Should I Upgrade to Lion or Keep Snow Leopard?

Should I Upgrade to Lion or Keep Snow Leopard?
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Can Your Mac Handle Lion?

As you may or may not know, Apple recently released Mac OS X Lion the latest version of its OS X system software. With Lion comes a lot of new features and a lot of questions. One of the question you might be asking yourself (and one that many friends have been asking me) is “Should I upgrade my Mac to Lion?” The answer to that question is not as simple as you might expect. A lot depends on how you would answer other questions. Sure Lion is a bargain at only $29.99 through the Mac App Store, but if you don’t need Lion’s new features why buy it? Save the money for something else.

So what are these questions I mentioned? Well, first let’s look at your computer and answer the easiest question first. Does your Mac meet the minimum requirements for Lion? At the very least you need an Intel Mac with a Core 2 Duo processor and 2GB of memory. You also need 10.6.6 running on your machine so that you have access to the Mac App Store to download Lion. Lion is only available via download right now, and the only place to download it is through the Mac App Store (see the link in the reference section of this article). It will be available in August on a USB drive, but there is the question of will it install on a machine without 10.6.6. You also need at least 7GB of free space on your computer.

If you don’t have 10.6.6 running on your Mac you face the issue of a double update. Apple hasn’t presented any special deals of getting Snow Leopard and then Lion. Snow Leopard was only $29.99 also, but if you have 10.5 or earlier you are looking at a $60 update instead of just $30. In addition, you have to find a copy of Snow Leopard, which I am guessing will not be as easy or cheap before too long.

About This Mac

If you do have Snow Leopard running on your machine, but you aren’t sure if it is 10.6.6 you can find out very easily by checking your dock for a big blue circle icon that has an “A” in it made out of drawing tools. This is the Mac App Store. If you still aren’t sure if it is up to date go to the Apple menu on the top left of your screen and choose “About This Mac.” The window that comes up will tell you what version you are running. If you are running 10.6.5 or earlier, but at least 10.6, run Software Update from that same Apple Menu. This will get you the latest version of Snow Leopard as well as anything else that needs an update on your machine.

Even if your machine does meet the minimum requires some features (like Airdrop) still need faster machines to work. You might want to do some research and make sure the features you want will work on your machine. (more on Airdrop later.)

Since the software is only available via download a slow internet connection (especially dial-up) is not going to cut it. You might want to wait for the USB installer if you decide you want to upgrade.

If you are still on a PowerPC Mac or a machine slower than the specs mentioned above your answer is easy. You can’t install Lion, so don’t even worry about it.

How Do You Use Your Mac?

So your machine meets the requirements and you are still thinking about Lion. The next question I would ask yourself is, how do you use your computer? If you don’t do much more than surfing the internet and checking e-mail I would say save your money. There is no need to update. Sure, Lion has a new version of Mail that is more iPad like, and there are some new features in Safari. However, these features do not make it a must have. Plus, you can download the latest version of Safari on your Snow Leopard machine from this page on Apple’s website:

If you are anything like my parents, grandmother and wife - getting on your computer doing what you need to do and logging off, you don’t need Lion. These people I just mentioned aren’t interested in the latest and greatest features. They just want the computer to work in a way they are use to. The odds of them upgrading are very slim. They don’t need Lion and don’t care about full screen applications or Launchpad.

If you are a heavy-duty applications user you still may not need Lion. First, you’l want to make sure your applications will work properly. The best place to do that is through the developer, but there are other resources on the internet. If your applications won’t run, you won’t want to upgrade. Lion has removed support for Rosetta, which was the part of OS X that allowed PowerPC applications to run on Intel machines. If you have a lot of PowerPC applications you use regularly, hold off on Lion.

Two Must Have Features of Lion

So what features of Lion make it a must have update? Well, in my opinion there aren’t many, but there are two that I am looking forward to and when asked about upgrading I say if you want these features…you should upgrade.

Once of these features is iCloud. iCloud is going to be the replacement for MobileMe and will be released in the Fall. With iCloud you will be able to sync documents seamlessly between Mac and iOS devices. If you are working on a paper in Pages on your iMac and you want it on your iPad to continue working on iCloud will allow you to do this without thinking about. iCloud will also provide a free email address and keep the address book and calendar syncing services from MobileMe. Perhaps the most exciting featurewill be a new service called Photo streaming from iPhoto for sharing your photos (and hopefully movies) with others. iCloud is going to be full of features, and you can read more about it here: In order to get the most out of iCloud you will need Lion.

You aren’t interested in iCloud? One more reason to not buy Lion.

Mac OS X Lion - Versions

My second must have feature of Lion is Versions. Versions is a fantastic feature that allows you to go back to older versions of a document and grab bits and pieces into a newer version. For example, if you made changes to a document you started yesterday and decide you need a paragraph back you don’t need to retype the paragraph. You can access yesterday’s version of the document and cut and paste that paragraph from the old version to the new version. It is like a very specific version of Time Machine, OSX’s backup system. It even runs in a Time Machine like interface when you activate it.

Along with versions is the autosave feature. No more need to think about saving a document. Lion will do that for you. Keep in mind that the application has to have Versions and the autosave feature built into. Most of your applications will need updating at some point to take advantage of these features. iWork was updated with Lion support, so if you use iWork ’09 you would have Versions. More and more applications will be released with this and other Lion only features in the future as more users upgrade to Lion.

Happy saving documents the way you have been and you don’t care about Versions? No need to update.

One More Must Have Feature of Lion

There is actually a third must have feature called Airdrop. However, Airdrop only works on faster machines and requires that you have more than one Mac on your network. If you only have one machine this feature is useless to you. With Airdrop enabled on the Macs on your network you can drag and drop files from your computer to another computer instantly. Just drop it into your Airdrop folder and choose who’s computer it should go on. It is a great way for sharing files in your office or home, but your machine has to be fast enough to use it.

If you only have one machine, a slower machine (like me), and/or have no need for Airdrop no need to update.

A Lot of Features, but Will You Use Them?

Don’t get me wrong, Mac OS X Lion is a great new operating system for the Mac and it is packed with some great new features besides those I mentioned above. However, in evaluating if you want to spend you money on Lion you really need to figure out how many of these features you will use. Better yet, how many of these features do you need?

Let’s take full screen mode as an example. Full screen mode, on those applications that have it enabled, allows you to enlarge the application to take over your entire screen This is a really nice feature. Safari, iPhoto, and other applications look great in full screen. However, you are probably used to working the way you work now and can live without full screen mode on your applications.

Here’s another one, Photo Booth. Photo Booth has many new fun effects to apply to your pictures. Apple even promoted Photo Booth during their demo of Lion back in June. Are these effects fun and cool? Sure. Do you need them? Probably not unless you happen to be a heavy Photo Booth user.

In my opinion, many of the new features of Lion are like these two features. Are they nice to have? Yes, but I don’t really need to have them. Many features, like the new look to iCal, are eye candy. For the full run down on Lion features visit Apple’s website and the Lion pages:

For me personally, Lion is a must have. I want iCloud and the majority of its features. I also really like Versions but for many others it will not be an upgrade they can justify. Take a close look at your specific needs before dropping $30 for Lion. If you don’t think you need it, don’t buy it. Visit an Apple Store and take it for a test run if you are undecided. The salespeople will be happy to help you out and let you play. Don’t give into the hype and buy Lion if you aren’t sure. It will still be in the Mac App Store for months to come. You can always change your mind and purchase it in the future.


  1. Article is based on author’s personal experience and opinion.
  2. Screenshots provided by the author.
  3. Mac OS X Lion is available for purchase here.