved going to a store or ordering online and getting an optical disc. With the release of Lion, Mac users can get near-instant gratification.

However, relying on downloading alone for an OS release has its drawbacks. While the experience is clean and simple for the most common installation scenarios, things can get weird if yours isn’t one of them. What if you have a really slow Internet connection or low bandwidth cap? Downloading 4GB of data could be painful. What if you aren’t running Snow Leopard, which is required for the Mac App Store? What happens if your drive crashes and you have to reinstall Lion onto a new, blank hard drive?

Apple has answers to many of these questions, but the rules of the game have definitely changed. Company executives told me that users without access to a high-speed connection will be able to bring their Macs to an Apple Store for help in buying and installing Lion.

Apple doesn’t provide an easy way to burn a DVD or format a USB drive as a back-up installer, though even Apple execs admitted that technically adept users will be able to figure out how to create a bootable installer from the contents of the Lion installation package. Wiping your hard drive entirely and re-installing Lion will be a different (and potentially more complicated) process than it is today with Snow Leopard, but for most users, installing (and restoring) system software under Lion will be a simpler process.

The good news is that, once you’ve got a Lion installer, you can copy it freely to all the Macs in your house (so long as they’re running the latest version of Snow Leopard) and upgrade them to Lion. Not only is that convenient, but it’s legal: The Lion download license covers all of the Macs in your household, making that £20.99 an even greater deal. If you’re planning on updating multiple Macs to Lion, though, be warned: the Lion installation app self-destructs after use. After you download it, move a copy somewhere else before installing, or you’ll have to re-download the installer from the App Store before using it on another Mac.

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