February 3rd, 2012 • 6:41 pm
Ever since I upgraded to Lion last summer, I’ve been dealing with the usual, seemingly unavoidable collection of bugs that each and every major OS upgrade brings. What has been particularly irritating about the phenomenon this time around is that today, six months and several incremental OS updates later (we are currently at Mac OS X 10.7.3), most of these problems are still there, and there is no indication that Apple is taking them seriously enough that we can expect them to be fixed soon.
This means that using Lion for work or play can be a rather frustrating experience. While these annoyances are not major, deal-breaking bugs, they affect me in my daily activities and their on-going presence feels like the itchy bites of a flea that you can’t seem to be able to get rid of. If that what we get for having OSes named after cats, it makes me long for a generation of the Mac OS named after snakes! They might not be the cuddliest of creatures, but at least they are slick and not furry, fuzzy creatures with all kinds of unexplored and unchecked nooks and crannies.
Here’s a quick survey of the bugs that I find most annoying in Lion because they cannot be worked around and regularly interfere with my use of my computer.
I cannot remove attachments from my sent mail messages. I have written about this before. Based on this discussion thread at Apple Discussions (and the feedback I’ve received by e-mail), it is quite clear that this problem is very real for a number of people. But it is also quite clear, from that discussion and from the feedback I have received from Apple on my bug reports, that Apple itself is having trouble trying to replicate the problem. My current suspicion is that it only affects certain types of e-mail accounts, and only if these accounts were first created in a prior version of Mail or have some kind of “legacy” setting in them, or only if you have more than a couple of accounts. But who knows? Unfortunately, Apple’s engineers appear to have a tendency to avoid putting much effort into reproducing problems that cannot be reproduced from scratch with a brand new “clean” install of the latest OS and a very simple setup. This means that we’ll probably have to wait a long time for this problem to get fixed, if it ever does. One of these days, I might try rebuilding all my accounts from scratch once again, but it seems to me that I have done this before and it hasn’t helped.
The typing buffer in Mail ignores some keystrokes. When I press command-N to compose a new message, if I don’t wait for a fraction of a second before I start typing the e-mail address of the recipient, Mail misses the first few keystrokes and only starts registering my typing in the middle of the name, which of course is no good, because it then tries to autocomplete something that is totally irrelevant.
Mail’s rendering engine for HTML messages has significant performance issues. I often get HTML e-mails that cause Mail to freeze for a few seconds, and even when Mail becomes responsive again, scrolling through these messages is never smooth and always full of hiccups. Given that, with the three-pane layout, it is quite easy to select and display a message without really intending to (simply because you’ve just deleted the message above it in the list), these HTML performance issues can get quite annoying. Unfortunately, I’ve tried reproducing this in a separate user environment with no customizations and only one mail account in Mail, and I cannot, so I have little hope of being able to submit this as a reliable bug report to Apple so that they can do something about it. It’s probably one of these things that I’ll have to live with for the foreseeable future. Again.
I also find that the selection highlighting in the message list often fails to revert from the background grey colour to the foreground highlighting colour, even when the focus is clearly back on the message list and not on an individual message on the right. It might sound like a cosmetic issue, but even “cosmetics” have a function in Mac OS X. The selection highlighting colour changes serve a purpose (to show where the focus is), and the fact that they don’t work reliably destroys that usefulness.
Of course, Mail still suffers from the long-standing issues of messages sometimes losing their rule-based colour when replied to, and removing an e-mail message’s attachments sometimes causes it to disappear from the message list, as if it had been moved, when it hasn’t. The only way to make it reappear is to select a different mailbox and then select the inbox again. Miraculously, the message reappears exactly where it was supposed to be and should never had disappeared from. (This is undoubtedly due to the fact that, despite recent improvements, removing attachments is still a bit of a hack in Mail 5.x.)
Safari, Safari, what have they done to you? I have already written about the abomination that is the new “Downloads” window (if you can call it that). But more generally the reliability of the application has taken a major turn for the worse. As soon as I leave more than a handful of web pages loaded in various windows and tabs, the performance of the application starts degrading very noticeably. The application becomes less responsive to keystrokes and mouse actions (especially scrolling gestures), and quite often whenever I switch from one tab or window to another, the tab or window that I am switching to goes blank (as in entirely white) before coming back to what it was displaying when I switched to it — much like web pages do on an iPad, where RAM is much more of an issue. (I have 12 GB of RAM on my Mac Pro. RAM is not or at least should not be an issue.) It’s not an actual reload of the page. (There is no network activity.) It just seems to be a reload from memory — even though the web page in question is very much loaded and visible in the background before I switch to the tab or window that contains it. It’s rather annoying, and it happens again, and again, and again, unless I only keep a very small number of windows or tabs open in Safari.
