My OS X Lion Horror Story

My OS X Lion Horror Story

OS X Lion was released in July 2011 and includes a number of new upgrades. Some of these are very impressive, such as complex touch gestures for the trackpad. Others are more mundane, such as fullscreen mode for applications and hidden scrollbars. But all things considered the upgrade is definitely worth it.

The problem isn’t Lion, it’s how it has to be installed. You can no longer pick up an install disc from an Apple Retailer, instead you have to download the upgrade from the App Store. For slow connections this can be a nuisance, since the file is almost 4GB.

However, the main problem is that there is no discernible way to perform a clean install. Rather, Lion installs itself on top of Snow Leopard, and then deletes the installer. (Savvy users may know about the clean install method.)

Furthermore, if you have a problem with your hard drive, you cannot install Lion directly. You have to first install Snow Leopard, then redownload Lion from the App Store and finally install it. These extra steps can be extremely inconvenient, and proved especially so in my unique situation.

Believe it or not, this article isn’t meant to be a rant. I mostly want to describe a worst case scenario of what can happen with this type of release method. A scenario that unfortunately happened to me.

I’ll also explain:

Minor Annoyances – The First Install

When I first found out that you needed to download Lion from the App Store, I was pretty annoyed. I was planning on skipping over Snow Leopard and going straight to Lion, but it turned out I still needed Snow Leopard to make the upgrade (since the App Store isn’t available in Leopard).

It seemed like Apple just wanted to suck an extra $30 out of me, and I would have happily paid an extra $30 to avoid installing one OS just to install another. Not to mention that the base Snow Leopard disk I got was 10.6.3, and you have to upgrade to 10.6.8 to get the App Store (only to reinstall everything with Lion).

But it wasn’t a huge deal, I probably should have upgraded to Snow Leopard earlier, and I was finally able to play Portal 2 :).

Best of all the Lion upgrade went pretty smoothly. As a man who always prefers a clean install to an upgrade, I have to say I didn’t notice any problems with it.

And for the most part I like Lion. The trackpad gestures are worth the upgrade alone, not to mention a thousand little usability improvements in the traditional Mac spirit. (And a better space background!)

Major Annoyances – Broken Hard Drive

Mac Broken Hard Drive Icon

I saw this screen of death when my hard drive failed.

Fast-forward to October, when I’m visiting Europe for three months.

Everything was going great until my hard drive broke. Fortunately I didn’t lose too much data—I still had a backup from when I installed Snow Leopard, and I had some other stuff on Dropbox.

I dropped my Macbook off with some certified Apple techs, and everything was going to be free due to Apple Care. Hurrah!

I took the opportunity to unplug and explore Berlin a bit. I checked email on my phone, and played a lot of Angry Birds.

Four days later I got the call that my Mac was ready to pick up, and I couldn’t have been happier! However when I went to pick it up they told me they hadn’t installed Snow Leopard; the new hard drive still had the version of Leopard the machine orignially shipped with.

Unfortunately I did not bring my Snow Leopard disc to Europe, or I would have installed it myself. And they didn’t sell install discs.

My only option was to have them install it for me, at the cost of 69 euros (around $100). That’s a rip off, but I didn’t see another option. So I coughed up another $100 for Snow Leopard, bringing my grand total to $160 just to install Lion.

Funny Interlude – Picking Up The Macbook

I went to pick up my machine the next morning, and the technician was running late.

When he finally showed up I followed him back to the tech area, which reeked of weed (not that I care).

Anyways he was really stoned: sort of bumbling around and couldn’t find my machine for a couple minutes. When he finally found it, he told me they weren’t able to finish the install, and I had to wait until Monday.

I was pretty pissed at this point. I told him to just give me my machine and he said he couldn’t. Finally he called the other tech who told him that it’s finished, he just hadn’t read the note on the machine (cough cough burnout cough).

The Honeymoon – Installing Lion

I finally had my Macbook, Snow Leopard was installed and I couldn’t be happier. I took it home ready to spend a nerdy Saturday setting up the machine for web development.

But when I got started, I noticed that the guy hadn’t done a clean install of Snow Leopard. Why he upgraded from the old OS when I had no data to preserve is mind-boggling, but I can only assume it’s what he does for everyone.

Upgrading to Snow Leopard has been known to cause a ton of problems, not to mention that I didn’t like the fact that he had administrator access to my computer.

