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How Does Vista Compare with Mac OS X and Windows XP?

- 2007.02.06 -Tip Jar

It's been some 20 years since I started using computers withgraphical user interfaces, specifically a very crude Microsoftrelease known as Windows 386 back in1986.

1988 saw some improvement with the move to Windows 3.1, but notuntil 1993 did I really get my hands (or cursor) on a really niceGUI - MacintoshSystem 7.1. While System 7 was light years beyond Windows 3.1,subsequent releases on both platforms tended to be at leasttolerable and at best quite pleasant.

Through the late 90s and the opening years of the newmillennium, Windows made up in stability what it lacked in grace,at least if you kept yourself on the business versions (NT-based),as I did.

Mac OS 8 and 9, in contrast, were a joy to use when theyworked and were very well designed in terms of interface, but theylacked the muscle under the hood for true power using multitaskerson account of long-outdated foundations that just weren't up to theInternet age.

Mac OS X

OS X, however, changed everything.

Mac OS X was a strange cat in its early releases, far tooresource heavy for the systems out when it was released and notwell-enough supported to be very productive. But the promise wasthere from the beginning: a stable, Unix-based OS that, while slowon year 2000 hardware, was clearly the wave of the future.

By 2002 . . . OS X was quite likelythe best OS on the planet...

By 2002's 10.2 "Jaguar" release, OS X was quite likely the bestOS on the planet, and it has only improved since then. Today's 10.4"Tiger" is faster than the previous versions even on older hardware(2003's 10.3 "Panther" may be faster on G3s), is drop-dead-deadgorgeous, and, most importantly, is very, very stable.

Tiger was by a wide margin my favorite OS until last week, butthe January 31 mainstream launch of Windows Vista was significantenough to beg a comparison. So here it is, without further ado - avery informal, seat of my pants, totally subjective comparison ofWindows Vista to both Mac OS X and Windows XP (which I neverparticularly liked, yet always considered "good enough" and thustolerated).

Comparisons

I'm not going into any hard technical comparisons, as I am not ahard technical guy. I am also not planning on giving feature lists,as those are available in great quantities with whichever bias youprefer to read.

Instead, I took a far less formal approach and sat down with oneof my 5-year-old IBM ThinkPad X22 laptops with Windows XPProfessional, my 1-year-old iMac G5 with OS X 10.4"Tiger", and my 3-month-old Toshiba Portegé M400 Tablet PC,freshly loaded with Windows Vista Business.

I played with all three machines - basic and simple stuff, likelistening to an MP3 in iTunes (my preferred media application),looked at photos (iPhoto on the Mac, Explorer on XP and PhotoGallery on Vista), and generally futzed around, connecting networksand printers and the like.

So long as the user is familiar with the OS,productivity isn't that different between Macs and Windows....

First off, I'll be quite honest and say something I've said fora great many years: So long as the user is familiar with the OS,productivity isn't that different between Macs and Windows unlessyour system itself is unresponsive, slow, or unstable. Clunky oldDOS-based Windows was unstable, so I never considered it a viableoption. The "classic" Mac OS was better than DOS-based Windows, butnowhere near as stable as NT-based Windows, so it too has been outof the running since NT4 was released.

In this era of NT-based Windows and Unix-based OS X, corestability is excellent on both platforms, with OS X having theedge over NT4, Windows 2000, and Windows XP. Vista is too new totell, but it being based on Windows Server 2003 is a good sign, asthat OS has been quite robust.

Of course, "Leopard" (OS X 10.5) is due in a few months, and itmay very well upset the balance yet again.

For this look at the State of the Operating System Art in early2007, I chose to ignore some things that I find quite important,like tablet functionality, which while existing on both XP andOS X, is vastly improved in Vista.

This isn't about features, but about feel. So here goes.

Windows XP

Windows XP really isn't that bad. Its different from OS X, withthings in different places and following some different logic. Macfans bitch and moan about the interface being application-focusedrather than document focused, as the Mac has always been, but Idon't buy into there being much of a difference. If you're familiarwith a document-centered system, an application-centered systemwill annoy you - and vice-versa.

XP is five years old but still has a few things that it doesbetter than OS X (in my opinion) - and more things that itdoes worse. The it is reasonably stable, very fast, and runs onrather modest hardware. (Windows 2000, in fact, remains a viable OSin 2007 despite being eight years old and lacking built-in supportfor many technologies we take for granted, like writable opticaldrives and wireless networking, though both can be added easilyenough.)

Vista vs. OS X

I'll bet you thought I would try to say that Vista is betterthan Tiger, but I won't.

Vista is actually quite good - far better than I expected it tobe. It's fast, booting faster than Tiger, though my Core Duo andfast 7200 RPM Seagate Momentus drive probably help quite a bit.

I've been plowing through software installers and configuringeverything eight ways from Sunday getting a feel for the new OS,and it has yet to crash, so stability, at least initially, seams tobe where it should be.

