Dig deep into Lion: The best overlooked, underrated features

Dig deep into Lion: The best overlooked, underrated features

17 useful features every OS X Lion user should know about

Apple billed this summer's release of Mac OS X Lion as having more than 200 new features, but most coverage of Lion in the intervening months has focused on only a handful of them. While iOS-like navigation and app-launching interfaces, autosave/restore capabilities, AirDrop file sharing and an emergency restore partition are by all means important, there are a lot of helpful tweaks and enhancements that can easily be missed.

After spending several months really getting to know Lion, I've uncovered a plethora of little-talked-about functions that are well worth knowing about. Here are more than 15 new and useful features in Lion for you to explore.

What other unsung features have you discovered in Lion? Share your tips in the article comments.

File grouping in Finder windows

Lion's well-known All My Files smart folder gives a bird's-eye view of everything on your Mac with files separated by type -- images, PDFs, text-based documents, spreadsheets and so forth. Each type of file displays preview icons of various files that you can scroll through, much as you would using cover flow view in the Finder or iTunes.

This file grouping option is the default for All My Files, but you can use it for any folder you're looking at in icon view (but not in list, column or cover flow views).

Grouping files by type is useful, but the Finder's new Arrange menu in the Finder window toolbar also lets you group files and subfolders by several different criteria, including by the application that created each file (or that is associated with the file if that application isn't installed on your Mac); by the date they were last opened, added, modified or created; by the file sizes; and by the Finder label assigned to them.

Protection for location information

Like the iPod touch and Wi-Fi-only iPads, Lion can use known Wi-Fi networks to determine the approximate geographical location of your Mac. This information can be requested by websites and other applications, as well as used with iCloud's Find My Mac feature. The new Privacy tab in the Security & Privacy pane in System Preferences lets you choose whether your Mac can determine your location and, if so, which apps are allowed to use your location information.

The Privacy tab also lets you control whether or not your Mac can send diagnostic details (such as from application or system crashes) to Apple for analysis.

Customizable lock screen

Another addition to the Security & Privacy pane is an easy way to add a custom message to the lock/login screen. A custom message can be important in business and education settings, but it can also be useful for showing contact information on a Mac notebook in case it is lost. It can even be helpful for leaving messages to other family members or just as a way of customizing your personal Mac.

While you could create custom lock-screen messages with a bit of work at the command line in previous OS X releases, setting it in System Preferences is a lot easier. Simply open the Security & Privacy pane to the General tab, check the box marked "Show a message when the screen is locked," and type in your message.

System Preferences customization

Let's face it -- there are some preferences most of us use just once when setting up a new Mac and never again. Happily, you can now customize the display of the System Preferences window to include only specific panes and/or arrange panes to suit your tastes from the View menu in the menu bar. This can help make frequently used preferences easy to find while keeping the ones you never use hidden.

Text-to-speech additions

Most of the recent news about speech technology has centered on the Siri virtual assistant feature of the iPhone 4S. But Lion also has a couple of speech-related tricks to share.

First up is the availability of additional voices. Like Snow Leopard, Lion includes six voices (three male and three female) in its text-to-speech arsenal, but there are many additional English and foreign-language voices that you can download free of charge. Some are venerable selections that have been included on Macs for nearly twenty years, while others are brand-new.

You can browse the entire list of more than seventy options by selecting Customize from the System Voice pop-up menu in the Text to Speech tab of the Speech pane in System Preferences.

Second is the ability to turn any text selection into an audio track available in iTunes -- simply select a passage of text in any application designed for use with Lion, right-click, and select Add to iTunes as Spoken Track. You can then work with the track as with any iTunes audio file -- burn it to a CD, sync it to an iPod/iPhone/iPad, or play it on an Apple TV.

Note: Even though these are spoken tracks, iTunes will display them as music tracks, not as audiobooks or podcasts. You can, however, use the Get Info command in iTunes to classify a track as an audiobook, podcast or voice memo if you wish.

Enhanced Spotlight menu

Like smart folders, the Spotlight search menu isn't a new feature in Lion, but it has gained a couple of new tricks.

First, you can now drag any document displayed as a search result directly from the Spotlight menu onto the icon of any app (in the Finder or on the Dock) to open it with that app.

The next addition is the ability to search the Mac OS X dictionary, Wikipedia or the Web (via Google) directly from the Spotlight menu. Dictionary results, if there are any matching your search, will immediately be displayed in the Spotlight menu along with other results such as files, folders and the contents of documents. The Web and Wikipedia search options always appear at the bottom of the menu; clicking them will open the results in your Mac's default Web browser.

The third new Spotlight menu trick is arguably the most helpful. As you mouse over each result in the menu, a Quick Look preview displays next to it. The preview allows you to view and scroll through an entire document without leaving the menu -- a really helpful method to review documents or images to see if you've found the one you were looking for.

