Windows 7 takes on Apple's Snow Leopard

Last week's release of Windows 7 had Microsoft Corp. executives from CEO Steve Ballmer on down confident that this version of Windows is everything Vista wasn't.

The launch of Windows 7 followed by two months the release of Apple's latest operating system, Mac OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard." The latter mainly focused on under-the-hood technologies, and Apple went out of its way to promise no major obvious changes. Snow Leopard, which looks just like its predecessor except for a few UI tweaks, is supposed to provide a solid foundation for future technologies and hardware.

Microsoft, in many ways, took a similar tack with Windows 7. Following on the heels of the much-unloved Vista, focusing on the basics made sense. Windows users, like Mac users, want an operating system that works.

Fair warning: I come to Windows as a Mac user by nature and background -- I've worked with Macs for 17 years, although as an IT professional, I've had more than my fair share of time with Windows machines. Put simply: As an IT professional, I work on whatever hardware is in front of me.

In recent months, Windows 7 has been praised for righting many of Vista's wrongs. Back in August, Computerworld's Preston Gralla offered his own take on the two operating systems. Preston, who leans toward the Windows side of things, evaluated them both and declared a tie.

With that in mind, I took Windows 7 out for a spin recently, focusing on its updated user interface, general usability, stability and performance over several weeks.

To evaluate both operating systems side by side, I installed them on the same hardware: a MacBook Pro with a 2.53-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of RAM, a GeForce 9600M GT graphics card with 512MB of video RAM, and a 500GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive. Snow Leopard, of course, runs natively on Apple hardware; I used Apple's Boot Camp software to run Windows 7 without virtualization but had to improvise when Boot Camp couldn't format the target drive to NTFS. I was able to circumvent the issue by simply installing Windows 7 from the CD it shipped on. (Apple plans to update Boot Camp by the end of the year to address this issue.)

OS pricing

Microsoft offers several versions of Windows 7; I tested the Ultimate edition. Since Apple ships just one version of its operating system, the only version of Windows that matches it for full functionality is Ultimate. If you're buying a new computer, upgrade pricing won't be an issue; Windows 7 will come preinstalled (now with less craplets!) But if you're moving from Vista or XP, Windows 7 Ultimate will set you back $219.99 for the upgrade or $319.99 if you buy the full version. Windows 7 comes in both 32- and 64-bit versions.

As it has in the past, Microsoft also offers less-expensive versions -- Home Premium and Professional -- with fewer features.

Not sure which version of Windows you should get? Microsoft released a convoluted upgrade chart to help you decide. Good luck; it's not very helpful, given the various combinations of upgrade options.

In contrast, Mac users got a reprieve on Snow Leopard pricing this year: It costs just $29 if you're upgrading from Mac OS X 10.5 (a.k.a. Leopard). (In the past, Apple charged $129 for its OS.) Apple also sells a $49 Family Pack that allows for five installations. Snow Leopard, which requires an Intel-based Mac, comes preinstalled on all new Macs, and it will run applications in 32- or 64-bit mode automatically, depending on your hardware. (If you're upgrading from Tiger, you're supposed to buy the Mac Box Set, which includes Snow Leopard, iWork 09 and iLife 09.)

Installation

Windows 7 can be installed over Vista without your having to reinstall your apps or files. If you're still using XP, the installation is more convoluted. You have to save your files and apps, do a clean install of Windows 7 and then copy all the old data back.

For Mac users, it doesn't matter whether you're upgrading from Leopard or even Tiger. There's no demand for installation codes or awkward activation hoop-jumping, and Apple streamlined the upgrade process to make it easier and quicker than before.

I did a clean install for both operating systems. Frankly, that's the optimal solution, and it's what I recommend to Windows users. The time needed to back up your data, format and clean-install Windows 7, and then reinstall your programs is worth it -- even if you're just moving up from Vista.

The good news for Windows users is that the install process is now pretty straightforward. The interface is thoughtfully laid out and even allows several hard-drive formatting options right in the main installation window. When choosing which hard drive or partition to use, all of the available hard drives are displayed, along with information such as Total Size, Free Space, and Type. There are options allowing you to load other drivers; to delete, format or create new partitions; and to expand a non-system disk partition.

The drive formatting options in Snow Leopard are part of Apple's Disk Utility application, which is separate from the main install window and might be confusing for new users too shy to click around and find it. (It's located under Tools > Disk Utility).

Overall, Windows 7 took less than a half hour -- and several restarts -- to install. Then Windows asked for a few settings: a username and password, time zone and time information, wireless network access info, the 25-digit activation code, and what kind of network configuration I wanted (home or office, for instance).

The Snow Leopard installation was just as straightforward, although Apple's approach is a little different. It took about a half-hour to install the basic OS and set up my user account. Installing and then updating iLife '09 and iWork '09 (Apple's media-creation and productivity suites, respectively) took another 15 minutes.

During those installs and updates, MobileMe (Apple's cloud service) synced, adding all of my application and operating system preferences, bookmarks, calendars, e-mail settings and rules, Dashboard widgets, Dock items, keychains (all of my passwords) and notes. In the span of 50 minutes, my new Mac setup was just like my old one, only I was now running Snow Leopard.

