To Upgrade or not Upgrade - that is the question!
At least that is the question I get from a lot of my friends and family. They are probably wondering this if they received one of my many rants in the form of tweets and the occasional email ever since I updated to Lion the day it was released. Why did I do that? I DON’T KNOW! It had worked fine in the past. Snow Leopard, for example, was just about the best OS upgrade in the history of OS upgrades, and I guess I had my high hopes for “something wonderful” with Lion.
It’s been months since the release and I am still quite irritated, so I figured I would write down what sucks about Lion and what’s great about Lion, and you can make your own choice if you haven’t yet made the plunge.
Let’s Start with the Bad
I don’t mean to be petty about it. Some of what I say is dead on, some is conjecture so please chime in if I’ve lost the plot.
Time Machine over Network
I spent a lot of time figuring out how to get all my computers in my house backed up properly. Time Machine is the way to go in general. If your computer is stolen, lost, dropped or if your hard drive goes, buy a new hard drive or computer, set it up, say “Yes” when your new computer asks you if you want to restore from a Time Machine backup, it just works, it’s like nothing even happened in the first place.
Time Machine over your LAN is harder to set up but it’s great when it works. And the best way to get it working for me was to attach a hard drive to the Mac Mini and do backups to that machine from all your computers. The Mini can also use the same hard drive to back itself up, which is nice. This works well and was completely reliable for me until I upgraded to Lion.
Once I upgraded to Lion my backups started taking hours instead of minutes. Sometimes it would be quick sometimes slow. This was often accompanied by a cryptic message on the console about “waiting for index” and other things like that. After the second dot release of Lion it all started working fine for me. But then I got a new laptop, started from scratch and was never able to get a timely backup no matter what I did! Meanwhile, the other computers in the house are just fine. My experience has been echoed by many MANY frustrated users and described in gory detail at the Apple discussions website.
So I am back to using a direct hard drive for my backups. It appears to be working. I never EVER notice when the backup is running. I literally have never seen the Time Machine status spin. I think it’s all over in less than a minute.
Swapping - Then and Now
I am unclear on the details but since I upgraded to Lion I have been swapping like crazy. I notice these things and I know that I was not swapping at all with Snow Leopard. Well, maybe if I fired up Aperture or something but that’s because Aperture is the biggest pig of an app ever. (Eclipse is a close second.)
So something about Lion caused more swapping to occur. It was a philosophical change I think: we’ve got all this virtual memory, let’s start taking advantage of it. Of course that means if you care about your memory usage and over all performance, you have now just lost control. If the OS decides to have a bigger disk buffer cache, or store twice as much data in the Spotlight index, or changes the Mail data structures so it uses much more memory, well you’re out of luck. Some or all of those things happened in Lion.
I rebooted recently. You can see that I am already swapping 300M+ and it’s routinely in the 1G range. That was unheard of in Snow Leopard, at least for me:
My theory at the time was that all Apple engineers were developing with SSDs instead of HDDs. After upgrading to a MacBook Air with an SSD I can only conclude that I am right. My machine might swap 1.5G or 2G but I never notice or care with my SSD. Swapping back in is almost instantaneous compared to a spinning hard drive.
I am pissed off at Apple for making the vast majority of existing hard drive based computers suffer a huge performance degradation as a result of these decisions. I hope there’s a way to dial back some of the settings in a future release depending on the kind of storage you have.
Safari vs. Chrome
I was using Chrome quite happily when I upgraded to Lion, but Chrome was not working so well at the time so I switched to Safari. Once I found a few plugins that are near and dear to me, I was quite happy about the switch. But Safari’s main problem is that it is a memory hog. It uses lots of memory and it leaks lots of memory, and it was not uncommon to find Safari using over 1G of real memory. It brought me into swapping land even sooner and I found myself quitting it a dozen times a day, literally, to reclaim the leaked memory.
Safari caused swapping which slows everything down, but it was also very slow in other ways. For example, random web pages would cause Safari to stop and make me wait for 10 or more seconds. Perhaps it was loading a plugin, or doing something weird with the sandbox, I am not sure. All I know is, It was unbearable.
Once Google updated Chrome for Lion I moved back and it was a dramatic improvement. Chrome really does run each window in its own address space, and closing the window really does free up the memory.
Emacs and File I/O
This issue really shocked me the most. Finding a file in Emacs would give me a spinning ball, emacs would show no signs of doing anything, and then suddenly the file would appear. Same thing with saving a file. I am used to a quick Control-X Control-S to save my work, but in Lion that would sometimes take several seconds! But I have been using emacs for 30 years, I’ve never seen anything like this in all those years! Also this was not happening with some of my buddies at work, just me.