Quick Look in the Dock

In the same way that you can view Quick Look previews from the Spotlight menu in the menu bar, you can also see previews of documents from the Dock. The Stacks feature, available since Leopard, allows you to place folders in the Dock for easy access to common documents, applications and other files.

In Lion, selecting a folder in the Dock, moving the cursor over the files inside its Stack and tapping the spacebar on your keyboard will generate Quick Look previews like those available in the Spotlight menu.

Of course, it's well known that Quick Look has gotten its own makeover in Lion, with the ability to select an application to open documents that you're previewing.

Whole-disk encryption

FileVault has gotten a massive update. In previous releases, it could be used to encrypt a user's home folder. In Lion, FileVault enables whole-disk encryption for your Mac's hard drive or SSD.

Apple took FileVault even further in the 10.7.2 update for Lion. When it's paired with an iCloud account, any unauthorized use of a Guest account on your Mac will automatically result in your Mac reporting its location to Apple's Find My Mac service -- helping you (or, more likely, law enforcement or security personnel) to locate your Mac.

You will also have the option, through the website or the Find My iPhone iOS app, to forcibly lock your Mac remotely and/or wipe the contents of its startup drive remotely.

Although it's not directly part of FileVault, Lion's amped up security includes whole-disk encryption for drives beyond your Mac's boot drive, including external hard drives. There are two caveats to this process. First, the process of enabling encryption requires reformatting a disk or partition, which will erase any current contents. Second, you will not be able to use the encrypted drive as a startup drive.

You can encrypt a disk by selecting it in Disk Utility and using the Erase tab to erase the drive or partition. (If you're partitioning a drive and encrypting multiple partitions, use the Partition tab.) Choose the "Mac OS X Case-sensitive, Journaled, Encrypted" option from the Format menu.

When you click the Erase button, you'll be asked to enter a password. That password will be required when you connect the drive to your (or any other) Mac. Other than that, you can use the drive as you would any other, as the encrypting and decrypting of its contents is performed by Lion in the background.

This is a powerful and useful option for external hard drives, particularly slim models designed for travel, as it maintains data security if a drive is lost or stolen.

New tricks for Finder and Trash

There are a handful of helpful new tools for working with files in the Finder in Lion, including when you send them to the Trash.

For starters, you can select multiple items (documents, folders, aliases) and use a contextual menu (right-click or double-tap) to create a new folder containing those items.

Next, you now have the option of multiple undo operations when moving files into the Trash for deletion. Previously, you could undo or undelete just the last file placed in the Trash. Now you can undo moving file after file until your Trash is empty, if you'd like.

Along the same lines, Lion introduces a restore option when you select one or more items in the Trash. This contextual menu item will place any items back into their previous location, whether they were added to the Trash today or six months ago. The only limitation is that you won't be able to restore items if the folder that contained them has been deleted, moved, renamed or is otherwise unavailable (such as an external drive or network share that isn't connected).

International languages and other keyboard features

If you need to work with languages other than English, you'll be pleased to discover that Apple has added some features to make typing in other languages easier. Rather than having to use special key combinations to type accented or other non-English characters, you can simply press and hold down the nearest English equivalent for a few seconds.

A pop-up will display the various options above the English letter you just typed, each with a number above it. Type the number for a character or click on it to insert it.

You can also create your own auto-replace shortcuts for symbols using the Language & Text pane of System Preferences. This feature isn't new, but it has become more useful because it works well with Lion's new iOS-like autocorrect and autocomplete capabilities.

Enhanced Desktop & Screensaver preferences

The Desktop & Screensaver pane in System Preferences allows you to select images in your iPhoto library as desktop backgrounds or slideshow-style screensavers. This isn't a new feature in itself, but it is something that's been enhanced in Lion.

Now, in addition to seeing just iPhoto albums, you can also pick specific events, people and locations as sources for either desktop images (which can be set to change at regular intervals) or screensavers.

The dictionary and autocorrect

It's well known that Lion inherited the autocorrect and autocomplete features common (and sometimes maligned) in iOS. Here are a couple of lesser-known tips around these features.

First, as with iOS, Lion's dictionary will begin to learn new words after you've clicked the X in the autocorrect pop-up three times. Of course, you can also highlight any word and use a contextual menu to make the dictionary learn a word as well.

Author's note

Most of the multi-finger gestures available in Lion (and Snow Leopard) vary whether you're using a trackpad (be it built into a MacBook or Apple's Magic Trackpad) or Apple's Magic Mouse. In almost every case, the same features and gestures are available, but use one less finger on the Magic Mouse -- for example, swiping back and forward between pages in Safari uses two fingers on a trackpad but just one on the Magic Mouse, and swiping between Spaces uses three fingers on a trackpad but just two on the Magic Mouse.

