Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Lion: Yet Another Review

Cheerios, finally a new blog post after a long while. Haven't I been programming a lot lately? Well, yes and no. I've been working real hard on synctool, which is a sysadmin tool written in Python for doing software configuration management on clusters of computers. In github the development branch is now something like 180 commits ahead of the stable branch. After which I got the flu and after that I was on a well deserved long vacation. Just when I got back home, Apple released Mac OS X Lion so I had some interesting upgrading to do. In the past, I sometimes blogged about Ubuntu (Linux) upgrades, nowadays “I'm a mac” (sorry — btw, still doing lots of things with Linux at work) so I'll write about my experiences with the Lion.

Surprise surprise
Upgrading to Lion is a breeze. Just buy it from the App Store, download the program and off you go. After an hour or so you are now running Mac OS X Lion. It's as easy as that. But wait, as a sysadmin, there are a few things here that are making me feel uneasy.

I got Lion from the App Store, so I have no CD-ROM to install the system from if my system ever breaks. Apple solved this partially by including a system restore partition on your hard drive. Eww. Uhm. Well ... OK. I guess..?

Apparently there is a way to create a Lion install CD-ROM but Apple does not tell you how. It is (apparently) reserved to “power users” (or should I say “hackers”?). Doing so is not easy especially because the Lion installer magically disappears from your hard drive after the upgrade is done. After downloading the 4 gig or so installer I had to download it again to upgrade my laptop. This is not such a nice thing for Apple to do.

Upgrading my laptop took a bit more work. It's an older model white macbook with only 1 gig of memory. Lion only works on systems with 2 gigs of memory or more, so I had to do a small hardware upgrade first. I can't really explain, but Lion uses a ton of memory even though the running apps do not show big memory footprints in Activity Monitor.

Gimme gimme new features
Lion offers a number of new things. There isn't an awful lot, but then again, it was only 29 dollars or something. Some of those things were good, and some of those were bad. I love my Mac enough to blog about it and I do like Lion but grrrrrowls ... I'll give you the bad first.

Ironically most of Lion's biggest selling points were pretty useless to me. Honestly, it's mostly marketing hype. Here's why: my main system is a 27 inch iMac. Gimmicks like Launchpad and fullscreen Mail are nice on a laptop, but they are not useful (just plain awful) on a 27 inch screen. Lion's features are mostly ideal for laptops but not for desktop Macs.
  • new UI. Really? Yeah, but you have to look super hard to notice. And then when you do notice, it annoys the crap out of you because it does not look better than Leopard. Except for the squared buttons, which looks more like Microsoft Windows?
  • full screen apps. Great feature, but on large displays it is not useful. You just drown in this amazingly large screen. Which is kind of fun actually, because a regular PC never does that to me.
  • 3 column layout for Mail. Oh wow. I hate it. It's a cheap Outlook imitation if you ask me. And it's ugly.
  • Launchpad. A big screen full of icons. Great. Sigh. I will never use it.
  • new trackpad gestures. Yeah, I do have a trackpad with my iMac. I'm just not comfortable with four and five finger gestures, rotating your hand, etc. For photo editing, I use a mouse (!)
  • Mission Control. Where did Expose go??
  • Dashboard is awful on a large display. It was nice in Leopard, the screen would fade out to darkness and your widgets would appear. You would click next to a widget in the void and the whole thing would zoom out and you would return to your desktop. In Lion, the whole desktop slides offscreen to the right (a dazzling animation that gives you a headache) and you are presented with a million (really, a million!) tiny knobs that are some kind of Lego base plate, and you can't even change that annoying background without hacking into your system library folder (!!!)
  • AirDrop. Maybe Lion's coolest feature, but it doesn't work with my old macbook. I don't even blame Apple for this because it is an older model and the WiFi chip in this macbook does not have the needed functionality, but as said, AirDrop is unfortunately useless to me.
  • FileVault now has whole disk encryption. To a lot of people, this feature came like five years too late. On the other hand, this feature is arguably useless to everyone. It enables you to encrypt even your system files, files that are identical on any Lion installation. Moreover, even though Apple denies it, FileVault makes your system noticeably slower.
Apps that broke:
  • PowerPC apps simply don't work anymore. Apple removed the brilliant Rosetta software. I say brilliant because it allowed me to play WarCraft 3 (for PowerMac) on my intel Leopard system flawlessly.
  • TrueCrypt / MacFUSE. I found a website that offered up-to-date MacFUSE software that fixed the problem. But it was not on the official MacFUSE website. Odd. Very odd. But it really does work now.
  • Some folks say that Spaces is broken in Lion because Apple changed it. I don't use Spaces but looking at Mission Control, I believe them.
  • Printing from Google Chrome crashes the app. Of course, it's all Google's fault and you should use Safari. But I'm pretty sure that I could print from the Chrome browser before.
  • Lion removed my compilers and did so even without asking. gcc, clang, make, all gone. Insane! Apple decided that thou shalt use Xcode 4 on a Lion system. It's free, and thou shalt download the 4 gig Xcode 4 installer from the App Store and you are not given any option to install only the command-line tools. So I spent some additional hours to get my programming environment back in order again.

The Good Stuff
So, is Lion all useless? No, here's what I do like about it:
  • More system programs are 64-bits binaries.
  • The OS kernel runs in 64-bits mode now, which is faster than 32-bits mode on modern CPUs.
  • ASLR has now been implemented properly or so they say. Address randomization is important for security; it helps prevent system crackers to gain root access by smashing the stack. I find this to be a very important feature because I do online banking with my system, and who doesn't, nowadays.
  • The price is fair, even for a guy like me who has been spoiled rotten for years with Linux and GNU where software is typically free (as in beer — yes, RMS says you can make money from it but everyone is getting it for free anyway. But wait, isn't that exactly the same in the Windows world? Hmmm).
  • The arrows on the scroll bars are gone. I'm not too crazy about the new scroll bars, but you have to admit that no one was seriously clicking those arrows anymore and removing them is a bold move. No doubt Ubuntu and other Linuxes will follow this example, as will Microsoft.

I Still Love You
Despite my criticism on Lion I have to say that I'm still very much in love with the Mac OS. It just works. I can't put it any other way. I love working with it. I love programming for it. I love its strangely brilliant Objective-C. I love digging in the docs of its Objective-C API. I love its brilliant BSD UNIX that is its core. I love that you can sit down and get some work done rather than having to click away popup after popup as your system is begging for attention because it needs you to be a sysadmin night after night. I love that OS upgrades do not totally break your system and that you do not have to spend a full weekend on hacking away in it in a futile attempt to fix it. I love how you can copy gigabyte files around and the whole desktop remains responsive. I love how my old white macbook runs the latest Mac OS X smoothly and without feeling sluggish at all. I love the finger scroll with inertia on the Magic Mouse that seems to ‘just know’ where you want to scroll to. I love the beautiful screen fonts. They are not ugly like on other platforms. And I love how the Dashboard worked in Leopard. No other OS in the world implemented widgets in this way and it was done exactly right. And I love Spotlight. Spotlight has to be the only desktop search tool that does not grind on your hard drive as it is rebuilding an index every single day from a daily cron job.

I could go on and on. There are few things in Mac OS that I do not like. The Finder does not behave like Windows Explorer — but then again, it is not a Windows application. The default settings for PageUp and PageDown in the Terminal and Xcode editor appear broken as they do not react intuitively. Launchpad is rubbish. They messed with my favorite app, the Dashboard.
Other than that, the Mac is still insanely great.

Update: In System Preferences|Mission Control, uncheck “Show Dashboard as a space” to get the old Dashboard behavior back.