Dig Deep Into Lion: 17 of the Best Overlooked and Underrated Features

Apple OS X: Lion
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.

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).

Using the icon view in any Finder window, you can group files by a number of different criteria.
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 tab in the Security & Privacy pane in System Preferences lets you choose whether your Mac can determine your location and, if so, which apps are allowed to use your location information.

The Privacy tab also lets you control whether or not 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 pane 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.

It's easy to set a custom lock-screen message.
It's easy to set a custom lock-screen message.
While you could create custom lock-screen messages with a bit of work at the command line in previous OS X releases, setting it in System Preferences is a lot easier. Simply open the Security & Privacy pane to the General tab, 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 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.

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.

[What other unsung features have you discovered in Lion? Share your tips in the article comments.]

Text-to-Speech Additions

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 twenty years, while others are brand-new.

You can browse the entire list of more than seventy options by selecting Customize from the System Voice pop-up menu in the Text to Speech tab of the Speech pane in System Preferences.

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/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 wish.

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