August 21st, 2011 • 6:09 pm
The more experienced I become, the less inclined I am to rush and install major software upgrades as soon as they are released. I used to be an early adopter, but things have changed. I have been bitten by a few nasty bugs, I have gradually lost some of my patience with software issues and with Apple’s apparent disregard for the needs of power users — but mostly I have just been very busy with work and have had much less free time to devote to tinkering and experimenting in general. When you have work to do, with firm deadlines and a need to get things done, there is precious little room for the occasional acrobatics associated with being at the cutting edge of modern technology in general and computing technology in particular.
I must also admit that, while I love my iPod touch and my iPad, I am not too enthused by Apple’s apparent urge to incorporate all kinds of aspects of iOS into the traditional Mac OS X experience. I am a power user, I spend most of my waking hours in front of my computer and, as indicated above, in order to be productive I need to be able to get things done, and I need computing tools that help me be more effective and efficient.
In that respect and — I stress — as a power user, some of the changes in Lion strike me as utterly ridiculous. What have I to gain, for example, by keeping window scroll bars hidden by default? I have a dual-monitor setup with two large 30″ screens side by side. Do I really need the few extra pixels that are so precious to users of mobile devices like the iPhone and the iPad? How much do these extra pixels weigh against all the valuable visual information that is lost by hiding the scroll bars?
Fortunately, of course, Lion does include a preference setting to force scroll bars to remain visible at all times. But still, if that’s the kind of “innovation” that Apple wants to focus on these days, I am in no particular urge to embrace it.
And so, when Lion came out, I decided to take my time and wait at least a few weeks before installing it myself. I had lots of important work to finish first and could not afford to take the risk of experiencing significant issues with my “production” machine — which is always higher when installing a major system upgrade. The delay of a few extra weeks would give me the chance to do a bit of reading about Lion and the new issues it might introduce in the software that I use, and it would also give the developers of that software a chance to release updates to make their software more fully compatible with Lion, if they hadn’t done so already (and you know who still hasn’t).
Just the same, I couldn’t resist the temptation to install the Safari 5.1 upgrade for Snow Leopard when it came out around the same time Lion did. I figured that it would be a more limited upgrade that would give me a little taste of Lion without requiring the full upgrade, and enable me to work out the kinks associated with that particular application first. And there were kinks.
I’ve already written about Apple’s decision to stop allowing users to disable native support for display of PDF documents, which is quite irritating.
Safari 5.1 also has issues with the “Cycle Through Windows” command. Since I wrote my first post on the topic, I have been able to narrow down the problem, which appears to be related to certain specific types of sites. For example, I regularly experience the problem when I have a WeTransfer web page loaded in a visible tab in one of my Safari windows. It’s not the only site that triggers the problem, but it’s one of them. I don’t know what it is about these sites that Safari 5.1 does not like, but there is a new problem in Safari 5.1 that causes the window-cycling process to fail to work properly when one of the windows you are attempting to cycle through happens to contain one of those sites. (I am attempting to reproduce the same problem in Safari 5.1 under Lion, and haven’t been successful so far, so it might be limited to Safari 5.1 under Snow Leopard.)
Then there is also the fact that Safari 5.1 no longer works with the original ClickToFlash and forces you to switch to an extension instead. The extension works well, but it takes some getting used to and some configuration to get it to work exactly the way you want it.
Another issue with Safari 5.1 is the change in the default behaviour of the “Find” search field. It’s one of those “features” that initially look like bugs, and I am obviously not the only one who was initially frustrated by the change.
Finally, after several weeks of using Safari 5.1, I must say that, at least under Snow Leopard, there is a significant deterioration in its performance levels. More often than not, when you have more than a couple of windows left open, just switching windows in Safari causes pages to go blank for a few seconds while Safari 5.1 apparently “reloads” them (from some cache of some kind) — and if they have been left open for a few days, Safari 5.1 even actually reloads them from the server, without asking for your permission first. I can understand such a behaviour in iOS, where RAM is limited. But my Mac Pro has 12 GB of RAM, and I really don’t see why I have to endure such behaviours on my desktop machine.
