Mac OS X Lion drove me to Windows 7

On October 6, I made a dramatic, personal computing switch. After more than two months using the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook running Google's Chrome OS, I didn't go back to the Mac but to Windows 7. Mac OS X 10.7 -- aka "Lion" -- is major, but not only, reason. Lion is the first Mac operating system that I don't like. Also, I find the hardware options, particularly the all-important display and resolution, to be much better from Windows PC manufacturers than Apple in the same price range.

Others will disagree, but I see in Lion many uncharacteristic user interface and file system changes that smack of Windows Vista. Priorities aren't all in the right place, compared to previous OS X releases, with changes made for Apple's benefit -- such as trying to unify many behaviors with iOS -- and increased complexity where simplicity should be priority.

Most of the usability changes are philosophical and support an Apple worldview about computers and mobile devices: Features like multi-touch gestures (including reversing the direction of the scroll pad), LaunchPad (which presents apps in a way reminiscent of iOS) or full-screen apps all derive from behaviors taken from Apple's mobile operating system. Considering how many more iOS devices Apple has shipped (250 million) versus the Mac install base (58 million), it's unsurprising that Apple would look to making its desktop operating system more like the mobile one -- not the other way around. Most people are likely to buy an iOS device first and a Mac later (if at all).

Apple is driving users to full-screen apps and trying to mimic the touchscreen experience of iOS devices. From that perspective, Lion radically differs from all other modern operating systems, except Chrome OS, which only functions in full-screen mode. There is no desktop with Chrome OS. The two objectives are intertwined with respect to certain decisions Apple has made regarding how some very basic UI elements function differently.

I have no problem with change, and full screen is the future of personal computing interfaces. Microsoft rightly is going there, too, and full screen already is state of the art on smartphones and media tablets. I'd argue, in fact, that one of the fundamental reasons Microsoft couldn't make Tablet PC a success -- years before Apple launched iPad -- is full-screen mode, or lack of truly having it. Windows 8 Metro UI fixes that problem, and Apple better hope Microsoft drags its ass getting the new OS to market.

But I find in Lion too much change for the sake of it, just like Windows Vista, without enough compelling benefits. The biggest: price ($29.99 for your personal Macs) and ease of purchase/installation (download from the Mac App Store and update). One other benefit offers much, but introduces unnecessary complexity with it: Auto-save. Resume, which relaunches an app where the user left it, is another.

Six Principles

In 2004, I first posted my four principles of good tech product design, which I expanded to six about two years later. A successful product:

1. Hides complexity

2. Emphasizes simplicity

3. Builds on the familiar

4. Does what it's supposed to do really well

5. Allows people to do something they wished they could do

6. When displacing something else, offers significantly better experience

Many Apple products incorporate all six principles, and No. 5 often sets them apart from everything else. People don't know what they want. Focus groups won't tell you or beta feedback. The best products anticipate what users need and gives it to them. That's what creates the "magic" Apple often uses to describe its products and the "doh" and "wow" experiences people have when first using them.

I don't see much of that No. 5 magic in Lion, nor is the experience remarkably better than predecessor Snow Leopard; for me. If you disagree, please explain why in comments. Default changes to scrolling behavior and many other little tweaks change how people interact with Mac OS X -- increasing complexity for some people and decreasing for others (particularly those using iOS devices or coming from Windows rather than other OS X version). Again, if you disagree, I'd love to learn how you think Lion meets these six principles.

I commend Apple for looking ahead to the eventual closing of the fork separating Mac OS X and iOS -- at least from a user-interaction perspective. It's gutsy. But I personally don't like it. Last week, Apple revealed that there had been 6 million Lion downloads, which assuming one-to-one installation, means more than 10 percent of the install base has upgraded since its July release. But the changes don't work for me. Do they for you?

Open Windows -- Fresh Air

Lion roared, and I ran away from the Mac -- as fast as I could bolt from the beast. For two months I lived on Chrome OS, which still isn't ready for mass consumption -- and may never be. There is much to like about the Google operating system and the Chromebook concept, but there is too much complexity introduced simply from crashes and bugs that shouldn't be in a shipping product.

So early into the second month, I decided not to buy a Chromebook as planned (Google and Samsung graciously had provided a loaner). Around the same time, Microsoft held its BUILD conference and released Windows 8 Developer Preview. I started thinking about returning to Windows 7 -- and eventually going full-time Windows 8 during the development process. I experimented some more with Lion (we still have two Macs in the household and there is always Apple Store), but couldn't warm up to the cat.

Before going with Chromebook on July 31, I had used the 11.6-inch MacBook Air, which I found to be a simply delightful and svelte laptop. MacBook Air defines portable computing -- well almost. Cellular radio would be near-perfection. The near instant-on capability is one of the laptop's most useful benefits. Could I get that from a Windows laptop?

I could have bought a new MacBook Air or even MacBook Pro and installed Windows 7, but I wasn't confident about running Windows 8 all the way through the development cycle. Also, I wanted to see how the out-of-box Windows 7 notebook experience had changed in the last year. Something else: Last month, I expressed how "I lost my passion for Apple". That had much to do with cofounder Steve Jobs' waning influence as he fought for his life and, most tragically, lost it last week.

No computer is ideal. There are benefits that matter more than others. With the new laptop, Lenovo ThinkPad T420s, I trade the portability offered by MacBook Air for better performance, longer battery life and higher display resolution. If Air is a Porsche or Mazda Miata, the boxy T420s is a Volvo -- bigger, not as sporty, but stout, solid. I don't travel enough that slimmer and lighter is a necessity. Instant-on matters more -- how quickly I can get the laptop out of the bag and useful. So far, as configured, the ThinkPad T420s starts as fast as MacBook Air from sleep -- but it takes about twice as long when turned off.

The ThinkPad T420s has a 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 processor (with 3MB L3 cache); 14-inch matte screen (with 1600 x 900 resolution); 160GB Intel sold-state drive; 4GB of DDR3 memory (1333MHz); DVD burner; WebCam; Ethernet; WiFi N, card reader; 3 USB ports, one each HDMI and VGA port; and Windows 7 Ultimate 64 bit. Lenovo currently sells this configuration for $1,358.10, or about $158 more than the top-end Air. None of the MacBook Pros are comparable at the price range, when adding SSD drive and none of the 13.3-inch or 15-inch models have as high-resolution a display. For example, Apple sells the 15-inch MacBook Pro with 128GB SSD and 1680 x 1050 resolution display for $2,099.

High-res display is a huge priority for me, as is matte finish, because I often work outside (it's always summer in San Diego) and glossy finishes reflect too much light. SSD is another priority, because it helps make near instant-on a reality. Sony offers 1600 x 900 with VAIO Z series, slimmer and lighter), but not at a price I could afford.

To my surprise, it's a refreshing change using Windows 7 as my full-time operating system -- granted it has only been a few days. Overall, I'm impressed with the T420s performance, and I had forgotten just how amazing the ThinkPad keyboard is to use. Yeah, the keys may go clickity-clack, but suddenly I'm a touch typist (or as close as I'll ever be).

Betanews' Microsoft, Internet Explorer and Windows reporting has lagged as of late, something I plan to change by the switch back to Windows; I can write more authoritively about stuff I actually use. Then there is future reporting on Windows 8, which in many ways is a more interesting product than either iOS or Mac OS X. No one should underestimate what Windows & Windows Live president Steven Sinofsky will do with Windows 8 and connected services.

For now, I'm remembering what appeals so much about Windows 7 and enjoying that Volvo of laptops -- the ThnkPad.

Photo Credit: Joe Wilcox

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