Finally, it's pretty, very pretty. The Gadgets are a lotprettier than the most of the Widgets that came with Tiger'sDashboard, and the Aero interface with its translucency and coolfade effects is as impressive today as OS X's Genie-effect fadeswere back when I started playing with Panther in 2003. Whether inreal-world, long-term use the visual effects turn out to beannoying I cannot yet say, so far I rather like the look.

That said, to me, eye-candy is very low on my priority list, andif I find the effects annoying or that they sap too much power,I'll just go back to the "Windows Classic" theme and make Vistalook like the 8-year-old Windows 2000, which is what I do on my XPsystems.

OS X, by the way, started out much like Vista, with the visualeffects a tad overdone, in my opinion. When I use a machine withJaguar(10.2) today, it feels a bit gaudy compared to the moresubtle elegance of Panther (10.3) or Tiger (10.4).

What holds Vista back from the crown are thestupid choices made to protect me from myself.

What holds Vista back from the crown are the stupid choices madeto protect me from myself. OS X is smart enough to ask me formy password when I install an application or run a patch. Vista issmart enough to know that I'm making a change, but rather thanentering my password, I only have to confirm that I really want todo it.

How difficult would it be for a hacker to automate the selectionof the "Confirm" button as compared to hacking and entering mypassword? I turned the incessant warnings off after 20 minutes withVista (disable user account control).

And that's where it is: subtly annoying.

Microsoft engineers changed the names of many of the controlpanels, though they do the same things as the old ones. Why? I cansee combining two simple panels into one more robust one, as Appledid with "Keyboard" and "Mouse" a number of years ago to make the"Keyboard and Mouse" control panel, but Microsoft went nuts,changing simple, concise control panels like "Ad/Remove Software"into the cryptic "Programs and Features".

I've been using Windows for over 20years; why should I have to poke around to figure out where thingsare?

I've been using Windows for over 20 years; why should I have topoke around to figure out where things are? Change is fine, butkeep it in a logical progression.

OS X succeeds by giving considerable power in a clean, simpleinterface that is also intuitive and flexible. Yes, it's annoyingto be asked for my password when running the update program, but Iunderstand why it's doing it and accept that small annoyance forthe corresponding increase in security that it gives me.

With Vista, the annoyance is the same, but there is no realbenefit behind the annoyance. That, and OS X is stillprettier, though in a "less is more" kind of way.

Still, I'm really hoping that Apple knocks our socks off withLeopard, because Vista, unlike XP, is much better than "goodenough". It's very slick, very pretty, and, as in most newreleases, has taken and improved on enough opposition features toraise real questions about superiority. The "Flip 3D" feature isMicrosoft's answer to Exposé, and while I'm a huge fan ofExposé, Flip 3D is (at least on small monitors with manyopen windows) a more efficient tool. Of course, Exposé isfar better on larger monitors or with fewer windows, thoughclearing clutter is the whole purpose of these things.

Likewise the Sidebar, Vista's answer to Dashboard, has one majoradvantage and one major disadvantage. I love being able to call andbanish the Dashboard with a simple press of F12, and so too withVista I can summon the Sidebar with a simple key-combination ofWindows-space - but I cannot banish it with the same key combo, orany other for that matter.

Where Sidebar is better is that the widgets (gadgets) that Ialways want are always there, whereas with Dashboard they vanishwhen I'm using primary applications.

Vista is not as good as Tiger and no doubt will lag furtherbehind Leopard, but Mac users can't laugh at the competitionanymore. This really is a pretty nice system.

Where Vista will fall way short is in the weakerversions. I got the Business version as a free upgrade to WindowsXP Tablet PC edition, on account of my Portegé being rathernew. Actually I was two weeks too early for the free upgrade, butToshiba did a courtesy fulfillment after I spoke to a manager(telling about the seven other Toshiba's I've owned over the last20 years).

Home Basic (US$200) is a very crippled version of Vista thatreally is just XP Home with upgraded applications and bettersecurity. Home Premium ($240) is quite nice, but it can't be usedon a "Domain network". Business ($300), Enterprise (price varies),and Ultimate ($400) are the only versions capable of connecting tomy office network, and Ultimate's extra cost just wasn't justifiedfor a media-center application.

That is another area where OS X wins: simplicity. Whether youbuy the cheapest Mac mini orthe top-of-the-line Mac Pro,you get the same operating system with the same features andnothing disabled. Vista includes all versions on every installdisc, but it only unlocks the more advanced features when you entera (costly) license to do so.

Still, Vista at least gets rid of much of the annoyance of usingXP after coming from a PowerBook and OS X - at least now thatI've turned the nagging off.

Now back to those features: Most aren't that big of a deal.There is no danger of iLife being supplanted by the Windowsapplications, but just as iLife has improved over the years,Windows applications have improved as well.

Vista isn't OS X, but its better than "good enough". LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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