All this is to say that the Safari 5.1 upgrade didn’t exactly entice me to change my mind about waiting a bit before upgrading to Lion.
Then it just so happened that, this week-end, I didn’t have any work to do. The first incremental Mac OS X update for Lion (10.7.1) had just come out, and I decided that now would probably be a good time to take the jump.
I made sure that I had a good backup of everything important, and then I headed to the Mac App Store.
The first nice surprise was that, when I chose to buy the software, the App Store told me that I already owned it and asked me if I simply wanted to download it again. This is obviously because I was part of the AppleSeed program for Lion. Even though I really didn’t have time to contribute much to the program this time around (because of the work load mentioned above), the fact that I participated and sent a couple of bug reports (and possibly that I downloaded the last “gold master” release, which happens to be identical to the official release, even though I never got a chance to actually install it before Lion was publicly launched) was enough to prompt Apple to give me a free copy of the OS or at least not to stop the AppleSeed program from treating me as a valuable contributor.
The download took some time, of course, since my broadband connection is limited to 1.5 Mbps, but I can understand Apple’s desired to move to Internet-based delivery exclusively for software products — even though I myself was, for a long time, one of those Internet users stuck with very limited bandwidth. I share John Siracusa’s views on the topic and believe that, overall, the pros far outweigh the cons.
What I do not understand, however, is why Apple does not take advantage of this new situation to make sure that the version of the software that people buy is always the very latest version available. Why is it that, several days after Mac OS X 10.7.1 came out, the version of Lion that I downloaded from the Mac App Store was still version 10.7.0 and forced me to download the 10.7.1 update later on separately? Stranger still, why did Lion install a version of iTunes 10.3 on top of my existing version of iTunes 10.4, forcing me to reinstall that update as well? (Although, in light of the latter’s problems, I must admit that I was tempted, for a moment, to stick with this 10.3 version for a while, until I figured that it might not be such a good idea to try to run iTunes 10.3 with a library that had already gone through the process of an iTunes 10.4 update…)
In any case, the downloading process itself went slowly, but smoothly. As soon as it was complete, I made sure to copy the installer application itself onto a separate volume, because I knew from having read several reports beforehand that it would be erased after the installation process itself. I also used Macworld’s advice to make a bootable DVD of the Lion install disc right away.
Then I ran the installer. Apart from some fairly weird initial estimates of the “time remaining” (when it stays stuck at “33 minutes” for a good 10 minutes with no visual feedback and no sound coming from the internal hard drives, you cannot help but wonder if you’ve already run into a significant problem), the installation completed without difficulty. (It probably took about 30 minutes all told on my 2009 Mac Pro.)
Since Apple no longer gives us any “Archive and Install” option for the installation process, I assumed that they were reasonably confident that things would work without any significant issues even with all kinds of existing third-party software already installed and all kinds of user-defined preferences and settings. And so, even though my own particular setup is fairly complex and involves a fairly large number of third-party utilities, including several that definitely do not have Apple’s blessing, even though I personally find them indispensable (Default Folder X, Keyboard Maestro, Little Snitch, etc.), I decided to let my computer boot in Lion with all my existing software and settings, and to see what would happen.
Of course, the startup process itself took quite a while, with several extended periods of unresponsiveness accompanied by the Spinning Beach Ball of Death, but that was not particularly surprising to me, since I knew that several kinds of data (calendars, mail, Spotlight index, etc.) would probably need to be updated as well. I tried to be patient and just watch Lion work its (slow) magic on my existing files and preferences, keeping an eye out for any signs of malfunction anywhere.
The first significant issue I encountered was with Default Folder X, even though I already had the latest version installed, which was supposed to have Lion compatibility. The application itself launched fine, but it asked me for permission to “install a helper application in order to work correctly” in the “/Library/PrivilegedHelperTools folder,” and when I clicked on the “Install” button to proceed, the same dialog box would just reappear again and again.
I checked the Default Folder X web site and didn’t see any mention of this problem. I figured that it might be a weird rare bug and that I might have to communicate with Jon Gotow to get him to look at it, and live without DFX for a few days until things got sorted out. I wasn’t too worried, as Jon has always been very responsive and I was confident that he would be able to find a solution.
