I have a confession: I'm a switcher. My long journey with Windows, which began even before Windows with MS-DOS, ended with Windows Vista. While so many others navigated the Vista debacle by sticking with Windows XP, I gave Vista a try -- and gave up. I leapt to the Mac OS.
Could Windows 7 lure me back?
Windows 7 was built to fix the problems that plagued Vista, and it unquestionably succeeds in doing that. It's a bit less bloated, and it runs a bit faster. The annoying security alerts from User Account Control have been quieted. And the compatibility issues with third-party software and hardware device drivers have largely been ironed away; after all, it's been two and a half years since Vista debuted. Windows 7 even includes a virtual "XP mode" for running legacy programs.
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Windows 7 goes a few steps beyond merely repairing Vista. It borrows --and improves on -- tricks from the Mac's playbook to make it easier and faster to organize files and launch programs. Like Apple's operating system, Windows 7 not only looks good, but it has tools and shortcuts that help you work more efficiently. If there were ever a Windows that could challenge Mac OS X, Windows 7 is it.
Still, once you've had Mac, can you ever go back? Mac OS X Leopard received rave reviews for good reason, and Snow Leopard further improved OS X. Although the changes to the GUI are minimal (why mess with success?), there are important improvements under the hood, including a recoded, 64-bit Finder that takes better advantage of multicore processors. Snow Leopard also makes the Mac a better fit with PC-oriented businesses with integrated Mail, Address Book, and iCal support for Microsoft Exchange Server 2007.
After spending a few weeks with both new operating systems and exposing each to my geek's gauntlet of everyday tasks -- e-mail, instant messaging, Web surfing, blogging, creating and editing Office documents, Web page creation, and audio, video, and photo editing -- I have to call Snow Leopard the winner. All considered, from starting up to backing up, Mac OS X still offers the best overall user experience. The competition was close, though -- far closer than it's been in quite a while.
Read on to find out how Windows 7 and Snow Leopard compare in usability, features, security, and speed. In some areas the winner is clear, while in others I have to call it a draw. Generally where one wins, the other is not far behind. Perhaps not surprisingly, Apple and Microsoft largely agree on how an operating system should look and act when you're trying to get work done. The similarities are often striking.
One last note before we dive into the details: To test the operating systems, I installed each on a dedicated laptop computer that had previously been running the earlier version. In each case, either shipping or release candidate code was used for the initial installation, and each was current with all patches and updates as of the date of testing.
Usability: File exploring While noting that there are options you can set to determine just how files and folders will be displayed, both Windows 7 and Snow Leopard follow the same basic script for letting you find files. The larger units (computer, network, libraries, and so on) are on the left side of the window, while details are on the right.
Windows 7 places more options in front of the user with the bar at the top of the window, while Snow Leopard tends to place the options under buttons there. No huge difference here, though I'll say that the "more intuitive" description that Mac users love to throw around suffers a bit when intuition is hidden under icons. It's true that you can add tasks to the toolbar in Mac OS X, but it requires more work than simply accepting the default options in Windows 7.
The larger difference comes in Windows 7's treatment of "libraries." In a library, you can collect files of various sorts without moving them from the folder where they're stored; libraries can even collect files from different disks. It's easy to create these collections of whatever you'd like and pin them to the left-hand side of the window. If you're like me, a file pack rat who tends to work on a number of different projects at once, then the libraries can be a major improvement in the way you work with files.