I am still not sure what is the deal with this. All I know is the problem went away when I got a computer with SSD. (And then I realized my buddy had an SSD as well.) I don’t even want to think about what is going on behind the scenes which causes this problem.
“Now apps you close will reopen right where you left off, so you never have to start from scratch again.”
Um … I don’t think so. Well, maybe. See, I think this is another one of those features that just doesn’t work unless you have an SSD. If you have a regular hard drive you can sit around for minutes waiting for your apps to return to their previous location and state. It’s really just smoke and mirrors though. Emacs certainly won’t return to its previous state, and neither will many other apps. Instead, what Apple does is they capture a screen shot of your app and restore that for you. And then behind the scenes, very slowly, it actually reloads the apps and places them in the same place (we hope) and then you can interact with the app. Until it’s done loading you can click to your heart’s desire on the screen but there’s no app there, nothing will happen.
I bet it loads quite nicely with an SSD. That will probably give you the same experience you get with the iPhone/iPad. I haven’t bothered to see, I was so offended by the experience with a regular hard drive.
What’s to Like about Lion?
There’s a lot to like if you can get past the previous two main issues.
The new mail app is quite nice. I admit I prefer the classic layout to the new iPhone inspired layout. But I like the conversations view, a long time coming but they work quite well. Searching is much easier: when you type in a search string you can match it against people or subjects, and then select To, From or Entire Message. It’s quite quick as well, as long as your not swapping yet (or if you have an SSD).
When I was thinking of trying to downgrade back to Snow Leopard, the Mail app was one of the reasons I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Printing and Scanning
Setting up printers was quite easy in Snow Leopard. If you could plug in the printer’s USB cable that worked very well. Often the printer would just appear as a new printer, ready to go, drivers installed. Scanning, however, just never worked properly for me in Snow Leopard. I literally was getting ready to throw my Canon printer/scanner out the window in disgust. I knew it was a software issue but I assumed it was Canon’s fault not Apple’s fault.
In Lion, using a printer on somebody’s network is quite easy. Once the printer appears in the Add Printer dialog, you can just press and button and it will download and install the proper drivers. It takes a little longer than Snow Leopard but it’s better than storing all the printer drivers for all manufacturers on your hard drive.
But the real surprise for me was the scanning software upgrade. Built into the OS is the same scanner support from before, except … it now works! Maybe this is just canon upgraded their driver for Lion? Not sure. But, for example, I couldn’t scan a text document to save my life prior to Lion: the contract was way to low, it was horrible, and there weren’t the manual settings in the built-in scanner app to improve the situation. In Lion those settings are available but I don’t need them: my scans look great. Also, if you have a multi-page document, you can click the button which says “Combine into single document” and it just appends each page to the same PDF. Works like a charm:
I was able to scan 5 years worth of back taxes on Lion. I never would have contemplated that on Snow Leopard. This is a huge improvement for me. Not sure if it’s Apple or Canon but I am grateful.
Track pad, Gestures, Spaces
I was a little grumpy about the changes to Spaces in Lion. In Snow Leopard they were arranged in a grid and I took advantage of that. In Lion it’s a single list of spaces and the practical way of accessing each space is with a quick gesture on the track pad to first show all the spaces and then click on one, or you can swipe left and right into the spaces. I was a keyboard man before and I always prefer keyboard shortcuts over using the mouse, but I have come to like this approach. Very easy to get from one place to the other, a very natural thing to do, this swiping left and right.
I am also quite happy with the “natural scrolling”, only took about a day to get used to that. I love the 4-finger gestures to clear the desktop and restore it, I love the triple click over a selected word to look it up in the dictionary.
I love iCloud mostly for the calendar integration. I had used google calendars to share them with my wife and children, but they never worked quite right. E.g., the long-standing problem was that appointments with reminders worked just fine on the phone and ipad but I got no reminder on my computer. WTF!? Very annoying. iCloud fixed that of course, plus it’s much easier to share calendars with other iCloud users.
Ha! I thought I had a lot more to say about the positives of Lion. I guess not. The features I have mentioned (Mail, iCloud, Scanning improvements, Gestures) are enough for me not to want to go back to Snow Leopard. But Snow Leopard was the bees knees of OS upgrades.
If you do network-based Time Machine backups you might really hate Lion. Those backups could take forever and while they were running (and indexing the backups) you’d be amazed how slow your computer felt. A real downgrade in performance, possibly saved by an SSD.
If you have less than 4G of RAM I am not sure you want to upgrade to Lion. I can’t be sure but … man … just sayin’.
To use the new gestures you need a modern touch pad. Fortunately Apple has a bluetooth one which works really well and is nice and big. I love that thing.