Although the generic drivers that come with Windows 7 offer decent support and performance, to make Microsoft's finest really shine on this particular hardware, I installed used Apple's Boot Camp 3.0 from the Snow Leopard DVD. The Boot Camp installation took a few minutes, and once done, the drivers activated my MacBook Pro's iSight camera, brightness, media, volume and eject buttons; it also enabled scrolling support using gestures. The drivers added support for GPU processing for Aero effects and the light sensor built into MacBook Pros as well. Whether in Mac OS X or in Windows 7, the keyboard backlight automatically turns on, depending on light conditions, as does screen dimming.

Up and running

Windows 7 ships without a calendar app, a PDF viewer, an IM /videoconferencing application or even an e-mail client, all of which are included in any installation of Mac OS X. Citing antitrust concerns, Microsoft pulled some of the apps it once included, but you can easily download Messenger, Mail, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, Live Toolbar, Writer, Family Safety and Silverlight from the Windows Live Essentials site.

Here's the thing about Windows Live Essentials: The bundle offers programs that sound like they do the same things as Apple's suite of applications, whether it's photo management, video creation or video/audio and chat conferencing. But the Windows versions are so bare-bones that I wonder whether Microsoft expects most users to work with them to any great degree or opt instead for more full-featured third-party apps. The basics are here, but Apple's software is best of breed. It's unfortunate that Microsoft didn't put more effort into beefing up these apps.

Not only does Snow Leopard come with a decent e-mail program, Mail, but that app now offers easy configuration for Exchange servers with Exchange support out of the box. Coupled with Active Directory support, it gives Mac users a business-friendly OS that integrates within existing network infrastructures.

In contrast, Microsoft doesn't offer a way to configure its e-mail client for Exchange servers -- an odd omission. Windows 7, on the other hand, still supports Active Directory, as it should.

User interface

At first glance, Windows 7 looks more like a variant of KDE than a version of Windows, given some of the design choices Microsoft made. The new Aero themes and many of the new Windows desktop pictures are gorgeous. While I've heard some complaints from colleagues about overused visual effects, the interface changes reflect a more logical, modern design. And they take advantage of the underlying hardware by offloading graphics rendering to the GPU. True, Mac OS X has been doing this since 2003, but Microsoft brought this feature to Vista and then optimized the performance for Windows 7.

Truth be told, when it comes to UI, Windows 7 is the first version of Windows that doesn't bug me. Many of the interface features that I felt were half-baked in Vista have been polished and refined. The Taskbar, for instance, finally feels useful (more on this later).

With Windows 7, Microsoft has introduced Aero Shake. It allows you to grab the title bar of any window and, by shaking it, minimize all background windows to the Taskbar. Neat effect. On the Mac, hiding background windows requires the Command-Option-H key combination. There's no fancy animation; the windows just disappear. Shake may be a bit glitzy, but Windows users will certainly appreciate being able to hide all of their background Windows at once.

I do like the new Aero Snap. If you drag an application window (using the top of the window) to the right or left side of your screen, the application window will justify itself to that side, taking up half of the screen. Dragging it to the top of the screen brings about a full-screen view, similar to hitting the middle Maximize button of Windows. The implementation is elegant and simple, although I had to be mindful whenever I dragged windows to the edge of the screen.

The result of these changes is a more cohesive feel to Windows 7. Apple's interface settled on a consistent OS theme with Leopard, but even before its arrival in 2007, interface elements were generally consistent. That's because most applications running in Mac OS X usually adhere to Apple's strict interface guidelines.

The changes to the UI in Windows 7 makes it less confusing than earlier versions of Windows; I could actually locate some features using logic. But you still have to memorize where a lot of features are. For instance, I wanted to turn on auto-log-in and looked for that setting under Control Panels: User Accounts. I poked around in several other locations that looked promising, but found nothing that was clear-cut. As it turns out, Windows logs you in automatically, as long as you don't have an account password. And if you do have a password, getting rid of it allows automatic log-in to your account.

If you have more than one account, and neither has a password, Windows 7 will ask which account you want to log into at start-up.

Usability is still hit-or-miss. For instance, navigating Control Panels should be easier. Take the Power Options panel, for instance. It allows you to set whether your computer is geared toward power or efficiency. But the Advanced settings are buried, meaning you might not find them unless you keep clicking. If Microsoft is going to allow users to customize their experience, it should make settings like this easy to access.

Apple's System Preferences are not only better laid out and easier to navigate, but Apple's Spotlight search tool makes it easy to find what you're looking for. For instance, if I want an application to automatically launch at log-in, a Spotlight search for "login application" brings me to the Accounts System Preference, which is exactly where I need to be.

Workflow

When it comes to workflow -- how you use an OS -- it's been my experience that many Windows users still favor a full-screen approach to running applications, although it's possible to run applications in a windowed mode. Most Mac OS X applications run in floating windows that are large enough to display the necessary information without hogging precious screen real estate. This encourages drag-and-drop between applications, which I do often.

Given the popularity among Windows users for full-screen mode, improvements to the Show Desktop function on the right end of the Taskbar make sense. Yes, Windows has had this feature for a long time, but it was never implemented with such panache.

Windows 7 also makes it easier to do simple things like joining a wireless network. Microsoft has reworked the wireless access point on the Taskbar, making it much easier to connect to networks. Clicking on it shows if you're connected to a network and opens up the Network and Sharing Center if you need to change networks or troubleshoot a bad connection.

Connecting to wireless networks has been this easy on a Mac for as long as I can remember; it's about time something this basic was straightforward on the Windows side.

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