And then sometimes Safari gives up altogether and displays an alert saying that some of my web pages have “stop responding” (whatever that means for pages that have already been loaded) and asking me if I want to proceed and reload them all. I have little choice in the matter if I want to continue browsing, and when this happens I have to wait until Safari reloads all the pages that I had left open, which, with my limited bandwidth (1.5 Mbps), can take quite a while. It is, in effect, the same thing that would happen if I quit and relaunched Safari. In other words, Safari might not have had a crash per se, but the end result is that it behaves as if it had crashed and the recovery takes just as long. I am not sure I would call that an improvement over previous versions of the application. (I should also note that if you have a large download going on in the background in Safari when this happens, the download gets interrupted and, if it’s not resumable, you have to start again from the beginning.)
On top of it, when this happens, Safari sometimes “cheats” and does not actually reload all the tabs, but only the currently visible ones, i.e. the ones that are in the foreground in their enclosing window. If I then switch to another tab in the window, I have to wait until Safari reloads that one as well. Repeat this 20 times in a few minutes and it gets quite irritating. (Yes, I often keep more than 20 windows or tabs open in Safari. So sue me.)
There are several other glitchy things about Lion’s Safari. For example, in certain cases, when a page is fully loaded, I get the Spinning Beach Ball of Death whenever my mouse pointer hovers over the page, even though the application remains responsive and I can even scroll through the page in question with the mouse wheel. I don’t know which part of Safari’s rendering engine controls the mouse pointer, but it obviously is buggy too.
Lion’s Finder simply refuses to remember my open windows from one session to the next. Whenever I restart my computer, it reverses to some prior state where other windows that I closed long ago get reopened. I cannot reproduce this problem in a separate user environment, but I cannot get rid of it in my regular user environment, no matter how many times I trash the Finder’s preference files. I’ve given up on trying to fix this and switched back to using the TotalFinder plug-in. I had stopped using it when I first switched to Lion because it was not fully compatible. In particular, it had very serious problems with windows sorted by “Date Added,” which is a useful new feature in Lion. These problems in TotalFinder appear to have been fixed now. There are still numerous graphic glitches when switching windows or applications that appear to be caused by TotalFinder, but these are purely cosmetic and I can live with them. I like TotalFinder’s approach to tab-based file browsing, and, you know, TotalFinder actually remembers which windows and tabs I have left open from one session to the next. It’s too much to ask of Apple, but a small developer like Binary Age can deliver it.
The Finder is still unable to reliably display the pixel dimensions of my graphics files (especially PNG files) in its preview column or file information window/inspector. That something so basic is still not working properly after so many months drives me insane. Should I really have to open a file in another application just to be able to see what its dimensions are?
The Open and Save File dialog boxes in Preview and TextEdit appear right away, but take forever to become responsive. Since I am an avid user of Default Folder X, I have given up on even trying to report such bugs to Apple, because I know very well that they’ll blame the problem on Default Folder X, when Default Folder X works perfectly fine in other Mac OS X applications. It also works perfectly fine in Preview or TextEdit once the dialog becomes responsive, and I have tried to disable Default Folder X in Preview and TextEdit and the responsiveness issue is still there. But of course if I switch to another user environment with no customizations, I cannot reproduce the problem. So what’s the point?
I am not sure the next bug is directly linked to Lion’s Finder, but let’s say I have strong suspicions. See, for many years now my computer has been set up to do automatic backups of my stuff during the night using SuperDuper! to a separate internal hard drive, on which the backups are stored as disk images. Every night, SuperDuper! does a “smart update” of these disk images where it only changes what has changed on the source volumes since the last backup session the night before.
SuperDuper! is pretty much a one-trick pony, but it does its trick well and reliably. In other words, I normally don’t have to worry about it, which is the ideal situation when it comes to backups. (Of course I still need to remember to maintain off-site backups, but that’s a separate issue.)
Usually when there is a major system upgrade, SuperDuper! requires a minor update, and the developer delivers it pretty fast. He is also fairly responsive when you experience problems. But for this particular problem that I have been experiencing since upgrading to Lion, he told me he cannot do anything about it, because it’s a bug in Lion. But of course it only manifests itself during my SuperDuper! backups, so… Here we go again: stuck in a “feedback loop” where bugs are not obvious or bad enough for anyone to do anything about them.
