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Review: Is it worth upgrading your older Mac to OS X 10.7 Lion?

One of the great things about owning a Mac is that for most tasks, you don’t suffer the same slow down that can be suffered by many Windows users. A Mac bought four years ago can still happily run many of today’s productivity and design applications.

Also, buying a Mac can be a relatively large investment, particularly for students – so you don’t want to junk it every time Apple release an upgrade. Of course, it’s not just the processor and RAM – what if you don’t have a newer glass trackpad with multi-touch, or an SSD?

So what does today’s launch of Mac OS X Lion mean for users of older Mac hardware?

Mac OS X Lion screen

Firstly, the minimum system requirements are very similar to OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. The most important change is that you’ll need at least an Intel Core 2 Duo to run Lion. This means users with the very first generation of Mac and Intel hardware (Core Solo/Core Duo) are excluded from the upgrade. Also, while you can get away with running Lion on 2 GB RAM, experience from Snow Leopard suggests 4 GB is a comfortable minimum for multi-tasking.

You’ll also have to be running Mac OS X Snow Leopard, version 10.6.8 to install Lion. Even if you want to do a clean install, you must download Lion via the App Store first and then follow the various guides.

About this Mac with Lion showing Core2Duo

This morning, I took the plunge and installed Mac OS X Lion on my late-2007 MacBook Pro (2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo, 4 GB RAM). It wasn’t a clean upgrade – in fact, I’ve upgraded it from Tiger to Leopard (on launch day) and then to Snow Leopard. The upgrade process was pretty smooth and didn’t require any input from me. A little over half an hour later, I was presented with the smooth iOS-style login screen.

Mac OS X Lion login screen

Login was characteristically a slow experience – this is one thing that could be quicker, but I do have a number of apps that I set to launch on login, like Twitter for Mac, Chrome and the usual like Dropbox etc. Experience suggests a reboot and login is a pretty rare occurrence, so I’ve never been bothered by this.

However, this is where the problems seemed to start: Chrome was slow, sluggish. Twitter was updating slowly and I could hear my hard drive clunking away. Opening Activity Monitor, my processor usage wasn’t particularly high, but my hard drive was being ragged fairly hard.

Activity monitor screenshot

In retrospect, this wasn’t too surprising – I had just installed a near 4 GB update to my operating system. A bit of advice from Twitter and this article rightly identified that it was simply Spotlight re-indexing my hard drive; given that it’s not particularly large, this only took about 15 minutes before things seemed to return to normal.

Beyond that, there don’t appear to be any major performance issues, despite the fact that my Mac will be at least initially transparently rebuilding its caches and defragmenting key operating system files. So far, I can’t use any new gestures as I don’t have a multi-touch trackpad. I’ve also turned off the iOS “scroll wheel” style scrolling through System Preferences (it’s labelled “Content moves in the direction of finger movement on touch-pad or mouse”). I guess if I ever start using my Magic Mouse again, I might change this, but for now, this isn’t something new I want to learn. Users desperate for gestures may benefit from a Magic Trackpad.

As for other new features, Mission Control works smoothly and as expected, unifying my ill-used Spaces and application windows. I also like the fact that Dashboard widgets appear in their own space (you can turn this off).

Screenshot of Mission Control

I haven’t seen much evidence of iOS-style ‘instant’ switching to apps, though Word for Mac 2011 and Photoshop CS3 did both bring up the last few documents and images that I worked on when I quit and restarted the apps. The Launchpad also works smoothly, but for me, this feature is far less useful than using a launcher like QuickSilver as a launcher/Spotlight replacement. Launchpad is marginally quicker than using the Finder to launch apps, but QuickSilver’s “double-tap and type” is much quicker and targeted than Launchpad’s full-screen browsing of all my forgotten apps.

Launchpad - meh

But what about the other bundled apps with Lion – like the new Mail, iCal and all the other small upgrades? As a user of Sparrow, I don’t foresee using the Mail app, which shares many similarities with Sparrow already, but isn’t quite as slick when it comes to supporting Gmail specific features. iCal’s full-screen view is a dream for at-a-glance viewing though.

Unfortunately, if as a user of an older Mac, you continue to rely on apps written for PowerPC, you’ll find that Lion is the end of the road: Rosetta is finally dropped, the software layer that lets you run PowerPC apps on Intel hardware, along with Front Row. Users may also have to install their own Java and Flash

Ultimately, what OS X Lion offers for your Mac is a number of enhanced and improved features including, Auto Save and Versions which will be a boon for anyone struggling with crashy apps or editing large documents. The updated user interface is also pleasing to the eye, offering a crisper interface that continues to make Aqua one of the most pleasant UIs of any operating system.

And for just $29.99 or £20.99, Mac OS X Lion is comparatively good value for money as an upgrade for your older Mac. Download it from the App Store now.

  • http://twitter.com/martinrue Martin

    Thanks Josh, that was a helpful write up that answered a few of the questions I had while awaiting this *slow* download.

    Live long and prosper :)

  • http://twitter.com/andrewdicejay Da Juice

    Very helpful article. I am wondering if it would be worth it for me to upgrade on my late 2009 iMac. In terms of speed, would you say you saw an over all performance increase, decrease, or pretty much the same? My biggest concern is that my computer would run slower as a result of the upgrade.

