The new, complementary functionality of auto save and versions is an interesting beast. It’s the type of feature that a few years from now you’ll be amazed you ever lived without, but right now feels kind of weird. In some ways it feels like a step backward until you understand how it works.
Things start out feeling pretty normal. When you create a new document and then go to save it, you’ll see “Save…” in the File menu, which replaces both “Save” and “Save as…” from previous versions of the OS. Frankly that’s a welcome change as it didn’t make much sense to have them both there for an unsaved document, considering they both led to the same save dialog. However, the uncomfortable feeling starts when you go to save your document after making some changes, or go to do a “Save as…”. This is what you’ll see then:
Where’s “Save” and “Save as…”? What’s “Save a Version” and “Duplicate”? There are a lot of changes here. The shortcut for “Save a Version” is a good clue to what’s happened. Apple has renamed “Save” to “Save a Version”. The concept behind the wording is that you’ll be creating an explicit marker in the version history for this version. It’s also saving the document in the traditional sense, of course, in that the next time you open it you’ll see what you just saved, but that’s less important now with auto save – you could never hit Command-S, never select “Save a Version” from the File menu, and your changes would still be saved.
“Duplicate” is a replacement for “Save as…”. When you think about it this may be a better description of what “Save as…” actually does. Anyone reading this probably understands how “Save as…” works from years of use, but a brand new computer user might think that “Save as…” overwrites their document, so that after doing “Save as…” they would still have only one document, not two. Duplicate makes it very clear what’s happening. When duplicating you get the same dialog as the old “Save as…”, letting you choose a filename and location for the duplicate copy.
“Revert to Saved” enters you into the Time Machine-like version browser for the document (more on that later).
Saving, Editing, and Locking
A version-enabled document can exist in one of three states: locked, edited, or saved. A saved document is one where the most recent saved version is the same as the current state of the document. There is no special indicator of this state, except for the absence of contra-indicators.
You can lock or duplicate a saved document or browse past versions.
An edited document is one where the most recent saved version is not the same as the current state of the document. As soon as you make a change to a “saved” document it becomes an “edited” document. This is indicated by the word “Edited” appearing in the title bar of the document.
You can lock, duplicate, or revert an edited document, or browse past versions.
“Revert to Last Opened Version” is equivalent to the familiar trick of closing without saving for those times when you want to start over after a bunch of edits.
Duplicating an edited document will give you the option to revert the document after duplicating.
One thing that is hard to get used to is auto save on close. If you close a file with unsaved edits the application will no longer prompt you to save your changes – it will simply save them and close. Related to this change Apple has done away with indicating an unsaved document through the red close button of a document window. In previous versions of the OS, an unsaved document would have a gray dot in the close button.
A locked document will not be auto saved and cannot be edited. This is indicated by “Locked” appearing in the title bar of the document, and in the file icon itself getting a lock icon overlay.
The lock icon is shown on the file icon in the Finder as well. This is important because locked files are full-on locked – you can’t even change the filename. Selecting a locked file in the Finder and hitting enter won’t do anything, where on non-locked files this allows you to edit the filename.
Trying to edit a locked document will generate a prompt to unlock or duplicate the document.
Versions is surprisingly straightforward. You can get to the versions interface by either selecting “Browse All Versions…” from the document options drop down, or you can select “Revert to Saved” from the File menu (why these don’t get the same name I don’t understand). On the left side you’ll see your current document and on the right all your previous versions. You can move back and forward in time by either clicking on the windows that appear “in the distance”, or by scrubbing through the timeline on the right side.
As was demonstrated at WWDC you can selectively pull from previous versions and drop them into your current version in addition to just wholesale restoring a previous version. Interestingly, the windows showing previous versions are also “live” windows. All toolbar options are selectable, but the system prevents the changes from happening. If you try and change the font, for example, you can get the list of fonts and pick one, but your choice will be ignored.
One other interesting tidbit is that when the versions interface is loading up the text “Retrieving versions from Time Machine” is shown. Under the hood the tech powering versions is based off of what Apple developed for Time Machine, but Time Machine is not required to be configured or running in order to use versions, so it seems somewhat incorrect to say that the versions are being retrieved from Time Machine.
Mail has received perhaps the biggest update of any of the pre-installed applications in Lion, with a column-based layout, new search methods, improved conversation threads, updated icons, and better support for Exchange and Gmail.