The symptoms are as follows: When I go back to my computer in the morning, I see that several CPU cores are maxed out, that the fans are running faster than normal, and that everything in the system is very unresponsive. When I check Activity Viewer, I see that several applications, including the Finder, but also Microsoft Word, Pages, BBEdit, Safari, and a few others, are each constantly using over 100% of CPU power. And when I look at what’s going on the Finder, I see this happening right before my eyes in the sidebar:
“Documents” is the name of the source volume of one of my scheduled backups, and “Internal – Documents” is the name of the disk image file itself, which should never appear here, since the name of the disk image in the sidebar should be the name of the volume and not the name of the file. Why the Finder alternates between the two and failed to unmount the disk image once the backup was done in the first place, I do not know. All I know is that the SuperDuper! developer has told me that nothing could be done by him and that it was a bug in Lion. (It also does not always happen with the same disk image, so I don’t think it’s linked to a particular disk image file.)
Needless to say, a Lion bug that requires the specific use of a third-party application in a specific way is never likely to get high on Apple’s radar. But I see this bug at least once every 10 days, and I have also seen it for some manual backups done on disk images with SuperDuper! (Thankfully it does not seem to affect the reliability of the backups themselves.)
I initially thought that the only way out was to reboot my machine, but I have since discovered that if I quit all the applications that are using over 100% of CPU power for no apparent reason, including the Finder, the problem goes away and I can then relaunch the applications with no ill effects. But if I only quit the Finder, the problem remains with the other affected applications (Safari, BBEdit, Microsoft Word, Pages, etc.) until I quit them as well. So who knows what’s going on exactly here? All I know is that it’s always the same bunch of applications, even though I have many other applications left running in the background as well.
There are other, more minor glitches in Lion’s Finder. For example, I always have the “Path Bar” visible at the bottom of my Finder windows. This bar is automatically updated to display the path of what’s currently selected. (If you select more than one file, it displays the path to the enclosing folder.) If I trash or move what’s currently selected so that it is no longer in the list of files in the enclosing Finder window, Lion’s Finder fails to update the Path Bar and continues to display the full path (before the move) of the file I’ve just moved, including the name and small icon of the file itself. It might be mostly cosmetic, but I find it annoying, because it misleads me into thinking that the file is still there in the folder when it no longer is.
Wanted: Radical Flea Treatment
As you will undoubtedly have noticed, many of the bugs that I am writing about here are bugs that are a bit tricky to reproduce. If I switch to a “clean” user environment with no customizations and try to reproduce the problem, I often have difficulty doing so. But this does not mean that the bugs don’t exist! And I simply do not have the hours that one would need to try and isolate the particular source of each and every one of these bugs in my regular user environment. It would involve refraining from using many tools that I consider essential for my work, and I would suffer a significant loss in productivity for an extended period of time — not to mention the time it would take me to communicate with Apple about these problems and try to get them to fix them.
The reality is that trying to live and work with these bugs, no matter how hard it is, is less problematic than trying to do work with a “pristine” operating system with no customizations. But this does not make them any less annoying. And I find it highly discouraging that we have to go through this again and again, each time there is a major system upgrade. (And it’s a cumulative process too, because quite often several bugs from previous upgrades fail to ever get fixed.)
It seems that, in the case of advanced computing systems, we have no choice but to try and live with their many bugs, no matter how annoying and persistent they are. Something about the bug reporting and bug fixing process appears to be broken, and given the ever-shrinking share that advanced computing represents in Apple’s overall activities these days, I am not very optimistic about seeing any significant improvements anytime soon — even though Apple has, now more than ever, lots of resources (like 100 billion dollars in cash!) available to actually try and do something about this.
I cannot help but feel that Apple’s priorities are elsewhere, and I cannot help but fear that, in the long term, we advanced users and other professionals might even have no choice but to switch to another technology provider altogether. We stuck with the company even when it was in the doldrums, and it would be more that a little ironic if it were Apple’s renewed success (and what success it is!) that was the final straw forcing us to abandon the company.
We are not there yet, and it will really take much more than the above-mentioned bugs to cause me to question my loyalty to Apple’s pro-level products, but it is definitely a concern in the long run if things continue to evolve the way that they have been evolving for the past five years or so.