Deathmatch review: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Mavericks

Although you can now hide some of the Windows 8 dissonance, Windows 8.1 doesn't leap forward enough

With Windows 8.1 Professional and OS X 10.9 Mavericks both now shipping, how do the two flagship PC operating systems compare? Does Windows 8.1 fix enough of Windows 8's usability flaws to be worth adoption? Does Mavericks add enough value to get your attention?

Windows 8.1 lets users avoid most of the Windows 8 experience, so they can return to a Windows 7-like state of bliss, whereas Mavericks simply makes the Mac that much easier to use, especially if you work with iPads and iPhones, too. In short, the two updates keep the relative balance between Windows and OS X the same. Windows 8.1 does reduce PC users' frustration enough that they may be less likely to switch to a different OS like OS X, but it does so by retreating into Windows 7, making Windows feel more dated than ever.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Learn how Cisco manages 35,000 Macs. | The desktop lover's guide to supercharging Windows 8.1. | For quick, smart takes on the news you'll be talking about, check out InfoWorld TechBrief -- subscribe today. ]

My colleague Woody Leonhard has reviewed the final version of Windows 8.1, and I encourage you to read his take to understand the nuances of Microsoft's tablet/desktop hybrid OS. I've detailed the best new capabilities in OS X Mavericks, 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 the InfoWorld Test Center's key scoring categories for desktop operating systems.

Ease-of-use: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Mavericks

Scores:
Windows 8.1: 7
OS X Mavericks: 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 Mavericks 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.

Mavericks makes a few small enhancements to that UI: Finder windows now support tabs, like a browser, which reduces screen clutter and adopts a widely used organizing principle. You can also tag files with your own keywords, to aid in searches. Neither requires you to relearn anything fundamental. And thanks to the inclusion of iOS's Maps and iBooks app, using the two platforms is even easier -- especially with the new ability to send driving directions from Maps straight to your iOS device and the new ability in Calendar to estimate driving times to your appointments.

However, OS X Mavericks has a few UI flaws that undercut its superb ease-of-use. Apple has been monkeying with its application file services since OS X Lion, so there are now three distinct UIs and services for saving files: one for traditional apps, one for Versions-enabled apps, and one for iCloud Documents-compatible apps. It's confusing. OS X Mavericks doesn't do anything to rationalize these differences.

Also, though Apple encourages broad usage of the iCloud service, it doesn't work with Apple's Mail program. Adding or saving attachments becomes a rigmarole as you transfer the files from iCloud to your Mac's local drive or vice versa. (iCloud is available only in apps obtained from the Mac App Store, so most Mac apps can't use it.) SkyDrive's deeper integration allows for much more straightforward use, though many IT managers won't like that fact. To manage access to SkyDrive, IT can go with a separate SkyDrive Pro client available for Windows 8.1.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Manageability (15.0%)
Features (25.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Compatibility (10.0%)
Security (15.0%)
Ease of use (25.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Apple OS X 10.9 Mavericks 7.0 9.0 10.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 8.7
Microsoft Windows 8.1 9.0 7.0 7.0 10.0 8.0 7.0 7.8
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