Speaking of gestures, you can enable/disable many of the gestures using the Trackpad or Mouse panes in System Preferences. You can also select from a handful of alternate actions to be assigned to each gesture.

Second, you can easily view the definition for any word by double-tapping on it with three fingers if you're using a trackpad. The same feature works with Apple's Magic Mouse but uses two fingers.

Safari's new Downloads menu

A well-known Safari enhancement in Lion is a redesigned Downloads list, which displays as a pop-up menu in the Safari toolbar rather than as a separate window.

That's obvious, but a subtle addition to this new Downloads list is the ability to drag items from the pop-up menu directly to the desktop or a folder of your choosing, moving them out of the Downloads folder. This can be done after items are downloaded or while they are still actively downloading.

New screen-sharing tricks

OS X has offered screen sharing since Leopard. Up till now, you could log into a remote Mac and control its screen as if you were sitting in front of it. The typical vehicle for starting a screen-sharing session was iChat, where you could request permission to control a friend or family member's computer.

Screen shares could also be started via the Finder's sidebar as well as the Screen Sharing application inside the CoreServices folder. (CoreServices contains a number of system-level files that are best left untouched, as well as Screen Sharing. It's located inside the Library folder in the System folder at the root level of your startup drive.)

Previously, when beginning a screen share through the Finder or Screen Sharing, you would share control of the Mac with the active user (if someone was logged in and using the Mac at the time) or log in to the remote Mac by entering the name and password of a local user account on that Mac.

In Lion, however, if both Macs are configured to use the same Apple ID or iCloud account, you can connect without being asked to provide a local user account. This can make things easier for families with multiple Macs since each Mac no longer needs multiple user accounts to support remote connections.

Another change: In Lion, you can opt for a virtual display instead of sharing the screen, in which case you will have a completely separate user session. Both you and the local user can then launch applications, view/edit documents and perform any other tasks as though each of you is the only one currently using the Mac and without interfering with each other. A virtual display also offers a display where the resolution and size of a remote Mac isn't tied to that Mac's physical screen size.

This is a great feature for multi-user Macs if you need to remotely access files. It can also be used to help troubleshoot a problem or install applications and software updates remotely and inconspicuously.

Versatile window resizing -- at last!

This isn't a major feature by any means, but Lion allows you to resize windows from any edge/corner. True, it's something that Windows has done for ages, but it's still a useful addition that's worth noting.

Third-party email/cloud/chat services

If you open the new Mail, Contacts & Calendars pane in System Preferences, you'll see a series of options for adding accounts from common free and third-party services including iCloud, Microsoft Exchange, MobileMe (at least for the time being), Gmail, Yahoo and AOL.

This pane, which looks like it was dropped into Lion from iOS, lets you quickly and easily set up new accounts with each service.

Configuring any of these services is a one-stop solution not just for email, but also for cloud-based contacts, calendar offerings and instant messaging. When you set up a Gmail account, for example, you can instantly configure Mail, Address Books, iCal and iChat to access the associated Google services.

Mission Control tips

Mission Control is one of Lion's most talked-about enhancements, but it has a few little-known features worth including in this list.

First, if you want to switch to another space without leaving the Mission Control interface, simply hold the option key and select the alternate space. Similarly, holding the option key while hovering over a space allows you to delete it by clicking an X icon that will appear over the top left corner of the space.

Second, with the Lion 10.7.2 update, Apple made it possible to manually rearrange spaces in Mission Control by dragging them around. (Alternately, in the Mission Control pane of System Preferences, you can allow Lion to arrange spaces based on your usage.)

Finally, it's possible to assign a custom desktop picture to each space defined by Mission Control so that separate spaces are easy to locate while you're working. To assign a picture to a space, select that space (either using Mission Control or multi-finger swiping) and then select a desktop picture in one of the following ways:

  • Use the Desktop & Screensaver pane in System Preferences.
  • Use iPhoto's Share menu.
  • Right-click on an image file in the Finder and click Set Desktop Picture.
  • Right-click an image in Safari and select Use as Desktop Picture.

In addition to assigning different desktop pictures to specific spaces, you can also assign applications to specific spaces. Typically, new application windows open in whatever space or desktop you're using when you launch the app or create a new document.

However, you can assign an application to open new windows in a specific space or to display windows in every space, making them permanently visible as you switch from one space to another (useful for apps that you may need to adjust or check frequently such as social media clients, network or system monitoring tools, or apps that function as media controllers).

To assign an application to a specific space, navigate to that space and right-click on the application's icon in the Dock to bring up a contextual menu. Select the Options submenu and choose This Desktop or All Desktops. To return an app to its default behavior, use the same process but select None.

Know of any other underappreciated features that we left out? Share them in the comments.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003. Faas is the author of Peachpit's upcoming ebook Mac OS X Lion Tips and Tricks as well as iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).

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