But then I went to reinstall Little Snitch, which requires some system modification and always gets broken when a major system upgrade is performed. I downloaded the latest installer, which was supposed to be Lion-compatible, and tried to run it, but it too had a weird problem where another dialog box asking for my permission would reappear again and again and the installer seemed unable to go any further, without any explanation.
That’s when I started suspecting that something was not quite right, and that the problem might not be with either DFX or Little Snitch. Since the problem appeared to involve administrator privileges in both cases, I decided to launch Disk Utility and repair permissions with it. And that’s when I got my first nasty surprise with Lion: Disk Utility told me that it was unable to repair permissions or even verify them because I didn’t have sufficient privileges!
That’s when even an experienced Mac OS X user starts thinking, “Uh-oh.” The rest of the OS seemed to be running OK and no other application was complaining about permission-related issues, but it still didn’t look right at all. I then decided that this seemed to be an ideal situation to test Lion’s new “Recovery HD” feature. I thought that I should be able to boot from that special partition and run the Disk Utility application from there and try and repair permissions then.
So I rebooted my machine while holding the Option key down. It didn’t work. My Mac Pro didn’t show me the startup screen with the bootable volumes, and booted Lion normally as if I hadn’t pressed anything.
I tried again, this time with command-R. It didn’t work either. Again, my Mac Pro booted Lion normally as if I hadn’t pressed anything. Since there is no way in the UI to tell if there really is a Recovery partition on your startup volume, I started wondering whether Lion had managed to create such a partition on my startup volume at all, even though it was on a disk with the expected GUID partitioning scheme (I had checked beforehand) and I also knew that, even if there was no such partition, the Option key down during startup should still have taken me to the screen with bootable volumes, just showing the normal startup volume by itself.
I started looking for help. I knew that I had information somewhere about revealing the Recovery partition using the command-line interface, but I first ran across a link to Apple’s page about the Lion Recovery Disk Assistant, which I had kept as a bookmark and which explains how to use a small, free downloadable utility from Apple to install a “Recovery HD” partition on an external hard drive.
I downloaded the assistant. I also saw on the page that it said it would only work if the startup volume itself already had a Recovery partition, which didn’t bode well. At the same time, I tried to look for reports of other people being unable to repair permissions after installing Lion.
Before I could get anywhere, the download was complete and I launched the assistant. It went around and around in circles looking for available volumes. (I only had one external drive connected, and it was an older FireWire drive, probably not with the right kind of partitioning scheme.) I then plugged a brand-new Western Digital external USB drive that I bought a few months ago and haven’t had a chance to use yet.
Much to my surprise, the volume appeared almost instantly as an available destination for the assistant. I proceeded to install the Recovery partition on it, and the assistant didn’t complain that I didn’t have such a partition on my startup volume to begin with.
Then out of curiosity I tried to repair permissions on my startup volume with Disk Utility again, and… this time it worked just fine! I tried DFX and Little Snitch again, and sure enough, both of them were able to complete their installation just fine.
In retrospect, I suspect that the simple fact of rebooting Lion at some point probably fixed the problem. It was a weird one, and a slightly scary one too. (One never likes being told that one does not have enough privileges to do what one wants with one’s own startup volume.) But I hope that it was just a glitch, and that I won’t see anything like it again in Lion.
That wasn’t the end of the, ahem, recovery, however. While my startup volume appeared to work fine now, I still wasn’t sure whether I had a Recovery partition on it or not, even though the Lion Recovery Disk Assistant had apparently managed to install one on my external hard drive, which seemed to indicate that there was one on my startup volume. I proceeded to use Software Update to install the 10.7.1 update as well as the iTunes 10.4 update (see above), thinking that it couldn’t hurt. This of course required that I restart my computer again. I tried using the Option key at startup, and again nothing happened.
Then I checked my USB cable connections, and realized that my Apple USB keyboard (a wired aluminium model) was connected not to my Mac Pro directly but to an older USB hub that I have had for many years, which itself is connected to my Mac Pro. I wondered whether that might be part of the problem. So I unplugged my keyboard from the hub and connected it to one of the Mac Pro’s USB plugs in the back. And I tried to restart again with the Option key down. And this time it worked! I got the screen with bootable volumes, and the Recovery HD partition was there. Phew!
