Deathmatch review: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Yosemite

Windows 8.1 has languished as Microsoft seeks to move past its failure, while Apple has extended its Mac OS into an intriguing new direction

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With OS X 10.10 Yosemite now shipping and Windows 8.1 done with its 2014 update cycle, how do the two flagship PC operating systems compare?

Windows 8.1 and some of its 2014 updates let users avoid most of the Windows 8 experience, so they can return to a Windows 7-like state of comfort. In contrast, Yosemite moves the Mac into new collaborative territory with iPads and iPhones, and it adopts iOS's visual conventions. In short, Windows has essentially languished this year as Microsoft turns its attention to the next version to debut next year, and Apple has continued its steady pace of evolving OS X into iOS territory.

My colleague Woody Leonhard has reviewed 2013's Windows 8.1 in depth, as well as the Update 1 improvements from 2014, and I encourage you to read his take to understand the nuances of Microsoft's tablet/desktop hybrid OS. I've previously detailed the intriguing new capabilities in OS X Yosemite, which I also urge you to check out. Here, I highlight the key differences, strengths, and weaknesses of the two OSes, both of which I've been using since their first betas were released, organized by InfoWorld's scoring categories for desktop operating systems.

Meanwhile, the new OS X Yosemite changes the visual appearance of OS X to mirror that of iOS 8, while leaving most OS functions working as they did before. Instead, Apple has focused its changes is on new features, such as tighter integration with iOS and iCloud via its Handoff, iCloud Drive, and Continuity capabilities.

For example, using Handoff, a recent-model Mac can detect a nearby iPhone and transfer the email, calendar item, or document in progress there to the Mac. Using Continuity, a wider set of Macs can answer calls made to a nearby iPhone or participate in an SMS conversation on that iPhone. 

OS X Yosemite Continuity taking a call

With Continuity, a Mac runnig OS X Yosemite can detect a call coming to a nearby iPhone and switch the call to FaceTime Audio instead.

But at the end of the day, OS X Yosemite is, like Windows 8.1, a small upgrade from its predecessor. For both Apple and Microsoft, it's an era of incremental change.

Ease of use: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Yosemite

Windows 8.1: 7
OS X Yosemite: 9

Apple defined the graphical user interface as we know it today, and despite nearly 30 years of changes, the core metaphors remain unchanged. That consistency makes it easy to use each new version of OS X, and Yosemite is no exception.

Yet the OS has expanded to support touch gestures in a very natural way, via touch mice and touchpads. Also, Apple's slew of helper utilities -- such as the Quick Look preview facility, the Notification Center, the embedded sharing capabilities, and the Spotlight search tool -- do what Apple does best: offer sophisticated capabilities that users can discover as needed, rather than face a steep learning curve to get started. The Dock and the persistent menu bar also simplify app access, while the full-screen mode introduced in OS X Lion lets users stay focused when they want to be, yet have quick access to the rest of the OS as desired.

Yosemite makes a few small enhancements to that UI: One is that the Notification Center, like its iOS 8 counterpart, can now contain widgets ("extensions"), such as for stock data, current weather, or third-party notions, including Evernote updates. OS X has also changed its unloved Dashboard feature -- which holds an earlier form of widgets -- so that it can now appear as an overlay over your current Desktop screen, not only as a separate Desktop. Still, the Dashboard remains pretty useless. Don't expect it to survive past Yosemite now that the more accessible extensions are here.

The bigger change is the change from iCloud Documents to iCloud Drive. iCloud Documents was awkward to use, with a wholly separate user interface in Open and Save dialogs from the standard Finder, and a clumsy method to move files between iCloud Documents and the Finder. Plus, iCloud Documents were available only to their apps.

The new iCloud Drive works like Dropbox or Box, displayed as a virtual disk whose files and folders are accessible using the standard Open and Save dialogs, as well as the standard Finder windows. Apps still have their own folders, for compatibility with iOS apps that use iCloud Documents (including Apple's own iWork suite). On iOS 8, iCloud Drive is treated as an import/export function, not as a direct save/open mechanism as it is on OS X Yosemite, so there are still vestiges of the clunky iCloud Documents separation in iCloud Drive.

OS X Yosemite iCloud Drive

iCloud Drive in OS X Yosemite works like any other cloud service's virtual drive. But it also provides app-specific folders for compatibility with apps designed for its iCloud Documents predecessor, such as Pages here.

In Yosemite, Apple uses iCloud Drive in its Mail app so that large attachments can be automatically stored on iCloud Drive, with recipients getting a link to the file (they don't need an iCloud account to retrieve them). That helps get past attachment limits in email servers. 

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