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Subtle Irritations in Lion

Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, has been, by all accounts, a sales success, with over one million copies downloaded on its first day of release and undoubtedly millions more since. These stellar sales results do not necessarily reflect a perfect product, but merely one that has been much discussed and long anticipated. Just as with the initial releases of 10.6 Snow Leopard, 10.5 Leopard, 10.4 Tiger, and all the other big cat releases, this one has its share of minor changes from previous versions that irritate and baffle, plus new bugs that confound and confuse.

Don’t misunderstand the point of this article. Our goal is to call out subtle aspects of Lion that feel as though they’re making us — and many other long-time Mac users — less productive on our Macs. Our hope is that Apple will revisit the discussions that resulted in these changes to Lion and reevaluate how they affect not just usability for new customers, but productivity for loyal Mac users who live and die by their Macs. And, for those who might have felt that using Lion seemed awkward but couldn’t quite identify the issues, perhaps our descriptions will let you figure out how to adjust your workflow to compensate.

Here are some of the minor cosmetic and operational changes that have irked us.

Hidden Scrollbars — The utility of being able to tell at a glance how long a page is and roughly where you are in it is key for some of the things we do (editing in a very long document, for instance). Luckily, you can set scrollbars to appear at all times — not just when you’re scrolling — in the General preference pane.

Also, even when they are showing, Lion’s scrollbars present a smaller, harder-to-hit target for a pointing device than scrollbars in previous versions. We don’t expect Apple to change anything here; their goal would seem to be to encourage everyone to scroll via a trackpad or Magic Mouse rather than by clicking the scrollbars.

Finder Sidebar Icons — The monochrome-only icons in the sidebar of Finder windows — even for custom folders — makes it significantly harder to pick out particular items in the sidebar list. What’s more, custom icons for folders do not appear in the sidebar, showing every non-Apple folder as a generic folder icon rather than using the icon that the user has supplied.

Again, we don’t expect this to change any time soon; Apple is in a monochromatic design phase right now (witness the recent updates to iTunes). It is unfortunate that Apple’s design imperatives are overriding what is largely a functional feature — color and custom icons are significant visual cues in interface navigation.

Mission Control’s Spatial Unpredictability — In Spaces in Snow Leopard, now subsumed into Mission Control, you could set up two or more desktops in a two-dimensional grid, and switching between them with Control-left-arrow or Control-right-arrow key presses always revealed individual desktops in a predictable sequence. Now, in Mission Control, the desktops are arranged linearly, and, by default, those desktops are ordered depending on which one was most recently used: the desktop that appears to the right or left of the current desktop may not be the same one that was there a few minutes earlier. Fortunately, this default behavior can be changed in the Mission Control
preference pane.

What’s more, the desktops in Spaces wrapped around the grid: once you were viewing the “last” desktop in the grid, the next Control-right-arrow would take you back to the “first” desktop. In Mission Control, the line of desktops doesn’t wrap around: when the user is viewing the final desktop in the line of desktops, the next Control-right-arrow does nothing, except to make the currently displayed desktop jiggle for a moment. To get from the rightmost to the leftmost desktop can require quite a few key presses. And there’s no System Preference setting that can alter that behavior.

It’s good that you can make desktop position in Mission Control predictable if you wish; it would be nice if Apple would enable wrap-around access to desktops as well. It’s possible Apple removed this capability to make switching between desktops more like switching between Launchpad pages, which also don’t wrap around, much as Home screen pages don’t wrap on iOS. On the other hand, the bookshelves in the iBooks app on iOS do wrap around, so it’s not like Apple is completely opposed to wrap-around navigation.

Apple Mail’s Reply within Conversations — In Apple Mail, when viewing a conversation, you often want to respond to a message that has just arrived as a response to a previous email that you sent. When Mail’s conversation feature is active, those responses can be visible and completely readable in Mail’s browser window even if they haven’t technically been “read” yet; instead, the selected message in Mail is still the last message you clicked, which is often a message that you sent.