  • joshmcr

    I, for one, have an older MacBook Pro than you – and I’ve found little, if any, performance loss.

  • Robin Lim

    I have a Q4 MBA with a 1.86GHz C2Duo, but only 2GB of RAM, with no upgrade possible. I am happy with Snow Leopard. Is it advisable to upgrade to Lion? Will my Mac run slower with Lion?

    • inthe813

      I have this Mac and mine has slowed down a lot with Lion. Multi-tasking is now a thing of the past. I am wondering if I can either add additional RAM or go back to Snow Leopard?

  • http://twitter.com/mk11123 Michael Klein

    Just bought a Magic Trackpad for my late 2007 iMac that is running Mac OS X 10.6.8 Intel Core 2 Duo 2 GHz with 2GB of RAM. I am currently downloading Lion from the App Store and hopefully I will be satisfied. Any comments about the performance of Lion with these options please reply.

  • Ron Rauch

    Great to know! Thanks for posting this.

  • edward acosta

    will it slow down my mac if i upgrade to lion os my processor is 2.2ghz intel core 2 duo and memory is 1 gb 667 MHz DDR2 sdram.. will it slow down my white macbook late 2008? pls help me out asap thank you!

  • Rob

    I wouldn’t bother. When I upgraded my G4 from Tiger to Lepoard a year ago, it destroyed my laptop. Very poor performance. I needed it to get the lastest version of itunes to support my Iphone 4. So I had to sacrifice performance on my machine to support their phone. Now, I have a core 2 duo Imac with 2GB ram and those SOB’s released Icloud that is only supported with Lion (yet on a PC they will support Vista AND W7…go figure). I don’t care, I wont upgrade and ruin my $1400 machine for the use of Icloud. I will never upgrade software agin with Apple products because they seem to just slow down the software forcing you to want to upgrade. The products last forever…until they give you no choice to “upgrade”… Just my 2 cents…don’t upgrade unless you think you need too

    • John Holt

      For me personally I have found no reason to upgrade. I did an upgrade on my external HD and tried it out but I am very happy with Snow Leopard. There were a couple of applications I would lose under Lion that I really did not care to lose. Perhaps this is the Cats Meow for power users but I am happy as is. I am using a late 08 PowerBook Pro. Just in case a Protego Lion standing by.

  • Mirk

    i own an i7 with 16gb ddr3 ram and i still experience lion slowdowns.
    Shortly, i quote rob: SL is faster than Lion just because you need to update from SL.
    If I were you, Im staying in SL which is fast and cool since I dont need any Lion launchpad or mission features.
    my 2c

  • http://www.westernlakes.com Mike Binstock

    Mirk, thank you. I will as well. I would like to play with Lion but my machine will not utilize it. I have a 2007 macbook pro. I also talked with an Apple Genius and he agreed. Snow Leopard is the best option for us old farts.

  • B

    I have upgraded my 2009 macbook to lion and I gotta say it has slowed me down a bit. I do not see a real performance drop in the regular app use or browsing (unless there are multiple applications open), but when I run my games, I see clear 10 fps drop. If I use a lot of fullscreen/minimize/switch apps in those cases, my macbook slows to an absolute crawl. For example, I’ll switch to a browser from a fullscreen game, and I will have to wait 5 sec every time I type a word, for it to show up. This did not used to happen on snow leopard. Not saying Snow Leopard did not have issues but it wasn’t this bad. I made a bootable lion disk when I first downloaded it so I’ll save the copy but I think I may go back to snow leopard soon.

  • senna

    After changing fron snow leopard to lion my fan speed is high ( which was not earlier ) ,heats too much , when i use sfari and chrome ,freezes frequently, even after closing all other application …
    Processor 2.26 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
    Memory 4 GB 1067 MHz DDR3
    Graphics NVIDIA GeForce 9400M 256 MB
    Software Mac OS X Lion 10.7.2 (11C74)

    please suggest me what can i do ?

  • Melissa

    I recently uploaded Lion OS X Lion in order to have iCloud in my Macbook Pro.
    1. Is it a must that I upload Snow Leopard? I don’t have snow leopard ( I don’t believe I do).
    2. After uploading Lion, my safari won’t work. I cannot view my websites. Luckily, I uploaded Mozilla Firefox and used that to get to the internet to read this article. I am just confused.

    What should I do?

    • poops

      1) it IS a must to upload snow leopard.
      2) i suggest you stick to your original OS and hopefully your applications will continue to work.

  • traib

    hi!!!

  • Beau

    Lion sucks, Apple goes down with this OS.
    Reasons why:

    - Lion contains more bugs.
    - Bad optimization
    - bad use of RAM
    - Work flow decreased for certain professionals, some features are changed or removed
    - Slower boot time
    - Unprofessional

  • http://twitter.com/macbookbrent Brent Rawlings

    I just updated my late 2007 black macbook (2.2 GHz, 4 GB RAM, 500 GB hybrid drive) from the App Store without a hitch.  In fact, the update ran while I was out shopping for the afternoon.