In a paranoid moment I even tried looking at the running processes to see if he had added anything, but I’m not a big enough Mac nerd to understand what’s going on in there. It reminded me of when I used to run CMD in Windows and pretend like I knew what all the programs were doing. As if a hacker would name their virus “EvilTrojan.dll”.

Anyways I noticed some minor issues with the upgrade—like Adium not sending audio alerts and random German words sneaking into the OS—but nothing major. I finally finished downloading Lion and installed it.

At first, everything seemed pretty fine. That is until I returned the machine from sleep and the trackpad suddenly didn’t work. This was a deal breaker—I could still get back into my machine by attaching a mouse, but this was more than a minor inconvenience, so I decided it was time to do a reinstall.

The Divorce – Reinstalling Lion

OS X Lion Recovery HD

Previously I had remembered hearing that it was possible to do a clean install of Lion. However, it turns out that I needed to make the install disc before actually making the upgrade, derp!

Next I looked into reinstalling—there is a reinstall utility you can use with the backup partition Lion creates automatically. However you have to redownload Lion during the install process.

I decided to look into some other options, and found out that you can in fact redownload Lion from the App Store. The trick is to hold down option when you click on the Purchases tab, which changes the Installed button to Install. Then option click the button to redownload the installer. Once this is done, follow the instructions here to make your install disc.

While this isn’t much different from redownloading Lion with the backup partition, it’s better in two ways. First, with the backup partition, you can’t use your computer while it’s downloading. If the download takes 5+ hours like it did over my lousy connection, you can see how this makes a difference.

Second, you’ll need to redownload Lion everytime you want to perform a clean install. With the boot disc alternative, you get a Lion install disc you can use anytime without downloading (however you still need internet connectivity when the installer “phones home”).

Lessons I Learned

  1. Always bring necessary install disks with you when traveling for an extended period of time.
  2. Make the Lion backup before installing Lion to avoid downloading it twice.
  3. Make an external install disk—the recovery partition won’t help you if the hard drive fails.
  4. Don’t trust Apple techs to do things the way a nerd would. 99% of the people they serve are muggles, who would rather have an upgrade than a clean install.

How To Avoid Snow Leopard

I later realized that I could have avoided Snow Leopard and saved myself $100. Although you need to use Snow Leopard the first time you download Lion from the App Store, any subsequent times it can be avoided.

Since I already had a license associated with my Apple ID, all I needed was a Lion install disc. While I wasn’t smart enough to make the install disc ahead of time, I could have easily downloaded one from a torrent (having made sure not to get a beta version).

Of course, you’re going to be smarter than me and create your Lion install disc now, right???

Bonus: How To Set Up Lion So It Doesn’t Suck

For the most part Lion is great, but there are a few new features you may want to turn off.

First, the scroll direction is reversed, which can be really disorienting. I got completely used to it after a day, but if you can’t stand it go to Settings → Trackpad → Scroll & Zoom and uncheck Scroll Direction: Natural.

Another issue with Lion is that it switches between pages using a two finger swipe. Two fingers are also used for scrolling in web pages, which means that it will constantly be hitting the back button when you are just trying to scroll. To fix this go to Settings → Trackpad → More Gestures and change the Swipe Between Pages to three fingers.

Other than that I haven’t had any other problems with Lion, but please feel free to add any tips or problems you have in the comments of this post.

Bonus: Eff You Adobe

FU Adobe

FU Adobe icon by Gordon McAlpin

A year ago I was dumb enough to pay $1800 for CS5, after getting on a high horse that you can read about here.

I still think professional devs should legally license all the tools of their trade, but I’m starting to be less enthusiastic about doing so with Adobe. That’s because Adobe has since released a new version: CS5.5 which contains absolutely nothing that I need.

This means that I can no longer download CS5 from their website even though I paid for it. Of course I can pay $400 to upgrade.

I lost CS5 with the failed hard drive, so I tried to find a torrent of CS5 Web Premium. I figured I’d just throw away the keygen and use my real license, but in the end I couldn’t find anything for Mac.

I also tried to get ahold of Adobe but their website has no contact form, and all the “contact” questions give you the run-around to go look at their FAQs. My only option was to call during PST business hours.

After hanging up on me three times, they told me there was nothing they could do, since they no longer have the download on their site. However if I had opted for the download version I could still download it. So they obviously still had the files on their site, just not for me (I went with the box because I wanted something tangible for $1800).

