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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OS X has a feature called Gatekeeper that prevents installation of apps without a valid Apple developer signature, meant to block stealth malware from secretly installing itself. You can disable that feature permanently or on a  case-by-case basis (such as to install old software from CDs you trust). Windows will alert you to suspect downloads, but it can't prevent sophisticated malware from self-installing as OS X can. OS X also won't run Java versions older than Java 7, which cuts off a major route for malware infections.

Security researchers such as Trail of Bits say OS X is much harder for hackers to successfully attack than Windows, though Microsoft's Vista and later have done a good job of closing up many holes in Windows XP. Also, many more tools are available to monitor and protect Windows, commensurate to its greater risk, than for OS X.

Both OSes' boot loaders include antimalware detection, and OS X has a password-protected firmware option to prevent startup from external disks. That way, no one can bypass the startup password by booting from a different disk. (One of OS X's handy features lets you boot a Mac from external disks and network volumes easily, which is great for testing and shared environments.)

Beyond such application security, both OSes support FIPS 140-2 cryptographic encryption. Both OSes also provide IT-manageable on-disk encryption, though Microsoft's BitLocker requires a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chip to implement it fully, and few PCs have such a chip.

For me, that means I can't access corporate email from one of my Windows 8 PCs via the Metro Mail app because it has no TPM to enable encryption; also, our Office 365 Exchange server requires encryption be enabled to gain access. That same server works fine with OS X, iOS, Android, and BlackBerry 10 devices' encryption, and of course it works fine with my TPM-equipped Surface Pro tablet.

Also easier in OS X is data security, thanks to the included Time Machine backup program. With Time Machine, it's dead simple to back up a Mac or OS X Server, and the backups can be encrypted and even rotated among multiple disks. System restoration is also exceedingly easy, with no driver installation or command-line setup involved.

Windows 8 introduced File History, which backs up data files in certain locations to your choice of your startup disk, an external disk, or Microsoft's OneDrive cloud storage service. Like Time Machine, File History keeps incremental versions of these files so that you can roll back to a previous point in time. Unlike Time Machine, it can't restore your whole PC in case of a crash or simply to transfer your environment to a new machine. Windows 8.1 doesn't change that.

Of course, Windows 8 relies on its OneDrive cloud storage service as the default location for Office and other Microsoft apps' files, as does OS X Yosemite for iWork and other Apple apps' files. Cloud storage makes backup less of an issue -- a toasted hard drive doesn't matter.

On the other hand, cloud storage is synced storage, so deletion in one place deletes a file everywhere, increasing the risk of loss. For cloud data recovery, Windows 8.1 moves OneDrive files deleted from the PC's File Explorer to the local trash, so it can be recovered from there until you empty the trash. It also moves files deleted on OneDrive into a trash folder you can access via the Web.

By contrast, for iCloud Drive, you can recover deleted files if you deleted them from OS X, where they're placed in a trash folder. But if you delete them on the website or from an iOS device, they're gone forever, with no undelete capability -- a dangerous move.

Compatibility: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Yosemite

Windows 8: 10
OS X Yosemite: 8

Because Windows 8 is Windows 7 with the Metro environment tacked on, it is compatible with all the software, hardware, and services you already have. Yes, some older PCs won't run Windows 8.1, but that's about resource requirements and lack of drivers for those that also don't support Windows 7.

OS X Yosemite of course runs only on Apple's Macs, for which there is a smaller set of hardware and software available than for Windows. Although Apple is ruthless in dropping technologies over time as it deems them problematic or limiting, none has been dropped in Mavericks, which also runs on the same Macs that supported the previous version of the OS (Mavericks).

But you can't use Yosemite's new Handoff features unless your Mac is a 2012 or newer model; they require radios that support both Bluetooth Low Energy and Wi-Fi Direct, which earlier models don't have.

OS X is frequently underappreciated for its compatibility with corporate resources. It supports Microsoft's SMB file sharing; it supports Open Directory and Active Directory; it supports corporate VPNs; and its email, calendar, task, and notes apps all support Exchange out of the box, though some enterprises have reported odd compatibility issues with Exchange calendars.

The Safari browser is also much more compatible with the current and emerging HTML standards than Microsoft's Internet Explorer. For example, IE11 scores 376 out of 555 points in the tests, up from IE10's 335, but well short of 427 in OS X Yosemite's Safari 8, 475 in Mozilla's Firefox 32, and 512 in Google's Chrome 37. Still, if you want maximum modern Web compatibility, on either platform Chrome is the clear leader.

The sad truth is that IE is a woefully outdated browser that's not compatible with many websites. Enterprises often stick with it due to the use of ActiveX-based apps, but that forces organizations to support both IE for legacy apps and Chrome for modern websites.

It's best to cut the IE cord and standardize on a single browser that works on almost everything, and leave the ActiveX world behind. Microsoft has been urging businesses to drop ActiveX for years, to little effect. But IE11's horrible compatibility with the modern Web might finally force the issue, though by moving companies to a competing browser.

Value: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Yosemite

Windows 8.1: 7
OS X Yosemite: 10

OS X Yosemite is clearly the better value, offering more capability and ease of use -- the two factors that matter most to the public -- than Windows 8. In addition, the psychic price of Windows 8's split personality is quite high, even with Windows 8.1's ability to better hide the Metro side.

Apple's free upgrade price for Yosemite is hard to beat. But Microsoft has sort of matched it with Windows 8.1, which is free to Windows 8 users. If you're running a prior version of Windows, Windows 8.1 Pro costs $200. If you're running OS X Snow Leopard or later, you can upgrade to Yosemite at no charge. Also, you don't need to do an intermediate upgrade first, as Window 8.1 requires if you have Windows XP or Vista.

For enterprises, OS X may have a higher cost for IT, at least initially, as staff must learn to manage and support the OS and the company must invest in tools to achieve the same level of management as the tools already purchased for Windows allow. Mac users tend to require less support than PC users, perhaps because most Mac users choose the platform and are thus more likely to be self-supporting in the first place.

How it all adds up: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Yosemite

Windows 8.1: 7.8
OS X Yosemite: 8.7

Deathmatch review: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Yosemite
PC Operating System:
Apple OS X Yosemite

Clearly, OS X Yosemite is a better operating system than Windows 8.1. It's better designed, more capable, and -- contrary to many people's beliefs -- supportive of mainstream business security and management needs. But Windows supports a much wider universe of apps, so many people legitimately can use only a PC.

The misguided UI mismatch in Windows 8 caused many users to look for alternatives -- most simply stuck with Windows 7. If you're in the market for a new PC, you should get one running Windows 7 while you still can (a few are still available online).

If you must get a PC with Windows 8.1, the good news is that it is more tolerable than Windows 8. The bad news is that it's still basically Windows 8, so if you want a new computer, move to a Mac, using a Windows virtual machine as a transition aid.

This story, "Deathmatch review: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Yosemite" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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