Mac OS X 10.7 Lion full review

Full-screen apps

Lion adds a new capability that any app can take advantage of: the ability to run in full-screen mode. Once an app is updated by its developer to support this mode, a double-headed arrow icon appears in the top-right corner of the app window. Click on it and a couple of things happen.


Full-screen GarageBand

First, of course, the app slides into full-screen mode: You see nothing but that app; no other windows share the screen. Also, the menu bar and Dock disappear. (Really, they’re just hidden; if you nudge your mouse to the edge of the screen they will reappear temporarily). And the app becomes a space unto itself in Mission Control. To exit full-screen mode, you move your cursor to the top of the screen and, when the menu bar reappears, you click on the blue double-headed arrow in the top-right corner.

This is an interface approach that Apple has been heading toward for a while: The existing versions of iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand all want to be run in single windows, as large as possible. With Lion, more Apple apps join that party, including Safari, Mail, and iCal. Presumably, many third-party apps will follow.

It’s interesting that Apple has decided to take this approach. On the one hand, it’s another way that Mac OS X now mimics iOS. But on the other, it’s also a throwback: One of the first things I noticed way back when I first compared the Mac with PCs running Windows was that Windows took a monolithic approach to apps: They were largely meant to run maximized, with one giant window taking up the full screen. That was very different from the Mac, which had an interface full of small, interrelated windows. Now, here we are in 2011, and Apple has seemingly embraced that monolithic approach, at least in some cases.


Full-screen iCal

Lion’s full-screen mode can’t be judged on its own. Instead, we need to judge the way each app uses it. Some apps, such as iCal, iTunes and GarageBand, are essentially one giant window, so they're tailor-made for full-screen. Mail’s wide, multi-paned approach fits well, too. On a small display like an 11-inch MacBook Air, full-screen mode is especially helpful in eking out a little extra space.

Full-screen mode is less successful in other Apple apps. Safari especially feels like a failure: Most web pages just don’t need to be as wide as your screen; they’re designed at fixed widths, and nobody wants to read super-wide lines of text anyway. Sure, Safari has the new Reading List pane to fill up space on the side, and it could find other things to put over there (bookmarks, history). But I still don’t see the appeal of forcing my web browser to take up 100 percent of the screen, even on a MacBook Air.

If app developers come up with good uses of all that extra space, full-screen mode could be great. For example, one of my favorite apps, the long-form writing tool Scrivener, has a multi-paned interface that could be perfect in full-screen mode. There’s a writing section in the center, with controls at the top, a binder full of different sections on the left, and (optionally) an inspector pane with more detail on the right. It could usefully take advantage of the full screen.

But if vendors just make their existing apps as wide and as tall as possible, full-screen mode won’t be that useful. One third-party Twitter client app I tested had enabled full-screen mode on an experimental basis, but all that happened was that individual tweets appeared at full-screen width. That sort of approach will probably be common, but it’s a waste of time. In most cases, app developers will need to give some serious thought to how best to use full-screen mode, or the feature could become a largely unused gimmick, kind of like Dashboard.

Note that full-screen mode has apparently been designed for Macs with just one display. On a two-monitor setup, one display shows the app, the other shows nothing but the newly ubiquitous linen background texture. It's a waste. I’d much rather have two apps running in full-screen mode, one on each display, or even have one app in full-screen mode while the other screen is displaying one of my regular desktops. Until Apple addresses this issue, I can’t really recommend full-screen mode for anyone who relies on multiple displays.

Launchpad

Launchpad is one of the most obviously iOS-inspired new features in Lion. It’s the Mac version of the app home screens you see on an iPhone and iPad. Like Mission Control, Time Machine, and Dashboard, Launchpad is a basic operating-system feature that looks like an app itself: It’s in the Applications menu and, by default, in the Dock. You invoke it by launching the app, by using a hot key, moving the cursor to a hot corner, or by performing a Multi-Touch gesture.

The contents of Launchpad are essentially the contents of your Applications folder. Every launchable app in that folder shows up in a tiled list of icons in Launchpad. Apple stocks its own apps on the first page of Launchpad; other apps are listed alphabetically starting on page two. New apps you add, including those downloaded from the Mac App store, appear at the end of the list.


Launchpad

You can re-organize the apps in Launchpad much as you do on iOS: by dragging app icons around one by one. Drop one icon atop another and you create a folder (which you can rename). You can even delete apps you bought on the Mac App Store by clicking on an “X” icon next to the application icon.

Launchpad seems like an excellent solution for new and novice users, allowing them to survey all the apps on their system and find the one they want to open. For users familiar with iOS conventions, it will feel familiar. It appears to be an effort to steer those users away from the Finder and into an easier-to-use, more familiar launching interface; the Dock’s just not big enough to encompass every app you might have.

For Mac users with some experience, or just those with lots and lots of apps, Launchpad will be a disappointment. Organizing it is just as laborious as organizing home screens on iOS: It’s an endless series of clicks and drags. You can’t remove or hide items from Launchpad; every little AppleScript and installer utility on my system showed up there. Instead, you can exile them to folders on Launchpad’s back pages. It turns out to be a lot of work for something that’s supposed to be simple.

And that’s probably the truth of it: For people with a few downloaded Mac App Store apps and the stock stuff that comes when you buy a new Mac, Launchpad is a decent organizing tool. The rest of us might just want to pull it out of the Dock, turn off all the keyboard shortcuts and pretend it doesn’t exist.

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