I don’t remember ever having any problems with booting the Option key down when my keyboard was connected to the USB hub before Lion. It seems a bit strange to me that a system upgrade would cause a change here, since the Option key thing applies before the operating system actually boots. Did the Lion upgrade somehow affect something closer to the hardware level on my Mac Pro, e.g. in the PRAM? I will have to investigate this further… Right now, all I know is that I do indeed have a Recovery partition on my startup volume, and that I can access it by booting with the Option key down (and presumably with command-R as well) as long as my keyboard is directly connected to my Mac Pro.
The other problem I still had was with the external hard drive on which I had installed a Recovery partition. For some reason, installing the Recovery partition on this external hard drive with the Lion Recovery Disk Assistant seemed to render the hard drive unusable for anything else. As soon as I installed the partition on it, it ceased to appear as a mountable volume on the desktop or in Disk Utility. In Disk Utility, the hard drive appeared as a volume without any partitions. I tried erasing the whole damn thing, which gave me back a fully mountable 2 TB partition, but as soon as I tried running Lion Recovery Disk Assistant to install Recovery partition on it again, the 2 TB partition disappeared and the volume became useless. I don’t know if it has to do with this particular brand of hard drive (which also has some kind of weird “virtual disk” that automatically mounts every time you plug it in and cannot be erased) or if it’s a limitation of the Lion Recovery Disk Assistant software itself that makes the hard drive unusable for anything else (which would be pretty stupid).
Needless to say, I am not willing to sacrifice 2 TB of disk space just to have a portable hard drive with a Recovery partition. Since I also do not have time to further investigate the matter at this point, I’ve decided to follow Macworld’s advice again here and instead use the external 2 TB to make a bootable Lion install drive, which I can also use as an external volume when I do not need it as a bootable install drive. So I’ve erased the entire hard drive again and partitioned it as a single volume on which I have “restored” the Lion install disk image.
And that’s it for my adventures in Recoveryland for now. Let’s hope I don’t need to continue these adventures any time soon.
After all this, I now have a Lion environment that seems to be working fine. Spotlight has finished reindexing everything (which took much less time than the 3 hours that it initially indicated). And most of my software appears to be running fine. Safari 5.1 does not seem to suffer from as many performance problems as it did in Snow Leopard, but I will only be able to confirm this with time.
Needless to say, one of the first things that I did was to configure Lion to always display the scroll bars, and to change the scrolling direction back to what I can only call “normal” for any sane person who still uses a mouse as their primary pointing device. I must say that I might be more inclined to explore scrolling alternatives if the Magic Trackpad that I bought last year actually worked with my computer, but apparently, even though my Mac Pro 2009 is from… 2009, i.e. only 1 year before the Magic Trackpad came out, that is still too old for Apple, because I have never been able to get the trackpad to work properly with it. Even though the trackpad is sitting on my desk about 50 cm away from the Mac Pro itself, I still cannot get a reliable Bluetooth connection between the two. The trackpad is detected, but the tracking itself is horrendous, with the mouse pointer jumping all over the place most of the time.
I don’t see anything in System Preferences that would enable me to adjust this, so I can only conclude that it is a hardware issue between the Trackpad and the Mac Pro. I remembering reading that this particular generation of Mac Pros had significant issues with Bluetooth connectivity. Frankly, I don’t have time to investigate yet another problem with Apple’s hardware that they probably don’t give a hoot about, just like they never cared that my TiBook had horrendously poor AirPort reception, that my black MacBook had fans that were mooing, or that my 17″ MacBook Pro has a bulging battery problem. They have too much money in the bank to care about such trifles.
Besides, most of my work actually requires pixel-level accuracy, and, as much as I like my iPad for casual browsing with simple tracking gestures on the screen, I do not feel the need for a tracking device that does not have laser-sharp accuracy in my desktop computing activities. I bought the Magic Trackpad out of curiosity, and, well, that curiosity has been poorly rewarded, to say the least. (I also bought a Magic Mouse at the same time, and its tracking was just as horrendous with the Mac Pro, which seems to confirm that it is a problem with Bluetooth on the Mac Pro itself. But at least I was able to give the mouse to my wife, who uses it with the MacBook Pro and loves it. I might love it myself, if it actually worked with my Mac Pro. For now, I’ll stick with my Mighty Mouse, which I actually like.)
