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Vista Can Offer Comparable Performance and Reliability to Mac OS X

- 2008.12.17 - Tip Jar

It's a very good time to be a Mac user. Our current OS, updated recently to version 10.5.6, is fast, stable, and a joy to use even in mixed platform settings. Current Apple hardware is sleek, attractive, and, if not inexpensive, at least represents good value when compared to similar first-tier (meaning premium) PC equivalents.

The corresponding popularity of OS X and the Mac and disappointment with Windows Vista lead many, including Low End Mac's Simon Royal, to believe that Vista is a bad OS and that this is a lousy time to be a PC user.

Actually, the truth is not quite so cut and dry.

In his article, Simon compared the performance of an 867 MHz Titanium PowerBook with 768 MB of RAM running Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" to the performance of a 2.0 GHz Core Duo Toshiba Satellite Pro running Vista, most likely the home premium version, with 1.0 GB of RAM.

We know from the specifications of the PowerBook that it barely meets the specifications for Leopard (867 MHz G4, 512 MB of RAM). We can assume that the Leopard system is a fairly clean installation, as Macs do not need antivirus and the like, and Apple doesn't install crapware on either its computers or as part of its OS installers.

What about the Toshiba? Who knows?

Does it have a dedicated GPU that is required for good graphics performance under Vista? An 867 MHz TiBook has a dedicated GPU that, while far from cutting edge, is fully supported by Leopard and is up to most of the graphical requirements. What video card is in the Toshiba? Is it one of the "lawsuit laptops" that had Intel's GMA 900 integrated graphics, was sold as Vista Capable, but is not actually capable of running the Aero interface at all? It is very possible as the original Core Duo of 2006 is contemporary with both GMA 900, which cannot run Aero, and the Aero-capable GMA 950, which actually runs Aero rather well on my daughter's Core 2 Duo MacBook with the same graphics chip.


There is also the question of bloatware. The Toshiba, like most PCs, probably came loaded down with all sorts of crapware, and if you add to that a resource intensive antivirus app and a bunch of downloaded crapware - toolbars and the like - then yes, even a fast Core Duo with 1 GB of RAM will be dog slow.

Another issue with Vista speed is the installation of Vista itself. If the computer is brand new, it will be extremely slow while Vista indexes the hard drive. Of course, Leopard does the same thing when newly installed on a Mac, which results in similar system slowdown.

Leopard vs. Vista

I did my own comparison and got very different results than Simon. To show how big a role configuration plays, I used a faster Mac and a slower PC - much slower - than he did.

On the Mac side, I went a step up from the minimum and put Leopard on my 5-year-old 1.0 GHz 12" PowerBook G4. This machine has a Quartz Extreme and Core Image capable dedicated graphics card (Nvidia GeForce FX5200 GO) with 32 MB of dedicated RAM. In addition to the 133 MHz faster processor on my PowerBook compared to Simon's, I also have 1.25 GB of RAM, compared to Simon's 768 MB. I have no idea what kind of hard drive Simon's PowerBook has; mine has a fairly middle-of-the-road 5400 RPM 120 GB Samsung Spinpoint, which is a major speed-boost over the 40 GB 4200 RPM drive that the PowerBook came with.

On the PC side, I used a one-year-old Lenovo ThinkPad R61e that is far more marginal that the Toshiba in Simon's comparison. It has a 1.83 GHz Intel Celeron M processor. Just as Simon's PowerBook is 133 MHz slower than mine, my PC is 170 MHz slower than his and has one core to his two. Both systems have 1.0 GB of RAM. Again I have no idea about the hard drive in Simon's Toshiba; my Lenovo has a middle-of-the-road 80 GB 5400 RPM Hitachi TravelStar.

For giggles, I also threw my MacBook Pro into the mix, which has a 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo, 4 GB of RAM, a 256 MB Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT dedicated graphics card, and a 200 GB 5400 RPM hard drive. I tested the MacBook Pro in both Leopard and Vista, giving an even better indication of the speed of the two operating systems on the exact same hardware.

Where my test differs is that I very strictly controlled the software load on both computers, optimizing them for speed and function without any crapware. The PowerBook and MacBook Pro are both running Leopard, Microsoft Office 2008, and Adobe Acrobat Professional 8. The PC and MacBook Pro are both running Windows Vista Business (32-bit for the Lenovo, 64-bit for the MacBook Pro), Microsoft Office 2007 Professional, and Adobe Acrobat Professional 8. All operating systems and applications have all upgrades installed (using Apple Update and Microsoft Update respectively) and use the system's default browser: Safari for Macs and Internet Explorer 7 for Windows (Safari for Windows is even faster). Macs use Microsoft Entourage for Exchange mail and calendar and Apple Mail for POP3 email, while PCs use Microsoft Outlook for Exchange email and calendar and Windows Mail for POP3 email.

