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 with graphical user interfaces, specifically a very crude Microsoft release known as Windows 386 back in 1986.
1988 saw some improvement with the move to Windows 3.1, but not until 1993 did I really get my hands (or cursor) on a really nice GUI - Macintosh System 7.1. While System 7 was light years beyond Windows 3.1, subsequent releases on both platforms tended to be at least tolerable and at best quite pleasant.
Through the late 90s and the opening years of the new millennium, 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 they worked and were very well designed in terms of interface, but they lacked the muscle under the hood for true power using multitaskers on account of long-outdated foundations that just weren't up to the Internet age.
Mac OS X
OS X, however, changed everything.
Mac OS X was a strange cat in its early releases, far too resource heavy for the systems out when it was released and not well-enough supported to be very productive. But the promise was there from the beginning: a stable, Unix-based OS that, while slow on year 2000 hardware, was clearly the wave of the future.
By 2002 . . . OS X was quite likely the best OS on the planet...
By 2002's 10.2 "Jaguar" release, OS X was quite likely the best OS 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-dead gorgeous, and, most importantly, is very, very stable.
Tiger was by a wide margin my favorite OS until last week, but the January 31 mainstream launch of Windows Vista was significant enough to beg a comparison. So here it is, without further ado - a very informal, seat of my pants, totally subjective comparison of Windows Vista to both Mac OS X and Windows XP (which I never particularly liked, yet always considered "good enough" and thus tolerated).
I'm not going into any hard technical comparisons, as I am not a hard technical guy. I am also not planning on giving feature lists, as those are available in great quantities with whichever bias you prefer to read.
Instead, I took a far less formal approach and sat down with one of my 5-year-old IBM ThinkPad X22 laptops with Windows XP Professional, 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, like listening to an MP3 in iTunes (my preferred media application), looked at photos (iPhoto on the Mac, Explorer on XP and Photo Gallery on Vista), and generally futzed around, connecting networks and 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 for a great many years: So long as the user is familiar with the OS, productivity isn't that different between Macs and Windows unless your system itself is unresponsive, slow, or unstable. Clunky old DOS-based Windows was unstable, so I never considered it a viable option. The "classic" Mac OS was better than DOS-based Windows, but nowhere near as stable as NT-based Windows, so it too has been out of the running since NT4 was released.
In this era of NT-based Windows and Unix-based OS X, core stability is excellent on both platforms, with OS X having the edge over NT4, Windows 2000, and Windows XP. Vista is too new to tell, but it being based on Windows Server 2003 is a good sign, as that OS has been quite robust.
Of course, "Leopard" (OS X 10.5) is due in a few months, and it may very well upset the balance yet again.
For this look at the State of the Operating System Art in early 2007, I chose to ignore some things that I find quite important, like tablet functionality, which while existing on both XP and OS X, is vastly improved in Vista.
This isn't about features, but about feel. So here goes.
Windows XP really isn't that bad. Its different from OS X, with things in different places and following some different logic. Mac fans bitch and moan about the interface being application-focused rather than document focused, as the Mac has always been, but I don't buy into there being much of a difference. If you're familiar with a document-centered system, an application-centered system will annoy you - and vice-versa.
XP is five years old but still has a few things that it does better than OS X (in my opinion) - and more things that it does worse. The it is reasonably stable, very fast, and runs on rather modest hardware. (Windows 2000, in fact, remains a viable OS in 2007 despite being eight years old and lacking built-in support for many technologies we take for granted, like writable optical drives and wireless networking, though both can be added easily enough.)
Vista vs. OS X
I'll bet you thought I would try to say that Vista is better than Tiger, but I won't.
Vista is actually quite good - far better than I expected it to be. It's fast, booting faster than Tiger, though my Core Duo and fast 7200 RPM Seagate Momentus drive probably help quite a bit.
I've been plowing through software installers and configuring everything eight ways from Sunday getting a feel for the new OS, and it has yet to crash, so stability, at least initially, seams to be where it should be.
