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.
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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 pane in the Security & Privacy system preference lets you choose whether your Mac can determine your location and, if so, which apps are allowed to use your location information.
The Privacy pane also lets you control whether 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 system preference 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.
Although you could create custom lock-screen messages with a bit of work at the command line in previous Mac OS X releases, setting it in the Security & Privacy system preferences is a lot easier. Go to the General pane, 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 app's 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.
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 20 years, while others are brand-new. You can browse the entire list of more than 70 options by choosing System Voice > Customize in the Text to Speech system preference's Speech pane.
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, or 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 want.
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, are immediately 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 the opens 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.
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 disk 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 iCloud.com 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 external drive as a startup drive.
You can encrypt a disk by selecting it in Disk Utility and using the Erase pane to erase the drive or partition. (If you're partitioning a drive and encrypting multiple partitions, use the Partition pane.) Choose Format > Mac OS X Case-sensitive, Journaled, Encrypted.
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 places any items back in 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 -- just like in iOS. A pop-up menu displays 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. But note this feature does not work in all apps or Web forms.
You can also create your own autoreplace shortcuts for symbols using the Language & Text system preference. 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 & Screen Saver preferences
The Desktop & Screen Saver system preference 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. As with iOS, Lion's dictionary begins 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.
You also 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.
Speaking of gestures, most of the multifinger gestures available in Lion (and Snow Leopard) vary based on 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 or disable many of the gestures using the Trackpad or Mouse system preferences. You can also select from a handful of alternate actions to be assigned to each gesture.
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.