Finally, I installed AVG antivirus free edition on the PCs. AVG is a fast and free virus scan application that is far less resource intensive than Norton or McAfee and is consistently rated highly by PC magazines and websites.

Running the Benchmarks

So what did I find? Did Leopard "smoke" Vista?

Let's have a look.

In each application or task, the first number indicates how long the task took the first time, while the second number represents the time required to repeat the task. For example, it took a whopping 18 seconds to launch Word 2008 on the PowerBook the first time, but if I quit Word and launched it again, it would only require 9 seconds.

Each task was timed from start to finish, meaning clicking the dock or quicklaunch icon to launch an application until the cursor and all toolbars or page content appeared and was available for editing in the application window. For email applications, the task ends when the application initially connected to the mail server. For browsers, it was when my home page was fully rendered. For Word and Acrobat, I used a 1 page document in the new docx or PDF format, respectively. Boot is timed until all menubar or taskbar icons are fully populated and all UI elements fully rendered, a stage at which the UI is responsive, but at which background processes may still be loading.

MacBook Pro
MacBook Pro
Cold Boot 58 73 53 62
Launch Safari or IE7 8/2 9/5 4/3 4/3
Launch Safari only 8/2 9/5 11/3 13/3
Launch Word 14/4 18/9 5/2 15/3
Launch Entourage or Outlook 10/7 18/12 12/2 15/3
Launch Apple or Windows Mail 3/1 5/3 9/3 12/5
Launch Acrobat Professional 8 3/1 5/4 4/2 5/3
HandBrake iPod video encode 1:34:12 8:14:50 1:35:34 3:43:17
Full Shut Down 6 5 29 22

Which Is Fastest?

Boot Speed: Vista (barely)

My results were very different from Simon's, suggesting that his PC is loaded with crapware, spyware, or both. The MacBook Pro took only 53 seconds to fully boot into Vista business - surprisingly 5 seconds faster than a boot into its native OS X. The ThinkPad made a decent showing at 1:02, while for its age the PowerBook was very swift at 1:13.

What this probably shows more than anything is that a fast hard drive makes a huge difference, as all three machines have modern 5400 RPM drives. The PowerBook has a much slower CPU than the other two and has its drive connected to a slower PATA interface, with one or both of those factors bringing with it the slowest boot time, but not by much.

Launch Browser: Tie

Wow, IE launches fast! Safari actually renders web pages far quicker than IE does, on either platform, but for initial application launch and display of my home page, IE is a rocket. For second or subsequent browser launches, the MacBook Pro in OS X is fastest, but not by much.

Other than initial launch, Safari is a faster browser on either platform, and credit to Apple, renders just as quickly in Mac or Windows. I give the nod to OS X due to its Safari performance, but since IE launches so much quicker I'll call it a draw.

Word: Vista

This one isn't even close, though to be fair, it is in Microsoft's interest to make Word for Windows faster than Word for Mac. Whether you are launching the application for the first time or the fiftieth, Word launches much faster in Windows Vista than on OS X and is more responsive as well. In fact, the slow ThinkPad launches and relaunches Word faster in Vista than the MacBook Pro does in OS X. The PowerBook really struggles here, suggesting that Microsoft put most of its emphasis on the Intel half of the universal binary.

Exchange Mail: Vista (barely)

Entourage launches faster on the MacBook Pro in OS X than Outlook does on the same computer in Vista, but relaunches put Outlook ahead. Even the lowly Celeron-powered ThinkPad relaunches Outlook faster than the MacBook Pro can relaunch Entourage, suggesting that Outlook caches its code better, but that Entourage may actually have leaner code.

Once open, Outlook is more feature-rich and has a better interface for dealing with multiple mail and calendar accounts, but both are solid performers. The old PowerBook really struggles here.

POP3 Mail: OS X

This was perhaps the most one-sided test I did, and OS X cleaned up. Apple Mail is now a mature product that benefits from years of optimization, whereas Windows Mail is technically brand new. Of course, both are descendants of Outlook Express, which itself is a descendant of Claris Emailer.

Whether used on a fast or slow computer, the default email client from Apple is faster (and nicer) than the default email client from Microsoft.