So, if you click the Reply button in the toolbar or use the keyboard shortcut, you create a reply to the currently selected message in the conversation, which is not the just-received response, but the message you sent that elicited the response. As a result, your “reply” is really a reply to your message, not a reply to the most recent message that just arrived in the conversation. You have to remember to click within that response to reply to it. Otherwise, you end up sending your reply to yourself — great if you’re feeling lonely; not so great if you want to keep the conversation going.

(As an aside, you can choose in Mail’s Viewing preference pane whether the most recent message in a conversation appears at the top or the bottom of the conversation. Most recent at top is like Twitter, whereas most recent at bottom is like most discussion forums. We generally recommend most recent at bottom, since otherwise you have to read threads that are new to you from the bottom up, which is awkward.)

This sort of user experience tuning often takes place in subsequent releases, since it’s hard to know what most users want to do before many people have seen the feature. For what it’s worth, Gmail, which pioneered the concept of conversations, is quite good about this. Every individual message in a conversation has its own Reply and Forward links (to be fair, Apple Mail has them, too, but in Apple’s war on user interface discoverability, they don’t appear unless you hover over the message header); if you click in a message and then use a keyboard shortcut, Gmail replies to the message that was selected; and if all else fails, Gmail replies to the last message in the thread. Hopefully Apple Mail can learn from Gmail’s

Three-finger Salute — Swiping three fingers up or down in Snow Leopard moved you (in some programs) to the top or bottom of a document or page, the equivalent of pressing the Home or End key. In Lion, that helpful gesture is gone, replaced with a system-wide setting: the three-finger swipe up is either select-and-drag or reveals Mission Control, and the three-finger swipe down is either select-and-drag or App Exposé. You can reassign Mission Control and App Exposé to four-finger swipes, but if you want the three-finger swipe for Home and End back, you’ll want to install one of these utilities (in order of their success of providing that particular feature): jitouch, MagicPrefs, or BetterTouchTool.

Auto Save — Lion allows applications that support Auto Save to save data automatically without user intervention. Working hand-in-glove with Versions, Auto Save not only prevents users from worrying about losing data by forgetting to save, but also gives them a way to go back in time to earlier versions of a document and revert some or all of the most recently autosaved changes. That is spiffy, but Auto Save can’t be turned off in applications that support it, and its mere presence eliminates a common File menu option: Save As.

In pre-Auto Save versions of Mac OS X, you could open a document, immediately choose File > Save As, name the copy, and begin working, leaving the original intact. Now you must open a document, choose File > Duplicate, rename the duplicate, and (optionally) manually close the original in order to work on a copy without affecting the original. Should you forget to duplicate the document immediately, any changes end up automatically saved in the original document; in the old model, no changes are saved until a manual Save or Save As command is issued.

Speaking of Auto Save, we’re not fond of the hidden menu you use to access versions — hover your cursor over the name of the document in the title bar, and you’ll see a tiny downward-pointing triangle to indicate the menu’s presence. Click it to access commands for duplicating, locking, and browsing versions of the document. This is yet another example of Apple’s newfound penchant for hiding essential user interface elements. For something as necessary as accessing a previous version of a document, it’s way too hard to find these controls.

We don’t see Apple changing anything here; we include this item more to alert those upgrading to Lion to how you’ll do the equivalent of a Save As in Auto Save-savvy apps and how you access older versions of your auto-saved documents.

Auto Termination — There isn’t much to say here that Matt Neuburg has not already said in “Lion Is a Quitter” (5 August 2011). Apple could largely resolve Matt’s complaints by making the Dock and Command-Tab app switcher continue to show icons for apps that have been terminated by the system, much as the iOS Fast App Switcher shows all recent apps so the user doesn’t know or care if they’re running.