Finally, it's pretty, very pretty. The Gadgets are a lot prettier than the most of the Widgets that came with Tiger's Dashboard, and the Aero interface with its translucency and cool fade effects is as impressive today as OS X's Genie-effect fades were back when I started playing with Panther in 2003. Whether in real-world, long-term use the visual effects turn out to be annoying I cannot yet say, so far I rather like the look.
That said, to me, eye-candy is very low on my priority list, and if I find the effects annoying or that they sap too much power, I'll just go back to the "Windows Classic" theme and make Vista look like the 8-year-old Windows 2000, which is what I do on my XP systems.
OS X, by the way, started out much like Vista, with the visual effects a tad overdone, in my opinion. When I use a machine with Jaguar(10.2) today, it feels a bit gaudy compared to the more subtle elegance of Panther (10.3) or Tiger (10.4).
What holds Vista back from the crown are the stupid choices made to protect me from myself.
What holds Vista back from the crown are the stupid choices made to protect me from myself. OS X is smart enough to ask me for my password when I install an application or run a patch. Vista is smart enough to know that I'm making a change, but rather than entering my password, I only have to confirm that I really want to do it.
How difficult would it be for a hacker to automate the selection of the "Confirm" button as compared to hacking and entering my password? I turned the incessant warnings off after 20 minutes with Vista (disable user account control).
And that's where it is: subtly annoying.
Microsoft engineers changed the names of many of the control panels, though they do the same things as the old ones. Why? I can see combining two simple panels into one more robust one, as Apple did 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 20 years; why should I have to poke around to figure out where things are?
I've been using Windows for over 20 years; why should I have to poke around to figure out where things are? Change is fine, but keep it in a logical progression.
OS X succeeds by giving considerable power in a clean, simple interface that is also intuitive and flexible. Yes, it's annoying to be asked for my password when running the update program, but I understand why it's doing it and accept that small annoyance for the corresponding increase in security that it gives me.
With Vista, the annoyance is the same, but there is no real benefit behind the annoyance. That, and OS X is still prettier, though in a "less is more" kind of way.
Still, I'm really hoping that Apple knocks our socks off with Leopard, because Vista, unlike XP, is much better than "good enough". It's very slick, very pretty, and, as in most new releases, has taken and improved on enough opposition features to raise real questions about superiority. The "Flip 3D" feature is Microsoft's answer to Exposé, and while I'm a huge fan of Exposé, Flip 3D is (at least on small monitors with many open windows) a more efficient tool. Of course, Exposé is far better on larger monitors or with fewer windows, though clearing clutter is the whole purpose of these things.
Likewise the Sidebar, Vista's answer to Dashboard, has one major advantage and one major disadvantage. I love being able to call and banish the Dashboard with a simple press of F12, and so too with Vista I can summon the Sidebar with a simple key-combination of Windows-space - but I cannot banish it with the same key combo, or any other for that matter.
Where Sidebar is better is that the widgets (gadgets) that I always want are always there, whereas with Dashboard they vanish when I'm using primary applications.
Vista is not as good as Tiger and no doubt will lag further behind Leopard, but Mac users can't laugh at the competition anymore. This really is a pretty nice system.
Where Vista will fall way short is in the weaker versions. I got the Business version as a free upgrade to Windows XP Tablet PC edition, on account of my Portegé being rather new. Actually I was two weeks too early for the free upgrade, but Toshiba did a courtesy fulfillment after I spoke to a manager (telling about the seven other Toshiba's I've owned over the last 20 years).
Home Basic (US$200) is a very crippled version of Vista that really is just XP Home with upgraded applications and better security. Home Premium ($240) is quite nice, but it can't be used on a "Domain network". Business ($300), Enterprise (price varies), and Ultimate ($400) are the only versions capable of connecting to my office network, and Ultimate's extra cost just wasn't justified for a media-center application.
That is another area where OS X wins: simplicity. Whether you buy the cheapest Mac mini or the top-of-the-line Mac Pro, you get the same operating system with the same features and nothing disabled. Vista includes all versions on every install disc, but it only unlocks the more advanced features when you enter a (costly) license to do so.
Still, Vista at least gets rid of much of the annoyance of using XP after coming from a PowerBook and OS X - at least now that I'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 Windows applications, 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".
Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.
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