Acrobat Pro: OS X (barely)

On the fast computers (MacBook Pro OS X and Vista), the Mac version is faster, while Vista comes out ahead on the slower computers. Of course, my PowerBook is far older and slower than my ThinkPad, so comparatively the PowerBook is really flying here. OS X gets the nod, but since the fastest and slowest are only separated by 2 seconds, I have to say just barely.

HandBrake: Tie

Clearly this is a Unix application ported to both OS X (a version of Unix) and Windows (not a version of Unix). As such, the OS X version is just a bit more responsive, but once the actual encoding begins, there is very little difference. Where there is a massive difference is in processors, with the MacBook Pro absolutely smoking the other two computers regardless of OS and the PowerPC G4 really choking.

Shut Down: OS X (decisive)

The numbers don't lie. OS X shuts down very quickly, with the PowerBook surprisingly shutting down faster than the MacBook Pro. Vista, on the other hand, is a quite a hog when it comes to letting go of your PC, taking up to six times as long.

Don't get me wrong: I like OS X a lot more than I like Windows Vista. It is more pleasant to use, prettier, and, most important to me, sleep works a lot better. That said, Vista is, in my experience (your mileage will vary) just as stable, just as fast, and does have some aspects of its UI that I actually prefer. Vista really does have a bad name, but its actually quite a nice OS.

Leopard and Vista Can Be Equally Fast

What I believe this informal test really shows, however, is that neither system is appreciably faster for routine tasks than the other, and that neither system needs high-end hardware to run well. My ThinkPad is a very low-end system that cost $500 brand-new last year and sells for about $300 on eBay today. It is far less powerful than Simon's Toshiba in every way, except probably video (I suspect his laptop has GMA 900 video).

The difference is OS installation.

The ThinkPad R61e with its lowly Celeron processor is actually quite fast in Vista, coming within a second or two of the MacBook Pro in most tasks that I tested and generally feeling about the same in routine office type use. Even more demanding tasks are just fine on the cheap Celeron, like DVD movie playback, 3-year-old games, and the like. The video encoding was perhaps most telling, as it is strictly a processor-centric task and didn't care much whether it was running in Vista or OS X.

I am certain that if Simon took his Toshiba and did a clean install of Vista and then refrained from loading all of the silly toolbars and the ultra-bloated antivirus suite, it would be a quite a pleasant machine. More RAM would help (I usually keep 2 GB in my ThinkPad), but then it helps Leopard every bit as much as it helps Vista.

The point is, a 2.0 GHz Core Duo is faster than a 1.83 GHz Celeron, and while not Aero capable, the GMA 900 performs about on par with the slightly newer GMA 950. The GMA 900, in fact, is quite a decent performer in Vista - it just won't display the fancy eye-candy a newer GPU will. For this test I used Aero, but I normally turn it off even on my MacBook Pro, as I prefer the classic Windows look. I also disable the new start menu and other so-called enhancements. Aero can occasionally bog down the GMA 950 on my ThinkPad, but with the "Windows Classic" theme enabled, the machine is actually faster in Vista than it was in XP.

Leopard Does Run Well on Older Macs

Likewise, Simon correctly points out that Leopard runs rather well on older PowerBooks. I had Leopard on my G4 and downgraded to Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" because I thought it felt faster. After reading Simon's article, I tried Leopard again, and after letting the install settle (Spotlight indexing), I've found it to be just as fast as Tiger. I've had Leopard on the PowerBook for about three days now, and I am quite enjoying it. Even the DVD Player application, which is extremely resource intensive in Leopard (its an HD app now) plays smoothly and doesn't stutter.

Finally, Simon mentions that Windows traditionally doesn't run well on the minimum hardware, to which I emphatically disagree. I've enjoyed playing with low-end PC laptops for years and always try to get the most out of them. I have run Windows 2000 on a 133 MHz laptop and XP on a 233 MHz laptop, and in both instances, the same rules apply as running Vista on my ThinkPad today: Do a clean install, keep the crapware off, and you will be rewarded with a system that won't set any speed records, but will perform just fine with a minimum of frustration.

NT-based Windows took a performance hit on older hardware compared to DOS-based Windows, but then, OS X in any flavor takes a speed and responsiveness hit compared to Mac OS 9. Just as I wouldn't consider running OS 9 today, I would never consider Windows 98 or ME.

Mac OS X since 10.3 "Panther" and Windows since 2000 are both stable and capable systems, and both run well when properly configured on the minimum hardware - as long as you don't load them down with junk. LEM

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

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