Resume on Restart/Reopen — Whenever you quit an application in Lion, the next time you launch that application, it opens with the same windows showing as were present when you previously quit it. That may generally be desirable, but it isn’t always. The built-in solution is to press Command-Option-Q to quit and discard open windows, or hold down Shift when you launch an application to have it not open previously opened windows. And you can deselect the “Restore windows when quitting and re-opening apps” checkbox in the General preference pane to disable the feature globally.

But you can’t disable the feature on a per-application basis: it’s all or nothing. When it comes to restarting a Mac, the situation is even less configurable: you can deselect the “Reopen windows when logging back in” checkbox when you shut down, log out, or restart, but you have to do it each and every time — there’s no way to disable that feature permanently.

Even though power users may want application-level control over Resume, it’s hard to see Apple providing it, since it would add a significant amount of user interface overhead, either somewhere in System Preferences, or in every individual application that supports Resume. It would be nice to be able to toggle the default restart behavior so the “Reopen windows when logging back in” checkbox would be deselected by default; this is the sort of thing that’s often handled by a hidden defaults write command.

The Unbearable Slowness of Help — This problem is not new in Lion; Help has been unacceptably slow for quite a while. That it’s still a problem in Lion is disappointing. An application’s Help menu should be the first place a user goes when trying to solve a problem or figure out how to use a feature, but the Help window takes several seconds before any useful information appears in it, and the Search field in the Help window often takes several more seconds before whatever the user has typed even appears. As a result, users may assume that Help is broken, and never again try to use it. Come on, Apple, it’s always annoying when you have to wait to get help on the
phone or in a store, and it’s no different on the Mac.

iChat Stuttering on Yahoo — iChat in Lion now supports Yahoo IM accounts. But the feature seems to have an interesting bug for some users: whenever they begin to type a message in iChat to a Yahoo contact, iChat immediately begins to send what they are typing before they hit Return. And as they keep typing, iChat continues to send everything they have typed up to that moment as individual messages. For example, suppose one types, “Hi. Lovely day here in the wonderful land of Oz.” iChat sends multiple messages in a sequence that looks something like this:

Hi. Lovely d
Hi. Lovely day her
Hi. Lovely day here in the won
Hi. Lovely day here in the wonderful land of Oz.

Hopefully this bug will simply disappear with iChat’s next update.

Smart Folders Are Broken — Not completely, of course, but the problem appears when you save a Finder search as a Smart Folder and later attempt to modify the search. If you choose to view a Smart Folder’s search criteria in the Finder, two things happen:

  1. The criteria shown are the defaults (no search string is present, and there is only one criteria bar shown, with Kind set to Any) instead of the terms and criteria you had entered.

  2. The previous search criteria are not just not visible, but deleted, rendering that Smart Folder useless.

This is clearly a bug, and it was a little surprising that Apple didn’t fix it in 10.7.1.

Screen Wakes Require Keyboard Access — This is truly minor, but it threw us and several colleagues briefly. Before Lion, if your Mac’s screen had gone to sleep, you could bring it back to life by moving the mouse or touching the trackpad, as well as by pressing a key on the keyboard or clicking the mouse button. Since there was always a worry that a subsequent key press might insert a character in an unwanted location (we writers hate that), we generally opted for the mouse or trackpad. But Lion now ignores mouse or trackpad motion for waking the screen, forcing us to click the pointing device button or tap a key on the keyboard. It’s not a big deal, but we can’t
imagine why Apple would have made the change. Perhaps it’s just an oversight and it will return in a future update.

Looking Forward to 10.7.2 — All of this is not to suggest, of course, that Lion is a disaster. Far from it. Much about Apple’s latest version of Mac OS X is exciting, some of its new capabilities are inspired, and most of it works well. However, as with many 10.x.0 releases, this big cat could benefit from a flea-bath and some mane-trimming in a future update. 10.7.1 has just appeared, and it doesn’t address any of the issues we raise here, so now we’re looking forward to 10.7.2.

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