They then told me I could find it in a retail store and use my license key. So basically I could buy it again, throw away that license key and use mine. Great advice.

Finally I talked to a superior, who said the best she could do was to fill out a request. I still haven’t heard back, but my guess is that I’ll be out of luck.

That shows what you get out of actually buying the Creative Suite. Although I still think you should license things you use professionally, I’ve changed my mind about Adobe, considering how they treat customers.


My OS X Lion horror story is definitely far from normal. There were a number of unique factors that made it especially annoying for me:

  • The hard drive crashing
  • Being away from my install disc
  • Apple techs not doing a clean install
  • My computer being old enough to ship with Leopard

Likewise there are a number of ways to avoid it—first and foremost you should make the Lion backup disc. Do it now!!!

All in all, I really like Lion and recommend the upgrade. I just wish they had chosen to offer a more conventional delivery method, instead of forcing you to go through the App Store.

I’m sure some other people have had similarly awful experiences with the Lion installer. Please add your story to the comments, and hopefully Apple will listen when they release the next version of OS X.

Jon Raasch

Jon Raasch is a UX nerd and free-lance web designer / developer who loves jQuery, Javascript & CSS.

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6 Comments to “My OS X Lion Horror Story”

  1. PhotoshopWarrior says:

    Thanks for the post, seems like you have experience some major issues, hope it will help me solve my problems with Lion Os X

  2. Heya Jon,

    I’m with ya. I’ve had *just enough* occasional issues over the years to not want to live without install discs of my OS. Just. No. And gods help you if you live out in the dial-up boonies, NO APP STORE FOR YOU, LUDDITE.

    But the first thing I did with my Lion Download was burn two install discs out of the package. I just picked up a new Mac Pro, and it came with Snow Leopard on board, not Lion, like all the macbook and iMas… But Apple, is rather relentlessly forward looking and you get used to that and cope. But I’ve become an old-school paranoid, as there are only two kinds of computer users — those who have lost data, and those who will.

    But this was prompted by getting a stack of files from a client for a major project that my copy of Indesign CS3 could not open. Got the little raised middle finger salute from Adobe, instructing me to upgrade my software. Of course almost two PAGES of incompatible plug-in’s was a clue…. Thank you very much, Adobe.

    Now that was the $1000 upgrade that pulled the trigger on a new $5000 machine, since the upgrade to Adobe CS5.5 doesn’t run on Power PC Macs. I have been a little annoyed with gorram Adobe since they ate Macromedia. They now enjoy a near-monopoly in software applications for Creative Pros. Essentially, you have to have a chunk of Adobe apps or you are Not Professionally Relevant. Adobe knows it, and the cost of Creative Suite has spiraled up over the past few years.

    They have us by the friggin’ BALLS. The latest grip is now they are killing off the upgrade pricing from anything older than the previous version, and pushing a fairly pricey subscription scheme. Nice for us solo freelancers. If there’sa company that could use a little competition again, it’s Adobe.

  3. fabir says:

    great.thanks for sharing

  4. NinjaGT says:

    My dear friend. All you need to do is prepare USB stick from your Install Lion app. Its so simple, like it used to be in Snow Leopard. Then you simply stick your USB stick into your computer and restart and Lion installer will pop up (clean install). I don’t know why making such a bit deal. I use Lion on a PC worth 300$. It was easier to install Lion there, than win 7 on it 😉 And even more fun part. hehehehe! I downloaded Lion .dmg from pirate bay. And I had to do app manually 😉 And it still worked for me. So I guess having a real apple, with original Lion must be like 15 seconds of work, and 20 minutes of wait, for USB to copy data onto ;) If you need anything regarding Lions and Apples, just let me know. You got my email. Since I learned from you things I needed, you can feel free to contact me anytime 😉 Cheers!

  5. Lori says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience with some humor. I had similar. Also comforting to read that even a web dev expert can have these troubles.

  6. Adobe horror story. Sorry to hear that. I’ve dealt with the same thing. And by the way… What’s up with the .5 updates (CS5.5). To me that feels like a total slap in the face. They provide a few extra updates to the .5 version to bait you into buying it, even though you spent thousands of dollars on the non-decimal point edition 6 months prior. It just feels like a way to leech more money out of people. Why not just have a full release with more updates and go from 5 – 6. Quit with this .5 crap!

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