Back to the software side of things… I was reasonably well prepared, so I haven’t experienced any big shocks with things no longer working in Lion so far. I know that my old copy of FileMaker Pro 7 will no longer work, but I don’t really use it any longer, and if I ever need to access one of my old FMP files, I can always run it on my other Mac Pro from 2006, which still runs Snow Leopard just fine.
I was a bit sad to discover that the “The New Yorker.app” desktop application that I had on my Mac to browse the old archives of the New Yorker magazine that I have on a 7-DVD set that I bought five years ago was in fact a PowerPC application and therefore no longer works in Lion. I know that, as a New Yorker subscriber, I have access to the entire archive on-line, but it still pains me to see a $100 7-DVD product made completely obsolete so soon (although of course, I can still use it on my 2006 Mac Pro too).
The only other significant problem, which I only found out about yesterday, is that the Apple USB Modem is no longer supported at all in Lion. This means that I can no longer use it in combination with Dialectic as a Caller ID display/logging feature on my 2009 Mac Pro, and that I can no longer use it on that machine to receive the occasional fax either.
I know that I am a bit old-fashioned with my land line, but I simply do not need a cell phone in my life and I have no intention of changing my lifestyle and purchasing an expensive cell phone plan just to please Mr. Jobs & Co. Again, I find it quite irritating when Apple unilaterally decides to make one particular aspect of my life/workflow obsolete from one day to the next, especially when the hardware itself is not particularly old (the Apple USB Modem was only discontinued in 2009!) and it surely wouldn’t require too much of an investment just to maintain the old functionality in place instead of just behaving as if it had never existed in the first place or as if no one had any use for it any longer.
No too long ago, being a Apple customer and a Mac user meant being part of a small minority, and it came with a number of associated struggles. Now, as is far too often the case in similar situations, the company has grown much bigger and apparently does not mind treating the small minorities that exist within its own customer base with as much contempt as the Mac-using minority as a whole used to be treated by others 10 or 15 years ago. In other words, if you are a Mac user who still has a number of PowerPC applications requiring Rosetta, a low-bandwidth Internet connection, and a land line as his or her main phone line, well, it appears that Apple does not really care much about you anymore.
And like John Siracusa says, it “stings a little.”
Of course, in this particular case, I will connect my Apple USB Modem to my 2006 Mac Pro and run PageSender on that machine in order to receive the occasional fax. But if I want the caller ID features of Dialectic on my main machine, I guess I will have to buy another USB modem that is actually supported by Lion.
As for the New Yorker DVD Archive situation, all I can say is that it does not make me feel any great urge to give up on print and switch to an all-digital approach to reading. Apart from the fact that I still find reading a printed book or magazine much more comfortable, convenient, and, yes, efficient, what guarantee do I have that the digital files that I purchase today will still be readable 10 or 15 years down the road? Given the way that both hardware and software makers — including Apple — treat “legacy” file formats and devices (on this topic, see also this post about getting ready for Lion if you have old Microsoft Word files), I simply do not trust any of them to guarantee the integrity of my digital media collection over time.
In that respect, I tend to agree (in theory at least) with things that Mark Pilgrim has written (including this, this, this, and this), although of course I am too weak and not ambitious enough myself to take drastic action in this matter. Instead, I try to “go with the flow,” but with a variety of precautions that should ensure that I don’t suffer too horribly in case something really bad happens to my digital files.
Anyway, this post is long enough as it is. The bottom line is that my Lion upgrade, although it had a couple of scary moments, went reasonably smoothly and I will definitely be up and running on Monday morning without any major issues affecting my daily work. There will be a few on-going annoyances, and probably a number of new ones that I will discover over the next little while, but for now I will try to enjoy the actual improvements that Lion brings to my own personal computing experience and ignore its attempts to dumb down my world by treating my hard-earned experience as a long-time Mac user with contempt.