Moving to a columnar layout has a surprising number of implications. You might not guess that it would take much work to move a list of messages from appearing above the message preview to the side, but a lot of Mail’s previous functionality was based on having that wide, spreadsheet-style list of messages. For example, with the switch to a stack of messages on the side they’ve had to add a sort drop down (previously handled by clicking the column headers in the spreadsheet-like view).
With the old layout it was easy to add a column to the list view if you wanted to see, for example, the number of attachments. The new layout has a little less flexibility and looks a bit cramped with every option turned on.
The new layout has also prompted a change to the search filters bar. In Snow Leopard and earlier, when you started searching a bar would appear above the messages list allowing you to restrict search to a specific mailbox. In the earlier developer previews this was moved to a spot above the new message list, but in the most recent developer preview it has been integrated with the new “Favorites” bar.
Speaking of the favorites bar, it’s a list of mailboxes that you can customize. The thinking is that you can hide the mailbox sidebar most of the time and just use the favorites bar. If you need the full mailbox list there is an icon on the far left of the favorites bar to show and hide it. Or, if you don’t want to use the favorites bar, you can hide it (but if you do a search it slides down so you can still filter by mailbox).
And if you don’t like any of this new stuff you can still get the classic, messages-on-top layout. If you stick with the new layout, however, you can customize the message list a good bit, selecting how many lines (from none to 5) of each message to preview and whether to show a picture of each sender (based on pictures in your address book).
As Phil Schiller demonstrated at the WWDC keynote, Lion has a new search method that’s used in Mail and the Finder. It provides an interface to the search functionality that was previously only available when creating a smart mailbox. When you start typing in the search field an autosuggest drop down will appear, offering various ways to apply that search term, i.e., find emails where it’s in the subject, or where an attachment matches it, or where it matches the sender, etc. It tries to be smart with its suggestions – for example, if you type “ash”, it won’t just offer to look for emails from “ash”, but will show names from your address book that match (“Ashley”).1
If you select one of these suggestions then your search term will be replaced by what Schiller called a “token”, which work kind of like the blue oval around email addresses in mail. On the left side of the token is what you’re searching (“From”, “To”, “Subject”), and on the right is your search term. You can click on the left side to change what you’re searching, and you can double click to edit your search term. As Schiller demonstrated you can add multiple terms to create fairly complex searches directly from the search field. One quirk is that if you don’t select one of the suggestions and just hit enter after putting in a search term your term won’t get “tokenized”; it will work exactly like search worked in the past.
You can choose to save any of these searches, at which point you’ll get the smart mailbox dialog that you may be familiar with from earlier versions of Mail, which makes it clear that these search tokens are a new front end to functionality that already existed.
Conversation threads aren’t technically a new feature in Mail, it’s just that they were so poorly done previously that no one really knew they were there. Lion fixes that. The threading is smart and the presentation excellent. In previous versions of Mail the threading was based entirely on the subject line. Now, “Mail groups messages into conversations based on many factors, including the message headers, subject, sender, recipients, and date.” From what I’ve seen so far it works.
In addition quoted content is hidden by default, presenting a clean conversation. For those that hate top posting you can choose whether the most recent messages are at the top or bottom.
One other piece that makes the conversation view work is inline actions. Hover over one of the messages in the conversation and icons fade in to delete, reply, reply all, or forward the email. In true Apple style each of these actions animates. Reply, for example, fades in a new email window and a copy of the message jumps from the conversation into the new email window.
Gmail integration has improved, with a dedicated “Archive” button available for the toolbar. Unlike Mail on the iPhone and iPad, however, Lion Mail doesn’t have a single button that switches between deleting and archiving depending on what mailbox you are in. Archive is available for any mailbox; if you click it on a non-Gmail mailbox, it will just create a new folder called “Archive” and move the message there.
“Move” and “Copy” buttons have been added for quick filing of messages. This functionality was available in previous versions of Mail but was only accessible from the “Message” menu.
And last but certainly not least, we’ve finally been freed from the tyranny of the font inspector. Developer preview 4 revealed the addition of an optional formatting bar in the new message window. Hallelujah.
1In the most recent developer preview, however, it’s still a little flaky. Hopefully that is addressed before release.